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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Giving Zach a Chance

              Zach is 12. Twelve is a rather young age to decide who is “dumb” and who isn’t. Zach, unfortunately, it has been decided, is “dumb.” He’s never been in love, he’s never put a car into drive, he’s never sat at the adults’ table. But, it’s been decided that he’s “dumb.” Strangely, the kids tabbed as “dumb” are given the least attention. This is a pretty precarious situation for Zach, who still has at least 4 years of school left. He’s placed at the back of the class with other students like him. If he can’t keep his hands to himself or shut his mouth, he’s encouraged to read quietly or put his head down instead of participating. He complies, because, hell, what 6th grader wouldn’t agree to that deal?

         Little does Zach know that every second he spends with his head on his desk is a second of education he will never get back. There’s no layaway for grammar points. He can’t comprehend how today’s bopping his deskmate on the head during a lesson about quadrilateral shapes is going to affect his disposable income 15 years from now. It’s impossible for him to connect the dots between an assignment on the future tense and the actual future. And, he shouldn’t. That’s not Zach’s job. That’s my job. Weeding out the “cans” from the “can’ts” is the way education is structured. Once you’ve been marked, you’re either in for an adolescence of an uphill battle or a self-fulfilling cruise toward higher education. Whether Zach’s in Sanzhaung, Sao Paulo, or Sydney, that’s the way it is. But it’s a little different in Sanzhuang.

         I teach a 6th grade class of 36 students. Based on recent history, about half of them will go to high school. Of that 18, maybe three to five will go to college. Forget The Princeton Review. I’m talking about college. Period. Eleven percent odds to go to college at all. You’ve got to be extraordinary just to do something that, if you didn’t do in most parts of the US, you’d get a lot of eyebrow raises. Factor in that 100% of students’ parents didn’t go to college. Factor in that almost all of their teachers didn’t either. Factor in that college, even if it’s totally free, still incurs a massive opportunity cost for students in rural Yunnan.

           Take this into consideration and Zach’s unjust predicament begins to make sense. At some point as a teacher, it seems, you’ve got to put your chips on the table. If you’re teaching forty students, among who four have a realistic shot at higher education and only half can make it to freshman year of high school, you’ve got to give them that chance. There simply aren’t enough hours in the school day to get Zach up to speed in long division, let alone times tables. He had his chance. He missed it. It’s over. Put your head on your desk and bask in the blissful ignorance of a disappearing education.

           Zach’s not going to college. Zach’s not going to high school. But, that does not preclude Zach from receiving a meaningful education on his terms. It’s not the system that’s screwing Zach over; it’s the system’s resources. Too many students, not enough teachers, not enough support, not enough time.

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        I’m not a great teacher, especially in this exam-intensive system. I’ll never be as good as a local English teacher who’s been through the process, knows the ins and outs, and can perceive with almost Nostradamus like efficiency, what is and isn’t going to be on the county-wide final exams. What I, and other Teach for China fellows can provide, however, is a new perspective.

        I don’t let Zach read or sleep in my class. At the very least, he has to call back vocabulary words like everyone else. He is almost illiterate in Chinese, so in English class I just tell him to do his best, but don’t over scrutinize his work. The other day I was giving a review lesson about superlatives. Taller! Older! Stronger! Bigger! On a scale of excitement, the lecture was somewhere between a James Lipton monologue and Barry Manilow’s Classic Christmas. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I actually felt bad for my students. I assigned them to copy the vocab words, which were all adjectives with –er tacked onto the end, and began to walk around the room. I looked over at Zach in the back left corner, who was uncharacteristically industrious. As I walked toward him, he quickly shoved something in his desk and looked up straight ahead.

“What is it Zach? If I was watching this class I’d be bored too.”
“Nothing…” A cheeky grin emerges.
“Fair enough.”

When the bell rang Zach approached me.

“Mr. Loeb, you can’t tell Mrs. Wang,” (His homeroom teacher)
“I wasn’t going to.”
“After all, it’s your fault.”
“Well yeah, I know, but not every class can be fun. I’ve told you that.”
“No! I was working on this.”

       He shows me an absurdly intricate drawing of a futuristic looking city. Written on the bottom in Chinese, “My Ideal Hometown.”

“I see. It’s, umm, really good, Zach, wow. Don’t worry about it. You’re free to go.”

           This year Sanzhuang’s theme for the CORE (Community Outreach Rediscovery and Enlightenment) project is “My Ideal Hometown.” Myself and my two co-fellows 张晓杰 and 赵娅楠 asked students to get into groups of five with others from their village. The groups would compete for an educational field trip to Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, at the end of the school year. Zach is from a tiny mountain village called Dongpo. Because his academic success has been low, he was apparently not a desirable team member. Because Dongpo is the smallest village of all the feeder towns for Sanzhuang, the other students said they had to take Zach on their team, otherwise they would only have four members.

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             Zach didn’t let them down. It appeared that all his restlessness and nervous energy in the classroom was being channeled toward the project. Whereas previously getting him to write his own name in English proved an almost impossible task (his favorite version is ScAh), now he was drawing elaborate diagrams of urban plans, and doing so way beyond the expectations of the project. When half of the remaining 27 teams were eliminated after the first two rounds, tiny Dongpo was still in contention for the trip to Kunming. Zach would come up to me after almost every class asking what the score of the competition was, even though I’m sure he knew each team’s point total by heart. I’d have to tell him, “Zach, we just got back from a holiday. The score hasn’t change in a week.”

“Oh, right,” He’d say.

           Last weekend we tallied the scores. Zach didn’t win. Dongpo placed sixth out of an original group of 30, a rather impressive showing considering they were competing against teams from towns 5 times their size. The winning team was made up of five incredibly motivated girls who, though it’s still early on in the game, look to be very much on track to go to high school, college, and beyond. But Zach held his own. He may score 70 points lower than them in the classroom, but his team finished a mere five spots below them on the CORE project. And you know what? He was bummed out. He asked me what set the other team apart and why his team didn’t win. Dongpo’s model was great, I said, but the winning team’s written work was exemplary. Every week Zach receives papers full of red X’s, 30% test scores, and angry looks from teachers. At this point, he’s learned to shrug it off. But not this time.

            Seeing Zach give his absolute all—and then some—got me thinking. Elementary school isn’t about prepping kids for high school and college. At least, it shouldn’t be. It’s about giving kids the chance to discover a passion. Some kids like math, some kids don’t like math but do it because they know they have to. Some kids hate it, can’t do it, and will never change their mind. That doesn’t mean they can’t be passionate about something. That doesn’t mean they’ve missed their shot at a productive obsession. Newton liked gravity, Galileo liked stars, and Zach from Dongpo likes drawing intricate constructions of his ideal hometown. Newton wouldn’t have known how much he loveeeed gravity if an apple didn’t bonk him on the cranium. Zach wouldn’t have known how much he loves drawing if he wasn’t given the opportunity through the CORE project. I mean and believe that with complete conviction. Zach’s not even close to “dumb,” whatever that means, his passions have just been on the shelf.

            The scale will never be tipped in Zach’s favor. The time, money, and political influence needed to give kids like him a high-level of education just isn’t here. But, if we have the opportunity to move the scales ever so slightly, we should give it our best shot. The students deserve it. Zach deserves it.

        I’m reaching out to everyone and anyone who reads this blog to please help me and my co-fellows reach our fundraising goal so we can make CORE possible this year and beyond. Consider the link below. Everything helps: Donating, sharing, supporting, even just knowing.

Thank you.

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