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.


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.


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.


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.


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?”






Smoke & Testicles


I stood at an existential crossroads.Turn left: I’d be in front of my computer, shrouded in clothes I bought on taobao and thinking terrible thoughts about taobao. Turn right: I could be sitting around an incompetent space heater with a bunch of middle-aged dudes insistent on shoving flammable liquid into my throat.

I eagerly turned right.

It was a solid crowd of 5 or 6—the familiars: The principal, the security guard, a couple of administrators, a local shop owner. They were watching local news and screaming at each other. I sat down and the security guard—the host—filled my glass. There is no such thing as “say when.” “When” is “when” pouring more means losing some. I noticed dozens of empty bottles of baijiu in the corner. Our security guard would not do well in Salt Lake City.

You can always tell what kind of a night it is based on sip to gulp ratio. This is something I learned in college. This Wednesday evening, as it were, was a gulp night. A cavalcade of cheersing ensued. After a few minutes, I was two glasses deep and starting to feel warm. On my left was Mr. Zhao, a new teacher at our school. Mr. Zhao spent the last six years at a 1-4 school in an isolated area thirty minutes off the main road. He was one of two teachers at that school. As an aside, this is only plausible because the village where he taught, Dongpo, sends its kids to school every two years. So, if there is a new 1st grade class in 2014, there will not be another one until 2016. For obvious reasons, Mr. Zhao was forced to teach English. Consequently, Mr. Zhao has a fluent command of the 3rd and 4th grade People’s Education Press curriculum.

“It’s cold.” He says.

“Yes.” I say.

“I’m old.” He says.

“Nah. Mr. Zhao. If you told me you were a day over 30 I simply wouldn’t believe it .” I say in Chinese.

“I am forty.” He says and then proceeds to state the age of each person in the room in rapid sequence. “He is fifty-two. He is fifty-nine. He is forty-three. You are twenty-four,” etc.

“That’s true, Mr. Zhao. Not bad.”

Mr. Zhao smiles.

After the collective BAC climbs to “ambitious,” the local shop owner (not drinking) suggests that we get some food. It’s 10 pm now. Food is twenty minutes and a lot more baijiu and cigarettes away. Another existential crossroads emerges. I have things to do, matters of consequence to attend to, goddamnit. I’m still at the level of inebriation that allows for—potentially enhances—work.

I go with them, naturally.

Mr. Zhao, who is long past the aforementioned level begins banging wildly on the doors of other, likely asleep, teachers. After minutes of persistence he manages to roust Mr. Duan—a tall, thin, quiet man—from slumber. The crowd lets out a raucous roar as Mr. Duan emerges grouchily from his room. They (we) begin chanting “Lit-tle Duan, Lit-tle Duan,” as we move toward the shop owner’s Ford.


We pile into the car: Two in the passenger’s seat, four in the back. Seven total. Mr. Yang is on my knee, shouting orders at the driver. Mr. Duan is crammed in the corner, imbued with feelings opposite warmth, love, and affection. We arrive in town—Songgui—after twenty swervy minutes. The driver pounds the breaks and Mr. Yang hurls forward, letting out a roar of approval. We dodder into a shaokao (barbecue) spot. The place is flush with middle-aged males—the fast crowd in this pocket of the human universe.

After the obligatory volley of introductory head nods and “Ehs, ohs, and ughs” we sit down at our own table and the waiter produces two fresh bottles of baijiu and sparks the grill. The security guard takes initiative and fills everyone’s glass. Mr. Duan’s feeble attempts at refusal are met with collective guttural chortles of shaming disapproval.

The waiter brings out the food—not a vegetable in the house—at least not until Mr. Zhao powers through three or four more tall glasses of firewater. The shop owner tosses some livers and ligament-y looking things on the griddle. The fire roars and the smoke swats me in the face and we sit back and cheers. Mr. Yang and Mr. Zhao drain their glasses with frightening impunity. They are small dudes and notorious lightweights. Cigarettes are passed out and smoked livers and ligaments are crisp. Mr. Zhao and Mr. Yang are screaming at each other in nearly unintelligible dialect. I think I can make out small bits.

“I clean the damn bathroom. Clean it with my own hands, Zhao.” Mr. Yang says.

Mr. Yang gestures from a hand with a cigarette and a re-filled glass of baijiu in it. The drank sloshes and falls onto the grill. I get a fresh sheet of meat and cigarette smoke in my eyes.


OK. I’m sorry,” Mr. Zhao is speaking English again.

“Listen here, Zhao. I clean the damn bathroom. It’s my job.” He is so sure of it.

OK. I’m sorry. Meester Yang.” I suppose Mr. Zhao had disparaged the bathroom.

The waiter brings out some large, beanish looking things. The shop owner strategically places them on the grill, one by one. Mr. Yang and Mr. Zhao are shouting. The security guard appears to be asleep. Mr. Duan is pondering into his glass.

“What’s that?” I ask through the smoke.

“Oh, you know.” The shop owner says, smiling like a 10-year-old boy.

It is eggs! Pig eggs!” Mr. Zhao points emphatically, returning to the fray. Egg is the Chinese slang for that particular anatomical feature, as it were.


The shop owner paints the testicles with oil (lol) and they flare up. I receive a thick cloud of testicle smoke to the eyes. I wonder what happens when a pig is tumescent, if you will, before meeting its fate. First of all, awful way to go. Second, well you know, what’s the flavor profile there?


Eggs!” They all shout in English. Mr. Duan, an actual English teacher, drily repeats the word. We eat the eggs. They’re not bad. We finish one and a half bottles. I hide the remainder behind my stool. I fend off Mr. Yang when he discovers it. He relents. We drive back with a Styrofoam box full of testicles. Messrs Yang and Zhao, and the security guard rest peacefully on the seat.

When we arrive it’s just past 1 AM. Mr. Zhao has morning study hall in 6 hours. We approach the on-duty room, where a teacher, Yang Yan Han, is sleeping. They begin pounding on his door. I quickly make my escape. They pound and chant, “Give Yang Yan Han the testicles! Give Yang Yan Han the testicles!” I find out the next morning that they gave him the testicles. I return to my cold bed.

When I walked to the security guard’s room, and then when I piled into a car, and again when I was getting faced with fumo de cojones, I kept having this thought. I was thinking about the interplay between things we have to do, should do, want to do, need to do. The way you live your life boils down to what types of things you slot into each of those categories. I was thinking I should go “get shit done,” I should “do some work,” whatever that means. Everyone always wants to “get shit done.” Then I was thinking, I have to go down the hill and drink baijiu and smoke cigarettes with these guys. I have to. What could possibly be more important? Now, I recognize that that sounds like some sort of Nihilist excuse for debauchery. It very well could be. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe once in a while we should reprioritize our priorities.