Change Our Story

Composer, author and philanthropist Peter Buffett on finding your own path to life fulfillment.

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From East to West

12/12/2012 11:00:00 AM

Tags: Peter Buffett, China, Cultural Identity

Peter Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, is an Emmy Award-winning composer, NY Times best-selling author and noted philanthropist. Currently, he is releasing socially-conscious music and touring his "Concert & Conversation" series in support of his book Life Is What You Make It.
 
be yourself  

I’ve just returned from China. And now that I have a small outlet for my thoughts, I might as well write them down and see if they make sense.

As many readers know, I’ve worked on musical projects that include many expressions of my deep feelings regarding American Indian—as well as any indigenous—culture. 

We all came from a tribe at some point in our past. But there are few people in the world that survive in the manner that we were once all accustomed to. As you might expect, I believe that our previous way of life had a lot of valuable components to it. But please don’t accuse me of romanticizing the past. I just wish we could have retained some of the important parts, specifically the parts around us being just a part of a larger world, a world that we were meant to live in relationship to—not in control of.

On my first trip to China, my “aha” moment was realizing that the country is, indeed, quite full of the same feeling that I had when I got to know people in “Indian Country.” I recognized a soul in China that I didn’t expect. And then it became obvious: the Chinese people are nearly all indigenous; the land they live on was inhabited by their ancestors for millennia.

What I was seeing was that same way of being that Columbus saw when he first landed. I quoted him in an earlier blog. But the upshot is that he met people with their hearts open. Ready and willing to listen, learn, share, have fun, believe in things, and connect.

I don’t go to China for commerce. I go there to share my story if it’s at all helpful. 

My book, has been met with great success in China. There are a couple of reasons for that, none probably more obvious than the fact that I am Warren Buffett’s son. But that’s absolutely fine with me. It gives me a key into a world I would have never seen. Now that I’m in, I’m having a look around.

I won’t lie: it takes a lot of energy. But it’s an interesting kind of effort. And I think that’s what happens when any two cultures meet.

Think of it as a pan of water. In its liquid state it’s very stable. And the same is true when it’s frozen. Those are like two different cultures. When the two states of being—with all the meanings and customs that they’re used to—meet, that’s where the energy of worlds colliding is released.

Here’s the tricky part about this exchange: When that relationship is forged with either side trying to get the better deal, as opposed to the better understanding, things can get a little ugly. Obviously, this can easily happen in any market driven relationship. And of course, whoever sets the measuring stick usually gets an advantage.

So here’s what I’m so struck by.

In China my book is entitled Be Yourself. And at first, I was thinking it was mostly written for the young adults in China that would be curious about the fact that I followed a very surprising—and, to them, inspiring—life path.

When I spent more time there, I was so struck by how much Western advertising for high end products I saw. And as I stepped further back and also got a little deeper into the experience of being there, I saw how the measuring stick of Western values was slowly being superimposed everywhere.

It starts simply enough with things like the Gregorian calendar. China still uses the Lunar Calendar for important dates. But otherwise, the gridlines of the West have been put to use on a daily basis.

But I love that the whole country has one time zone (even though it straddles five). I’ll bet in most of China they still say, “time to get up ... time to have lunch ...” etc. As opposed to “6:45” or “12:30.”

But when you start to see metrics in fashion, economics, real estate that all look pretty Western, it feels like putting a square peg in a round hole.

So I’ve come to learn that my Chinese book, Be Yourself, actually applies to the country at large. The development of a social system for mankind (I’m including all elements anyone can think of—politics, markets, medicine, education, etc.) is a work in progress. Sure China can learn things from other societies. But clearly, it must Be Itself. If it loses the centuries upon centuries of soul, the world loses. If the West insists on addicting the East to its version of growth and prosperity, I call this no different than the Opium Wars of the past.

I’m really not sure what to do about this other than say it out loud. Many of the Chinese people I speak to seem to be deeply concerned that China will lose something extremely rare and valuable in the rush towards a very confounding version of growth and happiness. And it’s not just the older people.

I know the culture still holds a deep sense of balance. It’s the heartbeat of any indigenous culture. If it stays strong, I believe there will be a better future for us all.

What do you think? Share your story at changeourstory.com. Visit www.peterbuffett.com to learn more and Change Our Story to join the conversation on how we all can become active participants in shaping our future.  

 



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Eric
1/10/2013 8:47:00 PM
Holy cow. I never even thought about the bars closing. There always seems to be so many of them. But, what you say may be true and the photo essay is great.

shujuan li
12/27/2012 3:37:40 PM
See the new blog "The Skin We Are In. But I can't post my comment under it. So I put here. Fear is people’s No. 1 weak point. Actually when we were born, we didn’t know what fear is. As a Chinese saying goes, a new-born calf fears no tigers. But as we grow up, we begin to fear: we fear we can’t make a lot of money to live a better life, we fear if we don’t work hard we will lose jobs, we fear to die as we grow older… But only one thing can conquer fear--love. I agree with Peter. When my daughter was suffering a serious illness, I would like the illness come to me, let me suffer instead. I would rather die for my beloved ones and feel no fears. I think everyone can do like this. I believe everyone has love. With love there is nothing in the world to be afraid of.

