Thursday, February 21, 2013

American Anxieties and Chinese Secrets

"…[T]here is only one complete unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, Protestant, father, of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, and height, and a recent record in sports. . ."
The above quote from the American sociologist Erving Goffman, while humorous in its absurdity and impossibility, also highlights a devastating truth about American culture, we are a people wracked with anxieties and inferiority complexes, and we are highly judgmental of each other. For a culture that is obsessed with happiness (think of just our obsession with teeth and our smile), we are a very unhappy lot. The latest CDC numbers indicate that anti-depressants are now the largest classification of medicine prescribed to Americans- outpacing even heart medication. The study did not even consider the amount of anti-anxiety pills we consume.

Goffman offers some potential insight here to understand our cultural malady. Our daily lives are all about performances, trying to live up to the expectations of those around us. We thus live our daily lives as actors on a stage where we must successfully play the role of different characters. One is a father, or a husband, or a professor, or any other number of characters throughout a day- each role demanding specific script performances, emotional displays, costume arrangements, and use of props to reinforce the character we are playing at any given moment.

And perfection is expected

This is the reason most of us get nervous while giving a speech or a presentation.  But this is the same social process that occurs when we attend a formal dinner, interact with our bosses, and even when we go out for a night on the town. What we say, how we look and how we “do it” is an attempt at perfection of a performance that we perceive others to be judging. Anytime we are interacting with people, we are performing on a stage where an audience is judging us.

If you have your doubts, consider this: Who has not had that horribly anxious dream of being in a public place, only to realize that we are in our underwear?

Our performance anxieties plague us even in our sleep.

These anxieties, however, are counterbalanced by our retreat into a “back-stage,” that place where we can take off our masks so to speak; a place where we are not being judged, where we are allowed to make mistakes out of sight of an audience; it is a place of privacy.

But what does this have to do with living with Chinese in-laws?

Privacy in Mandarin-Chinese is expressed as 隐私 (YinSi). To understand the roots of this word is to gain insight into the communal nature of Chinese culture as against the individualistic nature of Western culture. Alone, (Yin) means secret, lurking or veiled. Likewise, (Si) is the character for selfish. Thus to say or write privacy in Chinese, 隐私 (YinSi), is to literally say “selfishly veiled”, “selfishly lurking”, or a “selfish secret.”

Needless to say, the Chinese have a very different relationship with privacy than we in the West do. Where we see privacy as the positive foundation of individual psychological health, and something to be protected at all costs, the Chinese see privacy as potentially dangerous and insidious as it threatens to infect the communal and familial unity with individual and pathological manifestations of selfishness. 

Which may explain why my mother-in-law proceeded to enter into my bedroom, that most private of all rooms, and rummage through that most private of all places- my underwear drawer. 

How do I know she did this? Upon returning from work, I found her with a pile of half of my underwear on the kitchen table, a pair of scissors in her hand, and the other half of my underwear cut to shreds on the floor around her feet.

You can’t make this shit up.

Needless to say, I was mortified that my mother-in-law had not only seen my underwear, but was also touching them, carefully selecting the cleanest parts of the fabrics to cut out, and throwing away the rest. With such intimate knowledge of my most private pieces of costume, I was certain she would never look at me the same again.

To this day, I am plagued with anxiety at the thought of this episode.

She had good intentions- even if her actions left me in need of new underwear and a therapist. Alarmed at the damage to my son’s skin that would ensue from plastic diapers we uncaring Americans use, she intended to fashion my son more skin-friendly, homemade cloth diapers from my undergarments. 

But my mother-in-law’s shredding of my whitey-tighties is not why I convey this story. I convey this story to point out what is not often associated with Chinese culture—namely an abundance of freedom within Chinese culture, and specifically, emotional freedom that we in the West lack. And this freedom seems to be born from a relative lack of judging and anxiety within Chinese culture. 

Several years ago, early one Monday morning, I left my in-laws alone in our home as I took my wife to work several miles down the road from where we lived. Upon the drive back home, in the distance, I saw a line of cars swerving to avoid a bicyclist that was trying to compete with the morning commute. As I approached closer, I noticed something unusual about this particular cyclist: (1) He was wearing pajamas (2) he was smoking as he biked and (3) he was riding a bike that looked strikingly like my own. 

