this is what i do…

So, posting a copy of a speech I gave at the 9th annual Dragon & Eagle Dialogues, which were held at Yucai #4 Elementary School. The Dialogues encourage conversation about important topics and teach students respectful protocols for holding those conversations.

We are Already Interconnected: Some Thoughts on Cultivating an Inclusive Imagination and Practice

     Keynote speech for the Dragon & Eagle Dialogues, April 13, 2019

Good morning, it’s an honor and a pleasure to join y’all at the opening ceremony of the Dragon & Eagle Dialogues. I’d like to thank the organizers for inviting me to participate and give a special shout out to Mr. Strzempka whose attention to detail kept me on track.

In early March, Mr. Strzempka we chatted me an invitation to give a talk on building inclusive cities and by mid-March the event had slipped my mind. It seems that I read his message, answered, and then moved on to the next We Chat conversation without having processed what we had discussed. However, our paths crossed in Baishizhou and Mr. Strzempka greeted me and thanked me for participating in the opening ceremony. I blanked and was like, “speech, what speech?”


Mr. Strzempka reminded me about our earlier conversation and asked me to hand in a copy of the speech by Friday the following week. He even followed up with a We Chat reminder. And here we are.

On the face of it, meeting up with Mr. Strzempka took all of three minutes. However, at its core that encounter exemplifies what I’d like to talk about today. We make inclusive communities by building trust, and we build trust through mindful attention to every interaction we have.

When I agreed to join the opening ceremony, for example, I had been going through the motions of answering a message, rather than being mindful of what it would mean to give the keynote speech at the Dragon & Eagle Dialogues. These Dialogues are important to all of you here. Teachers have worked hard to bring you together and class schedules have been re-arranged. Students have come together to learn from each other and to figure out how to solve common problems. Everyone has already given the gift of time to prepare for the event, and now y’all are ready to shine. This is a wonderful thing.

However, when I agreed to give this speech, none of that—none of y’all—came to mind because that night my priority was ridding my We Chat feed of red bubbles. I wanted to stamp “finished” on my day and relax with a detective novel. This is important. In retrospect, it’s clear that I wasn’t interested in responding to anyone in my We Chat feed, I just didn’t want it to seem like I was ignoring people. And where did that get me? I ended up standing in a Baishizhou alley, looking around for an answer to the question, “speech, what speech?”

I know, you’re thinking, “It was one We Chat text and a random three-minute conversation.” We’re not talking discrimination and bombs, we’re talking tired middle-age woman at the end of a long day. Little understanding for the soon-to-be elderly, am I right? However, when I asked “speech, what speech?” I was also asking, “promise, what promise?” and “students, what students?” In other words, my inattention to what was behind the question was also inattention to all of you. Not an attitude that’s likely to develop trust and contribute to building an inclusive community here in Shekou, let alone in Shenzhen.

Now, usually when we speak of building inclusive communities our minds turn to the great problems of the day. We think about refugees and how we can do better than sending children and families to internment camps. We think about economic segregation and how we can make access to urban resources more equitable. We think about knee-jerk prejudices and how we can make society more tolerant to cultural differences. We think about our own traditions and how we can open them to the contributions of women and immigrants.

In other words, when we think of building inclusive communities, we are inclined to think of the problem in terms of “us” and “them.” We think about my country and those refugees. We think of my community and those dangerous or low-class neighborhoods. We think that my culture is the best and those other cultures aren’t as civilized. We believe that our traditions have correctly evaluated and organized different human beings into their proper role. And then, when we get to this point in our thinking, we are already exhausted because the problems seem too big and too many and too difficult to solve over a bowl of vegetarian noodles and a cup of tea.

Indeed, scale is one of the challenges we face in building inclusive communities. We will never know the majority of people with whom we share the city. It doesn’t matter how active we are, how many clubs we join, or how many parties we attend. Shenzhen has a population of around 20 million people, and even if we live to be 100 years old and meet one person everyday, we would still only have met about 36,500 people.

Now, thinking about 36,500 red bubbles in my We Chat feed gives me a headache. Just to give you a sense of how few people 36,000 people is with respect to the planet, keep in mind that Nanshan District has a population of about 1.4 million people. Shekou has a population of about 120,000 people. This means that even if you met one new person everyday for one hundred years, you couldn’t meet everyone in Shekou, let alone Nanshan District or Shenzhen City. You get where I’m going with this. The population of China is 1.4 billion and the world’s population is 7.6 billion. We will never know everyone in the world.

