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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Why am I writing this??

Breathe out… I’ve been in Sanzhuang for almost a full school year now. Needless to say, 2013-2014 has been unlike any of my previous 18 school years. For one, this year was spent on the “other side of the desk,” as teachers often ominously say. But, perhaps even more importantly than that, I’ve spent it in a different language, a different country, and a completely different system. Let’s be real. The teaching part isn’t the most intriguing angle of this escapade. Teaching is different, but kind of the same wherever you are. Plus, the idiosyncrasies between a classroom in Heqing and one in Connecticut aren’t, I can promise you, probably very fascinating to anyone outside of the teaching profession. That’s why, from the get go, I didn’t want to make this blog about teaching.

Living, though. That is something that, generally speaking, all human beings have to do from time to time. That’s where the good stuff’s at. If you’ve never written a lesson plan or confiscated a love note, you’re probably not super piqued by how that stuff goes down in a Chinese context. But, everybody eats, everybody relaxes, and everybody… poops. Writing worth reading, I’ve found, is relatable writing with a twist. Only linguists with a Scandinavian persuasion want to read Practical Norwegian Grammar by Rolf Strandskogen. That said, one can only read the local news so many times before they’ve heard enough about the new zoning restrictions in Sleepy Hollow Park. Relatable, but enlightening, is how it should be. I’m not a writer. I’m a finance major who has a skewed view about how interested WordPress readers are in my bowel movements. If you’ve never read any of my previous posts, I recognize that that last line might be a bit disagreeable. I apologize.

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I chose to write because I wanted to give people a small window into China. But not China. Not what you see on the front page of the New York Times or on The Daily Show or on Fox Five, if you’re into that sort of thing. I’m not out to write the news. I’m trying to humanize China, specifically Yunnan, in a way that abstract newspaper features about impenetrable smog can’t do. China is so foreign, yet so inextricably important to everyone across the world. If you disagree, check the tag on any piece of clothing you’ve got on. Chances are…

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I’m not trying to do hard-hitting investigative exposés. I’m just trying to make the handful of people who read this thing laugh, learn, and most importantly, think about China. Because like or not, you’re going to have to. And when you think about China, I hope, instead of just smog and 1989 and Nikes—because those things are important too—you think about me suppressing my vomit after going bottoms up on a shot of baijiu. And think about the people sitting around the table with me, drinking that baijiu, who couldn’t give a shit about the smog in Beijing, because the only time they don’t see blue sky is during the rainy season. And think about the woman who collects my 1 Yuan toilet fee. Currencies are the last type of “floating object” she’s got on her mind. And think about the students. No, really think about them, because one day they might be making your Nikes or buying your real estate or shaking your hand at a ribbon-cutting ceremony or, if we really mess it up, invading your shores. Frankly, one day your kids might be making their Nikes. Gasp!

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It’s painfully obvious to say that China, or anywhere on the earth is at its core about people and relationships. But, it’s painfully easy to forget that fact when we see the same things over and over again on the news. Foreign visions about any place are molded by information, not experience. Not everyone can drop everything and move to the other side of the world, so information is the next best thing. As such, our views on China and vice-versa have literally been created by secondhand accounts. Entire policies, attitudes, and cold-hard convictions have been forged by indirect contact. That is CRAZY. I’m not the news, but I’m something. My intention in the next year is to keep reminding people that there’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye. I should rephrase that. There’s a lot less going on here than meets the eye. It’s not complicated. It’s just life. If you want to think about China in a geopolitical sense, it’s easy, if not expected. It’s pretty much the only option we’re given. But, do your best to see it in a human sense and future generations will thank you, I promise.