Why are Chinese people so happy?

I’ve realized that when I write about China, I often end up complaining more than complimenting. In truth, part of that is because I’m jealous. As an American ‘millennial’ I’ve grown up around the idea that my generation both deserves nothing and has ruined everything, and have come to expect that my life will consist mainly of crushing hardship and perpetual disappointment. Amongst my peers in China, by contrast, almost everyone sees clear blue skies ahead.

What gives? How can Chinese people be so carefree and optimistic in such a messed-up world?

There are a few major reasons…

 

IMG_2959 (3)

1) Their nouveau-riche money

China’s wealth has expanded enormously quickly since the 1970s. Globalization literally lifted about 500 million Chinese people out of poverty in the last 30 years or so, while average wages have increased at an exponential rate. Young men and women who nearly starved in the famines of the early 1960s now live in posh apartments with their grandchildren in Shanghai high-rises.

This new money means parents and grandparents are freer than ever to provide lives for their children that are far better than what they had growing up. The abundant food and stable political climate in much of the country means the Chinese feel things are, compared to recent history, very, very good… whereas in the USA, comparatively, things are not any better for us than they were for our parents.

 

2) Economic certainty

While things are getting more expensive in China and there are threats of a bursting housing bubble, overall young people do not really worry about their careers. Apart from the innovative and rapidly growing service sector, there is still plenty of solid middle-class factory work, which still provides a salary that is good enough to get by thanks to China’s comparatively cheap cost of living.

While the phrase ‘economic uncertainty’ is somewhat overused in the USA to explain things that maybe it really shouldn’t, there is definitely a lot of truth to the statement that young people are quite uncertain about our economic futures. Jobs are really competitive, and even getting a Bachelor’s Degree doesn’t secure a place for you. This is not true in China, where even the non-college educated can still make a decent wage.

 

Chairman Mao Propaganda3) Propaganda

No, I’m serious about this one. I will take my freedom of the press any day, but you’ve got to admit that sometimes it’s a bit of a drag. Sometimes you get home from work at night and just want to relax to something pleasant, not turn on the news to find that our president has made some embarrassing international gaffe or a certain Party is trying to take away our healthcare again.

In China, there is no negative news about China, so people have much higher confidence in their own government. They believe politicians are looking out for their best interests because they hear nothing to the contrary, so they don’t usually bother debating or disputing the Party’s policies. Instead of worrying about the next election, Chinese people can come home from work and turn on a nice, relaxing movie about China winning a war against Japan or something. It sounds quite satisfying.

Dancing in Beihai Park

4) Collaborative culture

Apart from China’s economic and political successes, it must be noted that certain aspects of Chinese culture are just better at keeping more people happier. Humans are social animals, and we evolved in tribes where we all took care of each other. Yet despite this fact, societies like America choose to emphasize the value that people should rise to the top as individuals rather than as a part of a whole, and that being the best is more important than participating.

This idea isn’t exactly bought into in China. While students in particular can be quite competitive with each other, there is still more of a focus on how the group works together. For example students usually stay in one class which takes all its subjects together throughout the year, rather than allowing individuals to take AP Calculus or AP French when they excel compared to their classmates. And communal activities remain common among adults, such as public tai chi classes where everyone practices together with strangers. Or random opportunities to sing and dance in front of strangers in the park. People aren’t ashamed to do these things, because they don’t feel the need to impress or stand out—they’re just having fun with a group of random people.

 

IMG_2957 (2)

The only Western idea you will find in China

5) Isolation

Lastly, China is a bit happier than the rest of the world, I believe, because it is mostly cut off from the rest of the world. While certain frightening trends sweep the globe—terrorism, nativism, internet-based hate movements—these things have barely reached mainland China and have little chance of spreading. The lack of a free internet and the close eye the government keeps on even the smallest protests means it would be extremely difficult to form an opposition organization in China that posed any real threat to society. The government has made it so that movements cannot spread, and since most movements nowadays are admittedly kind of scary, that consequence of government control is really not so bad.

Chinese people know it, too; they see things like terrorism as something crazy that the rest of the world does, not something that could ever reach its own shores. They take pride in living in a society that is peaceful and prosperous, and with those needs met, why bother thinking about that unpleasant politics stuff at all?

Advertisements

Shenzhen: The Westworld of China

What is life like when you’re a guest in a fantasy land?

For those who haven’t seen it, the TV show Westworld takes place in a theme park of the future, built to look like the Wild West of the past. The main attraction of the park is its ‘hosts’, human-like robots who spend their days playing out their own personalized storylines, of finding love, or discovering treasure, or bounty hunting, and so on. No matter how violent or traumatic a host’s storyline is, they get up day after day and repeat the same actions and traumas, because in this world the hosts are programmed to repress their memories, so they never talk about them.

The Westworld park is also filled with a new set of ‘guests’ each morning, people from the outside world who come to meet the hosts and engage in their storylines. They play during the day, and at night while they sleep all the bullet wounds are stitched up and the hearts are restarted and every host wakes up to repeat their loop once again.

Shenzhen 3

Shenzhen is one of the most modern cities in the world, called into existence out of rural farmland by the Chinese state in the year 1979. Out of the humid air and marshy ground of the area have sprung towering skyscrapers, seven-story malls, eight-lane roads, cutting-edge tech companies, and millions of immigrants from other Chinese cities.

Shenzhen has a transient quality. Maybe it’s the apartment blocks, built up so quickly and haphazardly that many are already crumbling and overgrown with ivy. Maybe it’s the fact that all its inhabitants come from elsewhere. Shenzhen is home to almost no one. During the holidays the city clears out, leaving those eight-lane roads totally barren. Maybe it’s the way it was built, made easy for cars and buses and subways to navigate, but made very difficult for people to walk through. Shenzhen is not a city built for people. It is a city built to pay homage to modern technology.

Like Westworld, it is effectively a theme park of the future.

Shenzhen 2

In 2015 I became a ‘guest’ in Shenzhen, the Westworld of China. I was so excited to play in the modern China storyline, to meet some hosts who could show me some new adventures in this crazy country. From the start, it felt like I was in a story where I had not been written into the plot, where my only role would ever be as an outsider. And at the time, I was okay with that, as I have always liked to observe more than participate anyways.

There is certainly some robot-level repetition in the way you are treated as a foreigner in China. The surprised remark when you speak to the taxi driver in Mandarin. The woman next to you at the bus stop telling you that you are pretty. The child who points at you on the subway. The never-ending parade of malls, each stocked with one or more of the following: UNIQLO, H&M, Zara, Gap. Day after day these things happened. Shenzhen is full of different people and different places all saying the same things.

