Sunday, November 11, 2007

American self-esteem in a flat world

I recall sitting with an American friend at a top-notch restaurant in Bombay (now called Mumbai) in the early 1990s. At a table close to us were some Indian female models. My American male friend boasted that he could pick up one of them anytime. “ They will certainly join me if they know I am an American,” he added very casually.

In Taipei, a couple of years later, a Taiwanese girl was chatting animatedly with an Indian. We were all part of a large multinational group. An American, whose amorous interest in the Taiwanese girl was well known, was overheard from the other end of the table, “What does she see in that guy ? He is only a bloody Indian”.

First world self-perceptions of invincibility are taking hard knocks in Asia and around the world. All the top US companies, including IBM and Intel, had Americans or Europeans in top positions in Asia, and many of them enjoyed a position and lifestyle akin to colonial viceroys of yore.

Today not only are most of the top positions occupied by Asians, but Asians are occupying top positions in the US as well. Now Cisco plans to have 20 percent of its top management in India, most of whom will be hired locally.

Why was the American knocked off from the pedestal. I think it was the boom in the Asian economies, and dollops of national pride in these countries. The resurgence in national pride started in the early 1990s in countries like Malaysia, which admired the American model, but did not see the need to be pliant to Americans.

As local markets grew, it became quite clear to multinational companies that they had to adapt and get more inclusive, appoint local bosses. After a number of abortive joint ventures with American and European companies, Asian companies also saw the virtues of going it alone. In a radical shift in attitudes, that reflected the economic success of Asia, companies in China, India, and rest of Asia started to be wooed by Americans and Europeans for business.

Offshore outsourcing also tore into the American veil of invincibility. The American’s job could be done as well, if not better and more cheaply in Asia. There were brainy guys there too, as was evident from the large number of Indian and Chinese engineers who made it big globally.

Attitudes towards the American and America has also changed to a large measure in Asia. The greenback lost its sheen to local currencies, some of which were only getting stronger. If earlier, educated people from Asia made a beeline to the US for jobs, now there is a queue back as the local economy is generating jobs that are lucrative in the local context. To be sure there are those for whom living in America is still the ultimate dream, but these are getting fewer by the day.

No comments: