Marco Polo Project – designing new practices

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. After COVID put a spanner in our wheels, we put most of our activities on ice. We’re now re-inventing what the future might look like. As part of this work, I wrote a series of posts exploring the original drivers behind Marco Polo Project. This is also an opportunity to reflect on success and failure – celebrate what was, mourn, and explore what could be.

‘Lots of people talk about engaging with China. You’re one of the few who’s actually doing something about it.’ I received this affirmation from a business manager at the Sydney University China Centre in 2013, after speaking at an Australia China Youth Association event. A number of others have praised my work with Marco Polo Project in similar ways over the years. For a while, this caused me confusion, since my core skillset is about arranging words together. I’m too dim-witted to raise a question in reply to a compliment, so I was left to find the meaning of the statement on my own. Here is what I made of it.

Back then, there was a lot of money flowing to China-stuff, and associated opportunities. I benefited too. There were a lot of public events, roundtables and conferences, with recurring injunctions and recriminations: ‘We must do more of this. We must do less of this.’ As for the details of implementation, what precisely we should do more of and less of, this was not a matter for the future leaders of Australia-China engagement to define.

Major changes in global macro-structures require new micro-structures. Seating arrangements matter when people don’t share the same language, as does acoustics, and turn-taking rules. Good intercultural networking calls for clear instructions. Loose ‘discuss and mingle’ models only shift the burden on the more culturally intelligent participants. Online, sharp editorial choices are needed – or smart algorithms – to break the filter bubble. Established ways of doing things will only replicate existing structures and dynamics. New formats must be designed, and put to the test, then packaged, and shared.

Self-appointed ‘big picture thinkers’ stay well clear of those details, and the efforts involved. After all, public funding and other official accolades are mainly focused on outcomes. I’m an earthy guy at heart, and ill-suited to business as usual. I don’t put much credit in standard outcome frameworks. I like getting my hands dirty, and play in the mud of outputs. Or if I’m not, I look for impact at the nth degree. I guess that’s what they meant by ‘do something’.   

I was reflecting with an Indonesian friend, a few weeks back, on institutional failure to meet the core social needs of migrant populations and international students. For their well-being, as well as for professional success, newcomers need to form supportive, trusting relationships – personal and professional. Which means, at the very least, a chance to follow up on initial conversations. Migrants and international students must also find ways to integrate all the new things they learn about their new context to their existing understanding of the world, and their identity. Yet most events – networking and otherwise – are marketed as opportunities to ‘meet new people’ and ‘learn new things’, and designed in line with that goal.

You know the joke. A man is looking for his keys under a streetlight. ‘Is this where you dropped them?’ asks a supportive passer-by. ‘No, but it’s pitch dark where I did, so I’m looking over here.’ I always think of this when I attend an intercultural get together. I still remember a Facebook conversation on the topic. I was back from yet another disappointing event at some university, with boring speeches and no meaningful encounter. Yet there were prawns and scallops on the buffet table. I wrote a post about it. ‘Why do the people running those events spend so much on food, and nothing on experience?’ It sparked a lively discussion. It led me to finally realise – and accept – that improving participant experience must fall outside what most people consider even possible. Pretentious food and poor design may well not be matters of malice, cowardice, or laziness. Just a lack of imagination. This is where design comes into play. It’s not just about prototyping to figure out what could work: it’s offering something concrete, as a way to shift perceptions of where action is needed, possible, and fruitful. And this is what Marco Polo Project has done over the years. 

We have developed a broad range of new formats and resources. Some have achieved their final form. After numerous iterations, starting in 2012, we landed on Translation Club, a collaborative translation event to build deep intercultural empathy and trigger insights of cultural self-awareness, with low facilitation overheads. Using design-thinking as a template, we developed Design for Diversity, a one day program to train better intercultural collaboration in creative problem solving. Our Marco Polo Manual documents a number of micro-structures, components of facilitated events and programs trialled over the years. We’re still iterating on Culture Flip, a card game to support better language exchange by playing on conversational archetypes, and a few more tools and formats for better networking.

The doing certainly worked, yet we failed at one point in the process. We neglected the work of convincing. We fell short of producing sexy media to document our workshops, anchor assumptions in scientific articles, or get big names to vouch for us. And so, we stayed small. Maybe my new Dr. title will bring about an added layer of legitimacy? Or maybe now is time for scientific retrofitting? Time to make our assumptions explicit, articulate our practice to new trends in language learning, social health and psychology, and make academic sense of our efforts. Then we can focus on sharing the models, in hope to see them scale.

