An Informal Way of Living

Lao Cai Wu used to bang on the door to my room—which was inside of a school—and demand that I join him. To do what? To “celebrate a little bit.” Lao Cai (tsai) Wu was always celebrating. At some point, he acquired my telephone number. The bastard. He requested that I save him into my phone as “grandfather,” one of the few English words he knew. Lao Cai Wu/Grandfather started calling me instead of banging on my door. But, sometimes I didn’t pick up because I was busy with work or because it was midnight and I was sleeping. In these unfortunate instances, Lao Cai Wu would resort to his old method of banging on my door.

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I recently read The Affluent Society, published in 1958. In it, John Kenneth Galbraith talks about the wants, goals, and drivers of civilization. For the vast majority of human history, human being animals have spent their time doing things like searching out stuff to eat, creating and rebuilding shelters, and trying to exempt themselves from the food chain. Had our ancestors not done these things, they’d have been doing themselves (and us) a massive disservice. It was very much in their (and our) best interest that they find food and not die. But now, there are “stores” that sell food. We now have houses that feel hot when it is cold and cold when it is hot. The animals that used to eat us are now in cages for the enjoyment of our children. This is good, I’d say.

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As “The Affluent Society” of post-war America emerged, Galbraith wondered—paraphrasing—what the fuck would we do all day? When we didn’t have to hide from tigers and pray to Tlaloc, God of Rain, what would we do? What would we prioritize? When we didn’t have to survive, how would we live?

 

This is the central problem of our society. Our development has outpaced our evolution. We have satisfied the basic needs that allow for us to live comfortably and focus on things other than the raw, fundamental instincts of survival. Yet, we simply refuse to do it.

 

Lao Cai Wu once noticed a one-dollar bill in my wallet and demanded to possess it. We were driving to a celebration somewhere in Heqing—a half-hour down the dusty, rocky, rambly road. He had never held a dollar bill before. He wanted to show it to his wife. She was pissed off at him for celebrating too much. He figured the face of George Washington would help quell the squabble.

 

“What’s the exchange rate?” He asked.

 

“Like 1 to 6 or something, but seriously, Cai Wu, just keep it. A souvenir.”

 

“Of course I will not!” He ceremoniously handed me a 10 Yuan note and turned around and faced forward, blissfully ignoring my attempts to return the bill.

 

I’ve been back in the States for a year now. I see in our society the ills that plague every society: inequality, prejudice, anger, division, poverty. These will exist so long as people walk the earth. We can only mitigate the tangible, physical manifestations of these things. Or maybe we can make our prejudices and inequalities “merit-based” instead of founded on uncontrollables. But, we cannot and will never erase them. They are the double-edged sword of freedom and, I guess, of our human minds.

 

But, what really shocks me sometimes about my home is the way we prioritize. I say we to include me. It’s this oft-fucked up prioritization system that drives people to depression, to anxiety, to fear and loneliness, to killing themselves—to do things that should clearly be at odds with what we want from the human experience.

 

Our development has outpaced our evolution. In 1016, a misstep might have led to being eaten by a wild beast. Back then, it was existentially advantageous to be anxious. The beasts weren’t in cages yet. In 2016, a misstep might lead to an angry email from your boss. These are not the same thing. But I think we think they are. I think we are hardwired to think they are. Or, at the least, fear them similarly.

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Life in the village of Sanzhuang was informal. Simple is perhaps another way of putting it, but unfortunately simple is a misperceived word. So, informal. An undeniably large portion of this was choice—lack thereof. When you are a farmer, you are often confined to your lifestyle. Same is true for the teachers at the school. It was a steady job—an iron rice bowl, as they say. You know what you’re getting. You know you’ll be stable. You know you’ll never be rich or poor. You know you’ll have enough to survive. So, you can devote your free time to enjoying your life.

 

I often felt conflicted telling my students what I thought I was supposed to tell them. Study hard, make it out, go get yourself a better life. It was not that I believed that the village of Sanzhuang was Utopia. I did find people to be enormously giving and particularly content, but there were plenty of problems there. Nah, it was that I realized the danger of telling people—especially young and impressionable people—what exactly the pinnacle of self-actualization is. It was not that I didn’t believe that kids should strive for success and all that shit. No, it was because I didn’t want that lie on my conscience when the kid studied hard and didn’t make it out. I didn’t want to know that somewhere, some young adult in a village in rural China thought they sucked because they didn’t have a flatscreen in their house. But, I did it anyways.

 

Contentedness and satisfaction are fundamentally at odds with the way we have constructed our country. Consumerism and capitalism don’t jive with fulfillment. The best advertisement for food is hunger. The best advertisement for shelter is rain. The best advertisement for safety is being shot at. But, what happens when those evolutionary needs are taken care of? We cannot stop needing. Companies have to sell us things. So, society creates the illusion of necessity. And when our physiological obligations are no longer an issue and our stomachs are full, we look for some other void to spend our time trying to fill. But, we don’t have our hunger and our cold-rained-on head to tell us what that’s supposed to be.

