The Confidence of Nations

In 1993 the New York Times ranked as one of the world’s top 10 restaurants the Far East Asian eatery Din Tai Fung (鼎泰丰): This restaurant specializes in xialongbao (small steamed dumplings).

Overnight, culture snobs everywhere no longer had to hide their inner ethnic hawker stall-foodie.

When I was growing up on a small Far East Asian island—when I say small, I mean 46 miles around—the height of sophistication was to eschew hawker foods like small steamed dumplings. Instead, if you were one of the cool kids, you boasted of having been at least once to an air-conditioned café, to sit there and have lunch comprising a ham sandwich and a salad, with tomatoes in it (although this last cost extra).

These days, of course, you can’t stay in any top international hotel in most countries in the Far East without waking up to a breakfast (or lunch or dinner) of koay teow thng, laksa, nasi lemak, sar hor fun, rojak, char koay teow, murtabak, oh chien, …, and, last but not least, small steamed dumplings. Everyone is now Deckard gesturing for two portions, only sitting in fancy surroundings.

What’s going on here? When did emerging economies acquire the self-confidence that allowed their native foods—for centuries sold only in back alleys and street-side hawker stalls, and served on banana leaf and old newspaper—to assume the mantle of cosmopolitan sophistication? Is it just higher incomes per capita? Is it the lifting of hundreds of millions of their populations out of absolute poverty? Or did the self-confidence come first and it is that that drove the people living in these economies to engage with the rest of humanity through trade and exchange, to clear out corrupt and ineffectual governments, to go to schools and be educated, to organize markets and to engineer efficient production?

I like it that my students at the LSE (including the 70% non-UK ones of LSE’s 8300, from over 150 countries worldwide) have that kind of self-confidence. This year (together with the very personable and prolific Conor Gearty, Professor of Human Rights Law at the LSE) I got to give a welcome lecture to their parents the week before classes began. I talked to them about “Globalization and The Student,” [PDF transcript, podcast coming soon]; I enjoyed tremendously the entire event, the questions the parents asked, and the conversations I got to have with them afterwards at the drinks reception. From everything I’ve seen at the LSE in my time here, their kids—our charges for the next few years—will be as interesting and interested, as delightful and entertaining as those kind people I got to meet Thursday evening.

  1. Din Tai Fung in Singapore is pretty rubbish by the way! 🙂

  2. By the way…are you from Penang??

  3. Yes, Penang. Originally.

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