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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The Wedding Invitation: A Curious Letter Comes to Town

I’ve been checking the post office every week or so. I take a van 15 minutes into town, do some errands, and pop my head in.

“Anything from America?”

“Nothing from America.” The bored woman tossing some bulky, beat up box labeled “FRAGILE” onto a scale tells me, without looking up.

I look at the stack of packages piled in the corner. Mostly TaoBao, probably.

“You sure? Nothing from someplace that isn’t in China?”

“Well, we do have something from Beijing.” She flings the “FRAGILE” box at the pile of packages.

“Yeah, but that’s in China.”

Yeah, but it’s pretty far away.”

“Nothing from USA!” A pudgy young guy comes in the back door, zipping up his pants zipper. He says the last three letters in English, of course.

            I’ve been waiting for something. I don’t know exactly what. My cousin asked me for my address and my address is this post office. It’s been about a month since he asked. I’m just hoping the thing, whatever it is, is a bunch of Reeses Cups and/or Reeses Pieces. That would be chill. Sometimes days go by when Reeses are all I think about. Rarely do my fantasies—sexual or otherwise—not feature some kind of interaction with chocolate.

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Fantasies

I keep checking the post office every time I go into town. But, nothing from America, nothing from Beijing. No chocolate.

“I’ve got something for you.” I open the WeChat message. It’s Brandon, one of my TFC colleagues who works in the town with the post office. Brandon and I are the only white foreigners for quite a ways.

Oh really?”

            A few minutes go by and a new message comes through.

“This came to me. For you. I think.” It’s a picture of my cousin Jake, and his fiancée, Lauren—dressed up all fancy. There’s a big bold, Baskerville-styled date on it and on the flip, some information in English regarding a wedding. A save the date card. No promise of Reeses included in the invitation. Fuck. Nonetheless, I’m happy for my cousin.

“So, are you gonna go?” I ask him.

Now, I don’t know exactly what transpired here. There are a few possibilities, some more exciting than others. But, this is what I’d like to believe happened: Sometime after my last check-in at the post office—an approximate five weeks since the save the date card left a mailbox in a little town in Upstate New York, USA—it arrives at the little town of Songgui, in Up-Province Yunnan, China. Once there, the bored woman sifting through and tossing into the dusty corner a bunch of TaoBao packages and Communist Party notices, chances to find the save the date invitation for my cousin Jake and Lauren’s wedding. At that point, she lets out a yelp, sending a package full of priceless Ming Dynasty-era ceramics crashing to the concrete floor. Upon hearing her scream, the pudgy guy, returning from the toilet, rushes into the room.

“Da. Fuck. Is. This?” She says, holding the invitation far away from her face.

Then the guy, who hasn’t zipped his pants yet, snatches the invitation from her.

“It appears to be a picture of two white people. They look to be of some importance, judging by the dress. Perhaps an advertisement for a diplomatic convention? Yes, that’s it. I can tell. And what’s this on the back? It’s English. My God!” He roars. “It’s all English.”

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Confusion

“Can’t you read it? Didn’t you tell me you could speak English? Didn’t you speak English to that foreigner last time? Didn’t you say USA to him?”

The pudgy guy zips up his pants and coughs, “Yes, of course, I can speak English. Come to think of it, this letter is written in French. I cannot read it. Anyway, no matter. It must be for that white guy. Let’s go deliver it to him.”

“But, who will watch the office?”

“No. Don’t you see? This letter—post card, matters of international consequence are surely riding on it. Time is a luxury we might not have. Close the shop.”

“But, wait! Aren’t there two white guys?”

“Absolutely not. There is the one at the elementary school in town. The teacher. He always comes in with strange questions about chocolate.”

“Well, OK. If you say so. But I thought one of them wore glasses.”

“No, he only wears glasses sometimes—come to think of it, I’ve noticed his Chinese is better when he’s wearing glasses. Funny how that works. Anyways, let’s move out.

                 The pudgy guy and the bored woman walk to Brandon’s school—five minutes from the post office—at a brisk pace.

“Where is the foreign teacher?” The woman poses the question, exasperated, to the security guard.

The guard lets out a formidable puff of smoke and takes his feet off of his desk, “No clue. Probably in class. What’s the deal?”

“We have this letter, umm, post-card. It regards international matters. Please see that it arrives to him immediately.”

“Yeah, alright.” The guard says, accepting the card. “I’ll find the foreigner.” He ashes his cigarette on the front side of the letter. The post office employees shudder and head back to the shop.

A few days go by. The security guard catches Brandon on his way off campus.

“Hey, Mr. USA. I got this letter for you. Supposed to be urgent. Something about international problems or something.”

Brandon freezes and goes white(r). Is it about my visa? Will I be deported? Will I spend the last 50 years of my life in the Gulag or whatever they do here?

            “Here.” The guard hands him the ashy letter, which now smells of grain liquor and has 3 or 4 cigarette burns across its face.

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Brandon and the security guard

Brandon regains color. Save the date. Loeb. And he looks at the picture and looks confused—wait a second. There are other white people?   

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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.