 

Recently, in a discussion with a friend:

 

“Dude, you’d think at this point Kia’s wouldn’t even exist. Every car should just be Beamer-level quality. Everyone should have a Beamer.”

 

“Dude, if everyone had a Beamer, Beamers wouldn’t exist.”

 

This is our modern paradox. This is what we got from escaping the epic shittiness of starvation and destitution. See, stuff is relative. It’s a zero-sum game. There is, of course, always better. And, where there is better, there is worse. So, even once we achieve what we think we need in the relative world of stuff and success, we stumble across the unfortunate surprise that we have new things to strive for. We promptly readjust our desires.

 

But, hunger is not relative to anything but a stomach. Neither is shelter. Neither is happiness or enjoyment or satisfaction. Those things are not zero-sum. We have enough resources that no one should be hungry. We have enough of the relevant neurochemistry that everyone can be happy, and not at the expense of anyone. But, not everyone can have the best job. Not everyone can have the Beamer.

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When we submit to the illusion of necessity, we’re really fucking ourselves. We’re whack-a-mole-ing. If we lose, we feel bad. But, we can’t ever win once and for all. Another illusion always pops up.

 

So, we have reinvented the notion of survival, relocated our bodily needs to our minds. Achieving our coveted place (because there are only so many places) on the hamster wheel requires us to keep spinning. We get in early and stay late, or else the tiger will maul the fuck out of us. We get the flatscreen, or else we die of starvation.

 

Here’s where I say that there is nothing wrong with being caught up in all of this. At the very least, striving for success and stuff gives us something to do. Plus, I love my home. There’s plenty of good in this country.  But, it bums me out when people get tricked into thinking the value of their existence depends on manufactured notions of happiness and success. Maybe that’s why there’s so much angst and anger in our 2016 country. Lots of people were told that the success of their lives and their personal happiness was tied to their economic wellbeing. That’s why they’re supposed to be angry with the leaders who took their happiness away and mailed it to factories in Cambodia. That’s why they’re jumping in with the guy who’s supposed to make their happiness happy again. But, chances are probably pretty good that tossing out a few million people and stopping them from trying to come back and take away our happiness is not going to be very effective. Remember, it’s not a zero-sum game. Everyone can have it!

 

When I think about what I miss most from Sanzhuang, I think about people and places. I think about my noodle spot and the daily novelty of being a laowai in a rural Chinese village. What I really know I miss most, though, is the informal way of life. Maybe it was the impermanence of the experience. Maybe it was the character of the place—easygoing, casual, not too serious about itself. But, in any event, I always felt like the priorities were appropriately arranged.

 

Lao Cai Wu was always making an excuse to celebrate. But, his excuses were always a joke. Cheers to Mao. Cheers to the youth. Cheers to that chicken. Cheers to whatever. He would laugh as he made his toast. Wink, wink. We don’t need a reason, you and I. One time I asked Lao Cai Wu why he celebrated so much. He probably thought about it for a few seconds.

 

“Why not?” He probably said. “I like it. It’s a good thing. Right?”

 

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Stuck in Ambrosia

You tumble out of a van that exceeds the legal capacity by a factor of three or four. The first thing is the dust—thick and mobile. All those trucks you see filled to the brim with loose rocks are coming here to be dumped, tirelessly smashed one by one with large hammers, and ground into the invisible substance floating in the air. Then the sound. Giant tankers incessantly, gratuitously announce their arrival with profound horn blasts. A little kids sets off a firecracker in the middle of the street. A stray dog yelps. Then the heat. All these people, all this movement, all this progress, a sun that cuts seamlessly though mountain air. You feel, in so many ways, at the heart a massive movement. You are at a literal intersection of then and now—people from the past fashioning the future because that is what people from the past do. Women in traditional Baizu dress splash water on rocky dust that congeals into cement and someday into a sidewalk. A chicken darts around a speeding, honking BYD SUV. It’s hard not to feel it.

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Then the smell. You follow it a moment—past drying concrete and some badminton-playing kids contemplating a birdie that just landed in it. You know where it’s coming from. It’s in a pot. It’s wedged between a tiny convenience store selling booze and cigarettes and ramen in a box and a stairwell that leads to an oft-empty bar. It’s at a dusty intersection in a dusty mountain town. It’s in Yunnan, China. It is the greatest food in the entire world.

I’ve eaten some things. Tsukiji fish market before sunrise, a quiet taco shop called La Gringa serving simply captivating al pastor with a lime on a hot dry street in Cuernavaca, $3 Banh Mi sandwiches from Dong Phuong bakery in the middle of desolate New Orleans East, a steak so preposterously good at La Cabrera in Buenos Aires that I pondered vegetarianism purely out of respect, the footlong Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki crafted by my local green and yellow clad sandwich artist. Deep in the middle of nights (such as this one) as my feet dangle over icy tiles and my stomach grumbles without reprieve, I think of these things and how impossibly far off they are. And I feel like you feel when your girlfriend says its over. I feel deeply, deeply stomach-broken.

