The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

Blinkered DNA …
May 27, 2010, 5:42 am
Filed under: Comment

So last week I met a friend who reminded me how important and powerful ‘frames of reference’ are in understanding how people/cultures deal with certain circumstances.

This friend is a very smart and successful business woman who, despite being Malay, spent most of her formative years growing up in Singapore during the late 70’s, 80’s and early 90’.

As she went through school and university, her exposure to Westerners was primarily through the ‘controlled’ media … however she did come across the odd Westerner in her daily life and almost universally they held positions of power – often managing or consulting important companies located within the City State.

So far so boring …

Anyway, a few years ago she went to the UK for the first time on holiday … and despite the huge growth in technology and information access … she was dumbfounded when she saw some Western labourers fixing a hole in the road.

This image just did not compute with her … Westerners didn’t do this sort of thing, they had others do that thing [read: Asian locals] … and so after staring at them in shock for a good 10 minutes, she started laughing hysterically because at that exact moment she realised she could knock the Westerners off the pedestal she had been influenced to place them all on, because she wasn’t ‘lower’ than them – she was just as good as them.

Now whilst you may think this is an isolated case … it’s not … and it’s not even unique to the people of Singapore/Asia.

One thing that absolutely drives me nuts is the arrogant, condescending and down-right ignorant view so many Westerners have of other cultures.

We like to pretend we’re all ‘culturally accepting’ and that racism/prejudice isn’t as prevalent anymore but I still hear far too many Brits telling me the country is being ‘overrun’ by immigrant Poles.

Apart from the fact it just isn’t … this insinuation that Polish people are thieving scum is a fucking disgrace but what can you expect when people believe they are entitled to glory just because of things done years in the past.

Hey, it’s not just people … brands are at it too.

There’s so many who think that because they did some good things back in 1973, they are entitled to continued customer loyalty, despite doing little to generate it in the last 20 years.

As I’ve said many times, brands cannot sit on their laurels and think the people will continue to come, regardless what they do – those days are over, if they were ever really there in the first place.

If you’re not prepared to fight for loyalty each and every day of your life – you might just find that one day the people and brands you thought were strictly 4th division have used their hunger, ambition and talent to leave you in the dust.

It’s time to stop looking at competition – be it cultures or brands – simply as the enemy, but to regard them as the people who can help you keep your standards high and your hunger to keep learning, fed – because without those 2 traits, you don’t deserve to be in a position of power in the first place.

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Cracking post. I may say the odd racy comment (as in close to the edge but that adjective suddenly takes on a whole new meaning) but in principle living all around the world like you (and speaking a couple more languages unlike you ha ha) I don’t even see nationalities but instead look for cues like authentic smiles, good eye contact, good manners and so on.

The thing I noticed when I was in the UK last because I spoke to a lot of Polish in different places was the way they embraced the menial work they often did with a bit more pride and efficacy than the Island of slackers that the Anglo Saxon has often become.

Then I noticed how crackingly fit the Polish waitresses are in the Angel of Islington and beyond.

Sorry it’s in my blood.

Yeah anyway. In general, a good people like most immigrant workers who are both harder working, more clever and much much more modest than the locals who don’t know how pampered they are.

They will though. Particularly if the inevitable war for resources descends upon us because it’s the Chav classes who a friend of mine argues, are bred for sending out to the trenches.

A contentious but ‘pause for thought’ point. Anyway good post.

Comment by Charles 'values' Frith

I agree with Charles that this is a great post, especially the example of your Malay friend.

It is disturbing how relatively easy it is to create social stereotypes and it is upsetting how often this is done with the pure aim to sell more of a particular item.

I can see why the man in Art & Copy said advertising “reflects the times” but it also shows how advertising has the power to “change the times”, but they won’t do that unless it makes them much more money which is why Unilever don’t even bother to find a different way to justify their skin whitening products.

Great post. Good week on here Robert. 🙂

Comment by Pete

“It’s time to stop looking at competition – be it cultures or brands – simply as the enemy, but to regard them as the people who can keep your standards and hunger to keep learning high.”

The enemy is your friend. Brilliant.

Comment by Bazza

Your posts this week feel like a 1970’s concept album. Normally that would be a bad thing but in this instance I’m thinking more Pink Floyd than Tangerine Dream.