Straight talking

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

A New Yorker cartoon popped up in my Facebook feed the other day, and resonated with a situation I have often faced – particularly when working around (straight white male) entrepreneurs.

It’s a form of communication that I like to call ‘straight talking’. It struggles to listen, and likes to make a point. At its worst, it sees every conversation as an argument to win. At best, it subtly polarizes discourses. All this passed off as assertive honesty.

Straight talkers are arrogant. Dig a little, and you find the following reasoning. Their time is too valuable to think hard about their words – or even learn to do so. Yet their views deserve attention, right now, in their unfiltered state. ‘I’m being honest’ only means, I won’t carry the load of emotional labor.

I like to take more care in the way that I speak or write. What I am seeing, or thinking, may be wrong, partial, incorrect. In their raw form, my thoughts may be somewhat astringent. I need to mollify them before sharing. That other person’s mental balance may be more important than I realise. I shouldn’t disturb their focus and well-being with my unmediated stupidity.  

Yet there is a dark side to this level of care. Homophobia taught me diplomacy. In spite of whatever status or confidence I might have gained, I still brace for the risk of aggression. Unless it’s a major issue, push a little, and I let go. Many members of minority groups do the same – if a straight talker pushes, they receive silence and a nod. Confirming their illusion of self-importance.

Without mindful handling, idea meritocracies built on the best intentions degenerate into survival of the loudest. Good people leave, teams fall apart. Resisting demands calling it out, making explicit requests for silent members to intervene, and setting protocols assigning turns to each person in a group. In live and virtual settings. And all this takes effort.

Not to mention, there is a dangerous temptation for strong egos. Acting like a dick is a good way to find yourself the smartest person in the room. Anyone with half a brain is drifting off already, planning their next move.

So, if you’ve ever been the smartest person in the room – or slack thread – just wonder – could it be that you silenced everyone else, or chased them away?

What to ask a start-up founder

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

Start-ups typically fail. That’s entrepreneurship 101. Yet founders are typically deluded about the chances of their start-up failing. Worse, success may well depend in part on their delusion, their capacity to convince others, and to keep going against the odds.

When a founder presents their project, particularly when they want something from you, they will probably tread a fine line between honesty, and distortion of reality. Never believe that ‘90% done’ means what it sounds like – it’s often a polite expression for ‘we’ve kind of spoken about it once’.

I’m trusting by nature, and by choice. Working around innovation circles, I often hung out with founders – and learned some wisdom through naivety. From first and second-hand experience, I identified four areas where early stage start-ups are likely to fail, and founders to present a distorted image. I’m sharing those few notes here, in hope that they will be useful for others intending to join an emerging project.

Funding. Building a new venture requires competent people devoting long periods of concentrated time to a project. Those people will probably want some income to pay their bills – not to mention, pay for co-working space, materials, or other business expenses. Start-ups are typically money-poor, yet founders usually confident that the money will come. So, make sure you check how dependent progress is on funding, how much is in the bank right now, and how advanced discussions are with potential backers.   

Technology. Founders often have a distorted relationship to time. Present and future are not clearly distinct. Ideas are presented as complete plans; blueprints as tested prototypes. This confidence extends beyond the realm of the venture. Experimental prototypes from other companies are often identified and presented as available technology. So, whenever someone tells you they’re building a complex AI system, or whatever new piece of hardware or software – check the details of where exactly they’re at, especially if you’re not a tech person. Is there a prototype? Has it been tested? In what setting exactly? And what are the results?

Team. Start-ups attract exceptional talent, high achievers and award winners. You see those names and titles on pitch decks and investment documents. If they believe in the project, then surely, so should I? Except those names on file are likely not full-time workers, or even working at all. ‘Advisory board member’ might mean ‘pops a message once every six months‘. And all credentials are, most likely, inflated – or at least presented from the best angle. So, use the same wisdom you would on a dating app. Are those people actually in? Do they have other commitments? How accurate are their profiles? 

Culture. Start-up life promises a certain form of freedom and excitement. There is often much talk about culture, working to your strengths, and supporting a great team to do their best. This, however, is likely to clash with the founders’ narcissism, quirks, or simple human limitations. So, check in very carefully before committing. How exactly will you be valued? Will you be listened to? Will your needs actually be met? Importantly – try raising the question of power. When push comes to shove, who makes final decisions, and if there is conflict, how will it be solved?

