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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The Bearable Lightness of Heqing

“What do you think?” Big Brother asked me.

He’d made a common error. I’m sure he meant to ask, “What are you thinking about?” But his intended question was lost to the nuanced flexibility of language. Anyways, I understood and took another sip of beer.

It was a radiant early Saturday afternoon. I stared out the second story window of the only bar in the fledgling municipality of Songgui. I had a good view. Directly below the window stood “The Intersection.” It’s “The Intersection” because there is only one in the fledgling municipality of Songgui, so “the” functions as both article and adjective. There’s a woman selling oil-drenched potatoes and dubious reddish cylindrical things on a stick that she insists on calling “sausage.” Across the small passage that makes up the lesser contribution to “The Intersection” is a tiny shop for cigarettes, chips, a gratuitous selection of alcoholic beverages that strike fear in all passing esophagi and livers, and other basic needs for the living of life. A group of elderly women play cards, drink hot tea, and squawk at each other in a way that suggests an imminent elderly woman brawl, but is really just passionate friendship.

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Across the big road, the one that chops the town in half and connects the touristic hellholes of Dali and Lijiang, is a bank—the only one for a long ways. There’s an old security guard in there that once told me that I couldn’t use the ATM until three minutes after the previous user, because the machine “needed to rest.” I sat confused on the chalky steps with my empty wallet for a while and watched as customers flagrantly disobeyed the three-minute rule and marched on ahead of me until I realized I was either lied to, misinformed, unable to understand, or a sucker. I can just barely make him out now. Across the little alley by the bank there’s a fruit stand where a sly old woman double-charged me for a kilo of bananas. When I told her I knew what she was up to, she laughed, denied it casually, and offered to sell me oranges and sweet potatoes at a discount.

I can see beyond the intersection too, down the big road a little ways toward Lijiang and its endless markets of fake everything and oversized visitors wrapped in cameras. Then there are the mountains that restrict the rest of my horizon and there’s nothing more to say. I guess, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think that was it. If I didn’t know that that dusty strip of concrete chewed you up and spit you out in the frenetic capital of kitsch, and that mountains have an up and a down, and that the money in the bank comes from somewhere past the road and over the cotton candy peaks, I’d have no reason to believe that I wasn’t looking at the entire world from where I sit.

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“I was thinking that I could live here for a long time. I really could do it.” I answered Big Brother, in Chinese. The words—even the thought—felt blasphemous. This has always been a two years and out deal.

“Do you mean like Walden. Did you ever read, Walden?” Big Brother has a Master’s degree in Literature.

“Yeah, in high school. But, I don’t mean like that. The general concept sure, but I don’t need to pick berries and collect firewood. I mean every thing someone needs or even wants is outside this window. What do you miss about Beijing?” We clinked glasses and I took another sip.

“My family, my girlfriend. I miss them very much.” He said in earnest.

“OK. That’s important and I’m with you. And that’s why this can only be hypothetical. But, you would miss them wherever they were. What do you miss about the place?”

“I guess I miss… I guess I don’t really know anymore.” He answered, genuinely balancing the scales.

“I don’t know either, anymore. I used to think I did, you know. I used to truly—passionately—miss cheeseburgers, Butterfingers, and shit, avocados. I guess I missed food.” I laugh.

“What about being at the center of everything? That’s something to miss. When you’re in the heart of the world and you can be anything, you can make any choice. Don’t you feel like you miss out here? Like you can’t be satisfied?”

I’m sure that missing out and dissatisfaction are modern humanity’s two biggest non-eight-legged fears. It comes with the territory, I suppose. Every minute is one less. Every year that goes by is full of things that weren’t. The clock ticks and we feel the squeeze. Maybe, by being in the center of things, we minimize our chances of missing out. Maybe we increase the possibility of avoiding dissatisfaction.

Maybe. But, I’m not convinced at all. Maybe we’re so focused on minimizing the potential of missing out that we don’t even know why we don’t want to miss out. Maybe we’re so focused on avoiding dissatisfaction, that we don’t even know what it means to be satisfied. That’s not just empty existential window dressing—I really believe it as I look out and happily listen to those women verbally bombard each other.

I continue. “It feels so authentic here. Enjoyment just comes so easily. I never have to go out of my way for it. Don’t you like it?”

“I do, very much. More and more.” He says.

I wonder if that’s good enough. Is it possible to convince ourselves that there’s nothing (better”) over the mountains? Is it possible to see the road and not be concerned with its direction? Is it possible that “The Intersection” is the center of it all?