As I gawked at the oddity of the scene, I was startled when the the cyclist, approaching me from the opposite direction, suddenly smiled and waived at me.

It took a second to register, but once it did, there was no doubt- it was in fact my bicycle. And my father-in-law was the crazy smoking man riding it. 

In his pajamas. Down our town's main street. In the middle of the morning commute.

Again, you can’t make this stuff up.

But this is what I am coming to love about Chinese culture. Growing up in Texas where women could often be heard saying “I have to put on my face” before even leaving the house to check the mail, there is something liberating about the Chinese approach to everyday life where one can wear their pajamas in public, pass gas and spit when they feel like it, cry when the mood strikes them, argue when they are angry, and even steal and cut to pieces their son-in-law’s underwear when they come to live with him. 

And they never worry that others might judge them to be any less human for doing such human things.

For all the negativity that is tied up with the Chinese word 隐私YinSi), what I am coming to understand about Chinese culture is that while one does lose that cherished sense of Americanized notions of privacy as they enter into the Chinese way of life, one also leaves behind the harsh and absurd judging and associated anxiety that plagues everyday American life.

In becoming Chinese, I can more freely express my emotions.  I am free to wear what I would like with no worry that my very moral character will be judged based upon my selection of outerwear that day. 
Likewise, my mother-in-law can rummage through my underwear drawer without me having to worry that she think I am any less of a man now that she has seen that which I had been selfishly keeping secret.

For in a culture where privacy is valued very differently than how we in the West value it, there seems to be a tacit understanding. If the communal living that defines Chinese life, and increasingly defines my own life, precludes privacy, one should not judge the unpolished aspects of others that one is inevitably exposed to. And there is something liberating and freeing about this. Perfection is obtained not in the narcissistic act of performing a flawless character that the true self pales in comparison too. Perfection is obtained in the communion with the totality and completeness of the self- flaws included.

没有隐私(MeiYou YinSi). If there is no privacy, there is nothing to selfishly hide. And if there is nothing to selfishly hide, I have little to be ashamed of, even the fact that I may be wearing no underwear beneath my pajamas as I bike through town smoking cigarettes.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Ship of Theseus

There is an ancient Western philosophical thought experiment known as the Ship of Theseus. Various versions of the story have been used over the centuries, but the essence of the story is expressed as this: If a ship were to set sail on a long voyage, and during that long voyage, with the wear, tear and damage that ensued as it travelled, each and every piece of wood had to be replaced, would a completely new ship arrive at the final destination, or, would it still be the same old ship?

If such a thought experiment does not speak to you, imagine not a ship, but your own body. Our bodies, our brain included (and by default therefore, perhaps our consciousness?), are comprised of cells. Cells are living entities. They are born, they reproduce and they die. So, the cells that comprise “you” at this exact moment are not the cells that referenced “you” upon your birth. And, barring an untimely demise in the near future, the cells comprising “you” at this moment, will not be the same cells comprising “you” upon your death. Which then forces the question, is the “you” that began a life journey, the same “you” that arrives at its inevitable and final destination? Placed in the context of the quintessential American question, “Can you ever return home?” it muddies an already difficult question. There may be no “you” to do the returning.

Yesterday, I stumbled upon a different version of the Ship of Theseus:

If while at work, your Chinese in-laws systematically remove your household decorations (pictures, art, furniture, etc), rearrange these, move these, and replace them with Chinese versions, thereby rendering your house unrecognizable upon your return home from work, is it still your house?

I’m not counting angels on the head of a pin here.

Yesterday, upon my return home from work, I was greeted with a 16x20 framed holographic picture of Mao Zedong, which changes into three different images depending on the angle that you are looking at it from, prominently hanging in my living room above my fireplace. It was not there when I left in the morning. While my first post, tongue-in-cheek, listed my childhood misperceptions of the Chinese, this discovery yesterday when I walked thru my front door, confirmed at least one of my misperceptions to be true: my in-laws are in fact godless communists.