If the founder refuses to give you details on any of those matters – take it as a warning. Yet, remember – they’re more invested than you are, and their delusion is a condition of success, so don’t be too harsh. Risky as it may be – betting on founders may still be the best option we have. Hey – did I mention I’ve been a founder myself?

Reflecting on Default Settings

Inventing a new form

Default settings was an experimental project exploring questions of reflectivity, discourse, polyphony and audience agency. We invited a digital audience and a small cast of diverse associate storytellers to reflect on the various intersecting story-worlds that they inhabit, and stretch their capacity to create a common world by interweaving different stories, stemming from different languages and traditions.

The Default Settings experiment was designed by Julien Leyre and Matthew Ziccone, through the Marco Polo Project, with support from the City of Melbourne and the Victorian Multicultural Commission. It was produced by Maddy Bean, with participation from Associate Writers Declan Fry, Kay Stravrou and Xueqian Zhang.

The Default Setting experiment consisted of two prototypes and one pilot. The format involved five Associate Writers and a Producer, engaging online with an audience located around the world. Associate Writers were invited to prepare a 22’ sequence on the basis of a one-word prompt, in a format and language of their choice. The prompts chosen for the experiment were ‘plastic’, ‘vessel’ and ‘seed’.

Here is the rundown of the format we adopted. After a short meditative segment led by the Producer, Associate Writers share their stories in five parallel digital breakout rooms. During this time, audience members are shifted from room to room, every two minutes. As a second part to the event, audience and writers are guided in a reflective process to make sense of the experience. The process aims to build awareness of the ‘default settings’ guiding our digital lives, and stretch our capacity to follow and weave multiple narratives in order to make sense of the world.

Conversational norms, prevailing stories, and narrative freedom

The Default Setting experiment responds to the radical shift prompted by the COVID pandemic. Our professional, social and emotional lives are increasingly unfolding in digital environments: we interact with the world, with our colleagues and with our friends and family through screens. Unless we actively learn how to build meaningful connections in this virtual world, we are at risk of disconnection and alienation. So, we must explore and invent new ‘codes’ to interact online in an effective manner.

This shift is a source of tension, but also a great opportunity. In our multicultural societies, multiple parallel stories and value systems always circulate, manifesting in the way we talk and interact with others. Most of us inhabit multiple such story-worlds, and hop across them depending on the setting – one for family, one for work, one for friends, etc. Deciding what story to follow in order to make sense of the world and guide our action – and along with that story, what value system, what identity, what style, what tone – is our most fundamental political, social and ethical decision. Yet often, this decision is not consciously made. Rather, it is imposed on us by the force of habit and peer pressure. To that extent, awareness of the stories guiding us in any situation, so that we can actively choose to embrace them – or otherwise reject them – may be the root of all freedom.

Conversational default settings, the format of public events and mediated interactions, are an expression of power relationships. Some people speak, others listen, in an implicit but culturally defined manner. A language is adopted, others are silenced, or interpreters serve as go-between in a pre-defined mode. Body language and rhythmic pauses define turn-taking rules, guided by a default cultural norm. Those who have not mastered the norm, or take half a second more to process thoughts in that language, lose their turn and stay in the shadow. This is the offline world. Online, ingrained patterns lose their edge. Who never said ‘Sorry, you go’ when talking over someone else on a zoom call? So, here is an opportunity for reinvention – and newfound freedom.

Embracing chaos

Default settings was a deliberate attempt at relinquishing control. In the design phase, Matt and I held each other back: ‘Yes, you could lead that section, so could I, but let’s have Maddy do it, so none of us takes over.’ When two neurotic writers actively give over control to someone else, you know something interesting is happening. In the same manner, we let go of our desire to control narrative form. Associate Writers were given complete creative freedom over the story they wrote, and the language they chose to perform in. We would not even give them pointers, other than one single word.

This deliberate looseness triggered hiccups of course, but those became part of the experience. Stories did not transition smoothly, the experience was jagged. Participants experienced the virtual world of ‘Default Settings’ as chaotic: things were messy. But that turned out to be OK. Participants did evoke a sense of FOMO – they would get into a story, then be shifted to another room, and need to let it go. They also shared how they quickly learned to deal with it, and find joy in that letting go. Various analogies emerged: ‘It’s a bit like zapping’, ‘like a great dinner party’, ‘like a train station’, ‘when people start talking to you in public, and you shift across different conversation’, ‘like chatroulette’. Ultimately, learning into the chaos was comforting: ‘I loved the impression of complete freedom that I got from it’, shared Jasmine.  