Furthermore there is a distinct feeling that Shenzhen, despite being a major world city, isn’t really affected by the rest of the world. Some of it is a lack of context; people are blocked from using Twitter, Instagram, and even Google, there isn’t much choice for foreign foods, and foreign artists don’t hold concerts there. There is little opportunity to learn about foreign things. Some of it is also likely due to China’s thousands of years of history and decades of propaganda, which has created a bubble that surrounds China and its people, a bubble that makes people there different in mindset from anywhere else on Earth.

Foreigners are a curiosity in Shenzhen, but we live in a different world. The Chinese government, I believe, worries too much about letting foreign ideas in, because even when they do get in most people cannot relate to or understand them and so they are ignored or dismissed by nearly everyone. Tell a Chinese person about your world all you want, but you will likely not change theirs. Likewise, you can tell the hosts of Westworld about your world all you want, but the hosts will not truly absorb that information, unless they go through a massive internal paradigm shift. I really believe that the same is true in China.

Shenzhen 4

The most significant comparison between these two places is that Shenzhen, like Westworld, seems to be problem-free. Everything is just so darned pleasant on the surface. Parents play with their kids in an impressive range of parks, and grandparents pick children up from school. Modern shopping malls are evenly spaced out around the city, with the same reliable dining and shopping choices in each one. People smile and say hello to their neighbors. Salaries go a long way, since everything is way too cheap. And in the village where I lived, people danced together in the village square every single morning like an actual Disney movie.

When I first got to the city, this atmosphere was so nice. It was such a good change from the bitterness and unhappiness and misplaced rage of like 80% of Americans. It was such a good change to not be able to check Twitter or read most news websites… to forget, if only for a little while, how messed up the rest of the world was. To forget how messed up China itself was.

Cherry Blossoms 2

Because of course, beneath this shining surface, Shenzhen, and China in general, have a lot of problems: not being able to use tap water, awful toilet hygiene, the Great Firewall, art and literature censorship, poor food quality, dangerously low-quality products, ethnic tensions, and on and on. But these all pale in comparison to China’s biggest problem of all: a desire to avoid talking about problems.

In the end, I could deal with the lack of toilet paper and food making me sick and not using Snapchat, and even the massive bureaucratic inefficiencies. These things were challenging but bearable. But honestly, what truly did me in was simply that people didn’t want to acknowledge any of it!

Chinese people will talk to you about day to day problems, of course, like the rain or having a cold. Just like I’m sure the Westworld hosts have it programmed into their loops to point things like that out too. But point out a larger problem, a problem of how their world is actually constructed, and they just won’t understand why on Earth you would ever think it was a problem. It’s not a lack of personal empathy, it’s simply that some combination of culture, education, and propaganda has taught them that problems must never be addressed, that if you ignore them it is as good as erasing them.

Over time the inability to address any issue beyond a surface level left me feeling increasingly isolated in the city. While at first the friendliness and kindness towards foreigners felt like heaven, it eventually began to feel like a strange form of torture. I started to believe that many of those smiles were empty, that while they may have been happy to merely see me, the connection ended there. There was no real desire to hear my own thoughts and ideas, as they’d be instantly dismissed. I wasn’t one of them, so I couldn’t understand them. And the next day, their loops would go on the same as before, day in, day out.

When I finally visited Hong Kong, it felt so good to break through the bubble. Hong Kong has a lot of problems too, and Hong Kongers will quite eagerly discuss every last one with you. Like most global cities, it is affected by global trends, and people worry that demographic shifts will affect their culture. I am still a foreigner, but no one gives me a big smile when they see me… and it is actually better that way. I am not some strange and special ‘guest’, I am just another average resident.

While many of the guests in Westworld felt comfortable living wild lives because they knew their actions would have no consequences, I am not that kind of person. I do not travel to party or to do things I couldn’t get away with at home, I travel because I seek to make connections with people in other countries. And while I really did connect to many individuals in Shenzhen, I just couldn’t connect to the culture at large, because I am not Chinese, and therefore I would be treated as a ‘guest’ for all of eternity, and guests have no long-term effect on China.

Shenzhen, as a 25 year old collection of skyscrapers and highways, is a city because people believe it to be a city. I wonder if it is more of a collective fantasy of what a modern Chinese city should look like, than an accurate portrayal of what modern China is.

After a year, I left Shenzhen to go live in Hong Kong. After a year here, I can say for sure that I would rather live in a place where the world outside of us means something, even if the lack of a bubble means the place is visibly crumbling and everyone knows it, and even if the world outside is currently going insane too.

Shenzhen 6

 

Memories of China: The Stinky Tofu

Several years ago I lived in the lesser-known Chinese city of Nanjing for about a month to study Mandarin. Nanjing is quite a nice city, and smaller for China at “only” eight million people. It’s less modernized than places like Shanghai or Shenzhen, which has its benefits (super cheap food) and drawbacks (where is peanut butter?)

Chinese clothes

Trying my host sister’s Chinese costumes

At one point I had a short stay with a lovely Chinese host family. My host father spoke English well and was not afraid to speak his mind about his country (which is refreshing in China), while my host sister was just a few years younger than me and very cool—we got along great. However, my host mother and host grandmother spoke absolutely no English, and since my Chinese was quite poor at the time there were some communication barriers.

On Sundays my host sister still had school, so the parents decided to take me out for a short excursion to the local tourist area, called Confucius Temple. It was basically one of those Chinese tourist attractions that looks like a cool old temple, but sells tourist crap. Basically every ‘ancient-looking’ place in China turns out this way, at least in the cities, and it is one of the things I hate most about tourism in China. But anyways.

As we were wandering through the stalls, all of a sudden the most horrifying stench hit my nostrils. It was like a piece of roadkill slathered in old cheese or something. My host mother grinned in excitement and rushed over to a nearby food stall. “Ah, that’s stinky tofu!” my host father exclaimed. “She loves it!”

Stinky Tofu

臭豆腐 / Chou Dou Fu / “Stinky Tofu”(www.chinesecuisinefood.com)

My host mother came back with a serving of the stuff, eagerly stabbed a piece with a toothpick, and swallowed it whole, licking her lips. Then she held one out for me to try.

