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.

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Unforgiving Progress: An Early Requiem for a Community

We’re really close to the sun here. Not in a metaphorical way or anything. You’re not about to get hit with some Icarus parallel. Like, literally—relatively—the sun is close. That’s why, especially in the winter, days are that perfect kind of weather where you don’t even notice weather and nights give you hallucinations of Leif Erickson shoving sno-cones in your face and whatnot. It also makes the morning bright AF. On cloudless mornings (and most right now are) you’ve got to mentally prepare yourself for solar beatdown. Having the complexion of a roll of unused toilet paper, it’s dangerous out there for me.

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My face, whiter than toilet paper.

Day 1 of the weekend. I told fifth-grader Yang Hua (English name Tom) that I’d meet him outside his house at 8:30 in the morning and we’d hang around his village. Stupid—that’s how I felt about that promise at 8:00 a.m. Two years ago at that time I’d have just hit stage 4 of the sleep cycle. Wouldn’t get a crack at the world until noon. I remember in college this one kid wanted to meet up for a group project at 8:30 am on Sunday. I think I must have said something like, “You’re a sick fuck, you know that?” before we kicked him out of the group. But anyways, I’m older now and I’ve created responsibilities for myself. It’s one thing to stand up an 8:30 am class, it’s another to stand up an 11-year-old kid.

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Sanzhuang Village

I got up, slunk into the brightness, and walked down the mountain to Yang Hua’s house. He lives in the first mini-cluster-village of the big-big village of WenXing (When-Shing for you foreign devils). As such, he’s attended school at SanZhuang—where I teach—since first grade because, even though he lives in WenXing, SanZhuang’s elementary school is 10 times closer to his house than the WenXing iteration. I thought that was a nice, strikingly un-bureaucratic arrangement for Yang Hua. I walked down through SanZhuang on my way. I passed a bunch of my students and this old farmer who seems to pop up everywhere in my life. Whenever I walk past, he announces to someone—or no one if someone is not there—that “It’s Mr. Loeb, the American teacher, Mr. Loeb is coming down the hill!” And laughs merrily. It’s kind of weird. I can’t tell if he likes me or he’s doing some Paul Revere type shit.

Yang Hua is waiting in front of his little village. I’m immediately washed with a pang of relief-guilt. Really happy I didn’t let myself doze. I suppose I have grown up. The way these things work: Clusters of houses, almost quite literally right on top of each other and then vast expanses of cropland before another cluster of houses quite literally on top of each other. It might make personal-space-loving Americans scratch their heads—and it took me a while to make sense of it. “But… but… where’s your backyard.” I might ask. “This is all our backyard.” Accompanied by a sweeping of the arms. Not even a single “Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again,” sign. How barbaric. Gives me the creeps, it does.

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WenXing scenery

Yang Hua and I meet up with another one of my kids—Gao ZhiBin (who I creatively named Zeben, in honor of a TFC teacher I kind of knew). And then two 11-year-olds and me walked across the entirety of the big-big village of WenXing in the infinite brightness. We village-hopped, if you will. Remember, all of these clusters are separated by big plots of rice, wheat, and tobacco. Throughout the walk—which took a few hours—we ran into pretty much all of my WenXing students. About 10-12 come to SanZhuang each year. WenXing’s own school only has grades 1-4. So, its students—like students from other surrounding rural villages—come to SanZhuang for 5th and 6th grade. WenXing is small and, like most rural Chinese villages, getting smaller.

Quick modern history/rural economics lesson: WenXing is and has always been an agricultural village. There isn’t much in the way of concrete documentation, but from what I hear from locals, it was kind of what you picture when you think about rural China back in the day—and probably a little worse, given its mountain-hugging location. Up until the 70’s, poverty was the rule, the concept of “our” was law, and life was a grind. Most people will tell you that it’s been getting better since the mid-70s. A slow, upward trajectory that has been nothing, mostly, but good. Education got better, students stayed in the system longer, a new road sprung up every few years. Most people over the age of 30 probably have four, five, six brothers and sisters. But rarely, if ever, do they have more than two kids of their own. Even though the one-child policy does not apply to farmers or minorities, economics do. The advantages of having six children have been erased by incipient prosperity.

