I approached from the north. It squatted low on the horizon as it came into view, nearly disappearing against the gray November sky. It is not a friendly looking building. Lots of concrete, very few windows.
I parked in an adjacent multi-level concrete parking garage and walked across the street into the hardened facility. After walking through a metal detector, and presenting my identification, I was introduced to my host. He was a tall, thin man. Aged about forty-five years. He greeted me with a broad smile and a firm handshake. We began our journey by navigating through a man-trap. Two secured doors monitored by armed men. You pass through one at a time. The first door fully secures behind you before the second is opened.
As the second door opened a strong odor of industrial strength ammonia invaded my sinuses. The familiar military-issue looking green tile, florescent lighting, and white concrete block walls screamed; INSTITUTION. You could practically feel the bureaucracy choking you. Things did not happen fast in here.
We walked through the empty corridors. Not passing another soul. We entered what looked like a public school classroom. There were about twenty-five classroom chairs arranged in a circle. Large drums, and other percussion instruments were stacked in the middle of the circle. We took our seats spaced evenly around the circle.
We started to hear a commotion in the hallway. It grew louder as it came closer to our room. It sounded similar to troops marching around an Army base in formation. They entered our room quickly. I was taken aback by how young they looked. These were kids! I immediately noticed something else. They were all Hispanic or African-American. There was not a white face among them.
They were horsing around with each other, as boys will do, as they took their chairs. They kept their heads down. Careful not to make eye contact with us. They were clearly familiar with, and very respectful of, our host. Each had a hardened look on their face. A shield used to help them survive their ordeal here.
Our host introduced us to the young men. They in turn told us their names. If you’ve never been in a drumming circle, or a circle of any type, there are rules you must follow. There is traditionally a talking stick, or rock, or something the speaker holds while it is their turn to talk. You can only talk when you have the talking stick. You must listen intently when it is not your turn to talk. You speak your mind, then pass the talking stick to the next person.
After introductions, our host asked us to each respond to a serious question. We went around the room taking turns answering it. These were deep questions. About love, fear, and death. Pride, loyalty, respect, and family. What it meant to be a man.
We would go around the circle to share our feelings about the question asked. Then our leader asked everyone to pick up a drum, or other percussion instrument. We began to play our drums. We started softly at first. Feeling each other out a bit. As we became more comfortable and our guard came down, the noise grew louder.
As we pounded the taught skins of the drums harder you could see the kid coming out in these guys. Big, broad smiles broke out. We laughed. You could feel the entire room synching into a rhythm. One person would lead the group in a beat, then someone across the room would pick up the tempo and lead for a period of time. We went back and forth like that for some time. We soaked up the fellowship of the music. It was very uplifting.
We went back and forth. Talking and sharing, then drumming. It was quite an experience. I was surprised how emotional they got so quickly. Almost as if they yearned for any emotional intimacy with another human being. We told each other things I haven’t shared with the closest of friends or family members. There was a sense of urgency in our communications. I had a strange feeling of wanting to impart whatever wisdom I could in this small window of opportunity. I wanted to give them another chance at their childhood. I wanted to tell them not to give up on life. They could be redeemed. Life was not over for them….
They shared a perspective on life that most Americans can not understand. These kids thought about their mortality every single day. When you were nine, or ten years old, how often did you think about your own death? These kids lived with death every day. Close friends gunned down on the street. Brothers murdered. They knew where to go in their neighborhood to find a drop gun to take care of business if someone threatened them.
This is going to sound like a stereotype, but it what these young men communicated to me. Nearly to a man, they did not know their fathers. Most of their mothers were addicts or had checked out of their lives. They had no good roles models. These boys, as early as eight years old, and sometimes younger, felt they needed to turn to street crime to provide for their families. They had to be the man of the house.
While your average American pre-teen was having a sleep over with his buddies, these kids were deciding what to steal so they had something to bring home to their siblings to eat for the night. This breakdown in our society was breeding a class of young predators.
By now you have to be asking yourself; what the hell does this have to do with foreign policy? When is he going to bring this around to China? Well, we ended our evening with these kids and said our goodbyes. I had spent several hours at the juvenile detention center in a major American city. I spent that time with twenty-one boys between the ages of nine and sixteen. Half of them were murderers. The remainder had attempted murder.
This was a paradigm shift for me. I am certainly not some kumbaya singing, hemp clothing enthusiast that always sees the glass half-full. I am a realist. But seeing these young kids locked up for the rest of their lives really affected me. I immediately asked myself; how do we fix this? Should a child groomed for failure not be given a second chance? The average American only sees the crime side of this equation. The simple answer is to “lock them up and throw away the key”. This experience made me question some of my fundamental beliefs.
I tell this story here because I think it is analogous to the misunderstandings between the people of China and the United States. We think very differently about some things. We approach issues from different directions, and from different perspectives, and experiences than each other. We have vastly different histories. China is one of the oldest, greatest civilizations on earth. We are relative upstarts, that came into greatness at a very early age.
China is a great nation where many of her citizens have lived in abject poverty for over a century. It would be foolish for us not to believe that some Chinese might be jealous of our standard of living, and wish for the same for their family. Why should we not want that for them as well? Do we have to live life as a zero sum game?
At the same time there are aspects of our society that probably offend, or frighten the hell out of an average Chinese citizen. There are certainly parts of their culture we would find unusual. However, we all need to reach out and try to understand each others perspective and appreciate each others culture. Knowing, or thinking you know, only one side of an issue is a very dangerous thing. It makes it supremely easy to influence you. To make you think a certain way.
Now I’m not suggesting we all fly to Beijing with a snare drum and a set of bongos. But I do think we need to look for ways to break down the barriers that make it easy to misunderstand true intentions or motivations. As China continues to grow over the next ten years, it will become increasingly likely that our strategic interests will collide. How well we understand each other, how adept we are at reading each others signals, could be crucial. Most importantly, it is my hope, that by looking for these opportunities to communicate cross-culturally we will prevent these collisions from happening in the first place.
So let’s begin the discussion on how we can break down these barriers. Please click on the ‘Comment’ button below this post and let GlobalWonk know what your thoughts and ideas are.