As a storyteller – and designer – I became keenly aware of that digital chaos myself. Ten minutes into the first prototype, my Zoom suddenly disconnected. I didn’t have the link ready, so fumbled back through my emails to find it, clicked, and waited to re-join the room. It took a few minutes, and completely threw me off. When I was disconnected, there would have been audience members alone in my breakout room, with no explanation. What would Maddy decide to do? Where would I pick up my story? Would everyone be shifted one room over? Should I pick the story where I left? Would we all speak for longer? I had no idea, and no way of interacting with anyone to check what was happening, as we were all focused on keeping things going, in strictly separate rooms. This was ‘show must go on’: I had no choice but to rely on others continuing without me, and that things would be fine.

It’s hard for a designer and writer – it’s hard for me – to let go of control and responsibility. Yet it’s crucial that we learn to do that! It wasn’t just the zoom incident. I had invited friends to take part. Some weren’t able to connect on time, or were just normally late, and tried contacting me through Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp or SMS after things started. I was performing, on camera, and couldn’t handle them at the same time. I chose to ignore them, and focus on the present: a deliberate exercise of mindfulness. As it turns out, they didn’t mind.

An invitation to authenticity  

Key to creative freedom is the capacity to stay in shapeless, ambiguous, uncertain modes of thought, so things have time to settle and crystallise. This is all very good, and I can do that anytime with my eyes closed. Yet for extraverts like myself, the question is rather: how do you gain the energy you need from the outside world while things settle? It’s awkward to share unformed stories – yet when I don’t share for too long, things may well die for lack of nurture. This, I realised, is what Default Settings resolved. I would have no clear idea whether my story as a whole ‘worked’, of course, since I couldn’t follow reactions. But there would be some extraverted energy here and, well, with two minute sequences, I didn’t feel too bad sharing something half-baked. 

With that came one surprisingly moving element. It was the first time since I migrated to Melbourne twelve years ago that I performed in French to my local friends, and experienced a sense of connection. Migration had demanded a shift of language. There was joy in that shift, and a stimulating design challenge. How could I recreate my French self in Australian-English? Likely, I chose to keep a touch of accent for that reason, and accentuated my body language. But also, adopting English as my new default meant, there was an aspect of me that my new friends would never get to see. Comfortable and gently shady French-speaking Julien would disappear. With Default Setting, I felt comfortable bringing him back on stage. I knew my audience could not follow what I said, but imposing that person for two minutes at a time was short enough not to be obnoxious. And so, that part of me was seen in this country for the first time.

Another reason I was comfortable speaking in my first language is that the setting freed me from the need to compete for attention. The audience would be brought to me by design and technology, in a group small enough that I could rely on their attention. It was like a dinner party, sure – but one where you wouldn’t fear losing your counterpart to more glamorous conversation partners. ‘Nice talking to you, I’m gonna get a drink now’. Guaranteed attention kept the competitive ego in check, leaving room for creativity.

New rules for audience engagement

Theatre hinges on a paradox. Here’s a real human talking to real humans in real time. Here’s an actor on the stage, radically separate from the audience. In a Zoom breakout room, what model applies? Each Associate Writer took a different approach. Some were strictly performers, told their story and then, when it came to an end, smiled silently. Others interacted, inviting feedback or asking questions. ‘Which part of my story have you heard already? Should I sum it up for you?’ Kay, I heard, even complimented Maddy’s flatmate on a painting in their room. This is the magic of Zoom. We’re not in the theatre, but inside each other’s intimate space. With this comes a radical reset of the relationship between performer and audience.

Default Settings was designed to prompt equality. For this, we programed a moment of facilitated reflection. People were gathered at random in breakout rooms, audience and performers mixed in, and invited to share their impressions on different aspects of the experience, what moved them, what irritated them, how it resembled other aspects of their lives. Prompts and small groups freed participants from the fear of ‘not knowing the rules’, and associated silence, prompting exchange and connection.

