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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Take that Back: Collective Censorship in the 21st Century

Eleven years from now, my presidential candidacy won’t last long. I’ll be doomed before I even sign off on my letter of intent. They’ll call me irresponsible, maybe even weak, when they find the photo(s) on Facebook of me passed out in places that aren’t for sleeping. They’ll call me bigoted when they dig up that AIM conversation from 2002 when I called Smarterchild a “retard” because I thought it was cool and I was 12. They’ll question my self-control and morals when they find out that I soiled my underoos on the bus in second grade and blamed the smell on the chubby kid sitting next to me. I’ll never stand a chance because I’m a bad dude. But, then something strange will happen. All the other candidates will get the ax and for indiscretions way worse than mine. There’ll be the woman who smoked weed before it was legal and the guy who allegedly said an offensive word one time and the other one who got an in-school suspension in 7th grade for peeing on the seat and the one that clicked “enter site” on pornhub when he was still just 17. Then we’ll be left with one 90-year-old Amish woman who’s never left Pennsylvania Dutch. But secretly, behind that billowy blue dress, she’ll probably be a total perv like the rest of us.

Reactive hypocrisy. That’s the 21st century, in your face digital landscape. The problem is, we’re at a point where the digital landscape is really just the landscape, right? The Internet is so inextricably connected to and watchful of every human movement, in a way that was once only reserved for God or Jesus or other peeping Toms. The seamless interconnection between interfaces has made it sickeningly easy to keep tabs on the next guy and beat him down for it before the words have even left his mouth. The new world, championed by a crusading class of Internet bottom-feeders and video uploaders, desperate for and hell bent on likes and hearts and stars and follows, lends itself so perfectly to reactive hypocrisy. Reactive: it’s all a grand virtual competition for who can type the loudest and scream the fastest, and vice versa. Hypocrisy: there are no repercussions, unless you are in a position to face repercussions, and then there are massive ones. We’ve entered the eggshell generation, the “That’s mean, asshole” epoch.

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The hypocrisy gets me the most. Mic up each of the 320 million Americans, publish their private messages, hey, track their thoughts for one week without telling them and see who amongst us is as pure and righteous as we claim to be when someone says something stupid on camera. It just doesn’t add up. But, really, it’s always been that way. As a society, we’ve consistently been at pains to construct a kitschy façade of public and private. I use “kitschy” in the way that Kundera used it in Unbearable Lightness—the idea that, you know, a falling tree doesn’t make a sound if no one hears it (or an ignorant remark isn’t ignorant unless an internet commenter gets their hands on it). Think of all the fucked up stuff that we know the Roman emperors were getting into. Imagine Caligula having to deal with TMZ? But, we’ve always needed this thick line between what we “do” and what we do. It preserves formality and puts humanity on a pedestal above all other species. It’s why—in many places—there’s a stall for number 2. We still feel a deep, ingrained desire to keep that line in place, but it’s no longer possible. It really isn’t. The weird thing is, as the line of “do” and do disappears, we’ve seemed to become even more uncompromising about crossing it. So, we find ourselves in a constant battle for who can conceal their perversions more effectively.

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On second thought, the reactive element gets me the most. The Internet is a mousetrap of pent up anger and insecurity. It’s a place where a misplaced comma can have real life fallouts—did you know that Bill Cosby wrote a book called “Come on People”? It’s a place where context and history are optional considerations when scrutinizing someone’s commentary. It’s not that people don’t have time to think in this day and age, it’s that they actively choose not to. It’s a culture of exclamation points before question marks. Remember Phil Robertson? He made some ignorant—in no way deliberately hateful—comments about being gay. His comments were informed by years of hearing the same thing over and over again. He was immediately ripped apart by the netizens of “tolerance.” His show was suspended and he was forced to issue an apology. Did our bearded buddy learn anything from this? Yeah. He learned to keep his thoughts, however uninformed, confined to himself or others who think like him. But wait, isn’t that how he came to have those thoughts in the first place? Do I support Robertson’s comments? Nope. Do I support him? Well, I think his show sucks, but I’m not angry with Phil for being conditioned–just like me. Do I support homophobia, racism, and intolerance? NO, NO, and NO. But, I support people’s right to be wrong. To assume that everyone with a TV and a keyboard has their finger on the pulse of progressivism is lunacy, and frankly gives people with TVs and keyboards (read: lots of people) way too much credit.