However, thinking about 36,500 red bubbles is also a wake up call. The fact that we will never know everyone in the city does not mean our lives are not connected. Before today, for example, I didn’t know any of you, nevertheless, I am connected to y’all through my relationship with Mr. Strzempka. In other words, I don’t have to know you in order to influence your lives.

So a thought experiment about why it is important to be mindful of every interaction, even when you are alone. For breakfast, I had an egg, some cheese, butter, 馒头, and honey. I drank 金骏眉 tea. The eggs and butter came to me via my 河马 app. A young man on a motorbike delivered my groceries to my door. He loaded those groceries onto his motorbike at the 河马 warehouse, where workers organized the orders into bags. Other workers sorted those groceries, which had been unloaded from trucks that young men had hauled from other parts of China. This means that my morning egg connects me to farmers in northern Guangdong and Yunnan.

What about the butter you ask? Good question. New Zealand dairy farmers raised the cows and processed the milk that became butter. Other workers packaged the butter, and still others loaded it into containers. Dock workers made sure the container was secured on an ocean ship and then seamen got the ship safely from New Zealand to Shenzhen, where dock workers unloaded the container, transferred the butter to delivery flats, and then brought the butter to the 河马 warehouse.

Not done yet.

The honey was sent to me by a friend from eastern Guangdong, where she lives. So, I’m also indebted to beekeepers I will never know. The cheese was a gift from a friend visiting from Switzerland, who carried it from a store in Zurich, packed it in her suitcase to bring on an airplane, and then carried it to me in her backpack. And yes. This means that I not only need to thank New Zealand dairy farmers, I also need to thank Swiss dairy farmers.

In fact, the only part of my breakfast that was “local” was the 馒头, which I purchase from a small shop downstairs from my apartment. The 馒头 shopkeepers are from Hunan, and their daughter lives with her grandparents back home because her parents are working for her tuition in Shenzhen.

That’s how many people I am connected to through my breakfast. I didn’t mention the chickens, or workers who made the motorbike, the shipping container and the boat. I didn’t mention the oil field workers who produced the petrol that keep the system running or the workers at the electric company that keeps my refrigerator running… But, they have made my life better and, by paying attention I can start to image how large and inclusive my community actually needs to be for this quality of life.

Take a moment to settle into your seat and close your eyes. Think about what you had for breakfast. Do you have that picture in your head? Good. Now select one item—milk, cereal, 豆浆, 油条, , an egg, pickles—and think about all the people it took to bring that item to your plate. Did you make your breakfast or did someone else? How did the item come to your house? Who brought it to your house? Where did it come from? As your imagination tracks this path, you are also taking note of how inclusive your community needs to be. Open your eyes and look around you, together how many people do you think we imagined?

This kind of imagination gets us closer to building an inclusive community with 7.6 billion other humans not because we will meet and help everyone, but because we have acknowledged that we are already connected. This acknowledgment helps us realize the imperative of mindful and trustworthy interactions with every person.

If we go back to our list of big problems, we begin to see ways of realizing in everyday life the inclusivity on which we all tacitly depend. If we put aside “us” and “them” and start paying attention to the people next to us, those actions will have ripple effects. When we put aside “my country / those refugees” and instead focus on an individual child, a college graduate, or an old man, we see that yes, there are ways to help those three people. When we put aside “high class / low class,” we remember that a young student from an urban village is also curious about science and would enjoy coming to the museum. We begin to wonder: how do we make that happen? When we put aside “civilized / uncivilized” labels, we realize that the exchange student from India can teach us all sorts of interesting things. We get excited: can we bring some Bollywood dance moves to our theater club? And when we put aside “natural / unnatural” traditions, we understand that the fact that the best math student is a cause for celebration. We ask, how much talent have we been overlooking in order to maintain the status quo?

Clearly, the inclusive imagination brings up exciting possibilities for inclusive practices. And here’s the thing, the more you practice inclusivity the richer your imagination will become, and the more you imagine and track our interconnections, the more mindful you will become. So today, I’d like to leave y’all with the idea that we need to cultivate an inclusive imagination, even as we pay attention to every interaction and then community will be taking care of itself.

Thank you for your attention.


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