This work of art, rivaled in artistic merit only by the famous American art movement that fixated on satin as a medium, and hedonistic dogs playing pool and poker as its subject, now dominates my living room.

As does a large, cheap plastic red globe lantern, highlighted with gold tassels dangling from the bottom, which now hangs from the living room ceiling (the chord is duct-taped down the wall). When the lantern is turned on, it casts a dull red-glow throughout the house.  This combines with the heavy whiff of smoke from my father-in-law smoking in the basement and together, gives the room a brothel-like feel.

I don’t have the energy to explain in detail the rearrangement of the living room furniture I found upon my arrival home from work yesterday, nor will I bore you with intricate details of the red-tassels now adorning most of my walls, nor the decorating of my bedroom that my in-laws engaged in while I was away.

But this was not the first time this happened.

Four years ago, upon the birth of my son, my in-laws came for an 11-month extended stay to help us take care of him. As if learning how to take care of your first newborn is not hard enough, I also received a crash course in Chinese philosophy.

There is an out-of-favor hypothesis within the Western social sciences known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. In its most extreme version, it states something to the effect that reality is created via the cultural lens of language. And with only 3,000 or so words at one’s disposal to fluently speak Chinese vs. tens of thousands of words needed to fluently speak most Western languages (English included), Chinese reality and Western reality are vastly different.

But this also gives some insights into fundamental differences in Chinese  philosophical thought and Western thought. The Western Cartesian self is a component of a Romanized language that splits and divides and conquers the world with an abundance of words creating a reality of difference and separateness between and within objects. Chinese Buddhist and Taoist thought, derived from a language with far fewer words, creates a reality of unity, connectedness, and sameness.

Where we in the West see separateness between body and soul and environment, the Chinese see only unity.

For the Chinese, everything- including self- is comprised of a Chi force, a unifying field of sorts, that can be influenced by the Chi force existing in the food and drink you take in, and in the Chi created by the arrangement of the natural and man-made environment (this is essentially the foundation of feng-shui or wind-water).

Which is at least the explanation given to me by my wife as I was trying to call the AC repairman two days after my son arrived home in the middle of August after his birth. I had tried to cool the house for 48 hours, and to no avail. It was still in the mid 80s in our living room. The AC would come on, and before long, it would stop. I was hot, I was sweaty, I was going on no sleep, and I was increasingly angry in the oppressive heat in my home.

Beyond the normal aversions to anything cold (ice cream, cold water, cold beer, ice of any kind, cold milk, etc.) the Chinese are especially wary of a newborn’s and mother’s exposure to cold forces. While cold forces explain joint and muscle problems for the rest of us, such forces can wreak severe long-term health problems for fragile babies and mothers. Hence, as my wife finally explained, each time I tried to cool my home, my in-laws would wait till I left the room and would turn the AC off.

Seeing my newborn son red from heat, sweating inside my own home, and exasperated at two days of this going on behind my back, I became the ugly American. I explained to my in-laws: “This is my house, my son, my country, and my AC and you are no longer allowed to operate it.” (As long as I smile when I’m angry, they never know the difference). They agreed to this arrangement and the ordeal was over.

Sort of.

Déjà-vu. I left the next morning for work. And like Santa’s elves who transform the house while you are asleep, my in-laws also went to work. Upon my arrival home several hours later, I walked into my cooled home, greeted them, kissed my son, and proceeded to my bedroom to put away my briefcase.

I opened the door and stood in disbelief. Where was once my bedroom, now stood a baby nursery/in-law living quarter. While away, concerned with the dangerous cold air I was exposing my infant too, they examined the house’s new feng-shui dynamic and concluded that the relative lack of cold Chi energy found in the feng (wind) in my bedroom, was much more suitable for an infant, and so they moved my furniture and personal belongings across the hall and made our old bedroom the nursery room and their own.

As the Chinese often say when faced with a Sisyphean situation, “Mei Banfa?” (“What can you do?”)

Between that experience four years ago, and yesterday’s rearrangement of my home, I’ve learned something important: I am not Lord of the House, nor am I a father, a husband, or a son-in-law trying to co-exist, learn and understand these other separate people I find myself living with. I do not have a private bedroom, or a living room, or any separate room for that matter.