You’ve covered a wide array of topics and yet they appear to be all tied together by the value you have gained from working around the World and your belief that advertising can lead to positive changes as opposed to simply perpetuating myths.

If there is such thing as a classic Robert post, this week has been a vintage year and long may it continue.

Comment by George

I would take this as a huge compliment but there’s nothing positive being compared to a 1970’s concept album is there?

Comment by Rob

finally something i can fucking agree with you on rob. but im impressed with auntie, thats some fucking backhanded compliment.

Comment by andy@cynic

good post campbell. another good post. who the fuck have you got writing this for you?

Comment by andy@cynic

The irony is that I find Asia far more of a hotbed of racism than the UK.

The bit I find hard to get my head around is that you only really see it here if you do a bit of exploration whereas in the UK, it tends to be a bit more blatant. Well, in some areas or situations.

To be honest I don’t know which is better.

Let me rephrase that … no racism is good … but I’m musing whether it is better to know exactly where you stand or just go through life “feeling” you are not wanted?

Personally I’d probably say the former, but even though being a Brit in Asia means I am exposed to some negative stereotypical views, it’s nothing compared to almost every other nationality, like those from India.

HK is unbelievably hard on Indians.

Don’t get me wrong, they’re pretty tough on Indonesians and Filipino’s to name but 2, but compared to how many Indian people are treated, they get it easy. [“Easy” being a relative term because it is anything but]

To sum it up, when I first moved to HK, I was “advised” never to join a queue at airport immigration where I would be stood behind an Indian because I would be in for a long wait as the passport control officer meticulously and absolutely unfairly goes through every little detail of the poor persons credentials in a hope to spot a reason to not let them in.

Same in Singapore … where the general local population view is that an Indian [and by that, they tend to view it as any person whose skin colour is similar to an Indian] is either a Banker or a security guard … with the former being tolerated [but never being fully ‘accepted’ in the status elite] and the latter being there to serve the whims of the ‘better culture’.

Of course not all HK, Singaporean, people of Asia are like this … and the people who are, do not limit their views to just other nationalities but have a hierarchical perspective of people within their own land [ie: like the UK does where some people in London think the inhabitants of the North are more stupid and less successful] … it’s just I have seen a more universal undercurrent of racism in Asia than I had been exposed to in Europe [which admitedlly is now quite a long time ago] however it appears in many cases some of the ‘rationale’ for it links back to myth and legend than something more tangible that they were personally exposed too.

That last sentence hasn’t come out right, but I’m late for my appointment so I’m hoping you get what I mean and if you don’t, I’ll try and explain it better later.

Anyway, whilst you don’t have to work overseas to experience/understand it … when you do, your brain gets fed with new dimensions that you might not otherwise be exposed to. Which all leads to my point of yesterday … curiousity should mean planners WANT to work overseas rather than stay in the safe comfort of their home market.

Long … rambling … probably not made much sense … but thanks for bearing with me,

Comment by Rob

to sum up campbell. i dont understand a fucking word of youre saying.

the end.

Comment by andy@cynic

Racism exists everywhere but I understand what Rob is saying because when I lived there I would be amazed at the comments I’d hear on a daily basis about other cultures or people from other regions within their own country.

I’m not talking flippant and cliched generalizations, often it was very specific, very targeted and very acidic.

The scariest part was they never saw this as being prejudice, it was just a fact of life that had passed through many generations and often came from the mouths of very smart, well traveled individuals.

Comment by Pete

Rob’s right Racism in Asia is much more evident. However we just need to throw in that not one Asian country ever colonised Europe and yet between us we Europeans and Americans took out ….All of them.

Even China to a certain extent during the Opium wars.

I guess the word racism is tired and washed up. We need more nuanced versions like colonial racism and economic racism. One is more sophisticated than the other and for that reason is to be treated with a bit more fragility or danger.

Stupidity can be countered with education. But real prejudice. That’s tough.

Comment by Charles 'values' Frith

The Thais always like to say they were never colonised but they threw open the gates for the Japanese during the second world war and for some strange reason. Unlike the rest of Asia. Don’t have a grudge about ‘comfort women’ that the Japanese are famous for.

That’s about the most incendiary thing I’ve ever said on this blog because all sides would rather keep that one quiet.

