While on a recent visit to a major city, I was struck by the boldness and freshness these four words brought to the public arena: patriotism, innovation, inclusiveness, and virtue. Emblazoned in many locations, these four words announced this city’s new effort to define its spirit and inspire its residents. I think these four words capture some of the most enduring American values that have characterized our nation’s history in general, and my upbringing in particular. Patriotism is never far from Americans’ minds, particularly if one thinks about how frequently you can see the Star Spangled Banner waving outside private businesses and homes in addition to our public buildings and spaces. Innovation has virtually defined the American business landscape for the past several decades; we wear this word on our shirt sleeves and teach it to the world by example. Inclusiveness brought to my mind our time-honored but often misapplied phrase “the Great American Melting Pot” as well as the challenge that inclusiveness implies in the face or our current debate over legal vs. illegal immigration laws and policies. Virtue! A precious yet too-often-forgotten concept guiding us to ethical behavior. In an age where tolerance sometimes seems to be taken to such extremes that we find ourselves no longer able to defend ourselves legally or ethically against immoral extremes of behavior in others, seeing “virtue” emblazoned on the city signs was an encouraging sight.
I truly feel these four words (patriotism, innovation, inclusiveness, virtue) define a particular aspect of an American spirit. Maybe not in every American’s life, but at least in mine there are strong connections between these words and several of the American values with which I grew up. So imagine my excitement and wonderment of seeing these words not in Washington, D.C. No, not there. Nor in Seattle, nor Los Angeles, nor Chicago. In fact, not in any American city! Rather, in a city that so many Americans do not understand: Beijing! This is Beijing Spirit? Apparently yes; as I spoke with the Governor of one of Beijing’s districts and his wife, they taught me that these four words were selected through a public polling event that took place a few years ago after the 2008 Olympics. From a list of hundreds of possible words, these four were selected by the participation of those walking the streets of Beijing, both locals, out-of-towners, and even foreigners. Now the results of this public campaign can be seen everywhere, from subway stops to highway green spaces. I was excited yet cautious when I saw the four words (and their eight Chinese characters) for the first time this April and considered what they may portend; I was completely dumbfounded yet pleased in August to learn of their origins and interpretation.
In between April and August, my travels took me for several weeks to Washington, D.C. and Beijing (as well as three other Chinese counties) on a journey to discover in those areas some opportunities to speak of, and openness to listen to, new ideas about the relationship between Americans and Chinese. In the days to come, this blog will explore what I found in my travels. In the end, I hope we will all have more ability to reflect on the implication of Beijing Spirit.