I had the idea to do this interview the day I stumbled upon this article: Ten outstanding TED talks on China.
Marco, who lives in China since 2009, founded the Hangzhou TED’s group two years ago. Here what you will find out in this interview
Read the interview to know what Italian people think about TED, which are the challenges of organizing a TED meeting in China, how “face” culture influence this kind of events and, most important, how to get a free coffee at Starbucks!
A quick disclaimer: I interviewed Marco in Italian and then translate the answers by myself. Thus you should blame me for the any possible (and probable) English mistakes; )
Marco, how did you arrive in China?
A little bit for love (yes, the real love…) and a bit for love of adventure. I asked to my firm if it was possible to move to China and it has been incredibly easy, almost as the destiny was pushing me to this part of the world.
Marco during a performance of his band, the Red Rainbow.
When I talk about TED in Italy people ask to me whether I’m talking about a new ham brand or the new movie of Benigni. What’s TED?
If it was a ham brand I’m sure it would be a huge success among the Italian emigrants in China. I would say TED is something more than a ham. But I find difficult to define it.
Usually what I do is to provide the link and let people discover it by themselves. If they are TED-affine they will get hooked. Anyway, I do believe that the eighty percent of people that has an internet connection watched a TED video at least a time on their live, even if maybe they didn’t know it.
We can summarize with the characteristic TED motto, Ideas worth spreading!
How you had the idea to organize a TED group in Hangzhou? You did everything alone or someone helped you?
It was an English friend of mine that had the idea. I’ve contributed to make it a reality a bit more stable. But I must say that a group like that, which is based on the contribution to the discussion of the participants, requires a lot of motivation for being kept alive.
This is the main reason for which we are trying to involve more people in the organization, mostly some local Chinese, so that we can guarantee a future to the group.
West Lake, Hangzhou.
TED is a product of the Western culture. Who participate to the meetings? Only expats or also Chinese people?
I would say that only a small part of the expats are interested on TED meetings, more specifically the ones that are looking for an alternative to the bars or the Chinese clubs where people play perudo overwhelmed by the music.
However there is an increasing amount of local people that joins the meetings, usually young people that have a good control of English language. Some of them are attracted by the opportunity of talking with the white devils, other have a real passion for researching new ideas and life inspiration. Of course there are also the ones that are looking for the English corner, but we are trying to find a solution for these inconveniences.
What are the differences between carrying out a TED meeting in a Western country and in China?
I never organized a discussion group in the past, however there are a lot of peculiar factors concerned with the “Chinese” participation to this kind of events.
Granted that the people that stay in the group and participate in a consistent fashion already belong to a group of “enlightened” Chinese, we still must face the problem of the typical Asian attitude to do not expose themselves too much.
In China expressing an opinion is still something a bit controversial, especially when you are dealing with topics not so explicit. Conversely Chinese people are usually very keen on reaffirming evident facts, for instance remembering to overweight people “how fat they are.”
Another important challenge is to convince people that a “community” like this one needs active participation. The problem is that the average Chinese person is always thinking what’s there for him, that is what he earns in exchange for moving his ass and coming to the meeting.
The idea of sharing something without getting nothing in exchange, learn from others and exchange opinions is still a bit far from the local culture. However I believe it is ready to explode. And we hope to contribute!
Make people sing! A performance of the Red Rainbow at the West Lake, Hangzhou.
Which are the biggest challenges of organizing a weekly event in China, beside the fact you must find a bar adapt for a discussion in a country where the karaoke rules?
Yeah, finding the right place is the most difficult part. We need a quiet place, enough seats, and sometimes audio or video support.
The main issue is to discuss with the owners of the locals. They are often oriented to the profit NOW and impose a minimum consummation amount instead of seeing the advantage (I would say evident) of a group of people that fill the local in a week day.
Another problem is to keep alive a discussion that is open to everybody’s opinion: this may be difficult when there are so many people with a quite poor English or few ideas to share.
We are considering several ideas to select the people. I mean, we will not refuse anybody, we will just insert some small “obstacles” so that we can discourage the “curious” people. For instance, we will soon introduce a monthly meeting exclusively in Mandarin (after all we are in China!).
There is always a small crowd that gathers to listen.
My European friends often ask me how can I handle the Chinese censure. Can you please help me to demystify this fact?
I can claim there is no censure in China (at least not as we intend it) but only one, big concept that leads society in all its aspects: mianzi, the “face.”
Inspired by Confucianism and maintained by the Communism as a big meeting point between past and present, the will to preserve the appearance without bother too much about the essence of the things is one of the fulcrums of the Chinese culture.
Obviously maintaining the exterior aspect is not a problem that only concerns Chinese people. However the way they do it in China is quite extreme. Especially when it comes down to the government, which aims at eradicating anything that may damage the image of the country, even indirectly. This is why anything that represents even a small risk is censured.
In another hand, everything that is not seen as a danger for the shiny cover of the “perfect country” can be done with much more liberty than you can think.
The result is that, if you are enough clever to stay away from the censure, you can enjoy more freedom in China than in Europe or America. It is not a casualty that one of the most common quotes you hear in the Middle Kingdom is:
“In China everything is impossible, and everything is possible.“
The life is not led by solid principles, everything can be discussed. Even the Chinese language lets room for interpretations that allow the interlocutors to save face, without having to define any details or agreements.
They like this way!
And someone wants even participate!
Favorite TED video?
There are tens of them but, as music is one of my strongest passion, I will say the video of Benjaimin Zander, On music and passion.” It’s the story of a man that found in the music the way to transmit his love for the life and for the others.
Any advices for the readers that are planning to move to China?
Be patient. No seriously, be really patient. And do not be too attached to the outcomes. Many people arrive to China to obtain something in a short amount of time, and most of them fail. In China you have the possibility to realize a lot of amazing projects (sometimes more than in your own country), but you have to stick to rules that often do not make any sense to us.
Marco and Trevor singing for a free coffee at Starbucks.
Is it true that you and Trevor, the manager of the local football team, like to visit the local Starbucks asking for a free coffee in exchange for a song?
It’s very true, and this is a great example of what I was talking about. Here you can obtain everything you want, even a free coffee.
In order to play with it we often organize some public activities, as singing at the border of the super touristic West Lake to create a stronger link with the local culture. We even wrote some songs in Mandarin: if you want to succeed you have to play with their rules. And Chinese people love music and dedicate their free time to scream on the mic of the local KTV (karaoke).
And yes, finally we started to visit the Starbucks and ask for a free coffee, exploiting the concept of mianzi to our favor: under the pressure of all the customers, the waitress has to “surrender” and offer us a coffee or she would lose her face!
At Starbucks: this time the song didn’t work out too well.
Thank you for your time Marco, I will offer you a coffee next time we meet, even if it seems you don’t need it ; )
p.s. If are living or traveling in Hangzhou and want to participate to a TED meeting, you can contact Marco here.