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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Wants and Needs: Trying to Figure out Which is Which

Ask yourself: What is the single most basic human need? There are a lot of needs and I suppose they do coalesce somewhat into a hierarchy—starting with what will keep me alive and for how long and morphing into what will make my life enjoyable (ie what will make me think least about the fact that I will die sooner or later), and probably ending with something like “what will make my life meaningful?”

But, anyways, if you said that anything other than oxygen is the most basic human need, I must call you crazy and disagree. If you can’t breathe you can’t eat. You can’t pay rent. You can’t, for more than at most 60 seconds, ponder your existence.

“Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit.”

“Down again?”

“Down. Dead. Ridiculous.”

“It works for me. It’s quite fast actually. See, look I’m watching a video.” I smirked.

“Well, fuckin’ A. It doesn’t work for me.” Mr. Yang has the foulest mouth in the history of second grade teachers. He’s an epic malcontent—a man so irritable he is irritable about how irritable he is. “I’m so pissed off today. It’s pissing me off.”

On a cold day: “Freezing my damn balls off. Everyday. Cold. Bullshit.”

On a hot day: “Sweating like a pig. No AC. Bullshit.”

On the most beautiful day in recorded history: “Clear blue sky, billowy white clouds, soft breezes cascading off the early spring harvest, butterflies alighting to caress my face. Buncha bullshit if you ask me.”

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Today, Mr. Yang is pissed off at the teacher’s lounge wifi, which was installed a few weeks ago. He’s not the only one. Most teachers have been complaining about its efficiency since the day this particular series of tubes was tubed-up. In most cases—Mr. Yang turned out to be no exception—the teachers had simply neglected to enable wifi on their phone. I instructed Mr. Yang how one might do that. He began to flash a smile, but quickly shook his head and remarked on the inherent and profound bullshit coursing through the situation.

Now, obviously, there is something that needs to be addressed between the bullshit. A month ago, there was no wifi in the teacher’s lounge.

There’s this interesting interplay in life, one that plays differently based on different inputs. That’s the interplay between wants and needs. On a macro, societal, human level, the interplay between wants and needs is a complex series of promotions and demotions—a rather fluidly progressing shift in perceptions and expectations. How we distinguish—honestly distinguish—between the two tells a great chunk of the story of our societies and us.

One thing is clear about this interplay: It is much harder to go one way than the other. Promoting a want to a need (expectation works too if need seems to strong) is a satisfying process. It’s nice. It means things are better than they were. The prospect of demoting a need to a want is the type of shit that people fight wars over to avoid. No oxygen, no wars. No food, no politics.

I’ve thought about this more than I’ve thought about nearly anything during these last couple years. And that’s probably due to a rather drastic recalibration of my wants and needs—a shift in my expectations for my world. Obviously, my revision has been tangibly downward. I need less. It’s less a function of self than circumstance. To rapid fire a few things that have gone from habit to afterthought: Internet, heating/cooling, daily showers, consistent access to food, weekly showers, infrequent but existent sex, a new outfit everyday, clean water, sitting down to poop, refrigeration, driving……. Are any of these things people need? Obviously, the answer is no. Are these things people need as certain societies are presently constructed? That’s a little more complex, but yeah, probably.

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Even during these two years—as I have reconsidered the interplay—I have witnessed a lot of those wants being gradually converted into needs on a grander scale. Boxes checked off, one by one, signaling “progress.” Ding, ding, and ding. Half the teachers at my school bought new cars and learned to drive. We installed a flushing toilet (https://tloebchina.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/commode/) We got that bullshit wifi. Slowly, where there was once nothing, there emerges that which one cannot live without. Crazy. So quick. Kind of, in many ways, like hard drugs. Once you get a taste, you’re fucked. It’s a lot easier to live without them until you’ve lived with them.

I went to India last summer. India and China are special analogs. Similar in perhaps only that they both have a whole lot of people and are both romanticized by hygienically challenged Brits in dreads and parachute pants. One thing struck me pretty hard though: India, economically speaking, is in a different universe than China. Compare Shanghai with Mumbai. Compare Yunnan (where I live), one of the poorer parts of China, with the Indian countryside. There is almost nothing to compare. To be clear, there is still intense poverty in China. But, I couldn’t help feeling that it was a little—nah, a lot—different.