But, now it’s clear that the prosperity curve is starting to press up against the limits of reality. Alas, an hours-long agricultural community cannot sustain economic growth forever in its own little organic semi-vacuum. To be sure, this is also the case for cities, countries, and, sorry, planets. There are essentially no #millenials here. People aged 18-30 are almost invariably working in cities, living not amongst rice terraces and family, but in tiny little cupboards in cities like LiJiang or DaLi, with 10 other young people—and, mind you, making 10 times what they’d be making if they weren’t. This is demographic engineering. Whether policy or not, like the one-child law, it seems to be the logical course of economics meets life. After all, subsistence-or-close-to-it farmers do next-to-nothing for the proliferation of societal cash-money. Move those people to the city, pay them 10 times more (still very little), make them consumers, and convert the inefficient land that they used to farm and live on to Big-Agri-Central and shit like amusement parks (and way down the line perhaps 1,000 times pricier second homes for the grandkids of the people who left the village). Show me a “developed” nation where that story hasn’t played out. I dare you.

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Students messing around in the stream

But, not today. Each village-cluster (nine in total) is still sufficiently full of life. Every time we cross a field and enter a new village it’s kind of like entering a new country. People—especially old people—speak of the villages like that. I remember one guy warning me in my first days to “never trust a person from (the village right across the street)” as though the cobblestones represented some sort of irreconcilable moralistic divide. There is a dominant last name in each village, too. This makes sense. These are generally places people move out of. Outsiders with weird names like Loeb, rarely settle down here.

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We cross into the central village—the wealthiest of the nine. The village committee building is here. There are also three small convenience stores, shelves stocked haphazardly, cash stored in a creaky drawer—all bills tossed in with each other, ancient-looking men sitting outside on stools sucking the life out of cigarette bongs (and, sadly, themselves), and a brand of friendliness that doesn’t exist in places with garbage and traffic lights.

I buy the kids some lukewarm “iced” tea and they lead me up a side-alley to Zhang LiPin’s house. They pound on his door and scream his name. This is actually how people coordinate rendezvouses! I always thought Charles Schulz was full of shit when he wrote about this kind of stuff. Moments later an irritated old-woman-voice echoes from the other side of the door. “He’s not here. He’s ‘being an honored guest.’” The kids shrug and we keep walking. “Being an honored guest,” a phrase that carries with it that unnecessarily inherent formality that a lot of Chinese phrases do, is always hilarious in this context. First of all, because everyone is friends around here, people are always going over to other people’s houses for events—from funerals to weddings to liver-destructions. So, this is a super common reason for someone being unavailable. But, the word/phrase is used interchangeably for kids and adults. The idea of an 11-year-old, let alone a four-year-old “being an honored guest” cracks me up.

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Alleyway in WenXing

Zhang LiPin wasn’t home, so we walked to the next cluster. We called on another kid, Yang JianWei, who was home. His dad, shirtless and roundbellied, scrambled to receive us. He frantically looked for a teacup, and when he couldn’t find one, emptied, washed, and refilled his own tea-bottle and offered it to me. He ran into the courtyard and grabbed a few sticks of milky-ice (cream) from the freezer and handed them to the boys. The spontaneous acts of hospitality, incredible. We stayed for a moment—not long enough for my tea to cool—and walked back toward Yang Hua’s house. We would eat lunch there.

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Gao ZhiBin, Yang Hua, me

On the way back we stopped at the school to play basketball with a couple more of my students. The hoops were droopy and the ball flat. The school is only a few rooms—a real community operation. There are 43 students in total, grades K-4. My school’s own Principal, Mr. Yang, who happens to be from this very village-cluster of WenXing, said there were well over a hundred kids here 20 years ago, when his son—who know lives in the city of NuJiang—was a student here. One of the kids laments his fate as a fellow-townsman of Principal Yang. “He’s my principal seven days a week instead of five!”

We retrace past the little haphazard shops and the same ancient dudes loving on the steel cigarette bongs and the fields, fields, fields. Yang Hua and Gao ZhiBin playfully attack each other with fallen branches. I notice Yang Hua’s shirt is too small for him. Gao ZhiBin’s, too. They don’t notice, though.

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We get back to their village around two. The way back always feels shorter. On the way there, you never know where the end is. There’s an “uncle” sitting on a stool by the table. Always stools here, of course. I guess there’s a thrill in eating whilst trying not to injure yourself, or something. The uncle smokes a cigarette and nod-smiles at us. Yang Hua and Gao ZhiBin mess around with my camera for a few minutes, before a pack of tired looking middle-aged women enters the gate and sits down at the table. I look up, confused.