Each Associate Writer had invited their friends and contacts, from Australia and around the world. Zoom has this magical quality that it frees us from the constraints of geography. What this meant is, people from different periods of my life were part of the same event, talking to each other, meeting and exchanging. This only should happen at weddings, funerals or graduations – well, also with Default Settings! My ex in France, a facilitator friend in Cambodia, a neighbour in Melbourne, sharing appreciations of stories they just heard. And now, when I mention one in passing to the other, I get a nod of recognition: ‘oh Patrick, he was in that event you organized, wasn’t he?’

Literacy for the digital world

As our lives shift to the digital world, we must not only design new ways of engaging with each other, and with the stories that guide our lives, but we must actively learn to navigate the digital chaos. ‘It’s so easy to misunderstand someone when you pass judgement based on such a short interaction’, reflected one of the participants. This experience in fragmented storytelling would change the way they thought of the news, inviting more caution. ‘There is a lot of literacy work to be done. We haven’t been taught that stuff. And it’s important.’  

But it’s not just about our capacity to think and engage. It’s about our capacity to perceive beauty, and connect through shared aesthetics. ‘I had this sense of you when you came on the screen’, said Jasmine, ‘you were calm, and even if I couldn’t understand, there was a rhythm. Each speaker had theirs.’ Then a moment of pause, and someone else chips in: ‘It’s like, when you’re driving in the country, and you tune into different frequencies on the radio. You don’t follow the song to the end, but somehow you know what each station is about.’

We tend to put a lot of emphasis on narrative arcs, the structure of an argument, the logic of exposition. And so, we fear fleeting attention, because it threatens misunderstanding. We compete for it – and so get trapped in our ego. Maybe, the secret is to shift emphasis, away from the rational, high-level arc of our thoughts and intention, into micro-structures of expressions, subtle rhythms, intonations, breathing, all this defining a style, a way of showing up, that is instantly recognisable. Maybe, to thrive in the digital world, we must embrace the wisdom of American minimalism, lieder-cycles, or concept albums, where the fragment reflects the whole, style is substance, and art an invitation to flexible attention, lifting the fetters of self-evidence.

Three challenges of language learning

Language learners face three very distinct pedagogical challenges. Each demands very distinct pedagogical approaches. Yet most language courses tend not to distinguish them.

The first challenge is to learn the morphosyntax, vocabulary, phonetics and pragmatics of a specific language. For instance, learning French, I need to learn that the word for ‘grapefruit’ is ‘pamplemousse’, I need to master the phonetic realisation of French nasal sounds to pronounce (and recognise) the first syllable, learn about gender in nouns to use the word in a sentence (by the way, grapefruit is a boy). I also need to learn common ways to communicate intent through grammar and intonation, for instance, the word ‘pamplemousse’ used alone with a rising tone on the last syllable to mark surprise when someone is about to throw pieces of grapefuit into the bowl of punch – and stop their heresy.

The second challenge is learning to communicate in a language you do not fully master. This is a very distinct difficulty, which more generally ties on our capacity to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. Low levels of linguistic mastery bring chaos in their wake. My phonetics are off, my vocabulary patchy, people misunderstand the words I’m using, or they must focus hard, and miss on other cues. I misunderstand their words and intention, my response is off, and after three cues, we’re both knee-deep in quicksands. This is exhausting cognitively, and emotionally draining. Survival requires personal resilience and self-awareness, but also the capacity to get help from strangers, and trigger their benevolence.

Finally, there is the challenge of incorporating the new language to your identity, and enacting a persona consistent with your own in the new medium. This is more than expressing meaning adequately, or attuning emotionally with a Frenchman: it’s about being ‘you’. More specifically, it’s about being ‘you’ as a wriggling, helpless linguistic larvae, stumbling on consonants and stifling on vowels. It’s ‘you’ desperately trying to keep the ‘pamplemousse’ off the punch, yet only producing meaningless foam (in French, ‘mousse’). It’s your adult self trapped in the linguistic body of a 2 year old, or worse. It’s you defining your relationship to smelly cheese, and politeness codes expressed in pronoun choices, and adapting your body language to the next context.

Incidentally, those are the very same challenges a new staff member faces when joining an organisation. Learn the jargon, master local norms of communication, and expand their persona to the new context. And so, if we were to do language learning right, just imagine the value for culture building across the board, from community groups to start-ups and large corporates. Oh but wait, I forgot, is ‘pamplemousse’ a boy or girl?

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #16

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion.