I didn’t want to be rude. Because there was literally almost nothing I could say to her. I’m not even sure I knew the words 不要 (I DON’T WANT IT) yet, let alone 好可怕 (very frightening). And besides, as my host father reassured me, “It tastes better than it smells!” So I took a bite.

Well, it probably did taste better than it smelt, but only because it smelt like a dead raccoon that has been rotting in your crawl space for six months. It maybe only tasted like a raccoon which had been rotting for three months. Yum!

No. I ran to a trash can immediately and dramatically spit it out, choking back tears. My host family just laughed at me, but I felt super basic, and honestly couldn’t help but worry they would be disappointed in me for rejecting Chinese cuisine so violently. Hopefully the number of dumplings I ate that evening proved to them that I really love Chinese cuisine, so long as it isn’t congee, chicken feet, or chou dou fu.

Chicken Feet

The other Chinese food I won’t eat… (www.seriouseats.com)

For the rest of my trip my host family made sure I was well fed by giving me what they believed was ‘real American food’: chocolate cake for breakfast. And being a mature adult, I casually decided not to correct them on that one…

Memories of China: The Night at the Village

The old man had been hacking away on his erhu for at least an hour. I wasn’t sure whether to cry, sleep, or cry myself to sleep—the saddest instrument on the planet was truly having its intended effect. It was the end of yet another long day on my class’s six-week trip through China, and this time we had trekked out of the city for a short stay at a village in Anhui province. After the long bus ride, we really just wanted to get into some nice, cozy beds so we could pass out and prepare for our upcoming hike at Huang Shan… but our professor had squeezed in yet another ‘cultural experience’ as usual.

Ancient Chinese Village HouseUnfortunately, a soft bed was not to come. After the man wrapped up his symphony, we were shown to our lodgings and found that we would be staying in an absolutely ancient traditional village house. That may sound pretty cool (and in all honesty it was), except for the small caveat that old-style Chinese living was apparently not very comfortable. While the rooms all had rooves, the hallways between them did not, meaning plenty of cool, damp air was seeping into everything, from the walls to the linens to the floorboards. I was pretty sure I would be putting a hole in my room’s rickety floor at any moment—some of the boards were resting at a very strange angle, others were already cracked, and all were oddly soggy.

Ancient Chinese HouseAnd those ancient Chinese beds… Made of wood and containing no mattress, we basically went to sleep on a flat slate with just one thin little damp blanket and flat pillow for comfort. On that first night, I remember curling up in bed feeling quite bleak about the whole experience, and waking up to a tasteless bowl of traditional congee for breakfast didn’t exactly help.

On top of the discomfort, the whole thing had a distinct air of creepiness. Maybe it was the fog that hovered in the hallways in the early mornings, the cold stone walls without windows, or the ancient photographs of wide-eyed little boys on the walls, one of which was hidden behind my door, causing me to jump in shock as I turned out the light and shut the door on that first evening. Or maybe it was the fact that the building next to the house was full of the remnants of old propaganda posters, slogans from the Mao era, and for some reason, bats. The village seemed utterly haunted with the ghosts of Chinese past. It heightened our feelings of unease as the second night approached.

Chairman Mao Propaganda

“10,000 years for Chairman Mao”

That evening, we decided to take advantage of the ghastly atmosphere, so we headed to an empty room and turned out all the lights in order to tell ghost stories. It was a mistake. Just as one of my classmates was midway through a horrifying tale, with the rest of us submerged deep into that altered state in which suddenly one can really believe in poltergeists and vampires, we saw a small glowing light approaching us, illuminating a stately figure dressed in all white. We all began screaming in sheer terror.

But as the figure approached, we realized it was just the proprietor in her white bathrobe holding a candle and telling us to go to sleep already, as we were probably waking half the village up (and that was before our shrieking). We apologized and headed back to our rooms, but after being scared so thoroughly we were too shaken to sleep alone. All of us girls paired up and shared beds that night—in the morning we found out that even some of the boys had done the same!

Village Chickens Anhui

Otherwise, the village was quite lovely!

Memories of China: The Great Wall

This post is part of a series I’m creating about my top travel memories from China. Watch this space for more short stories!

When I was 18, I had barely been outside of the US, apart from a couple of days in Canada and a two hour cruise stop in Cozumel, Mexico. Instead of just dipping my toes into the travel water like a normal person I decided to dive in head-first, and headed all the way around the planet to China for a study tour with a group of 13 others from my university.

Our professor, Dong “Laoshi” (teacher) was a small, middle-aged, extremely hard-core woman. She warned us that our itinerary was “not for the faint of heart” but as young and fearless as we were, we shrugged it off. What were to follow would be the craziest, most challenging, and most exhausting six weeks of my life. We managed to cram in basically every experience defining modern China, from the major tourist attractions to the neglected slums on the outer rings of Beijing, from having an internship to staying with a host family, from chatting with fellow university students to meeting business leaders and documentary filmmakers. We were kept busy from dawn until dusk… and sometimes even later than that.

Watchtower at Jinshanling Great Wall

Six years later, the Great Wall still stands out in my memory as one of the most amazing experiences of the trip. Remember how I said my professor was “hard-core?” Well, this excursion is a good example of what I mean. It was day two or three of the trip and we were all still overwhelmed with crushing jet-lag. Still, she dragged us out of bed at around 6 AM, piled us onto a bus, and drove us deep into the mountains to go to one of the “lesser-known” areas of the Great Wall: Jinshanling.

Watchtower at Jinshanling

Now, when I say “lesser-known,” what I mean is that I’m pretty sure no one else has walked on this thing since like the Ming Dynasty. It was absolutely ancient, and consisted of steep, rugged hills and crumbling old watchtowers. Contrary to the parts of the wall that have been refurbished as cute little smooth roads for tourists, this one was rough and uneven, and walking on the thing was like repeatedly hiking up and down small mountains. For the entire walk we were shrouded in a thick mist, so it felt like we had just traveled through time to a moment hundreds of years ago. Being almost totally alone just added to the atmosphere.

Despite all this beauty, the Great Wall was also where I got to see my first really frightening Chinese toilet. Next to all the watchtowers were some public toilets, which were probably also built during the Ming. Basically they were just holes in the ground separated by the tiniest of barrier walls. No stall doors of course, and all located outside. Even many ‘good’ Chinese bathrooms don’t have toilet paper or soap, and this one was no exception. Bathrooms like these were probably one of the reasons we all finished the trip feeling like there were no boundaries between us…

Afterwards, we finished off the day by driving down to a Wall-side rural village, eating lunch that a family cooked for us using entirely plants in their own garden (d’aww) and then talking to the village leader about the politics of local government in the US vs. China. We even got to see all his pretty, shiny plaques from the Communist Party—hung all over his walls! Dream come true.