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Food, literally, on food

“It’s the busy season,” Yang Hua informs. “They’re helping us with our crops, so we’re having them over for lunch.” The honored guests smile and nod and continue jabbering in deep, deep dialect, far beyond my comprehension. Yang Hua’s dad comes out with a few trays of freshly picked, freshly cooked, freshly fresh dishes—the only kind there are here. Pig’s stomach, milky potatoes, corn and green beans, leek soup, whole little fishes, and that thing that starts with an r and ends with an e. He greets me and offers a Dali beer and a Yunnan cigarette. I take the beer. He tacitly impugns my nicotine-free “masculinity.”

I eat gleefully, say thank you, and walk back up the mountain in the brightness. “Come visit us anytime, anytime.” The boys say. “See you on Monday,” I tell the students—more sullenly reminding myself than them.

It’s funny whenever I do this. I feel deeply nostalgic for something I never had. I feel like I’m vicariously experiencing a lost life—one spent on private property, one spent in cars, one spent with phones and distance—a decade on. Life has been good for me, to be sure. But, it was never like this. For some reason this is how I’ve always pictured “society”—close-knit, name-knowing, honored-guest-being, continuously, endlessly hospitable… neighborly. With a fuck-ton of corner shops. As many corner shops as corners.

And this place will probably be “running its course” by the next time Halley’s comet comes through. And I wonder why that has to be. Are the concepts of prosperity (the money kind) and simplicity, neighborliness, tradition, and community really so diametrically opposed?

It’s hard to argue that they aren’t.

Why does it always seem like we can only choose one or the other? Truthfully, this sense of community is something we’re always hungering for in theory—country, religion etc.. And I suppose when you think about it in that sense, the concept of community is OK until you consider its insidious exclusivity—an apparently fundamental characteristic to its existence. But, practically speaking, real, physical communities seem to be perhaps the greatest victim, among many, many positives, of prosperity. I would never argue that Yang Hua and Gao ZhiBin are better off staying put—my alleged purpose here pretty much represents the inverse of that notion. Surely, in most ways, they aren’t better off. But, remember from time to time, that progress and wealth are not no-strings-attached plusses. There are some things you’re gonna have to lose first.

(comm)Ode

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“只要去探索,美无所不在”

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”

-Confucius

The earth shook for months. Everyday, every single day, they pounded and blasted. Dust drenched men and women took hammer to stone, trowel to loam, and heart to progress. Their toil, routinely forged under oppressive sun, often endeavored through searing torrents, was a toil for the future. It was a toil for henceforth. It was a toil for progress. It was a toil for a toilet.

It’s over now. History is written. The scent of the past will soon be flushed from our collective consciousness. For that, at least, no one will complain. But I have lost a dear friend.

On the night of Sunday, December 7, 2014—a day before a day that might live in infamy—I walked to the bathroom. It was late. After 10:30. I heard two voices, one unmistakable. I walked in. The sole bulb tasked with illuminating all nocturnal lavatorial activity dangled and swayed, as always. Spider webs clutched at wooden beams, as always. Some place to live. Chinese schools teem with inspirational graffiti. In the cafeteria it says, “Food Safety is Golden.” On the basketball court it says, “Health Comes from Exercise.” On the peeling, faded wall above the communal urinal it says, “For a Little Gift Approach the Trough. For a Big Gift Approach the Hole.”

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As I prepared to follow the latter instruction, I noticed the sources of the voices. The unmistakable one was Mr. Yang, my ubiquitous principal. The other was a fifth grade student, Shane (Liu XingYang). Shane is a chubby, reserved kid with buckteeth and a crew cut. He’s the number one student in 5th grade. Shane apparently didn’t feel so good.

“Yes. I think so.” Shane managed.

“Of course it’s important! A person needs good habits. Habits are everything. An idiot even knows it.”

“Yes. That’s true.”

Mr. Yang turns to me. “Good evening, Mr. Luo! I was just talking about the importance of habits with this guy here… What’s the name guy?”

“Liu XingYang.”

“Yes, XingYang. He’s quite sick.”

“Good evening, Mr. Yang. Yeah, Liu XingYang. He’s the best student in my class.” I take the spot next to principal Yang.