Lately, I’ve been hearing an uptick in a different kind of need. I’m not going to go into it too much until I’m back under the watchful eye of the NSA and not the PRC. But, you can venture to guess what it might be. It’s got something to do with that third type of need/entitlement/expectation. The one about meaningfulness—fulfillment of self. It’s another area where India and China are very different. One’s system is inherently considered right. The other, scary and dangerous. It’s a thought I couldn’t disengage myself from after seeing family upon family of shoeless, clothes-less kids on the streets of India’s biggest cities. What, I often thought, are the priorities here?

Everyone has their own kneejerk reaction to stuff like “communism” (quote unquote because what they’ve got here isn’t really that), human rights, will of the people, freedom. These are issues of great importance. They cause wars and highly intelligent/intellectual/well thought out/factually-supported debates on the Internet. They are inarguable dogma to most everyone. But, where do they fit on the hierarchy? Would you rather eat, would you rather sleep in a bed, would you rather have a road from your tiny village to the hospital 20 miles away, or would you rather have the right to say, talk about all the idiots in congress and choose the president? Please do not for a moment think I am advocating for less rights. Each and every government in the world deserves to be subject to their iteration of the first amendment. I am not trying to speak for anyone. I am simply trying to ask some questions—analyze some of the stuff I’ve seen. In many instances, you can have both basic needs and basic freedoms! But just think about the choice. If you had to choose? Where is the line? Where is your line? Perhaps if you have never been hungry, if you have never slept on the street, you—like me—are unqualified to draw one.

We are lucky, many of us, that we will never have to draw this line. Many of our revolutions have already happened. But, there will be more.

Oxygen–the kind that isn’t bound to two hydrogens. That’s all I would think about if you tied me up to a bunch of cinderblocks and tossed me overboard—not dinner, not the Keystone Pipeline, not whether or not the wifi password is capitalized. This is obvious, perhaps a little preachy. But, it’s just a good starting point. It scales up rather smoothly. Check the box, move on. Check the box, move on. That’s kind of what we do, how we measure our progress. We check a box and then start searching for the next one—kind of like leveling up in Q-Bert or something. You can’t just go skipping around all out of order, it’s against the rules! Maslow would be pissed. You can’t be stressing about cancelling your colonoscopy when you’re underwater. That would be a pretty depressing last thought, anyway.

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Where is your line? Are you lucky enough to be able to choose your line?

It’s been pretty damn fascinating to watch how quickly a new status quo takes hold and becomes something of an inalienable foundation for living in the world—how stuff that didn’t even exist seems to materialize out of thin air and morph into something impossible to exist without. Because, innovation is a drug. It starts out as an added bonus—a cool new experience. But, then it becomes just another part of life. Something you need to function. Something that clouds your perspective of what life was like before it arrived. A box cast in stone that you just can’t uncheck. It’s a good thing though, as long as you remember the oxygen.

Noodles LLC

I’m sitting on a rickety plastic stool. I’ve fallen off this stool seventeen times in the last year. I’m shit at sitting in stools. I’ll leave China without ever mastering the skill. I do my best. Life is hard. A tower of fried rice noodles lands in front of me. I lean forward, shifting the impossibly fragile ass–to-stool balance, and lovingly serenade the noodles with vinegar. It begins—my weekly reunion with the divine noodles, the only food in the world that I would ever repeatedly risk breaking my ass and the subsequent public embarrassment for. I’ve told their story here: https://tloebchina.wordpress.com/2014/12/28/stuck-in-ambrosia/ 302659

The chef, a tireless middle-aged woman with that Indira Ghandi-esque shock of white hair, sits down at a table next to me. She pulls a baleful of chives out of a bag and sets them on a cutting stone. She leisurely begins to chop.

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“How much longer you got here, Mr. Luo?”

“Three months, more or less. How about you, boss?”

She laughs, as though the thought of leaving her corner stall is the funniest joke she’d ever heard. “Probably longer than that.” She says. “I swear to you boss, I’m going to miss your noodles more than anything else. Far, far more than any living thing.”

“They don’t have Er Si (Are-Suhh—these particular noodles) in the USA?” We’ve had this conversation seventeen times in the last year.

“Boss, they don’t even have Er Si in most parts of China. I’ll tell you what. If they did… If we opened up this place in the middle of New York City, we could get $15 for a plate like this. I’m serious.”

“How much is that in Renminbi?” She asks, never drawing attention from the task of chopping chives.

“A hundred, more or less.” She laughs, because 100 Renminbi for a plate of her simple noodles is too much too handle—like when a you tell a kid to guess your age and he says 1,000 years old and thinks he’s blown your comedic mind.