With its combination of ancient beauty and ancient plumbing, China is always a mess of contradictions. That’s just what makes traveling there so constantly entertaining!

Epic Great Wall of China

Photo credit to our classmate Dan who sacrificed not being in this epic thing to take the photo!

Everything in its time

About four years ago now, I had a dream, one of the most vivid dreams I have ever had. I was crawling through a tunnel made of rock, spiraling and climbing desperately upwards in darkness. Just as I thought I might be in there forever, my eyes perceived the light, and my head burst through to the surface, where it was a bright and sunny day. I stepped outside and saw that I was standing on a big green mound in the middle of an ocean, and all around me were various other mounds… I turned my head to look around and found I could see miles in all directions, and the bright blue of the sky and bright blue of the ocean were the most beautiful things I had seen, and when I peeled my eyes open in real life those blues were burned into my brain as a memory and promise.

cropped-cropped-img_3586-6

Victoria Peak, Hong Kong

When I went up to the top of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong, for the first time in a long, long time, reality was so much better than anything I could have possibly dreamt up in my mind. Because Hong Kong is not just awesome, but beautiful. No one ever told me that this city could be so beautiful. That it was surrounded by peaceful rolling green hills, that the surface of the harbor glistened in the sunlight. That the human-engineered skyline would interact so flawlessly with the nature surrounding it, that the breeze and sunlight and clouds would all align into one awesome and breathtaking day, and that I would be rendered speechless by the combination of it all. Sometimes because my expectations are so high I become complacent with real life… But every once in a while something comes along that reminds me that sometimes, something being real is all I need for it to be better than dreams. (November 9, 2015)

I didn’t know what the dream meant right then. But not long after that, I started searching for internships through my university. I was studying International Affairs, and my school had excellent resources for traveling abroad, so I knew I wanted to pursue a six month internship in another country. But the question, as always, was where? I wanted to go pretty much everywhere. Sure I had a priorities list, but I was pretty much open. That dream, life-like as it was, kept coming to mind. I am a Christian so I had to wonder, was it a sign from God? When I started researching countries, and I looked up Indonesia, I found photographs that looked exactly like this place. Maybe I was meant to go here, I thought. But my parents didn’t want me to go, concerned about the travel warnings they’d seen about the country. So I moved along, keeping the dream in mind but trying to let those images grow dull and fade away. It was only a dream.

streets of hong kong.jpg

Nathan Road, Hong Kong

I think I might actually be in love with Hong Kong. It was one of those romances which is attraction at first sight, but now that I’ve been here for a few days I’ve realized it’s developing into something deeper. It’s not just its physical beauty… it’s a place that contains everything I love about cities and then some. The rolling hills and glistening oceans of Cape Town, the subtle historical influences of Boston, the streets of NYC. And of course, it shares a nation with China, a country I have come to understand if not love (though of course what is love if not deep understanding?) Every people of every nation seems to be here, each style of food and all cultural influences. And then there’s the pace and the fashion and the modernity, coupled with the dirt and the seediness of the back allies and side streets. I feel I could explore it for years and never learn everything about it, and of course that intrigues me. (February 2, 2016)

Then, I had a second dream. This one was about Cape Town, South Africa. I had never been to Cape Town, nor do I remember ever seeing many pictures of it. But there I was, wandering the streets, vividly viewing roads and buildings and parks. I was just… walking, mainly. The only thing special was how realistic it was, and how when I looked up pictures afterward they looked so similar to what I’d seen in my head. Still, I ignored it. South Africa sounded cool, but it was not a ‘priority country’ of mine. At the time I was interested in India, or Cambodia, maybe even Morocco—South Africa had never held the same pull.

Somehow, after months of hearing others talk about it, after both my advisor and my parents recommending it as an excellent choice for me, I accepted my fate and went. I taught English in South Africa for six months at a center assisting adult refugees from other parts of Africa. I learned a lot of things there about myself, not all of them entirely pleasant. But each of them helped build me into a much stronger person, and after that trip ended I was no longer afraid to travel anywhere.

cape town views.jpg

Lion’s Head, Cape Town, South Africa

Rush hour in Hong Kong may have replaced Victoria Peak as the most beautiful thing I’ve experienced… As I entered this place with thousands of other people around me, all rushing forward, I felt a powerful and revitalizing energy course throughout my body, filling me with a deep passion for everything. A passion for humanity, where I began to view everyone around me with profound fondness and love. A passion for multiculturalism, where Hong Kong’s diversity became powerful and thrilling. An electrifying passion for living in general—with aching legs, I began walking up on the escalator, where moments before I had been ready to lie down and sleep… The fact that we were all feeling the same things and moving towards the same place—home—filled me with love. Obviously, what I saw on that night was not rush hour in Hong Kong. What I saw was what I needed to see, what God wanted me to see… I saw that Hong Kong makes me feel passionate and alive to a level I didn’t even know existed in myself. (February 28, 2016)

The travel bug had bitten me, hard. I spent the rest of my days at university dreaming of dropping everything and becoming a travel writer, or at least moving abroad to start working. Thanks to a few God-directed chance encounters I began considering going to China to teach English. Before I knew it I was scouring online message boards for the least sketchy-sounding opportunities. I finally found one, with a good salary and the promise of a visa in the major Chinese city of Shenzhen. I’d never been there before, but it sounded like the right place for me to be. Off I went.

From Shenzhen, it was just a short hop across the border to see Hong Kong. I didn’t rush over or anything, as I knew so little about it. One day I chanced across on my way to the airport, and was hit with an intense rush of feelings, far more than anything I had ever felt about Shenzhen. Each time I returned to Hong Kong, the feelings grew. They were uncalled for, inexplicable. But I chose to listen, and moved there after my year was up in Shenzhen.