31 december

New Year’s Eve is a celebration to welcome the New Year – the coming change. You make resolutions: ‘this is what I am going to change’. But I will take New Year’s Eve differently, as a symbol of mindful change – that is, a time to consider the past, remember Because the future is not the sheer rejection of the past, but its full understanding and accomplishment. A bright future requires a solid understanding of history.

I spent the last day of the year exploring museums – with a short stop alongside a lake. Most precisely, the Hubei provincial museum, with collections of paleontology, and bronze age artifacts. A key message was – that the land of Chu was a centre of high culture more than 2000 years ago – as was manifest from the beauty and wealth of the objects on display.

More important, for my own understanding, the museum had a visiting exhibition of Etruscan civilization – these mysterious forefathers of Italy, Rome, and later my own tradition. Including canope vases, and the earliest ex voto – hands, eyes, a finger, even intestines made of clay, given as presents to the deity – and so very similar to the practice of Neapolitan (or even Parisian) Catholicism.

Equally ancient and respectable civilisations – the kingdom of Chu, the Etruscans. In another room were displays of the early hominids, with an allusion to Cro Magnon, in France’s South West. Both stressed the continuity between Chinese and European achievements.

Looking at history on that scale – our ancestors, 2500 years ago – is not common in Australia: aboriginal people have a 40,000 year old traditional lifestyle – other Australians have imported theirs from England 2 centuries ago. But I am a man of old culture, migrated to this land that seems to miss its middle-band of history.

I reflected on lakes as well: a lake is a depression in the floor where water accumulates, not as a flowing linear stream, but a round shaped body, with no very clear movement or current. I travelled form the East lake of Wuhan to the West lake of Hangzhou. Both are seen as ultimate symbols of beauty – such as the Geneva Lake in Switzerland. Lakes are enjoyable to look at. They signify the possibility of lasting life – their accumulated water guarantees the possibility of agriculture, fish, plants, and drinking water. Where there is a lake, life is possible, ongoingly. Rivers may dry up – their source is far away – or suddenly rise. Lakes are stable and calm. Hence the joy that emanates from them.

For a long time, my main concern has been to understand what group I was a part of – because I had no clear ‘us’, but found myself in-between. And I interpreted it in the wider context of changes in my country – France becoming a part of Europe. So, I deliberately decided I would become European, and build on my French-German-Italian origin, British studies and time in Ireland, to fully embody and understand Europe. Then I could rely on pop culture and my own teenage passions to embody America – become a ‘North-Atlanticker’ – and my mother’s move to the Dominican Republic to become Latin. Slowly, I also expanded my Mediterranean self to North Africa and the Middle East – and embraced my father’s early Russian friendships to integrate the Slavic world.

Later, I moved to Australia, and did so through a journey across Asia – where I learnt about, and tried to ‘embody’ the countries of South East Asia – at the least, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore. And I systematically studied Chinese to ‘become Chinese’. Then I started, through readings, and hanging out with N. and J., to explore ‘Africa’ as an added space.

By moving to Australia, I have decided that my ‘we’, my community, would be not just Europe, but the whole world, and that I should gather waters from everywhere in me, become a vast repository of world cultures. Then I will weave together stories, voices and narratives from across multiple countries. This is what I enjoy. Connecting C.’s afro-American self in Shanghai to J.’s story of migration as a refugee from Uganda. Connecting R. and I., China and Algeria.

I will do that in multiple ways, next year – through Marco Polo Project, through novels, through stories, maybe through training I will develop. I am not sure how exactly, but this is what I want to do: create the possibility for a cross-cultural consciousness, and a cross-national sense of history.

As I post this, Wuhan is now globally known as COVID-19 ground zero. If I was to return, this would invite further reflection on cross-cultural consciousness. Could this be the gift of the virus, that by spreading so fast around the world, affecting all bodies equally, irrespective of citizenship, it reveals our common belonging and might – just might – prompt us to collaborate in time to prevent the worst environmental catastrophes? So that the lakes can remain full, abundance preserved, and the 21st century not become the moment of radical collapse for humanity. What sort of cross-cultural consciousness, what sense of history would we need, for this to be the case? This is a question my 42 year old self now likes to reflect on. 

Values cards project – power

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: When I think about power, the first thing that comes to mind is, I’ve wondered about the word empowerment. It’s not a word that exists in French. But I’m interested in this idea, this word, that the question of power has to do with, it’s not only who has it, but how it might be given to someone. The word, empowerment, it’s often used in the context of racial difference or disability. And the idea here is that some people have less power, for whatever reason, and they should be given that power somehow.