Is it even possible to be satisfied? I reckon it is. But, you have to do the opposite of what you think it means. Because, we are at odds with satisfaction. We aren’t convinced we believe it when we see it. Satisfaction is always over the mountain, down the road, a couple clicks away. You know the clichés. The fact is, if you want to ascribe to the conventional meanings of “missing out” and “being satisfied” you’ll always miss out and you’ll never be satisfied. Maybe missing out is a good thing. Maybe it’s the only way to be satisfied.

Don’t drop everything and move to the wilderness. It will be difficult and you will surely get mauled by a wild beast and/or contract a life-ending disease. I’m certainly not saying that you’ve got to be in an empty bar in a fledgling municipality surrounded by mountains to discover satisfaction. Absolutely not. But, I’m just saying, you can find it there. Or perhaps, I’m just saying that you can find it. Period. Just stop looking so hard.

“Let’s go.” He said.

“Where?” We simultaneously drained the last drops from our glasses.

“I thought maybe we could climb the mountain today.”P1000365 Me, Bolin, Big Brother, and Jasmine

The Menu Costs of Progress (featuring Taylor Swift)

Something keeps me holding onto nothing…

-Taylor Swift

If you’ve taken a base-level economics course, you know the term “menu cost.” A menu cost is the cost that a business incurs upon encountering a new economic environment, a new status quo. The term has an explicitly literal derivation: When the price of fish changes, restaurants are forced to print new menus to reflect the new cost of salmon and tuna. Ever seen “market price?” That exists because some prices fluctuate so much that it’s not even worth communicating them to customers in any way that isn’t verbal. Any time the economy experiences inflation, a restaurant—like any other business—has to change all of its prices. That takes time and money. And effort. Inasmuch, companies don’t always respond immediately to supply and demand shifts with price changes. But in the long run, they always will.

Let’s talk about Taylor Swift.

A few nights ago, I was sitting in a hostel bed in the middle of a wall-shaking Kunming thunderstorm. Below me, a 20-something dude was snoring. I’d like to point out here that people who snore in hostels should be incarcerated for a minimum of 5 years. At the very least, they ought to be charged triple for a bed. I couldn’t sleep. The thunderstorm was a non-issue. It was the snorer that stood between me and my slumber, and he was absolutely relentless. I watched the hours tick away: 12, 1, 1:30. After a while I gave up and decided to overpower him with the eardrum-tickling stylings of Taylor Swift. I received her full anthology from my 31-year-old ex-accountant Chinese roommate at Summer Institute last year. He was her self-proclaimed “biggest fan,” a phrase that he imparted in such a way that implied he learned it in a book called Contemporary English. Since my library contains little outside the realm of edgy rap, I figured Taylor was my only shot at sleep. I slid to her page and hit shuffle.

I’d never ventured beyond the classics: Love Story, 22, You Belong with Me etc., so most of the library was brand-new. I realized a few things very quickly. Every single Taylor Swift song sounds exactly the same. Sure, it’s a mind-bogglingly awesome sound, but each track is a regurgitation of the one before it. I would be remiss if I said that this wasn’t the way most artists, especially the ones on the radio, operate. Have you ever heard, “Hey, you gotta check out Keisha’s new stuff. She totally reinvented her sound.”

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Most importantly, though, the deeper I got into albums like Red, Speak Now, and Fearless, I realized that the message was always a variation on a few themes: They mostly centered on the boy-girl thing. Shy girl wants popular boy (You Belong with Me, Speak Now), sleazy boy does girl wrong (Dear John, Mean, Girl at Home), girl is attracted to bad boy (Treacherous, Red, The Way I Loved You, Trouble), boy and girl classically fall in love (Stay, Stay, Stay, Love Story, Everything has Changed). Yeah, the snorer was relentless. Each song is subtly framed in the context of an idyllic small town (Taylor is constantly stung by the loneliness of big cities), a fairytale experience (princes on princes) and the generally generic, “timeless” concepts of love and marriage. Whiteness is also assumed, if you watch her videos. But, that’s not exactly where I’m going.

As I began to lose myself in the wonderworld that is the Taylor Swift anthological experience, something else came to me. These concepts are dated. The concepts of expected chivalry, happily ever after marriage, happily ever after marriage between guy and girl, monogamous romances starting in high school, and white knights feel more than a bit bygone. Yet, Taylor sings about them without the slightest hint of nostalgia. Could it be that the country’s biggest pop star is out of touch?