I arrived in Hong Kong with a small amount of savings and no job. I started looking… I was looking for months.

cropped-skyline-2.jpg

Skyline of Shenzhen, China

My life is like the Exodus right now… Obviously slavery is a pretty heavy analogy and I don’t mean to lean on it too much, but the thing is that my life in Boston seems… constricted. I know exactly what to be there and what places to eat at and who to hang out with. My role is defined, my place is set. But right now, even though I’m over in Hong Kong, it’s like I’m just wandering in the desert. I keep asking God to give me stuff and feel like he’s not responding in an adequate way, and I’m nowhere near where I want to be and can’t really be there without having a space of my own and a way of making money. I feel burned out and frustrated and like I’ve just been aimlessly searching for far too long. Even though I definitively decided I didn’t want to stay in Boston, I can’t help thinking like the Israelites. Why did you bring me out here into this wilderness? Wouldn’t I have been better off as a slave, where at least I had food, and a roof over my head, and friends? Out here I have nothing! Why aren’t you saving me? (August 26, 2016)

God came through, though it took until that December. Things have been moving forward, slowly but steadily. I have an okay job, a larger amount of savings, and I know more than one person. Importantly, I still love Hong Kong as passionately as I used to if not more so. Now I know its flaws more intimately, but that is the point where genuine love can begin anyways. And the city is vaster than I ever could have imagined, with places to hike to and swim and explore which will keep me busy for years if I so choose.

Like Sai Kung, an area I visited for the first time just this week. I decided to make my way out to an isolated beach, and on the way, I caught a certain view along the roadside…

sai kung 2

Sai Kung, Hong Kong

It was a view that looked exactly like my dream from four years ago, standing on a hill and looking out at a vivid bright blue sky and ocean filled with deep green mounds. After a long dark tunnel, nothing but blue skies. A promise that was made and kept.

God does not work on human time, but on a timeline where eternity is the only meaningful value. Advice is not given at once, but in fragments. At first the advice makes no sense, and comes in as random bursts of energy and emotion. Added together, it makes a story.

The only way to keep the faith is by absorbing the mantra:

“Everything in its time”

I’m sure I will forever be a wanderer, an explorer, and a seeker. Yet I have felt lately that the chapter of life where I was just watching and waiting for God’s plan is coming to an end. I can’t help but feel that here in Hong Kong, the plan is beginning…

But I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

 

The Ethics of ‘Expatvilles’

Is it right for expats to form isolated communities, or should they be expected to integrate?

It is not uncommon for people of a similar ethnic background to cluster together when moving to a new city. Chinatowns and Little Italies are scattered across the world, many of which offer great cuisine and at least some cultural memory of the original country. The same seems to hold true today in cities with a lot of rich expats* such as Hong Kong. The areas of the city in which high concentrations of foreign restaurants, and foreigners themselves, reside tend to be quite a bit different from other parts of the city.

Just a few days ago, I checked out Discovery Bay, a beautiful little expat beachside community just a 20-minute ferry ride from Central. Walking around, you’d honestly think you were in Europe; the décor was Mediterranean, the vibe was laid-back and peaceful, and there were white people everywhere. White people sharing picnics with a bottle of wine, white mothers playing with their children on the beach, and everyone was speaking either English or French. A beautiful place… but I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not.

Discovery Bay Promenade

The promenade in Discovery Bay

I have taken to checking out different areas of Hong Kong lately because I’d really like to move out of my shoebox-sized, shared flat and into a place of my own as soon as possible. Hong Kong offers a lot of diversity in lifestyle, both in terms of the population density and scenery of your neighborhood, and in its ethnic makeup.

I am a white girl from an upper middle class background used to living in a certain environment and culture. But I am also a girl who chose to try something new in coming to Hong Kong while accepting that things would be different here. And so when I look at where I want to live, I am always torn. Should I stay in an area that offers comfort and familiarity, as I will be engaging with the city anyways at the office and in my free time? Or must I immerse myself at all times in the most ‘Hong Kong’ environment possible, to get the full experience from this portion of my life?

The thing that raises the most red flags for me is that many expat-dominated areas are actually nicer than where a lot of Hong Kongers spend their time. Much of this is because of the city’s colonial past. Central district, for example, was originally built up to accommodate the needs of the British, and the Britishness of that area has been retained even after the 1997 handover. While many Hong Kongers spend time there and can afford to live there too, it is still amazing to walk down the street and see 50% or so white faces, whereas in most other areas it’s maybe around 1%. On top of that expats have continued creating new isolated communities such as Discovery Bay, where even native Hong Kongers with plenty of money would likely feel out of place.

When Chinatowns formed across America, it was not because Chinese people could afford to live in a nicer place than almost all of the local population. It was the exact opposite—they mostly stuck together because they needed to find financial assistance, employment, or translators to help them out. It must be acknowledged that there is a big difference in clustering together to find people to assist you in surviving in a new country, and clustering together because have no interest in speaking Cantonese and can afford a beachfront property. Expats don’t really need to live with other expats—they just want to. So in short, expat neighborhoods represent a form of privilege that other ethnic neighborhoods generally do not represent.

Discovery Bay plaza

Major shopping area in Discovery Bay

And yet, these expat havens may also serve practical purposes. Just like for Chinese people coming to America, who I’m sure were often overwhelmed by the culture, going the other way can be overwhelming for us too. Hong Kong is just very tragic in a lot of ways, and the more you speak to people here the more that can weigh on your soul. I have empathy for Hong Kong and its citizens but in the end their problems are not my problems, as I can go home at any time. Is it better for your own health, then, to stay in a place where you can in a sense “go home” each night?

I guess what the question comes down to is this: Should expats be expected to have a certain “goal” or maintain a certain moral code when they move abroad? Is it okay for an expat to go abroad with the sole intent of enjoying his or her privilege as compared to locals, or must there always be a higher purpose of wanting to explore a new culture and see the world through other people’s eyes?

It seems to me that although it would be impossible to set formal rules as to what expats should and shouldn’t do, I think it is very important for people in this category to critically examine our behaviors while abroad, and our motivations behind those behaviors. Abusing your privilege comes more naturally than you might think, and the cheaper a country is to live in, the more ways there are to do it. Living in the nicest environment you can afford with your own income isn’t necessarily an abuse in itself—but you do have to also ask yourself the question, what is my real motivation for choosing this particular neighborhood, and why did I not choose a nice home in a more ‘Hong Kong’ part of town?

If you choose to live in ‘Expatville’ in order to meet others with similar backgrounds, stay close to familiar foods, or have access to schools for your children to attend, I think all of these reasons are in some way justifiable. However, if you live in ‘Expatville’ because you don’t like spending time with locals, you think everyone else’s standard of living is too low for you, or you plan to stumble around the city a drunken mess every night with folks just like you, you might want to take a step back and think about why you even wanted to be an expat in the first place.

In the end, if it turns out you’ve only moved abroad to live out some neo-colonial fantasy, then I would suggest sparing the locals and staying in England.