“A hundred for these!” She holds up a fistful of uncooked Er Si—uncooked, it resembles shredded paper. “That’s… that’s stupid.”

“I’m telling you. No one has even seen Er Si before. You… we open up a little shop and do exactly what you do now. Fried Er Si and Er Si soup. We don’t even have to charge $15—a hundred. We could charge like $10—sixty RMB. I’m telling you, just the fact that people in New York have never heard of it will mean they’ll buy it. Er Si, LLC. Er Si Limited.” She tossed some cut chives into a ceramic bowl.

“How much would the stall be?”

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“I don’t know. Maybe $15,000 a month. So, 100,000 RMB” She roars with laughter, waving the imposing cleaver back and forth. “100,000 for a place like this. For a month! My god.”

“No, smaller than this. No seating, either.” No stools.

“Wow. Pshh. Where would we even get the money? You’re rich, right? You have the money?”

“No, I don’t even have enough for one week. We’d go to the bank.”

“Ha!” She motions across the street, where the Yunnan Rural Credit Union and their floppy disks and nice, but incredibly robbable security guard are located. “The bank doesn’t even have that much money.”

“Yeah, well boss, we wouldn’t get the money from that bank.”

No, we wouldn’t. We’d get it from a much less robbable, less nice bank.

“And then we’d open more Er Si stalls. And we’d have them all over the country. You wouldn’t even need to cook anymore.” She scooped up the last bit of chives with the blade of the knife and shook them into the bowl.

“I don’t know, Mr. Luo. You sound like you’re a little bit crazy. Er Si Limited, it’s too much. Why would I want to have a restaurant and not cook?”

“You’d be rich!”

She laughs, dismissingly. I finish off the last of my vinegar-soaked delicacy—the boss’s crispy hypothetical golden ticket to prosperity. I lovingly rub my belly. And, as one does at the close of any satisfying meal, stare longingly at the thick, lonely, barren oil on my plate and recline. A mistake. I slide off the stool and land ass-first on the dusty concrete.

“Fuckin’ stool.” I gripe in my native language. “Boss, you gotta get some new seats. It’s dangerous out here.” I advise from my position on the ground. 302659-1

“Mr. Luo, if I got new seats, we’d never get to see you fall off.” She cackles.

I think she has a point, a point at my expense, albeit still a point.

All that stuff I said above, I was only really barely joking. Obviously, the boss isn’t going anywhere. She’s got kid(s) (shhhh), can’t speak a word of English, and, more importantly, seems pretty damn happy. But, if I could somehow weasel her recipe and synthesize it for the American palate with stuff like Maltodextrin and Yellow 6 Lake, success is a given. Fast, cheap, and exotic noodles from a part of Asia that’s pretty close to Tibet, has trend dripping all over its oily curls. There isn’t even an English Wikipedia page for Er Si. In fact, the only page, the Chinese page, is five sentences long—with 20% of those sentences explaining that drinking cold water after eating Er Si can cause diarrhea (not necessarily true—sometimes hot water is enough). No one knows about this stuff, and it should be the most popular noodle in the world.

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But, the boss is right about the stools. It wouldn’t be the same without them. It certainly wouldn’t be the same without the cigarette bong offered as a courtesy to guests. Or the dust. It definitely wouldn’t be the same with health-code regulations. The ingredients, that the boss or her friends probably picked—those couldn’t change. Shit, everything good about this is un-replicatable. What’s more, the thought of having an Er Si LLC on every corner, the thought of Er Si having a Wikipedia page, the thought of writing a blog about Er Si—it seems like a betrayal.

You can’t recreate anything. Especially not this.

I Don’t Know

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“Want something to drink?”

Ah. Here we go.

“I’m good.”

I roll to the left. I’m on a bus, about to pull away from the station. I’m headed five hours west, straight for the heart of 临沧 (Lincang) prefecture. Lincang means water-facing, an allusion to the 澜沧江 (Lancangjiang) river, also know as the Mekong—a beautiful waterway that might evoke eerie green and black images of bloody jungle war. Lincang is home to the 佤族 (Wazu), an ethnic group that the British and French—when colonizing the region around Burma and Vietnam—characterized as too “remote,” too “savage,” too “fierce” to attempt to administer—a designation essentially unheard of in the historical record of the two most ruthless and obstinate colonizers.

The area, and its corresponding region just across the Burmese border, would later become home to sweeping narco-armies that played one of the most pivotal roles in the worldwide opium trade. But, of course, very few people know this outside of the region itself. Certainly few people in China. Certainly fewer people in the West.

