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. 

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