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BEAN Seattle Blog

Reflection on the 4Ws (Work, Wealth, Web and World) from Seattle to Sapa
I recently took a vacation to sunny Northern Vietnam to escape from the upcoming snowpocalypse that was due in Seattle. Vietnam is a beautiful country that is in the middle of rapid economic development and industrialization that has become the standard story for globalization.

The streets of Hanoi are clogged with all manners of traffic, from pedestrians to horse-drawn carts to bicycles to motorcycles to cars to trucks to buses, all frantically trying to get to their market-driven destination. We took a train to Sapa, the mountain region in the northwest of Hanoi, and looking out the window, the city of Hanoi is enshrouded in permanent smog that dims the sun and the skyeline. Sapa itself is home to many ethnic minorities whose lives have transformed from iron age agriculture 15 years ago to iPhone, pizza and tourism-driven multilingual fluency.

As I soak in the sun, the people, the food and the landscape during the one brief week in this jewel of Southeast Asia, here are some thoughts about the four Ws that's the fabric of 21st century modernity in my opinion: Work, Wealth, Web and World.

1. Work

Nothing defines our current understanding of global modernity than the role of work and how it shapes our individual identity. When you mean somebody new, how quickly do you get to the question "So, what do you do for a living?" It's such a common and appropriate question in industrialized society. It safely encapsulates a person's individuality and social relations and only expose his/her role in terms of economic activity.

While I was in Vietnam, I met dozens of people along the way. Never once did anyone ask me what I do for a living. They ask about whether I am married or how old are my parents or how many siblings I have. But when I was in Taiwan, the what-do-you-do-for-a-living question comes up more often and faster. It was interesting to observe the correlation between the degree of globalization and the importance of work as a primary form of identity.

2. Wealth

Do you know what GDP per capita is? It's a dollar figure of how much a nation's annual economic output is divided by the number of people in that nation. The assumption is that the higher the GDP per capita, the wealthier a country is. The U.S. is at $47,132 and Vietnam is at $1,155. By this measurement, Americans are definitely living the good life, and the Vietnamese should work to catch up.

But if the goal of rising GDP per capita is a way to grow prosperity and, in turn, maximize the well-being of people, then thing get a bit more murky. According to the book "The Deep Economy", correlation between increase in income and increase in feeling of well being is positive, ie the more money you make, the happier you are. But at about $10,000 a year, the correlation suddenly disappears. It means that making more money no longer guarantees more happiness. It would be fascinating to observe whether such prediction will be true as Vietnam approaches the $10,000 a year threshold.

3. Web

One of things that impressed me the most about Vietnam is the proliferation of Wifi hotspots and cellphones. When I was visiting a mud house in the H'mong village in Sapa, a woman walked into the dimly lit and smokey dwelling, sat down on the ground next to the open wood fire and ducks and started talking on her cellphone, presumably using the new 3G network I saw being advertised on the drive up the mountain.

The availability of the hardware to tap into the global web is everywhere, but the social restriction persists. Vietnam is one of the growing list of nations that filters access to certain websites. But before we criticize Vietnam's censorship, we must have a broader discussion on the rights and responsibilities we have on access to information. With the recent controversy around leaked documents on Wikileak.org and the fact that most corporations monitors and filters web access of their employees, the debate about the role of the Web will continue to shape us as a global civilization for a long time to come.

4. World

How many countries can you name? How many languages can you speak and want to learn to speak? How many cuisines have you tasted? When I really try to mentally grasp implication of 6 billion+ people, living on 148 million square kilometer of land, divided into 266 countries, speaking 5,000+ languages, generating US$70 trillion in economic activities every year and living, loving, hating, creating and killing, I am overwhelmed.

The awareness of a bigger world, in my humble opinion, is more of a sign of globalization than industrial work ethic, capitalism and Internet. I was constantly amazed at how even at seemingly remote corner of the world, like the market in a remote mountain village in Vietnam, people are generally aware of events that's happening at the other end of the world, like US Federal Reserve's Quantitative Easing v2 (btw, if you did not know about this, shame on you. A grandpa selling green mangos in a mountain village in Vietnam did.)

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