B: So, that’s interesting, because it’s more about equality. While when I think of power, I tend to think of it as being conceptually related to liberty.

A: Well, if you look at the sustainable development goals, it’s about building a society where nobody’s left behind. And if you think of it in relation to power, it’s not just about you deciding for yourself, but that everyone has access to conditions where they can make use of their power. Maybe there’s something there. That ideological void we’re facing now, left and right, particularly on the left. We’re heading out of Marxism, so what on the horizon for left-wing thinking? We need to find new concepts, and maybe that will be power, empowerment, governance.

B: So you’re saying, we need reflections on power, how it is distributed, what conditions we need so that we can exercise it?

A: Maybe. Also, power is more difficult in a world that’s full of complex systems, and all our daily lives depend on those systems. This complexity stands in the way of political initiative, because you can’t really take initiative, everything is part of a system.

B: Well, one of the big problems today, when you talk about governance, it’s the void of power – not just ideology, but power. Do you know Moses Naim? He was a Minister in Venezuela, and he wrote a book called ‘The end of power’. He writes about something he calls the Gulliver Effect. That it’s harder today to get anything done, because all sorts of little groups are able to block you. Nobody’s got enough power to get anything done, only to veto you. And so, nothing changes.

A: What that makes me think about is the structures of the EU, and other international institutions. We’ve attempted to develop this globalized economy, as a way to support peace. The idea is that once we’re interdependent, there will not be war. But then, those visions are just a big system, that’s not really working well. And so you’re torn between two visions: the machine exerting power, or then a nationalist vision that defends choice, liberty. That’s Marine Le Pen, and nationalist ideology.

B: Maybe, we need to consider the limits of democracy. It only works up to a certain level. It’s very good for local, but not when you look at the bigger issues.

A: I wonder. Are there any global issues that could be properly handled at the national levels? I think there isn’t anyone, not environment, not immigration.

B: I don’t think there is, but we wish there was. And that’s what’s behind this nationalist ideology.

A: Another direction I’d like to take is, our relationship to power has a lot of influence on the way that authority works in the family. In France, we have this vertical relationship to power, and it’s the same in the family. I see that with my kids: when there’s a bit of tension, I just use that kind of vertical authority.

B:  Well, it feels to me like, in Southern European societies, it’s more about a family network, and a more matriarchal type of power. There’s formal power, sure, but also there is informal power, norms to follow, and the women are mediating that.

A: Well, in Japan, women are not allowed to work, but the husband gives his salary to his wife at the beginning of the month, and she makes all the decisions for the house. The husband just receives some pocket money, but he makes no decision on children’s education, or how to manage the household finances.

B: It’s something I’ve always wondered. Whether there is some ‘hidden power’ given to women in those circumstances, or not. My grand-mother used to repeat ‘I am a slave, I am a slave to your grandfather’. But meanwhile, my impression was that she ruled the house. And I always wonder, whether that litany she repeated was a way to hide her real power – like you do things to avoid the evil eye – or whether that was her actual perception.

A: Well, if you look at Confucius, he says everyone must play their role. It’s not about individual freedom, and it applies to everyone, the husband and the wife, the children and the parents. It’s not like one has power and the other doesn’t. Rather, power happens someone in the form of their relationship, if they play their role properly.

B: And in the same way, without a network of norms, and without a common language, there is no power anymore. There is no way for anyone to manifest their freedom.

A: So maybe power is about convincing people that what you want, or what the collective wants, is also what they want?

B: There’s two questions we might look at here. First, we can look at who’s got power in the group? And then, does the group itself have power, and is it able to transform the world in depth, and in the long-term?

A: If we go back to the question of family then, what’s the purpose of family? In traditional family forms, women have a structuring role, like a glue, and their role is to make sure that the members to hold together. While the men bring in the resources so the family can continue to exist as an organization. At least that’s how it is in my model.

B: Well, that’s not how I see it. I have this image of the family which is not primarily nuclear, but extended, like a network. And the goal here is to maintain a comparative advantage for the members of the group. What that requires is a form of stability, and sharing resources among the members, so that they can do better than other families, or people who have no family.

A: A thing there is that power always depends on size. China, Google or the Catholic church are more powerful than Switzerland or a small hedge fund, even if they’re very well run, more effective, faster, or more profitable. They may be more profitable, but they won’t be more powerful, until they grow big.

