Small bridges for dialogue and cooperation

Joshua Simon Selig
These days, I find myself thinking a lot about the lack of bridges, both real and metaphorical, between the US and China.
Joshua Simon Selig

I love small bridges. Always have. In my hometown of New York City, my favorite bridge is the Bow Bridge in Central Park. It’s made of lovely curved cast iron and bended wood. Its only purpose is to span a small lake filled with green snapping turtles.

In Shanghai, my favorite bridge is the Waibaidu Bridge. I like to jog across this bridge at night when it’s all lit up with crimson lights and watch the shy, young couples posing for their pre-wedding pictures as they cross over into their futures.

These days, I find myself thinking a lot about the lack of bridges, both real and metaphorical, between the US and China. Given the great distance between the two nations, there are, of course, no physical bridges one can cross, but, unfortunately, we also lack other bridges that help countries get along, such as a common language or a shared time zone. When the US is sleeping, China is working, and even when we do manage to have a call or a Zoom, our conversations are sometimes limited by some missed nuance or lack of shared experiences.

It’s these missing bridges, this absence of simple human touch points, that have given rise recently to so many misunderstandings and, sadly, have even allowed a certain measure of fear and cultural bias to take hold. Without the bridges of dialogue and cooperation that have always helped our two nations to clear misconceptions, any small incident can devolve into sharp and hurtful words. This becomes a sad cycle.

Over the past 30 years, I’ve dedicated my life to creating and producing educational TV shows for young children. Many of these projects have involved cooperation between two countries, some of which have had long and difficult histories. Years ago, I was the resident producer for the first “Sesame Street” co-production between the Israelis and Palestinians. Despite their disagreements — many of which dated back thousands of years — these two brave teams ultimately came together and made a beautiful TV series about mutual respect. What motivated them? Both sides agreed that they did it “for their children.”

Overcoming cultural barriers

More recently, while working for Little Airplane Productions, I helped to create and co-produce two new series with China: “Super Wings” with Alpha and “P. King Duckling” with UYoung. On both projects, our hope was to create an original animated series that would appeal to kids in China, the US and all over the world. I’m happy to say that both shows achieved a good measure of global success. “Super Wings” was the first Chinese series to be nominated for an International Emmy Award, and “P. King Duckling” was the first Chinese series to premiere on Disney Junior in the US. But these successes did not come without challenges of all kinds.

Each day during production, our teams in the US and China had to overcome cultural barriers, creative differences and workflow obstacles. There were sleepy video conferences that went late into the night and, when necessary, there were quickly scheduled flights to meet face to face. Both sides quickly learned that to achieve our goals we needed to build small bridges between our two teams: bridges of listening, bridges of understanding, bridges of compromise. We had to get to know one another in meaningful ways. We took long walks. We met each other’s families. We laughed. Only by becoming friends could we build the kind of real, lasting trust that would sustain us all through the long, difficult years of animation production.

I believe that a similar approach is now required to help our two countries overcome the larger challenges we face at this critical time. We need to build more small bridges. And not just one or two. We need hundreds. Thousands. These bridges can take many forms: sending a brief WeChat message; going out for coffee; discussing a new business idea; or giving a small gift. Everything begins with a simple human gesture, a bit of kindness, humility and friendship.

I am not a naïve person. I’m the son of a Jewish refugee who fled Europe during World War II. I know what can happen when nations stop talking to each other. But I believe that humans are inherently good, and that finding common ground is always possible. We can choose to live with mistrust, focus on old grievances and become bitter. Or we can look ahead toward a shared future and even help bring it into being. Personally, I view the relationship between China and the US as one filled with great opportunity for both sides. For 50 years we have all benefited from an open flow of communication, trade, technology and students. Yet there is still so much more we can do together. Working in concert, I am quite certain our two great countries can build a safer, healthier, more equitable and more prosperous world.

The sooner we begin this important work of building small bridges between our nations, the sooner we can stop the dark forces of fear and cultural misunderstandings from spreading any further. We must never imagine that one side can dominate the other. There is nothing but risk and danger down that road. Rather, we must remember that as the world’s two largest economies, we have a responsibility to lead together as friends. Someone once told me, “Partnership is difficult, but it is more honorable than dominance.” Yes, that’s true. And, as every child knows, a good bridge requires land on either side.

The author is founder and president of China Bridge Content, a company committed to building creative and business ties between China and the world in the media sector. The views are his own.

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