I won’t see any of it.

The guy sitting next to me offers me a can of Red Bull. He’s not offering me Red Bull, though. He’s offering me a conversation and I tell him “I’m good.” Not right now. Almost every bus/plane/train ride begins this way. Understandable. The likelihood of finding yourself next to a foreigner is infinitesimal. The likelihood of finding yourself next to a foreigner who can carry a conversation with you is pretty much zero percent. Perhaps there are 50 such people in the entire region. Should a rarity of such magnitude pop up in anyone’s daily routine, it would be difficult to resist conversational temptation. It’s important sometimes, as the object of endless small-talk, clandestine photo attempts, and countless barrages of “hello!’s” to remember and even embrace your inherent rarity—your uncommon opportunity to represent (or be perceived to represent) an entire country. Otherwise, you’ll go insane.

“Where are you from,” A few minutes later the guy has abandoned the Red Bull angle—probably because he’s now drinking it. He’s going straight for the conversation. This question, the most potent weapon in any small-talker’s arsenal, is never not the first one I’m asked. Sometimes I wish I had a different answer—Moldova or Andorra—or something. Something that would immediately quash the conversation for lack of questions. But, alas…

“The United States. Where are you from?”

“凤庆 (Fengqing county). I’m going home. I need to attend to some stuff at home. What are you doing here?”

“I’m going to meet some friends. I live in Dali. I teach English in a small town.”

“How old are you?” He asks.

“24.”

“Oh! Me too.”

He tells me a story that is ostensibly synonymous with nearly every other young person I meet. He is from a small town in Fengqing. He now lives near Shangri-La, the deceptively renamed tourist town that sits at the Yunnanese base of the Tibetan Plateau. He works “up the mountain,” crushing salt for a big company. He’s on a six-year contract that ends in 2017. I do not ask him why he is coming home, as it’s almost certainly not for leisure. But, he says the return trip is extremely rare. He usually can come home once a year during Spring Festival. The journey takes about two days and is expensive. And, besides, the month-long Spring Festival holiday is the only vacation he has all year, except for Sundays.

He shows me a smiling picture of his girlfriend. He says he wants to marry her, but thinks he needs a more stable job first.

He talks about his perceptions of my home country. It’s so big, so developed, so full of opportunities. I, as always, point out that this isn’t entirely true. There are many parts of China—say Shanghai—that are more developed and more full of opportunity than many or most parts of the United States. But, he points out that those parts of China have very little to do with him. They might as well be on another planet. And I, acknowledging that the same can be said for the places in the US that I’ve just referenced, agree.

Because I’ve told him I’m a teacher, we begin to talk about education.

“I envy your American system.”

“Why do you say that?”

“It’s much more relaxed and much more stimulating. I think it would have suited me well. School was very difficult, very tiring. I think I would have done well in America.”

“How did you do here?”

He laughs. “Average. I, you know, cheated a lot.”

“Sure. Me too,” I say.

“We would go to school at 7 and leave at night. You know how it is. Writing, cleaning, busy all day. No extra-curricular activities. No tutoring at home. These are important things.”

“How do you know about those things? You know, if you didn’t have that?”

“Well, I am 24 years old now. I will get married soon and have a child, of course. I think about my child. I want to learn about what I can do for my child.”

“That’s big stuff to be thinking about.”

“It’s really all I think about, you know.”

I don’t.

The bus twists through the green and black mountains. Twilight falls. We meander along the path of the Mekong’s upper reaches. Strikingly blue, turquoise even. Much different than the sepia-toned rivers cutting through Shanghai. We flow through mountain village after mountain village, clusters of mud brick homes dug deep into whatever passes for flat ground.

I rarely meet people my age. Mostly, the folks I come into contact with are decades my senior or pre-pubescent types. Why? For the reasons described in the conversation above. Young adults are simply not here. They are in the mountains, in the cities, already getting started on the next generation. I wish I did meet more of them. Not only because it would be nice to have more friends, but because it’s impossible to understand a place without seeing it through the eyes of people born when you were born. Older people are part of something else. They came up as players in a game almost entirely devoid of the “opportunity” or “choice” we like to think of. They speak a different language, they have an entirely different outlook on things, they will change little. Children are living in the now for the future. That future is hard to forecast, because it will almost surely be “brighter” than it would have been twenty years before. They are young, unformed, mostly unaware of the relative world they live in. In some ways they are like the grandparents that so often raise them. Both groups are abstract to me.