Comment by Charles 'values' Frith

Rob: Fab post and great commentary by all. All Asian countries were plutocracies, with a small sliver of the population served by everyone else. Am sure it was the same in Rome, with slaves forming the invisible, toiling minority. Then various white gods appeared on various shores and in various capitals and upended the creaking hierarchies. So whites occupy the top of the pyramid in every country in Asia. True, Thailand was never officially colonized. Thatks because the then King bought off the British by ceding Malaya and the French by ceding Indo-China.

On Indians. Two sets of Indians made their way to other Asian countries – coolies/indentured labour and merchants/moneylenders. The first set did menial Polish-like work and were objects of derision. The second set made money, lent money and funded gambling and opium. They were reviled. Today’s Asians inherit these.

Today, SE Asia has political issues with democratic India. About its lack of visible prosperity, at its citizens picking up businesses and jobs. And Indians are dark, so we are back to where we started. Pantone rules.

Comment by Sush

Haven’t the Chinese kicked Google/America’s ass? But the Vietnamese got there first.

I like the post but George’s comment has freaked me out.

Comment by DH

I’m absolutely loving these comments … even Dave’s had some relevance which I’m sure will upset him massively. If it carries on at this rate, this could turn into a real blog.

Oh hang on, no it can’t, I know what I’ve written for tomorrow.

Bugger … so near yet so far.

Comment by Rob

i love this post. racism is one of my fav things..

and ur observation that most racism is only real in the minds eye is lucid. My cousin in Newark, has no problems with any major racial group. from the blacks and latino’s to the whites and american italians. why: well being from Serbia (which most of them can’t place) the follow up is: where is Serbia. Answer: Europe. thus he is considered European.

He is not white, or foreign, just European. it seems that hollywood did a nice job of achoring european = good/exotic emotion, as this is the legit ghetto pas to have. Being seen as European.

Funny but an nice example of irrationality at work (though i also always found it very funny how the frame of “race” the usa uses (black whites, brown, yellow man, etc) to actually be a inadvertend show of lower cultural sofphistication towards immigrant they are above, as most other nations from africa or europe (asia i cant tell) are very precise in their anger, down to tribal/regional levels)..

Mr Frith’s point about the chavs is scary on the money..

Comment by niko

Another excellent post Robert, insightful, challenging and disturbing.

Comment by Lee Hill

Rob: Fab post and great commentary by all. All Asian countries were plutocracies, with a small sliver of the population served by everyone else. Am sure it was the same in Rome, with slaves forming the invisible, toiling minority. Then various white gods appeared on various shores and in various capitals and upended the creaking hierarchies. So whites occupy the top of the pyramid in every country in Asia. True, Thailand was never officially colonized. Thatks because the then King bought off the British by ceding Malaya and the French by ceding Indo-China.

On Indians. Two sets of Indians made their way to other Asian countries – coolies/indentured labour and merchants/moneylenders. The first set did menial Polish-like work and were objects of derision. The second set made money, lent money and funded gambling and opium. They were reviled. Today’s Asians inherit these.

Today, SE Asia has political issues with democratic India. About its lack of visible prosperity, at its citizens picking up businesses and jobs. And Indians are dark, so we are back to where we started. Pantone rules.

Comment by sush

Lovely post, and on a slight tangent, reminds of the attitude to one or two creative directors and other senior bods – still dining out on something good they did 20 years.
Twat creative director at TBWA Manchester tried to win most arguments by pretending he invented the Absolute ‘icon’ campaign (he didn’t he did one or two decent executions of it) not to mention TBWA ‘we did the good Apple stuff’ group.
I totally agree you have to earn respect, loyalty love etc every single day.
Now, back on the subject, the west is horric when it comes to other cultures – that’s why Iraq, Afghanistan etc ultimately fail…’be like us you mediaevel idiots’ is not the right attitude.
Most westerners dismiss the Japanese as funny little people who buy lots of Paul Smith and love Godzilla, but we have so much to learn from them. Not least the Tea Ritual, but also the love of the group, Zaizen work practises, Wabi Sabi.
(you’re all thoughtful this week aren’t you Rob, and I’m liking the ‘meta theme’ too

Comment by northern

The Japanese are an amazing culture … even if in Tokyo in particular, they love Paul Smith and Godzilla … but to say that’s a fair definition of the entire countries culture is a bit like saying all American’s are fat, dunce-heads who like war.