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With Taylor Swift as my jungle guide, I started to understand why some people resist change. No, that’s not it. People don’t resist change, they cling to tradition. Change and tradition both have favorable associations. Naturally, conservatives decry liberals for destroying tradition while the left condemns the right for defying change. Here’s the thing, though: tradition is easy. We know it. The longer we’ve lived with it, we actually begin to believe it, unequivocally. It’s cozy. It’s very easy to make and absorb a record about boy meets girl and such and such. There are millennia of precedent. After all, Taylor Swift’s most famous track is a Shakespearian drama adapted for ball gowns and pebble throwers. Love Story doesn’t force us to think or remove us from our comfort zone. It’s just really nice. Throw the same song on the radio and mix up the pronouns a little bit, and lots of people simply won’t be able to handle it. The phrase, “I just want to enjoy the music” comes to mind.

The idea stems from detachment. People who live in the shrinking world that unfolds in Taylor Swift’s music are perfectly content. Tinkering with it would be unthinkable. There’s a good thing going on, why should it be broken? In this way, people aren’t always too hateful for change, but rather they are too lazy to rewire tradition. They fail to recognize its marginal utility. The idea is that breaking with tradition will mess everything up, in no small part because there is (by definition) no precedent for change. This, I can assure you, is a conversation that has directly preceded each and every forward progression in human history.

 

The thing is, we know what Taylor Swift’s idyllic small town looks like. We don’t know what that town looks like with fluid gender roles, less monogamy, and fewer churches. I’m aware that those three are unrelated, but they are the future. As such, they haven’t entirely moved in yet. They are unknown. We are afraid to face that unknown but are also too lazy to create it.

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This isn’t a knock on Taylor Swift. She’s singing about her own experience. It’s a knock on a society that takes that experience as the experience. It’s a knock on a society that believes there is a connection between that experience and real-life human values. The most elementary, yet apparently enigmatic phrase in the American Constitution is: “…that from that equality they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.” I view that as a hierarchy: The latter two are contingent on life (I’m not looking to get into a metaphysical discussion). Next comes liberty. Once those two are settled, the right to pursue happiness is next in line. These are our inalienable values. I see three. To me, that means, after life and liberty, happiness comes before all else.

I’m not saying take TSwift off the radio. I don’t want to hear Pharrell’s “Happy” all day long either and I also don’t believe her subject matter is obsolete. I’m just saying that it’s about time we adjust the menu costs in our society: those small changes we continuously choose to resist. It doesn’t matter if you are “weirded out” by the way people choose to live their lives. Can you imagine the things that bothered people 200 years ago? It doesn’t matter that you “like the way it is.” It doesn’t matter if you want to hear the music without thinking about the words. Because, even the stuff that Taylor Swift talks about, vanilla as it is, would have shocked listeners were it being blasted through a phonograph.

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There is a reason restaurants don’t engrave their menus in gold. There’s a reason convenience stores don’t buy elaborate neon signs to advertise the price of a pack of Trident. If they did that, they’d have to overhaul their entire business model every time Janet Yellen opened her mouth. Prices change. A lot. It’s not easy to change your prices. You’ve got to research, you’ve got to implement, and you’ve got to print new menus. But, if you’re too set in your ways or too unmotivated to change them, you’re in trouble. And not Taylor Swift’s kind of trouble.

Menus and price tags are visible everyday representations of the wellbeing and status of an economy. They inform our reality and as such our behavior. TV dramas, radio singles, every day discussions, and simply thoughts do that for the wellbeing and status of society. They inform our reality and as such our behavior. Some questions: Why do we have absolutely no problem adjusting for changes in the cost of things in the name of economic growth, yet when the concern is human progress, it takes so long? Why is supply and demand a greater impetus for change than real feelings and ideas, real impediments to happiness experienced by real people? What if McDonalds still charged a dime for a Big Mac? How long could it deny the reality that a patty now costs X, a bun now costs Y, the price of lettuce has jumped all the way to Z, and X+Y+Z equals a lot more than ten cents? How long could McDonalds honestly do that, to avoid inconvenience, until it either changed its price or disappeared? It’s pretty simple math, right? They’d do it immediately. I mentioned above that life + liberty + happiness = 3. If we’re operating at < 3, we need an adjustment. If you have to let some of your traditions, your thoughts, and your assumed convictions go so that other people can gain the third, or even the second part of that equation, you do it. You keep doing it.