But, people my age are not so abstract. I can understand, that if I happened to be born in Fengqing County in 1990 the likelihood that I would be teaching in the capacity I do is, for all intents and purposes, zero percent. The likelihood that I would have already been crushing salt for four and a half years on a mountain above Shangri-La, entirely wiping out my four years of college, is much higher. The likelihood that I would be thinking critically about my next career move—where, how, how much, ­why?—is zero percent. The likelihood that at 24, I would be thinking instead of my as yet unborn child is much, much higher.

The word unfair did not once cross his lips. He has probably said it many fewer times in his 24-year-old life than I have in mine. And I think, though I often refuse these conversations, I should not. I will never have enough of them.

Hesitate at the Crossroads

IMG_0181Sanzhuang Village

A Chinese proverb goes like this: 彷徨歧途 (panghuang qitu), “Hesitate at the Crossroads.” It’s not a command or an instruction. It’s just a thing someone might do.

I’ve said this before: I live at-on-in a crossroad. The thing about these so-called crossroads though, in the big social, future sense, is that they don’t really exist. Why? Because, if you are at them you have come from somewhere else, and likely been consistently faced with them—various intersections, again and again and again. After a while you stop noticing. There is no singular crossroad, as we like to imagine it, just an endless series inevitably bypassed again and again and again. The crossroad I currently live at is the evaporating past and its foregone future. But, I reiterate: the crossroad has become a useless metaphor. It’s been replaced by a highway—the Highway of Time.

The funny thing about time, though, as I’ve come to find, is that it isn’t what we think it is. It’s got very little to do with ticks & tocks, waxes & wanes, and wrinkles & gravity. We can make it go. And this is our paradoxical obsession: to make time go as fast and as slow as we possibly can. To tame it. We want everything immediately, yet we want our time to move as slowly as possible—in short, to last.

Here—where I am right now—in this little, rapidly transforming county in the middle of this rapidly transforming country, at this supposed developmental crossroads, I see the desire to outwit, jump over, redefine, and move ahead of time on hyper-drive. It’s moving so fast, that you can literally see it. You can literally see the passage of time. What does it look like: wheelbarrows, shovels, straw hats, dust, rocks, cardboard boxes, burning trash, assembly lines, cranes. You can hear it too, of course. Slow time sounds like crickets under the moon, a plodding, ticking hand. But, time, when it moves this fast, is deafening: Cracks and hammers, shouts and drills, horns, turbines, whirrs. The louder, the faster. It does not plod away like the persistently predictable second hand. It doesn’t tick. It roars.

But, it didn’t always.

Why did we invent time? I suppose to challenge ourselves. Time is a measure of our own abilities. We are so obviously, viscerally constrained by it, that the only thing we can do is play against it. This has, I guess, emerged as the defining goal of people: to—realizing that we can’t stop time—go faster than it.

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And this, of course, is where the whirring turbines and crunching factories come in. Or in my life—the wheelbarrows full of rocks and the endless young men setting bricks on concrete, concrete on bricks, bricks on concrete. Because, some time ago, it became very clear that the only thing standing between the present of—shall we say, China, but really of anywhere—and the future, was, is time. Because, if time hadn’t existed—if we didn’t need to pass by noon to get from morning to midnight—the future, of course, would already be here. No, we’ve got to bring the future to us. Too bad. Funny, how that goes.

So, what you get is the largest, dustiest, loudest, fastest passage of time in human history. How do you measure time? It turns out not with clocks. You put together all of the time-busting methods and you decide how good they are, how good they have been, how good they will be: 0%, 2%, 5%, 10%, 15%, 20%!!!, 14%, 12%, 9%, 6%… and that’s how time moves. The faster we move, the better. Our success, our worth, our everything, judged on speed.

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It’s important, vital, crucial to make it go Fast, because once it’s gone, you can’t get it back. Wait what? That’s not right! It’s the other way around! We should make it go slow, precisely because we can’t get it back. Sorry, no time to think about time.

And what about the hands that turn the clock? Millions, billions! of hands smashing and crushing and huffing, sliding, tumbling across the numbers as they fall and rise and fall again? They are there, speeding on the Highway of Time, incapable of stopping at, now utterly oblivious to, the crossroads. And they—the crossroads, the moments of hesitation—don’t exist, like the space between line and asymptote; they have become so insignificant that their value can only be zero.

