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Connecting North Carolina to the other side of the world

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, October 17, 2005

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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - “What do people in your country think of Malaysia?”

I got tired of admitting and explaining away our ignorance about their country.

I have been asked this question a hundred times in Malaysia by people who are anxious for Americans to know that this small country (about 23 million people) has pulled itself up by the bootstraps to become the U.S.’s 10th largest world trading partner. They are proud that they have transformed themselves from a poor country exporting only raw materials like tin and palm oil into a maturing industrial economy with a growing focus on high tech productions—willing to do business in any country in the world, and increasingly successful at it.

They want North Carolinians to know.

I had to tell them that most of us don’t know much, if anything, about Malaysia.

Maybe some of us know that the main part of the country lies between Singapore on the south and Thailand on the north. Others remember the twin tall buildings in Kuala Lumpur that were, until recently, the tallest buildings in the world. We don’t know much.

I got tired of admitting and explaining away our ignorance about their country and went on the offensive.

“What do you know about North Carolina?” I am asking them.

What do you think would be the answer?

Mostly, they know about as much North Carolina as we know about Malaysia. Not much, if anything.

So how can I explain to them what is special about North Carolina?

I talk about our beautiful mountains and beaches, our worldwide banking centers, our great colleges and universities, our great history, and our hard-working cheerful people. They listen politely, but there is no “click.” I have not given them anything special to bond them to North Carolina, something they will remember about us. I am looking for some word, or idea, or person that is already familiar to the Malaysians. Then I am trying to make the connection to North Carolina—so they will remember us.

Let me tell you some of the things I have tried in my effort to build a lasting “mental bridge” to North Carolina for people who live half way around the world.

First of all, the connection that clicks almost every time is the Wright Brothers’ “first flight.” Almost everybody knows about this event. “Of course,” one of my new Malaysian friends said, “it was in Kitty Hawk.”

But my new friend did not know that Kitty Hawk was in North Carolina. Nor have other Malaysians known that the Wright’s first successful flight was here. But since they know about the event, I can use it to build their “mental bridge” to North Carolina.

Another connective link that worked almost every time was Michael Jordan. They knew the basketball player, but did not know his North Carolina connection.

Same thing with Andy Griffith.

Here are some other things I tried.

Research Triangle Park. Surprisingly, almost no one remembered the name of our pioneering researched based economic engine, even though the Malaysians are pouring money into research zones and hi-tech manufacturing parks, obviously inspired by RTP’s success.

Pinehurst. Most golfers knew about the Pinehurst, but not that it was in our state. “Maybe,” one of them told me, “you should persuade them to say Pinehurst COMMA North Carolina.”

Winston-Salem and tobacco. I had to point to packs of Salem and Winston brands of cigarettes before they understood the connection.

Charlotte and Bank of America and Wachovia. Surprisingly, these names did not seem to register. “Those banks do not do much business over here,” I heard several times.

One connective link that registered very often was the Soong family name. The “Soong Sisters” are well known in Asia because of a popular movie about them. One of these sisters married Sun Yat-sen. Another, Chiang Kai-shek. The North Carolina connection comes from their father, who was nurtured and educated in our state—perhaps our first Asian exchange student.

Now, it’s your turn. What links have you used to help people in other countries remember our state? Let me know so I can add them to my list the next time I travel overseas. And if I get enough good ideas, I will share them in another column soon.


D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week’s (October 23) guest is Michael Parker, author of “If You Want Me to Stay,” novel of little boys, their music, their fear of a father they love, and their journey through eastern North Carolina, running away from and searching for family.

Upcoming NC Bookwatch programs, all at 5pm, Sundays on UNC-TV:

Oct 23 Michael Parker If You Want Me to Stay
Oct 30 Lawrence Naumoff A Southern Tragedy
Nov 6 Martha Witt Broken As Things Are
Nov 13 Gerhard Weinberg Visions of Victory

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Connecting North Carolina to the other side of the world

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