* It’s worth noting that “expat” is inherently a racially loaded term, as it tends to mean “white person who lives abroad” (or at least someone from a mostly-white developed country like France or the US). When it’s someone from India or Ethiopia or something we tend to call them an “immigrant”… even though they’re basically the same thing.

Discovery Bay beach views

Tai Pak Beach, Discovery Bay

A Nation Which Dreams No Longer

Progressives: Don’t back down from defending multiculturalism

When I decided to spend a day visiting the National Museum of Singapore, the last thing I expected was to be brought to tears.

I went in with no preconceptions of what I would find there. See, I am the type of traveler who does little research before I jet off on my half-formed adventures, preferring instead to let myself soak in a bath of unfamiliarity. I have no desire to enter a place staring through a lens of judgement constructed based on someone’s whiny TripAdvisor reviews on topics like basic cultural differences or a lack of KFCs. Instead, in the spirit of my blog and brand I try and show up and see a place through the eyes of its own citizens, and so I visit national museums as much as I can; not because they are trustworthy sources, but because I believe it is important to understand a place’s self-narrative.

The National Museum of Singapore exhibits great nationalistic pride, which makes sense as every Singaporean I met acted the same. Singapore was a British colony until World War 2, when the Japanese military triumphed and claimed Singapore as its own. The museum claimed that this British military defeat “shattered the myth of British superiority” and that from then on, Singaporeans began asking for independence. When it was granted, the country became part of Malaysia. But there were differences. According to the museum, Malaysia wanted to focus on forming a “Malay society,” while Singapore had a different vision in mind.

It was in this part of the museum where I sat down to watch a video of Lee Kuan-Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, on the day that he announced to all Singaporeans that they would no longer be a part of Malaysia, and would instead become an independent new nation. It was the moment where, for the first time, a definitive identity was assigned to this unclear concept of what “Singapore” meant.

The video was emotional, with Lee Kuan-Yew himself breaking down in tears on multiple occasions. That alone would’ve made it tough for me to leave with a dry eye. But the part that cut me deep in my soul, was when he looked directly into the camera, and said the following words:

“We are going to be a multi-racial nation in Singapore. We will set an example. This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everyone will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion.”

After hearing those words, after everything that has been going on in America since the election and inauguration, I went to the bathroom, hid myself inside, and let myself cry.

______________

Up until this year, I would have told you that those words were the voice of the American Dream too. In fact, I remember being asked a few years ago what my favorite thing about America was, and I remember answering, “diversity.” I didn’t realize that in some corners of the nation, this is a disputed fact.

And yes, that ignorance was painfully naïve. Thinking about it now, I don’t know that we’ve ever actually had a president look directly at us and tell us all that this was our intention as a nation. And in fact, we’ve had so many in power throughout our history that have voiced the exact opposite. That Native Americans must be removed from their homelands. That slaves must go on being slaves. That Japanese Americans should be moved to internment camps. That Muslims should be banned.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are American idealists who have believed in America as a united and multi-racial nation from its earliest days, and fought for that dream even when it was so far-fetched their efforts must have looked insane. Like Harriet Tubman, an enslaved black woman who was so inexplicably convicted in her right to freedom that she was willing to risk her life to go gain it for herself, and then return and risk it over and over again to guarantee that same freedom for others. We are honoring her by putting her on the $20 bill, notably, to replace the guy famous for kicking Native Americans off of their homelands—does that not say something about who some of us believe truly represents what it means to be an American?

Maybe we have just never vocalized clearly enough that the dream of people like Tubman, this idealistic, impossible yearning for freedom and equal treatment, this idea that no matter who we are we must be respected as human beings, is the American dream, and we must protect all those who dream it.

The current presidency has called our national identity into question, and it needs to be redefined. I believe that there is only one path forward for progressives looking toward how to heal the nation in post-Trump America: the path where we finally institutionalize multiculturalism and racial equality as mainstream American values.

____________________

Trump’s victory in the 2016 election was a lot like the proverbial broken clock that is right twice a day. It’s not that the things he was saying represented any true understanding of external circumstances; it is that external circumstances happened to align with the things he was saying, and to many people, that made him sound right.

Our nation is changing. As usual politics is struggling to keep up, while Trump is someone who does not even try to keep up. I believe Trump may actually sound more coherent to conservatives on the right who have “not kept up,” than the liberal politicians who are actually behind the times sound to young liberal voters.

As I said, our nation is changing, and quickly. It is simply impossible to label modern-day America a white nation. For the last 50 years or so, there has really been a major cultural shift. Black artists, athletes, and politicians have gone from groundbreaking to mainstream. Asian actors write and star in their own TV shows, while Asian doctors perform our surgeries. Tacos are as familiar to American kids as hamburgers, and all of us know how to count to ten in Spanish. People of color, while too underrepresented in too many areas, are still far more visible and empowered than they were in the 1950s.

So many of our defining elements, our best technology, celebrities, athletes, scientific advancements, and even food have nothing at all to do with white America. But white America, or at least liberal, urban, East and West coast white America, has also increasingly embraced these elements as part of our own culture. We all eat sushi, we all listen to Beyoncé, we all use iPhones. We make little distinction between who invented what.

I didn’t realize until this year that this diverse, fusion culture which has always defined America for me has barely trickled into certain parts of the country. I didn’t realize that not all politicians celebrated diversity in politics. In fact, I guess I didn’t even realize that championing diversity and working for greater equality of treatment was something critically necessary for politicians to focus on promoting… until I spent about six seconds on the internet during Trump’s campaign and was horrified by what I found. That not only do people misunderstand concepts like inherent bias, but that they actually actively flaunt their biases and judgments of their fellow Americans. And yes, internet harassment was going on way before Trump—but that harassment is increasingly making its way off of the internet and into real-life acts of violence too.

With all this discontent, should the left back down from our already light-weight treatment of racial justice issues? I have already seen too many articles claiming liberals must “do away with identity politics” or “listen more to working class white folks.” This sure seems misguided. Did America wait around after the Civil War to make sure the white working class “felt okay” with ending slavery? No, we just eliminated slavery, because let’s be real—they were never going to come around to it.

Similarly, I believe that after Trump, we should move forward by stating the goal of forming a just, multicultural America, without stopping to cater to anyone who doesn’t believe in that need. It’s just not, and never has been, something we should “wait on”—we need to do the legwork first, and lay the groundwork to make people believe in that vision only after we’ve jumped.