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But the faster we move, the worse, because it gets harder and harder and harder to go faster, faster, Faster. But we can’t help ourselves; the desire to beat time becomes so powerful. We have forgotten whatever the goal is, and whatever it was has been replaced by that desire, to continue to set the pace ahead.

But.

A tragic—or perhaps encouraging—fact emerges. We can’t ever beat it. We can only beat it for a while. Because, it never ends. It renews itself over and over. The future, by its very nature, will never arrive. And we’ve tricked ourselves into believing we could make time tick to our tock.

And only by realizing it, only by realizing time’s steadfast power, can we make it powerless. Only by hesitating at the crossroads, can we even make the crossroads exist. Otherwise, we’re just racing to lose.

No. Wait. Look left, right, look back. Then go forward, if you please.

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Not That Simple

Pressure is a mountain on a mountain. Every day the kids rise at 6:45. They get up, wash their feet, brush their teeth. They slouch on top of cold, rickety desks and stools by 7:10, exhaling exhausted waves of fog in unison. They hardly stop until 8 pm. They’re in bed by 8:30. They have fun, when they can, between classes, at meals, in the quiet hours before sleep when they whisper so the teachers can’t hear. They play on the weekends in spite of their schoolwork, but some don’t have a chance, and some won’t let themselves.

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Fun is an enemy. No one would ever say it, but it is. It’s a distraction from the goal. That goal, taken in a big sense, is a matter of contention. The scaled down goal, though, is an exam in the middle of January. That is your measure. That is your worth. That is your goal. From 6:45 in the morning to 8:30 at night, this is where your energies should be focused. Your ability to reach the goal, today, is something like a minor plot point in a meticulously sequenced novel. It figures to have outsize, but unforeseen, reverberations on the climax. Every moment you edge closer to the goal, the pressure gets tighter. Lost time is magnified. You’re 10 years old. Everything you want contradicts accomplishment of the goal. It’s really, really hard to make sense of it. But, you’re not supposed to.

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I’m wearing a button-down plaid shirt and a purple/navy tie. I’ve got some frosting on my sleeve. My pants are tucked in, more or less. I look unintentionally… like a clown.

It’s the last day of school. I set a big cake down on the desk and the students cheer wildly. I smack the table. They stop. Before we eat the cake I wanted to tell them about the goal.

I told them a story accompanied by a poorly animated powerpoint…     url

“Two old men sat on a bench. One on the left and one on the right. It was a nice day. The man on the left wore a suit. The man on the right wore pants and a t-shirt that didn’t fit well. His pants had holes in them. He said to the man on the left, in the suit…

‘How have you been, my friend?’

‘I’m quite busy. I am tired. It’s nice to sit here with you.’

The man on the right blurted out…

‘My friend, you know, I envy you. Your clothes are so nice. Your house is so big. You eat fish everyday. I remember when we were in school. You worked so hard. We would play and you wouldn’t come out. You have earned your success. I remember how you earned it.’

‘I worked very hard. It is true. And I have had much success. But, you know, I have always envied you.’

‘How could that be?’ The man on the right said, surprised. ‘I have little. I’ve always worked in town. Look at my clothes.’

‘You said it yourself. When you were playing outside, I was studying. You had so much fun. When you passed love notes in middle school, I was too busy for love.’”

The students snickered.

“’Yes, but that was the past. Look what you have gained from all that work. Surely, you are satisfied.’

‘I am satisfied today. But, I will never be able to go back.’”

I asked them:

“Are you nervous for the exam?”

“Yes!”

“Do you have pressure from your teachers and from your parents?”

“Yes!”

“Do you think the test is important?”

“Yes!! Of course!”

“I agree. It is very important. But, don’t forget. There will be a test next week, there will be a test next year, and there will be many, many more tests.”

They sigh.

“There will be many chances. Remember, these tests, your scores, they are nothing but numbers. They are important, but they are not so important. Work hard, but remember, there are more important things than numbers. It may be hard to understand what I’m saying today, but it’s the truth, I promise. Let’s eat some cake.”

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I’m sure they didn’t really get it. But, then again, what do kids really get? That’s their greatest attribute. I’ve seen teachers give them the business. “You cry today, laugh tomorrow. Laugh today, cry tomorrow! Don’t you care? Don’t you want to be something better?” They hear it, but they can’t totally make sense of it yet. The anger, I guess they can make sense of that. The fact is, you tell a child what matters, the values of life and education. You tell them again and again until one day they just sort of accept it. Perhaps—but more likely not—someday they’ll realize it’s not that simple.

