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.

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