if we now live in a world where ideological struggles have given way to the global marketplace, then Asia is unquestionably the force to be reckoned with. The largest middle-class population in the world, after all, now resides in Asia. The implications for the West are staggering, to say the least.
Economists predict that by 2010, affluent Asians will number between 800 million and 1 billion. "The biggest market for almost everything is in Asia -- not just cars, but high-tech products, entertainment goods, basic infrastructure -- you name it!" marvels an American businessman. "The idea that China will soon be the richest country in the world and still has only about 10 million cars makes my eyes pop out."
But these entrepreneurial dreams will fail unless the West realizes that Asians aren't just greedy for Western products. Modernization no longer implies Westernization: Asians are now inclined to think they are following "the Asian way." The only problem is, no one is quite sure what "the Asian way" means.
"Traditional ethnic cultures are being revived with new elements of universality," observes Masakzu Yamazaki, who studies cross-cultural influences at East Asia University in Tokyo. Korean agrarian folk music is influenced by jazz; Balinese dance, influenced by German art forms, in turn is influencing the Japanese modern dance troupe Sankaijuku.
Yamazaki sees a new Pacific International style emerging that draws on both Asian and Western cultures but with an emphasis on the East.
As affluent Asians acquire an increasingly sophisticated sense of self, they look for reflections of themselves as the main players in the global narrative. Nowhere is that more apparent than on the silver screen. Though moviegoers in the West are only beginning to discover Jackie Chan, the martial arts expert and Hong Kong movie star, for Asians he has long since replaced James Bond as the icon of global macho, whether fighting neo-Nazis in the Sahara desert or escaping Incas in Peru.
"Hong Kong has its own dream factory, the third largest in the world, and its own megastars, and more and more it's incorporating other Asian stars into its movies to represent the entire Asian region," notes Wayne Chang, whose family owns a movie theater in Hong Kong. The recently released Hong Kong film "Beyond Hypothermia" uses Korean, Japanese and Cambodian actors speaking at least five different languages (English included) in a highly stylized dance of bullets and tears that hypnotizes Asians all over the continent.
In the fashion world Asian designers like Rei Kawaibo, Hanei Mori and Joyce Ma are scoring with East-West hybrid designs. In the arts, although Western media headline Asian billionaires buying up Western art treasures, the real story is that Asian nouveaux riches prefer Asian to European arts. The new high-tech museum in Shanghai was funded mostly by overseas Chinese who also bought art objects to donate to the museum.
In Malaysia, prime minister Mahathir Mohamad is introducing the "Multimedia Super Corridor," a 15-mile-wide by 50-mile-long corridor that connects Kuala Lumpur's airport to the world's tallest building. With the help of Silicon Valley executives, he aims to usher in Malaysia's own version of the Information Age.
But despite occasional anti-Western chauvinism, there is little danger the new "Asian identity" will turn exclusionist. English remains the preferred language of commerce, and Western democracy and freedom of expression are the explicit goals of many Asians. A typical middle-class urban Asian speaks two or three languages, and feels at home in two or three different countries.
But he also retains the core values of his or her own culture. The Western journalist who reports on how a Thai youth wears his Yankee baseball cap turned backwards needs to be aware that deep down, as a recent survey of Hong Kong young people found, his family comes first, followed by education, caring for older relatives and saving for the future.
In a sense, to become relevant to the East, Westerners will have to grow more humble, just as once the East humbled itself to learn from the West. Certainly, the Westerner traveling to Asia with open eyes will discover an old continent being reborn into the New World.