PETER BUFFETT
12/26/2012 1:40:41 PM
My analogies may be lame :-) but you certainly end up in the same place I do... that the hearts of the people and the cultural DNA hold the true power. I don't put the ideas I have in any of my writing in terms of decades or even centuries - I'm trying to get to as universal a place for mankind as possible... and I believe that takes looking from as far back as possible. Which gets you to the DNA aspect - and collective memory. What I'm hopeful for - and I know is possible - is that as countries develop, they can shed skin (see my latest post) and create something better than what's come before. That idea certainly has historical facts on its side... but it also always seems an imperfect walk towards "progress". Sub-Saharan African has mostly bypassed copper wire for cell phone technology for instance. This may give many people a leap in information that could possibly shift the direction in many aspects of life - agriculture as an example. This is a gross generalization.. but my point is that people can learn and grow from other's examples and improvements in technology (or systems of gov't or education etc...) but adapt them to their own DNA. Call me a hopeless idealist... but I will do everything I can to urge other cultures to stay clear of our addiction to stuff in hopes that a new way of being in community can once again flourish... Capitalism... Socialism... Communism... can make way for Humanism... the US has no great hold on fairness and justice - just ask an Indian.

YAXUE CAO
12/17/2012 3:54:51 PM
Dear Peter, I want to point out that China and the US (or anyone else for that matter) are not two different cultures in the way water and ice are different manifestations of water. The Chinese political system sits, not on any ancient idea of fairness and justice, but on a post-totalitarian foundation where the Party has every power over the people and the people have no say in anything. As a result, abuses abounds. You liked the idea that, even though China spans five time zones, but the entire country has only one time zone, the Beijing Time. I can see how you would appreciate that as someone who is in a relatively strange land, traveling a lot, having a lot impressions and experiences to process, and the least thing you want to be bothered is a confusing sense of time. But the fact that China has one time zone is an example of the state power. For people living in the far west of China, time is a twisted affair every single day as they go to work around "10am", have lunch at "3pm", and their sun doesn't set until "10 at night". Not fun at all :) But while a twisted sense of time at least doesn't hurt (or it does), uncheckable corruption and abuses hurt people and hurt the most vulnerable people the most who has nowhere to turn to seek justice. Secondly, speaking of the destruction of China's centuries and centuries of civilization, no one has done more than the Communist regime in the past 63 years to destroy it. No need to elaborate on this because any decent scholar of China can tell us about that. So where is that soul? I think it's in the hearts of the people, in the collective memory and the cultural DNA, but until China has a fair and just political system, that soul will continue to suffer and be banished in spiritual exile.

shujuan li
12/16/2012 2:34:46 AM
In today's more and more commercialized soceity, people face great pressure of life. They are madly chaseing for money. They think more about themselves and seldome think of others. Thus some valuable traditions have been lost. How can we keep our heat calm, undisturbed by outside noise? The only way is to listen to you heart, do what you think is right and valuable to mankind.

shujuan li
12/15/2012 3:44:45 PM
As an individual, you should Be Yourself; as a nation, you should also try to Be Yourself. When China opened its door to the outside world, it should not only absorb western modern technology, but also keep its own tradition. We cannot copy everything from Western countries and lose ourselves. Sorry to hear the news 20 children were killed in the States. How come campus shot happened again and again? It's high time to control guns in the States. Hope this tragedy won't happen again.

Ken Melville
12/14/2012 9:29:08 AM
When you travel through China, you're in a portable cultural ecotone. You're the coyote walking around in Boston suburbs. The opossum on my deck every night. Two cultural biomes mashed up into a soup of curiosity and vital connections and enlightenment. Such a powerful environment for mutual epiphanies! And it sounds like they're happening all the time. Unfortunately this damnable predatory unregulated capitalism is the new opium and America the Ugly is doing its best to export it to China bigtime. And like the Cage People of Hong Kong, it eventually cages everyone into the same little consumer boxes of unfulfilled need and unhappiness. America is trapped in that dissipating entropy more and more with each generation. They say Millennials are now hooked on the need for the "perfect" wedding and the "perfect" countertops and the "perfect" mate. Second best won't do. And that neurotic meme is our major export. So I'd say be the Alan Lomax of indigenous cultures while there still are some. They are still full of raw beauty and surprises and communal soul. Bring them back from the ecotone for us. Preserve them. Because our divided and fading mongrel nation needs a hit of that ol' tribal lightning juice we used to have. Back when we had one tribe and common dreams and common enemies. Lately we seem to have nothing but uncommon dreams and uncommon enemies. We are many tribes, and like the First Nation folks were before the Euro invasion, there are many wars between our many tribes. In all this talk of succession and Calgonia vs. The Confederacy, perhaps were are looking to get back to our own tribe, our own dreams, our own enemies. The American Experiment in Progress looks to China and perhaps finds some guidance. Keep sending us smoke signals from the ecotone, Peter!



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