It is difficult to open minds, but it is impossible to close them. Once a person has accepted that they do not need to be afraid of Muslims, all the terror attacks in the world won’t change that view, because it is obvious to them that these are isolated attacks unrelated to Muslims in general. Our cities will not move backwards, and so our cities, and those with the power in this nation, must take the next crucial steps forward in adopting serious policies that protect our diversity.

_________________

For decades on decades now, equal rights have been labeled the cause of activists and fringe actors, not a mainstream political position. But while the Democratic Party has faltered and fumbled, look at the horrifying fringe positions on the right which have slowly drifted into the mainstream. Only 27% of Republicans believe Obama was born in the USA. Our Attorney General was ruled “too racist” to be a judge in the 1980s. Our current president retweets actual white supremacists and was endorsed by the leader of the KKK.

The Democratic Party cannot wait any longer. It’ll take a lot more than getting Obama elected; it will take every politician in the Party, white or not, building a platform to prove their conviction to racial justice.

Too often, the Democratic Party has used “equality” as something that is self-evident and brag-worthy, rather than a policy goal. But just seeing diversity is not enough to change the hearts and minds of those who do not actively feel a part of this diversity. There needs to be serious policy set in place. Policy that addresses inherent individual biases and larger systemic biases, that fairly restructures the criminal justice system, that encourages more open dialogue between sectors of society that would normally not interact. And Democrats themselves (and particularly white Democrats) need to start speaking out and demanding that this become a part of the platform, or it will never happen—and people of color will continue to suffer.

________________

I think many older adults believe millennials are not as nationalistic or loyal to the country as they are. As for me, I am an International Affairs graduate, I have my own travel blog, and I jet off to solo travel whenever I financially can; so yes, I’m certainly globally-minded. But I am also extremely proud to be an American, so long as “America” offers the promise of inclusion. I want nothing to do with some nation which walls itself off and expects everyone to look up to it, or which only allows one “type” of people to have a voice while everyone else is silenced. I want a nation which represents all the best parts of the world mashed together to make things that are even better than before. A nation of ideas and dreams and innovators, open to anyone who wants to be a part of it. That is the nation I’m proud of. It’s a type of patriotism that may be unfamiliar to my elders, but it is just as strong as theirs.

To be fair, America was not originally founded as this great multicultural nation. America was originally founded as a slave state unafraid of terrorizing its own native populations so long as rich, educated white men got to have a bigger say in politics. We weren’t created perfect, but we were created with a perfect, simple goal: to form a nation that was good. And this is what must drive us forward in redefining America for the future.

The older I get, the more I realize how difficult simply being ‘good’ is. It takes every ounce of effort and willpower to forgive, to be generous, and to love those who you want to hate. It takes the vulnerability and humility to seriously look at oneself and transform one’s actions when necessary. And believing that reaching a greater good is even possible takes quite a large amount of idealism, which is no weak-kneed cowards’ attitude, but the difficult daily work of waking up still believing in the possibility of something that is so outside the realm of reality that most people can’t even properly imagine it.

Those who practice a religion will be familiar with this struggle of faith, with the difficulty of explaining to outsiders why they still believe in the things they cannot see, and how bad things happen because they more often than not lead to much greater things down the line. And so I hope it is with modern-day America. For from this day on, our politicians must work in the business of faith and dreams, and stand firm in their belief that America can be a multicultural nation with justice for all.

From now on, either we will continue to move forward in our pursuit of the American dream, this idea of a nation that rises above the rest to be good in the face of great global hatred and corruption… or we will become a nation which dreams no longer, a nation with no hope or imagination past the imperfect edges of our reality.

______________

If we stop with Trump, I really believe we will have fallen far short of achieving that ultimate ‘good’ that at the time was so beyond the realm of our understanding that our Founding Fathers could not even fully define what it should look like today: a good so strong it is able to pull the best people and cultures from the entire world into our orbit and make them our own. A good so strong it proves once and for all that people do not have to hate each other. A good that shows the rest of the world how people from anywhere and everywhere can learn to love and respect one another, and can work together to go farther than any homogeneous nation ever could.

I am white, but I don’t care whether I live in a “white society.” I just want to live in America, with other Americans who share my values and dreams. And if white people become a minority, so be it. I will proudly live as a minority in the greatest nation on Earth, so long as I am treated with the same level of respect as everyone else gets.

And really, I think that is all any true American has ever asked.

10 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Singapore

Before I took my recent trip to Singapore, the only things I knew about it were:

  1. It is a modernized, international city-state (as in, both a city and a country), and
  2. Chewing gum there is illegal.

I wasn’t sure what there was to see and do there, but it is close to Hong Kong and cheap to fly to so I decided to give it a shot. Turns out Singapore is awesome! Here are ten things I learned about the country during my trip.

Country Background

  1. Singapore is a true mix of Asian cultures

According to demographic statistics, Singapore is about 74% Chinese, 13% Malay, and 9% Indian. The city’s museums do an excellent job of portraying the histories of these different groups, and visiting the neighborhoods of Chinatown, Arab Street, and Little India is another great chance for tourists to witness Singapore’s diversity.

Four Languages Singapore.jpg

  1. It has four official languages

Because of its ethnic diversity, Singapore has four official languages: English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tamil (which is spoken in southern India and Sri Lanka). The language of instruction in schools is English, but children are required to study another official language as a second language. English is therefore the lingua franca, though I found people’s accents tricky to understand at first!

Sultan Mosque

Sultan Mosque, located in Arab Street

3. Religious diversity is high

Singapore is about 33% Buddhist, 20% Christian, 14% Muslim, 11% Taoist, and 5% Hindu. According to a Pew Research Center study conducted in 2014, that makes Singapore the world’s most religiously diverse nation. One cool experience I had was that my hostel was located in a very Muslim neighborhood where most women wore headscarves and long skirts, and I was able to visit a massive Ramadan night market along with a varied crowd of people (the one at Gerang Serai for those who know the city!) There are beautiful mosques, temples, and churches scattered throughout the city, and according to Singaporeans everyone celebrates everyone else’s holidays.

Statistics from: http://www.pewforum.org/2014/04/04/global-religious-diversity/

  1. Before becoming independent, Singapore was occupied by Japan…

Singapore was a British colony from the 1800s up until World War 2, when Japan was able to take Singapore from the British. At the end of the war the territory was given back Britain, but soon Singaporeans began requesting independence.