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Imagine you’re a 10-year-old and you raise your timid hand and said to your science teacher, “Hey, Sandra told me that babies come from storks, how does that work?” and your teacher said, “Shut up Jimmy. Idiot,” and left it at that. You wouldn’t have any more info about the origin of babies, but you’d probably dislike your teacher. You also probably wouldn’t raise your hand again. We have this tendency to think that bigotry, ignorance, even stupidity, is loaded with personal hatred. But really, it’s just a product of lack of access and exposure. But, the teacher who calls Jimmy an idiot is a lot more intriguing than the one who walks him through the reproductive process. But, it’s not about changing people’s opinions, much less educating them, is it?

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But really, it’s the reactive hypocrisy that gets me. We use the guise of calling out someone for ignorance, stupidity, intolerance etc. as an excuse to stoop to and below their level. Take this hypothetical exchange:

Foreigner: “What do Americans like to eat?”

American 1: “Americans like to eat hamburgers—”

American 2: “God what a fucking ignoramus. I’m a vegetarian and I don’t eat hamburgers. I’m also American. Get off your high horse you carnivorous scum. It’s chauvinistic meat-eating assholes like you who deserve a trampling death at the merciless hoofs of a thousand cows. You probably don’t even know anything about vegetarians. Ignorant.”

American 1: “I was going to say hamburgers and—“

American 2: “That’s enough out of you. You won’t spread your bullshit on my watch. I bet you can’t even explain your gastrocentric self. Can you?”

American 1: “I just—“

American 2: “Jesus, get a clue.”

Foreigner: “Hey American 1, can we talk about this in private.”

So, I’m talking about two things: the community imposed censorship of our suddenly public lives and the community imposed censorship of our suddenly public thoughts. Keep reading before misconstruing that statement, please.

The problem—and greatest thing—about the newfangled intermingling of humanity is that you’re going to rub elbows with people and communities you’ve never had contact with, some you’ve never even heard of—like the bazillion radical Internet groups in operation. Physical (actual) interconnectedness is lagging far behind digital interconnectedness. We are exposed to each other in a completely new way, yet we don’t understand or know each other. We don’t even seem to care to. Yet, we expect others to understand and know us. It’s a lot easier to scream and yell from behind the comfort of the world wide web than it is to call your neighbor an ignorant asshole—or a reactive hypocrite for that matter.

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The worst thing about this stuff is it makes discourse very difficult. It makes simply existing in a digital world very difficult. It makes people afraid to say or do anything remotely controversial. What it really is, is censorship by committee and it’s at odds with what the people who promulgate it are trying to effect. Big brother has become little brother. Instead of a big bad government machine standing vigilant over us, we are doing the job ourselves and with zealous voracity. When athletes have to apologize to their fans for getting high in the offseason, we have a problem. When Kanye is called to apologize for punching a paparazzi that’s been harassing him for 3 months—and the photographer’s behavior is unconsidered—we have a problem. When politicians get chastised for saying things “off camera” that were really said on camera, why don’t we ask ourselves this question: Did this view appear out of thin air at that very moment? Maybe it was there all along; we were just waiting, praying for a slip up, like the FBI zeroing in on a RICO claim. We’re left with a situation where digital agitators preach to the choir—others in their Internet circles—over and over again and become so inured with that circle’s rhetoric. When someone decides to dip their toe into the circle, they seem to forget that other rhetorics even exist. This goes for all sides: Right, left, up, down.

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I don’t necessarily think it’s bad that everything is out in the open now. I think, if nothing else, it gives people the chance to get a grip on other points of view and experiences should they choose to. Sorry fellow liberals, but “uninformed” conservatives are not the only ones that need to learn about the other side. It also allows people to craft a public image that’s at least somewhat in line with their private one. I can live with that, really. But if we want more transparency—and whether or not we want it, we’ve got it—we need to be prepared for what we’re going to see. We need to admit that people are infinitely imperfect, from public figures all the way down to the gelatinous creatures of the Internet basement. We’re going to have to admit that not everyone comes from the same place, not everyone knows the same things, and that we are just as dumb and depraved as the people we think are infinitely dumb and depraved.

In the end, if you want to hold strangers to your standards you should probably hold yourself to them too. It reminds me of the times in middle school when no one wanted to take a shit during class break. If you took a really bad one and everyone was in there and heard the noises and detected the aromatic thunder and saw you exit the stall you were liable to get ragged on for months to come. If you went during class, you could get away without anyone knowing. But everyone knows that everyone goes right? Why act like that’s not how it is? I say go during the class break, do what feels right, and come out smiling with your fists in the air and your head held high.

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Yeah. I’ll never be president.

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