It’s very hard, it’s really impossible, for my kids to see outside the exam. I can understand that. The margin of error in their life is heartbreakingly thin. Coloring outside the lines is dangerous. I’m gone in a few months. I can help them on the exam. But, I can’t help them on the vast majority of exams, current and future. I can’t do much for them, tangibly, in the long term. I can’t do anything. But, they’re going to hear and fear about the future a lot. They’re going to subconsciously build a belief that today only matters as a function of tomorrow. They are going to believe it, believe that their only responsibility today is to improve the abstract concept of the future. I suppose if I can provide an alternative take—a fleeting, here today, gone tomorrow dissenting opinion—I have to. It’s good to confuse them. The very thought of a teacher questioning the importance of school or tests doesn’t match up. But, if I believed that that kind of success was the most important kind, I don’t think I’d be a very good teacher.

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Lamentations from Beijing Standard Time

“Deéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeé,”

 

Or is it,

 

“Deèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeè.”

 

The bell.

 

Someone’s got it out for me. You know when you’re part of a 10 car pileup and your Smart Car gets totaled and crushed to pieces and 17 small animals are killed in the process and you walk out with just an untied shoelace? Know what I’m saying? And you call your grandma and she says, “Someone up there’s looking out for you.” Whatever that is, I’m on the other side of the coin, big time. I’m the small animal. The gods are on my case.

 

I’m sitting in the teacher’s office, sprawled out over a couch. My foot is on the coffee table. I attempt to furtively remove it every time another teacher walks by. “What No. Oh, come on, I just like to hover my foot above the table like this. It’s just this thing I do.” I’m watching what’s supposed to be (and later turned out to be anything but) the greatest NBA finals of this generation: The Heat-Spurs rematch of the infamous “28.2” game when the Spurs all but had the championship rings on their fingers before LeBron James and Ray Allen went next level superhuman and wound up stealing the series in epically dramatic fashion. The Spurs were back for revenge, which, again, they got, But, I didn’t know this at the time.

 

I love basketball more than almost anything else. Anything I love more, you can surely count on one hand, and they’re all immediate family members. Luckily, I only have three people in my immediate family; otherwise I’d have to start making cuts. With that in mind, these NBA finals, even though my putrid New York Knicks are nowhere to be found, are a godsend to me. When the Spurs officially bounced the Oklahoma City Thunder and I knew we’d get a rematch of last year’s finals, I got that feeling in my stomach that you get right before your first kiss. I think I may have even been—no, definitely was—sexually aroused. Then I realized something that I’d slowly begun to forget.

I live in China; and, as if that wasn’t enough, I have a job. I immediately rushed to my computer and checked the schedule. Not a single game would be on Friday or Saturday night (Saturday and Sunday morning in Beijing Standard Time). I wouldn’t be able to watch one full game of the 2014 NBA finals, the greatest finals of all time, the most pertinent reason to live as far as I’m concerned. If I were a god-fearing man, I’d consider it a message. I began to think of the possibilities: I could play sick, naturally. I could fabricate a top-secret business meeting with Beijing officials and camp out in a hotel for two weeks. I could switch all of my classes to the afternoon. I could lock myself in the teachers’ lounge, where the only TV—and all the baijiu—on campus is, and threaten to destroy the each bottle of baijiu if anyone touched the doorknob. I could just quit. But if I quit, I’d be unemployed during and after the NBA finals. If I locked myself in a room and cracked open 30 bottles of baijiu, I’d almost surely inadvertently off myself on account of the fumes. It was clear: I had no choice.

 

I’m from the Eastern Standard time zone. I live in the Beijing Standard time zone. China is the third largest country in the world, by area, but stubbornly maintains a single time system from Beijing to Lhasa. Strange, irritating, and surprising, considering they can effortlessly switch between the Lunar and Gregorian calendars mid-sentence. In any event, the American East Coast is 12 hours behind the Chinese East Coast (and south, north, and west for that matter). So, of course, a basketball game played at 9 pm on Wednesday night in Miami would air at 9am Thursday morning in Sanzhuang. This conundrum, I’ve found, is the single worst part of living in a different time zone. If you want to talk to your dad or grandma or significant other, you can just tell them what time. “Eight am for you, eight pm for me? No? Let’s push it back an hour. Fine.” Unfortunately, when the NBA schedules the finals, it doesn’t take teachers in the middle of Southwestern China into account. And, unlike the conversation with mom and dad, you can’t very well call up LeBron and see if he wouldn’t mind pushing the tip-off up to 8 in the morning, Eastern Standard.