But, every Friday afternoon I squeeze into that van between a slobbering infant and a stare-y old lady and I am taken to the intersection. I get out and follow the smell. I take off my bag and fall onto a foot-high stool begging to be crushed under my weight. There’s a large-mouthed steel cigarette bong resting against my table. A line of thermoses sit under a shelf, hot with water for tea. I glance at the chef, waitress, owner, busser, personality, and possible validator of any and all claims of higher-power. She nods and reaches into a bag of long white strands that look like the transcribed remnants of a Bush-Cheney sit-down. She tosses the strands into a wok, film-thick with what remains of the pleasures of those who once sat in these stools—a well-crisped recent history of culinary perfection. There are two things on the menu—though there is no menu. Er si (thick rice noodles) and Mi xian (thin rice noodles). You may have them fried or you may have them boiled. You may have them in a small bowl or you may have them in a big bowl. Smoke flares up and I get Pavlovian.

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There’s an aged and withered man wearing a scuffed blue suit and a newsboy working on a cigarette at the table next to me. His bowl is empty. A young mother watches her infant daughter struggle with the epic historical pairing of evasive noodles and thin wooden sticks. Two middle-aged van drivers sip tea as they pound on the table and complain about the road, the sound of their keys jangling faintly discernible through the dust and commotion. Sometimes you’ll see the county mayor sitting here with his comrades, methodically slurping soup and talking about the high-quality of the road. There’s a sign above the chef displaying a green happy face, a yellow “satisfied” face, and a red sad face. The three faces are paired with A, B, or C. In the box where this particularly establishment’s happy, satisfied, or sad face should be, there is nothing. It doesn’t matter. A scruffy dog scoots out of the kitchen. A, B, C or “high likelihood of sickness and/or death”, it doesn’t matter. Everyone from every corner of the social spectrum can be found at these tables.

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A, B, C.

She calls my name and I shoot up. Sitting in the hazy window is a mountain of Er si capped with shredded scallions. I thank her and snatch the dish and set it down on another counter and generously add leaves of sour Chinese cabbage. I return to my stool and drown the noodles in a dose of vinegar. I say grace for the proprietor and begin. The noodles are sticky with oil. They bind together and I lean closer. The flavor is something like salt, sour, spice, heat, grease. The texture sticky and smooth. But, truthfully, like a special book or a transcendent movie or a glass of baijiu or the rice terraces down the road or anything that is incredible in its way, there is no description aside from experience. It is what it is.

I proceed through the mountain and watch it disappear before my eyes. For these few moments at this intersection of future and past, there is now and only now—so too feels the old man and the young mother and the drivers. The final few bites are golden-brown pork strips and scraps of sour cabbage and oily vinegar soaked noodles. Like a great novel that you can’t stop reading but never want to end, I finish them off. It is a flavor rollercoaster with no drops. I ponder the remaining pool of vinegar and grease and weigh the social implications of lifting it and pouring it into my mouth. I lift it and pour it into my mouth. I pat my stomach and rise for the bill.

“Boss, you work too hard.” I tell her.

“Every day, seven days a week.” She says, smiling.

Every day, seven days a week behind a smoky little opening at a hot and dusty intersection, bending and lifting—with only the occasional helper. I think for a moment about the riches she would reap with a shop like this on Canal and Mott.

“You need to take a rest, boss,” I say contradicting my true gastronomic desires.

“No breaks. This is my iron rice bowl. This is my life.” She says, referencing an indelible Chinese concept.

“Well, it’s the best food I know. You’re the best there is.”

“Bah. None of that! I just make noodles for people to eat, Mr. Luo. Today’s on me,” She says as I reach into my pocket.

“Not in a million years, boss.” I hand her a crumpled five and two ones. One dollar and ten cents. That’s like a small bottle of Poland Springs or four gumballs. Shit, I can’t think of anything worth a dollar and ten cents. I’d pay 15 bucks for it if she asked me to.

“You should charge more.” I tell her every time.

“I charge one Yuan more and no one comes. I charge one Yuan less and I go out of business. Seven Yuan is the price.” Hard to believe the initial statement, but I know it’s true.

“Take it easy, boss.” I head back into the dust’.

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This is where the best food in the world is. It’s here, lodged in an open stall at the intersection of before and after. Stuck firmly between six and eight Yuan. Caught between a day off and some extra cash. A simple rendition of something that’s been done here for centuries. Some noodles and a lot of oil. Something for the people to eat. A few sticks and a plate. A tiny stool. A newborn child and an old man in his twilight years. You can see it all from here. It’s hard to try to imagine it anywhere else. The reality of what it is, its genesis is so inextricably chained to this small corner. It’s not a gastropub or a hot new chef’s foray into molecular gastronomy. It’s function first with barely an eye to form—here they are the same. It really is the best there is. It is straight-up ambrosial. And it has to be. It’s a labor borne of necessity. It’s a matter of fact. It’s life. It’s the only way it could possibly be.