Memphis in May Symbolizes City

Monday, May 07, 2012, Vol. 127, No. 89

Japan was the first country honored by the Memphis in May International Festival.

The reason was simple. The Sharp Manufacturing plant had just opened in the then-remote Hickory Hill area of Shelby County, making televisions and microwave ovens.

Promoting international business ties was the goal of the founders of the festival in the mid-1970s. FedEx was then Federal Express and not yet the global force it is today. Trade ties with China were still to come. Just a few years before the festival began, President Richard Nixon had made his historic visit to a China ruled by Mao Tse Tung. Germany was still East and West with a Berlin Wall between the two countries.

Decades later, international business isn’t an aspiration in the Memphis economy. It is a reality, an everyday fact of life.

And it is so much more than goods moving through Memphis.

The biggest names in the Memphis economy now talk of infrastructure in other countries to reach customers there. These countries, including China, are joining the global economy in a way that has created unprecedented growth for those businesses that can handle the growth. That has proven to be difficult when pared with the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

International business, at times, has been anything but a festival. But Memphis in May can be a reminder of the sense of purpose that should drive our local economy’s connection to the rest of the world.

We can either let global trade affect us as an inevitable tide or we can ride on that tide with an idea of where we want to go.

The interaction of different cultures and different ways of doing business will make it a challenging ride. But the founders of Memphis in May had it right some 40 years ago when they opened the door on a pre-Internet world, rolled out a grill or two on the parking lot by the Orpheum Theatre and invited a different part of the world to come and talk business with us.

It turns out the global economy isn’t ships and planes and trains ferrying our goods and their goods around the planet and maybe an email barrage and a few Skype sessions.

It is partnerships and direct contact with customers in other countries who have different consumer cultures as well as businesses with different corporate cultures and customs in our own local marketplace.

Memphis in May’s month-long party is much bigger and it has moved around a bit. Events have been added and dropped. Remember the Tattoo? Sometimes most of us don’t remember which country is being honored – this year it’s the Philippines.

But more of us than we probably realize have some encounter with global trade on a daily basis.