 

“You know what LeBron, I’d even be willing to compromise for 7 am, if you can swing it.”

 

That probably wouldn’t work either. The latest class I teach in the mornings starts at 10:15. This meant, the most I’d be able to see of any single game (if tip-off was at 8:15 and I had to be in class at 10:15—10:16 if I stretched it—would be three quarters. I’d never once be able to see the final buzzer. In the end, I could catch 15-minute stretches between back-to-back classes and a quarter or two during longer breaks. I was beholden to the bell. It really was agony. Death by baijiu fumes began to sound better and better each day.

 

For example: During game one, I had to teach a fourth period art class to a bunch of 11 year olds. I hate art class, especially with 11 year olds. It’s rowdy and unpredictable and someone usually cries (and it’s not always me). I was summoned by the rancorous 10:15 bell at the end of the third quarter with the score Heat-78, Spurs-74. When class ended, the game was over. The Spurs had won by 15 points! 110-95. LeBron James had cramped up and couldn’t stay on the court and I was yelling at Li HuaLin to keep his hands of off Lin LiHua, and Li HuaLin didn’t want to do that.

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The games ended, I was able to check the scores, and the Spurs took the championship in 5 games, giving LeBron and friends a very public pro-basketball version of a wedgie in the process. It’s over now, and I still have my job and my dignity.

 

When you live in a different country, you make a lot of sacrifices. Some big (missing the NBA finals), some small (not seeing friends and family for years at a time). Being an ex-pat is weird, because you’ll never be able to make that full break. Even if you hate your country, want to burn your passport, and violently take flash pictures of the Declaration of Independence until it crumbles to shreds, you might like Butterfingers or you might like that beeping sound the door makes when you walk into a CVS or you might like the NBA. If you hate everything about your country, then you’re just a born hater, and there’s no hope for you anywhere else either. Nostalgia is inescapable.

 

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Like I said, I’d kind of begun to forget that I was living in China. I don’t mean China, per se, I just mean living in a place that I’m not from. I’ve been here long enough now that cravings and desires for things back home have started to dissipate as it becomes painfully obvious that there are no meatball subs, music festivals, or Cheesy Gordita Crunches in my immediate future. But, LeBron’s cramp game brought me back online. A time zone is a theoretical expression of distance, and it expressed itself quite vividly while I was hovering my feet above the table, hoping for the bell not to ring. I knew, that were I back in the US, not only would I not be in class, but I’d be at a bar, getting a little bit sauced, and going insane with hundreds of other people when Patty Mills ripped off three straight threes in a row. Or even sitting in the living room with just my dad, eating a fat piece of ribeye and talking about the beautiful simplicity of Tim Duncan’s post moves.

 

Maybe I realized that it wasn’t necessarily the finals that bothered me, but what the finals represented. Yes, I was still completely miffed not to be able to watch the games themselves. But, in any event, I would have been watching them at 8 in the morning, on a shitty TV, with volume too low to hear and in a language that I still can’t confidently or enjoyably watch TV in, by myself, and being eaten alive by flies. And sober.

 

I remember when I was studying abroad in Shanghai. UCONN was in the NCAA finals against Butler. I went to a bar at 7:30 am and drank Bloodies and cheered with fifty other people who were at least interested in the game. It was good. It was ok. But, even then, it wasn’t the same. I could give countless similar instances. Yankees playoff games, Jets playoff games, the UCONN championship that happened just a few months ago. And these are just sports. You miss graduations and weddings and all kind of things. Things that, even if you were running away from something back home—I’m not—you still don’t want to run away from.

 

It’s impossible to recreate somewhere somewhere else. And that’s not the point anyway. You’ve got to appreciate both places for what they are. The emotion of “missing” is just a reminder that you have affection for something, and you may not have known it before. When I go back to the US, I am sure that I will miss things about China. I’m sure, on top of those, there are even more things that I don’t even know I’ll miss until I can’t walk down the street and see them or eat them. And that’s a beautiful thing. We live in a world where you can’t have all the things you love and like anytime, anywhere, at least for now. That makes it a lot easier to appreciate them. Next time I get to see a full NBA finals, in a bar, or even at the arena, with thousands of other people, I’ll be looking back to that god awful 4th grade art class and really remembering what it means to love something.

 

But, goddamn, I cannot believe I didn’t get to see the Cramp Game.