B: What about we think of power as about continuity over time? Maybe that’s what a family is about: its goal is just its own continuity over time?

A: That would apply if you look at successful families, like Hermes. The brand was started by protestant upper bourgeoisie, and it’s still in their hands. So here’s a successful family, they succeeded financially, and as a family.

B: Could we say that in a small business, there is more freedom? And there’s a sort of continuity between nuclear family and small business. While a larger structure requires more effort to maintain itself and coordinate, understand how things work. But it’s also more solid, and more welcoming to diversity. While a small business or a nuclear family works very well if people are benevolent and intelligent, but it’s catastrophic otherwise.

A: Maybe we can look at this, that in American companies, there is great apparent freedom, but de facto autonomy is very limited, because there is so much process involved. While in a Japanese organization, there’s a lot of formalities, but much more real freedom than appears on the surface. And so what this is about is that without trust, you just can’t execute, or operate. That the purpose of rituals that are about forgiveness, they have to do with maintaining trust. And without that trust, there is no way for power to work.

B: That’s exactly what I say about Italian style apologies. You apologize not because you feel guilty, but to show that you respect the established order, and that you broke it. You assert that you want to continue existing in the same world. And that’s another condition for power – that people belong to the same world.

Mapping Europe over Asia

There is an idea that cultural resemblance operates by proximity. That, therefore, there may very well be differences between the French and the Germans or Italians, but those pale in comparison to differences between ‘Europeans’ and ‘Asians’.

Now I remember a guy once telling me that he’d been on a trip to Vietnam, and was amazed at how close the two cultures were. This is how he made his assessment: he went to see a French comedy, and people were laughing at all the right places. This would make sense: when the French established colonies in South East Asia, they chose the Vietnamese to rule over others – hence ongoing problems in Cambodia today.

We might make other comparisons. England and Japan: an obsession with rules, people moving away so they won’t come too close to you, high levels of personal repression, except on booze-fuelled evenings to release the tension. Punk teenagers and suited businessmen. Or Northern China may be like southern Italy: Harbin is the closest thing to Naples I’ve seen. People shouting out from their balcony to the street, addressing you spontaneously as you pass. A massive yearning after social contact.

So, rather than Europeans vs Asians, there may be just patterns of internal differences that we can trace on both continents, in an effort to better understand each culture’s own centre of gravity.

Three types of intelligence

I will distinguish three types of intelligence:

  • Operational intelligence asks: how can I find the best way to perform a certain action?
  • Managerial intelligence askes: how can I achieve my goals in a complex environment and change strategies as the situation evolves?
  • Cultural intelligence asles: what are the most relevant categories to apply in order to understand my environment, and influence the rules of the game being played?

The latter also corresponds to what others describe as ‘mental models’.

Culture and barbarians

We think of knowledge as an abstract entity. Yet it plays a direct influence on our behaviour and relationships. Here is a little story about that.

On New Year’s Eve, my partner and I hosted a big ‘open-door’ party: friends of friends were welcome, whoever came was the right guest. Towards the end of the evening, at about 1h30am, a dear French friend came with his wife. He was quite drunk, tottered around the house, but kept his composure as he drunk glass after glass of rosé. Then, he lifted his head and noticed our alcohol collection on the tall shelf above the kitchen cupboards. ‘What do you have up there?’ he said. Gin, whisky, Rum, and white fruit eau-de-vie from Alsace – strong fruit schnaps from my home region, imported directly from a previous trip.

‘Would you share a glass with me,’ said the friend. I nodded – grabbed a chair, and took down a small bottle of raspberry schnaps, then poured us two little glasses. He sniffed, closed his eyes, and started analysing the nose – rich, floral – then took a sip, and reflected more. He was appreciating, smiled, spoke. We bonded over the sensual experience. People were gathering, asking about our drink. He shared his glass, offered a sniff or taste – ‘it’s strong’ – and recoiled.

But one of our guests had a different attitude. Australian, female, thirties, wild. ‘What are you drinking,’ she asked. He turned, handed the glass: ‘try it, guess what it is,’ hopeful. She grabbed the delicate little glass, and swiftly drunk the whole content, pushing her head back, and said ‘Tequila’, with a lilt, then handed back the glass, and headed over to the table. My friend and I smiled. One of us muttered the word ‘barbarian’ . Then I shared my glass with him, and we continued on our sensual exploration of Framboise d’Alsace.