Generalisations are convenient but rarely a whole representation of the truth.

Oh, and one day I hope you write a book about your TBWA experience because it would seem your time there was one that left a definite mark and one that could help them get better – even though I have this horrible feeling they regard themselves as near perfect already.

Comment by Rob

northern gets me excited when he rants like that which is unusual as people north of the watford gap are all ugly, thick, miserable fuckers.

was that the right thing to say on this post?

Comment by andy@cynic

No, you Southern, shandy drinking lightweight

Comment by northern

its not racist, its race related innit.

Comment by andy@cynic

i love this post Rob. really hits home for me.

reminds me of our recent holiday in egypt, where instead of staying in a hotel near the sights, we rented a very basic apartment in an out of the way neighborhood. the goal = see what cairo is really like.

our experience was a bit of reversal from the one of your Malay friend. we (our little family of four) visited the local grocery, and local playground, and were multiple times approached by egyptians saying to us “where are you from? what are you doing here?”.

we’d respond by saying egpyt is a place we’d always wanted to see, and amsterdam is so cold in march, and the pyramids have fascinated me since a child, and all the rest.

but what they really were asking is “what are you doing in this neighborhood? why aren’t you in the snazzy hotel downtown/by the mall/with the other tourists?”

in our own small way, we were challenging their perceptions of us, of westerners, or more specifically, their perception of americans.

not all westerners want to be insulated from their travel experience. not everyone puts comfort and ease above all the rest. there is more to be gained than posting photos on facebook, and a nice dinner at the hotel lounge.

did it suck sometimes? yep. were there fuck-ups? hellz yes. but we did it anyway, and our kids saw mom and dad struggle to figure it out, loving the puzzle all the way.

wouldn’t do it any other way, can’t wait until the next time…!/video/video.php?v=371988018037

Comment by katie dreke

Oh god how I agree with you … I’m now going to be a Facebook video stalker and see your family in Egyptian action.

Comment by Rob

Great post Rob – was I alone in thinking that when Gordon Brown had the temerity to suggest that a honourable foot-soldier of the Great British Public was bigoted that he may well have been right?

Having said that, racial bigotry is not a purely Western phenomenon. I’ve seen more than my fair share of bigotry shown by people in Asia to other races/cultures.

Comment by pete heskett

Hi mate – great to have you on here – I’d of thought you’d of had enough of me for one lifetime.

The bigotry is amazing in Asia … but as I mentioned, it’s expressed in a different way to the West which means many people who visit the region don’t see it. Or don’t want to see it.

Comment by Rob

who are all these new people? where the fuck did they all come from? are they being paid or just mad? we have a right to know.

Comment by andy@cynic

Hey Rob: I have to agree, this is an excellent post with some excellent comments.
Some disjointed comments. I think that when I moved to SG 6 years ago, I was sincerely shocked to learn that there is a lot of racism here as well towards any dark-skinned Asian. Hey, shoot me, I didn’t know….
But when I start to compare it against racism in the West, and by that I mean Europe, I think that in Europe there is still a sense of shame and guilt (about being called a racist) with the majority of people who – I honestly believe – really don’t care much one way or the other, whereas in Asia the bottom line is that there is nothing wrong with being racist. Of course, here it’s more hush-hush – nobody will call you names in public – with racism being shoved down your throat by an invisible hand. And I am not trying to minimize things because there is a dangerous revival of these ‘crazy’ extreme right-wing parties across Europe.
One of the things I most dislike here in Asia is that, being white, I am generally preceded by a fame of a lazy sexual predator with yellow fever, and oh yes that I might have a big …apparatus. (Yes, I had plenty of gay guys in gyms running around to stare at my dick, and not even trying to hide it!)
Whose fault is it when at the food court they take my order first regardless of the fact that I am 5th or 6th in line? It can be truly embarrassing and the only thing I try to do is not buy any more from that stall. And it’s embarrassing because people (=locals) don’t even question why the ang moh gets served first.
See, I think its time Asians started to get out of their cocoon and travel some more and see things as they really stand. The story you were telling about the woman traveling to Europe and seeing that menial work can indeed be done by white folks is actually quite sad, as I am assuming that the lady in question is rather smart. Even in a place like Singapore, the reality is that all these races coexist in parallel universes with locals having these ‘strange’ myths about us whites with limited personal encounters. It was my personal experience in a mostly local office here in SG, but it took quite some time for locals to relax and realize that in the end you can actually be a regular Joe. Several times I made the point that, “Look, there are 95% of Europeans who don’t travel to Asia and that do not really care too much about Asian women” and they always looked at me like I was a flying bunny.
Couple of last comments: in the U.S. nobody stared when a white guy walked hand in hand with an Asian woman; but in Singapore it happened many times that people would stand up in buses or food courts to stare at us.
Dunno… The French hate everybody non-French, is that racism? The Rule-Britannia Brits still gets “confused” when the Germans or the Italians or the Japanese do well. How many times have I heard the line: “Wait, you Mussolinis, but we have won the war….. !”
This can really be a long topic so I will stop here…..