We are a singularity, a unified unit, a family who communally dwell in a home. There is no separateness, not in our individual beings nor in the environment in which we inhabit. It is all One. And We are part of that One. And on my better days, those days when I can be more Chinese than American, there is something quietly comfortable about returning to such a place of singularity and unity.

For while American’s lament on our inability to return home, in my journey, like the Ship of Theseus, I have become a different person. While I am not Chinese, I am also no longer an American. And perhaps because of this very reason, I am learning that I can in fact return to the existential unity of home- even if it looks vastly different than when I left it this morning. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

American Fairy Tales: An Introduction

I would have never dreamed I would become Chinese. As a white guy born, raised and educated in Texas, China was simply the reason I was forced nightly by my parents to eat all of the food on my plate. “There are children in China with no food to eat!! Eat what is in front of you and be grateful!” was a nightly admonishment.  As a Texas child of the early 80s, all I knew of the Chinese was that (1) they had no food to eat; (2) they were all short; (3) they had funny shaped eyes; (4) they had unpronouncebly-long and funny names (remember the story TikkiTikkiTembo?); and (5) they were all godless communist.

Which is I suppose exactly what was running through my mother’s head when I arrived home at the age of 25 with a Chinese girlfriend- my first girlfriend I had ever brought home for her to meet.

My girlfriend and I met in grad school while we were both working towards our PhDs. She was the first ethnically different woman I had ever dated, and the first woman that I had ever fallen in love with. And I knew before I even took her to meet my family, that I would be asking her to marry me.

With training in cultural sociology, I should have known the difficulties we would face. Confronted by people’s perception of a white guy paired with a Chinese woman, being poor graduate students (we made a combined $24,000 in our first year of marriage), entering into not only a bi-racial marriage, but a bi-cultural marriage to boot, both under the stress of classes, research and uncertain future job prospects, and coming from two indescribably different cultures, a rational person would have known that success, much less happiness in such a marriage, was impossible. But we were in love, and if there is anything love is, it is not rational. And so two years after we began dating, we wed.

My parents were there, as were close friends and relatives. Due to the cost of travel and the trouble in the aftermath of 9/11 in obtaining visas, my wife’s family did not attend. Instead, we travelled to China shortly after our American wedding and had a traditional Chinese affair. Though I remember very little of the ceremony due to the copious amount of baijio (Chinese whiskey) I was forced to drink, the pictures depict a drunk, out of place white guy in traditional Chinese clothing having one helluva time. Starting at that moment, my life changed in ways I had never considered it would. With family suddenly on both sides of the world, and a child who would come several years later, at that moment, I was inextricably linked to Chinese culture. I would forever have a foot in each of two homes. As times passes, however, in unpredictable ways, my Chinese foot has become more firmly planted than my American one.

As a child, I was warned that fairy tales were not real. On an intellectual level, I understood this. But as I have grown, it seems that each new life stage is defined by the shattering of a fairy tale I unconsciously held tightly too in the previous stage. Our marriage has been defined as such. Visions of the American dream- great jobs, a nice house, a wonderful family and middle-class life of the “Cheerful Robot” as the sociologist C. Wright Mills labeled it, was the fairy tale of married life that I held on to entering the first stages of our marriage.

We’ve been lucky. Thus far, we have achieved all of these things (though Mills would not consider this any form of good luck). But my latest fairy tale was shattered when my Chinese in-laws moved in with us. And in the shattering of this fairy tale, a comedic tale of cultural misunderstanding, culture shock and trying to survive in white America suburbia when you are outnumbered by Chinese 3 ½ to 1 in your own home, has emerged to replace it.

This blog is about the daily cultural screw-ups, hic-ups, offenses and misunderstandings that are now my life. It is about me becoming more Chinese with each passing day, and my American side trying to grapple with and comprehend what it perceives to be an incomprehensible Chinese culture. It is about learning to live with your in-laws, when your in-laws are from another culture.

I would not have it any other way. Living in the chaos and unpredictability that is a comedy, beats the hell out of the orderliness and boring formulaic existence of the fairly tale, every time.