Heading down north
The Economist has a thought-provoking article on the way that countries change as you go from the north to the south. While much of what they say will not be surprising to readers, one anomaly does stand out—the way these patterns (or stereotypes?) flip at each international border:
The really startling detail is how often these stereotypes reset at national borders. Start in the southern Netherlands. According to common prejudice, the Dutch see their Flemish-Belgian neighbours as living an agreeably soft life, filled with fine food and drink (though almost any cuisine looks tasty from the Netherlands, where a business lunch may consist of cheese sandwiches and a glass of buttermilk). Cross the border into Belgian Flanders though, and national stereotypes place you in Germanic northern Europe. Keep driving into French-speaking Wallonia and Belgians reckon you have hit the south. But head across the international border into France, and—by common consent—you are back in a region that is unmistakably northern. Fans of France’s far north praise the locals as generous, earthy and plain-spoken. But the landscape is often bleak, with run-down industrial towns and seemingly deserted villages of grey houses with closed shutters. Head farther into France, past central regions called snooty though prosperous, and the lavender fields and hillside olive groves of the south are reached. Popular French prejudice credits southerners with knowing how to enjoy life in a hot, sunny land, but also accuses them of idleness and dishonesty. . . .
Cross into northern Spain, and the clichés reverse. The north is cold and severe. Galicians are melancholic and Catalans proud and a bit miserly. The great bourgeois cities of the north, like Barcelona, look down on a backward south deemed too fond of fairs and fiestas to get anything done. To many Spaniards, these stereotypes are common sense: a reflection of real-world physical differences. But there is a hitch. Look at a map, and it becomes clear that one person’s north is another’s south. Take supposedly cold, northerly Barcelona. It lies some way south of the sun-baked, southern French city of Marseille, and enjoys almost the same climate.
A similar reset may be experienced in Italy. By common consent, northern Italy is business-minded and a bit unfriendly; the south is Mafia-infested, inefficient and poor.
I’m not sure what to make of this. One hypothesis is that cultural change is gradual and continuous, and that those in northern Spain and Italy are not really like the dour and business-like northern Europeans, they only seem that way relative to their compatriots in the south. Another hypothesis is that people sort within each country, and that those who feel more comfortable with the culture of Milan or Barcelona migrate up there from the south.
Later in the piece, a Vietnamese scholar is asked about Vietnam:
By reputation, he says, northerners are more interested in politics and jobs in government, but southerners are drawn to commerce. Northern winters are very cold, he goes on. And because that is hard on farmers, life as an official is an appealing alternative. In the hot, tropical south, there is only a dry season and a rainy season. “They have an abundance of fruit and fish and rice, especially in the Mekong delta. So people don’t have to work as hard. So they are maybe a bit lazy,” says Mr Le.
That is fascinating, I tell Mr Le from my office in Beijing, but also puzzling. For almost identical stereotypes—involving harsh winters that drive northerners into government, while southerners enjoy a life of ease—are applied to different bits of China. And here is another thing: on a map, China’s hot, southern, commercially minded regions lie above your frigid north. Mr Le pauses. “What is winter for Vietnamese people is maybe summer for other people,” he laughs.
Any other ideas?
PS. Regarding North Vietnam’s “very cold” winters, I’d suggest that Mr. Le spend a January in Wisconsin, where I grew up.