Comment by Claudio

Hi Claudio, great to have you come on here and give us your view.

There’s a lot of what you say that I resonate with … especially the ‘expat over the locals’ which I find very upsetting, especially when I see/hear arrogant expats act like they are actually entitled to it.

The funny thing is so many of them are too ignorant to realise both their attitude and the service they experience is breeding contempt amongst the locals and the ‘happy to please’ attitude adopted by so many is all a sham – and who can blame them, I certainly don’t.

It’s so bad that I often get stares of amazement when I say please and thank you … but as much as I state many of the young in Asia have ‘entitlement issues’, that’s nothing compared to way too many expats and their families.

Thanks for this, really enjoyed reading it and I hope you come back and give us more of your views soon.

Comment by Rob

You know, Rob, regarding the arrogant expats I have a theory: this is basic human behavior, I call it trench warfare. Just like in a relationship, where one partner tests the other partner over x amount of issues to see how far he/she can get away with, sizing up by how much the other partner will retrench or fight back and then mark that line and work over that “inch” over time. It’s the same thing happening here, it seems to me that if I (white) engage you (local) and you keep retreating by either being quiet/gracious or simply non-confrontational, this is often misinterpreted as a sign that I can move my mark further up. Hence, the arrogance on one side and the contempt on the other. But the line is very blurred to me.
My wife was telling me once of this bizarre incident over dinner with my in-laws being bullied by a know-it-all German lady who kept criticizing their country, until my 10-year-old nephew told her to shut it. Of course, in front of everybody the boy was forced to apologize, but then after dinner with frau gone everybody was treating the boy like a hero because he had stood up to her. See, it is the final ‘hero’ reaction that strikes me as really puzzling. Oddly, my opinion of them would have stood higher had they simply stuck with the non-confrontational façade….. As a European who loves endless and pointless discussions over the ‘sex of the angels,’ this is too much ….yin and yang to bear, but extremely interesting overall.
Where is the entitlement issue of some expats and their families coming from? Is it because of a colonial past? I have heard quite a few times Brits putting down the Aussies reminding them of the background of the first white settlers. I have heard Australian ladies make such racist remarks against Asians with such flair and grace. That’s why I think the line between ignorance and racism is very thin.
Cheers, I will try to shut it now 🙂

Comment by Claudio

Maybe that’s the reason for some people, or at least initially, but how it often manifests itself goes beyond exploring human limits and becomes far more about feeding their self importance and ego.

Also I find the people who constantly push people like that are doing it more to cover up their own issues than to find the breaking point of others. Sadly, in my experience in Asia, these kinds of individuals are almost always Western in origin – the type who have maids despite not needing them or it being part of their culture, but because it makes them feel important and they can get away with paying them the pittance the Governments say they have to receive even though they could multiply their salary tenfold and not feel it in their wallet.

Comment by Rob

I just got back from Turkey, and the only cultural ignorance I found was certain British alcohol tourists who thought that Turkish culture being different was due to them being stupid or lazy, and who thought respect was wearing nothing but shorts while walking outside a Mosque.

Comment by Rob Mortimer

Oh I know the sort Mr M, the “we’re on holiday so their rules don’t count for us” brigade … who ironically are often the very people who shout the loudest that other cultures need to follow British protocol to the absolute letter, regardless of their cultural/religious influences.

Comment by Rob

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