One of the significant outcomes for me from the Pacific Northwest Regional Conference on US/China Subnational Relations was hearing another great example of a common reality being perceived differently from two completely different contexts. In this case, the common reality was the great city of Seattle and, by association, its neighboring municipalities. The two different contexts were the experiences of learning about it by living in the region compared to learning about it by watching movies.
Having grown up in the area, despite living away from it during most of the first half of my professional life, I know that I understand the essence, the character, the reality of Seattle and its culture. But that reality is only the result of a set of consistent, shared observations that I have in common with all the others in my life who also have experienced Seattle in a similar way. This Seattle reality is beauty, water, openness, evergreens, frontier, appreciation for the wild, coffee, high tech, alternative lifestyles, architecture, markets, and more water.
Who wouldn’t want to be here? And why don’t a much higher percentage of Chinese make this a high-ranking American destination, whether for business or pleasure?
During the conference, Zhaohui Tang (CEO of adSage) make the excellent point that the perception of Seattle by most Chinese is informed by only two primary sources: the movies “Sleepless in Seattle” and the new “Beijing Meets Seattle” — both of which are romance movies! The message? If you want to find love, go to Seattle! Thus, in the minds of most Chinese, Seattle equals romance! With all our water, does that make us the Venice of America? So they think of us here as owning love, relationship, and human connection. Not Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, Weyerhauser, Starbucks, etc.
This challenges our assumption – a key behavior encouraged at the conference – that Chinese associate Seattle with these specific businesses. Businesses which we “know” from our several decades of experienced perspective, form the foundation of some of the most successful elements of US/China relations!
As tempting as it may be to feel a bit dismayed that the great economic and natural environment value of the Pacific Northwest is being missed by the characterization of the city of Seattle as a place of romance (how very unprofessional!), we should begin to think of the possibilities this Chinese reality might pose for US/China relations. What if the message that Americans love the Chinese were to be broadcast to China via Seattle, and not D.C.? To the extent that the PRC thinks the USA is encircling and threatening them, what are the implications of Seattle being the source of American messaging to China “We love you?”
The April 12 conference sparked several community leaders into action; specifically they began planning immediately to meet and discuss the construction of a “Pacific Northwest Brand.” As these leaders from Bellevue, Seattle, and other municipalities in the region gather to put their heads together they will inevitably plan to “brand” this region as one wealthy in economic and natural environment terms. Let us remember the Chinese reality of Seattle and adopt it, not divorce ourselves from it. Let us see ourselves as a city of romance. Let us manifest it, and let them know how this love can spread far beyond merely a couple’s embrace.