“Wah! How about that? Then he knows about all of this. You know about all of this. Never mind it.”

“OK.” Shane squeaks.

“But, I bet you don’t know a damn thing about traffic safety.”

“I don’t know.”

“What are you up to Mr. Luo?” The principal asks me as Shane mentally checks off the shortlist of less desirable places on earth.

“Using the bathroom.”

“Ah, yes. An honest man. Ha!”

We chat for a few moments. I did what I did and departed. Walking away, I could still hear Mr. Yang’s virtuous seminar and Shane’s strained acknowledgements. Preachers have their pulpits. Professors have their lectern. Mr. Yang, too, has his oratory platform. Oh! The pure, raw humanity of it all!

When the sun rose on December 8th an era would close. The era of the new bathroom—under construction (and “nearly done”) for over half a year—would be (fl)ushered in. It is a crowning achievement of sorts—an architectural marvel. It is a flawlessly white building, replete with elegant artwork and sophisticated Chinese proverbs that I don’t really understand. It has stalls with wraparound walls that almost create an illusion of privacy. It has squeaky, easy to scrub tile floors. It smells bad (it’s a bathroom) but nothing like its predecessor. It has a mirror. It has a sink. It flushes. It is Principal Yang’s magnum opus, his urinalis maximus, his Big Gift to Sanzhuang. He is proud.

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I feel weird though. I’ve had a rather ambivalent year-and-a-half relationship with the old guard. It’s all I know. A piece from August 30, 2013 may help put my then and now into perspective. Consider this an update. Back then, the thought of public Big Gifting was almost out of the question. Imagine going full-squat right next to your elementary school teachers. That’s a notion you’d have trouble warming up to, even next to your dearest of dear friends. Now, imagine you’re the teacher—and you’re foreign. I generally made use of the fact that students are in class 90% of the day. Sometimes though, we are slaves to nature. In a school with 150 male students, 15 male teachers, and one men’s room, privacy is a laughing matter. I learned to deal with it and even disentangle decades of bathroom usage schema embedded deep into my conscience.

I’m not going to write that approaching the hole in the presence of others is a profoundly delightful leisure pursuit. I was never psyched about the proposition. I never brought the People’s Daily and made a morning of it (as some teachers did). But, at the very least, it was an interesting process in destigmatization. Hygienic privacy is not a universal human right. In fact, I would venture to guess that half the world doesn’t have it and certainly a far greater number do not approach rigorous American standards.

I won’t miss that, though. But, this building with seemingly no redeeming qualities has been a fixture of my time here. The new swirled order will change things. Some indelible memories have been forged. There was the time Frank—my fourth grade student—fell in. This is not funny. It is incredibly hilarious. There was the time when Mr. Yang brought all of the boys in the school together to investigate the party responsible for a footprint on the white paint. There was the time Mr. Yang gave a school-wide lecture about “屁股位置” (positioning) after one too many missed approaches. There was the time Mr. Yang lectured Shane about traffic safety under a cold moon and a swaying light bulb. The new toilet will deprive me of this inexhaustible preposterousness. I used to make egregiously bad students clean the bathroom. The new toilet even undermines my authority.

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It’s quite a contrast—the shiny white new and the drab flaky old. There’s still a long way to go. After all, this new toilet isn’t exactly a model of seclusion. It’s not the best on the market. It’s progress though, I can’t deny. It’s interesting, the excuses we make for tradition. It feels strange to espouse the virtues of something that a group of outside observers would unanimously regard as “not so good” or “ungodly” or “I cannot breathe in here” A day will come when some other conflicted and confused blogger living in rural Yunnan writes this same piece about the new toilet that, by then, will seem so unseemly. “The memories!” But, you know, I have to tell myself, “Taylor, you can’t live in the past. You must squat forward with the people. You must receive the future as inevitable. You, too, must change.” That is what I tell myself. That is how one copes.

In China there is the phenomenon of the “钉子户”(Ding Zi Hu). You know it. It translates roughly into “saboteur householder.” These are the people who won’t leave their homes in the face of developers. They place themselves between hulking construction apparatuses and their house. The Ding Zi Hu almost always loses. But, they fight an honest fight. They stand up—quite literally—for their past. I wonder, has a Ding Zi Hu ever squatted for his past.

I wonder… Has there ever been a Ding Zi Hu for a toilet?

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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.