  1. … And then it was part of Malaysia for two years

Ever wondered why Singapore exists as a tiny little dot at the end of Malaysia’s long tail? Well, after Singapore first gained its independence, it did try and join Malaysia, but the union didn’t work out. Malaysia overall hoped to form a society based on Malaysian culture, while Singapore had a different vision in mind.

To clarify that vision, when the government of Singapore decided to become independent, Prime Minister Lee Kuan-Yew told the new nation, “We are going to be a multi-racial nation in Singapore. We will set an example. This is not a Malay nation; this is not as Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everyone will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion.” And that is the model which has ushered in modern Singapore.

Fun Facts!

Mango Ice Kasang.jpg

  1. Ice kasang is pretty cool

The coolest food (literally) I tried in Singapore is called ice kasang, and it is popular in both Malaysia and Singapore. I was wandering around a mall food court one day hoping to grab a snack (sometimes I’m so excited when I travel that I forget to eat proper meals) and I looked over at someone else’s table and spied a rainbow mountain of goodness. Immediately I rushed to the closest food stall, scanning menus until I figured out where I could have what she was having!

I got a mango ice kasang (pronounced ka-chang), and it is made through the following steps: 1) Dump some weird tasteless jelly things into a bowl 2) Dump in corn (yes, corn) and red beans 3) Shave a massive heap of ice over the top 4) Pour various sweet syrups and some condensed milk onto the ice, and 5) Crown the top with some tasty mangoes. Honestly I thought this thing was so good, though like I said the jellies at the bottom were a disappointing finish and my mouth was entirely numb after eating approximately three pounds of snow. It was really the perfect treat after wandering around in Singapore’s sweltering heat!

  1. More Food Facts: Kopi, Teh, or Milo?

Ordering a drink in Singapore was probably the most difficult experience of my trip. I know that the city has four official languages, but I think ordering coffee should be an official fifth!

Menus start with both regular coffee (kopi) and tea (teh), which is pretty easy to figure out, but there is also an entire shorthand language which can be added onto the ends of kopi and teh. Adding “Si” means you want both milk and sugar, “O” means sugar but no milk, and then you can even mix all of the flavors together if you want… I think what I ended up getting was the “Kopi C Halia Iced,” which was iced coffee with milk and sugar and also some ginger flavor (that was the “halia”). I felt very proud when I sort of knew what I was saying as I ordered.

On top of kopi and teh there is also Milo which is like a powdered hot chocolate type of thing that lots of people, especially kids, love to drink. One Milo drink is the Milo Dinosaur, which is iced Milo with condensed milk and sugar, and undissolved Milo powder piled on top in a little mound.

  1. Singapore has nature!

Despite Singapore being a modern city some of its major tourist attractions are all about nature. Like Gardens by the Bay, which you’ve probably seen tons of really cool photos of on Instagram. Apart from the classic Supertree Grove there are some lovely fields and flowers there too.

But the biggest and best Singaporean nature attraction is definitely the Botanical Gardens, and particularly the Orchid Garden section. While a large part of the Botanical Gardens is free, not much of it is very photo-worthy apart from the palm tree section. But the Orchid Garden had plenty of stunning plants, archways, gazebos, trees, and so on. It made me feel like I was in The Secret Garden, and is a lovely way to spend a morning.

  1. Singapore has beaches!

Again, since I always just perceived Singapore to be a big city it kind of slipped my mind that it is actually an island (confession: I actually didn’t even know that until after my trip…) and therefore there is lots of nice coastline. While most tourists head to a tiny island in the south of Singapore called Sentosa to get their beach fix, I decided to try one closer to my hostel, East Coast Park.

I would very highly recommend this beach. It was near-empty, the water was super warm, and almost everyone else there was a local. The beach also had a really excellent selection of oceanfront places to eat and drink, so after burning my skin in the sun for a few hours I was able to get a bacon burger and beer, and a Starbucks frappuchino for dessert. And before you lambast me for being a basic white girl tourist, don’t worry, I also crossed the street afterwards and tried some Indonesian ‘pulut hitam’ flavored ice cream. Pulut hitam is made from black glutinous rice porridge with coconut milk and palm or cane sugar, but all I knew at the time was that it was purple and delicious, and definitely worth eating two desserts in one day. (Second confession: I may have had even more desserts that evening…)

Merlion Singapore.jpg

The Merlion is Singapore’s mascot!

10. Singaporeans love their countrySingaporeans definitely really want travelers to see their country, probably because it is not exactly a #1 world tourism destination. I met some extremely helpful people who talked to me all about their country’s history, culture, and most interesting spots. For example, as I ate lunch in little India, a woman at the next table over randomly struck up a conversation with me, gave me several restaurant recommendations, and then pulled out a paper and pen and made a full list of other things I could go see during my trip!

I noticed a theme of the recommendations I got was that people really wanted you to see stuff other than the tourist locations. I feel like in some countries, when you get off the beaten path people look at you funny, like, “Why on Earth would a tourist be out here?” But in Singapore it seemed they were really appreciative of people who like to dig a little deeper. Since that is exactly how I like to travel, and since I am genuinely interested in hearing people’s perspectives on random things like the chewing gum policy, this made Singapore a great fit for me! (Did you know spitting is illegal too? Wow!)

After visiting, I can see why people are so proud—Singapore is diverse, safe, peaceful, and accomplished, which makes it a lovely place to spend some time. 

Does Reality Matter?

The National Palace Museum of Taipei holds one of the largest collections of Chinese art in the world. It is also one of the world’s five most visited museums. In its cool, quiet exhibition rooms one can wander alongside strangers, pondering the meanings of ancient shapes and inspirations. Visitors are Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese, European, American, Indian… but in the hallways of the museum we are merely fellow humans enjoying the art.

The National Palace Museum of Taipei is either the result of a rogue looting of Communist Party property, or the result of a noble effort to protect and preserve China’s ancient artifacts. It depends on one’s reading of the history of China after the fall of the last dynasty, whether one sees Taiwan as a state in rebellion, or if the true state in rebellion is the People’s Republic of China governing the mainland. It is a situation where two places with the same origins have two totally different ideas about what the facts of their relationship are. Both truly and honestly believe that their position on the autonomy of Taiwan is the only one based on fact, and that any suggestion to the contrary is insane.

This should not be confused with a “difference of opinion,” by the way. This is an actual disagreement over what is factually true.

zzzr.JPG

Those not familiar with the conflict may think this disagreement over reality to be silly or strange, but they would be wrong. In almost every conflict situation on Earth, people are wrestling with this same struggle every day—a struggle of contesting narratives which do not add up to a coherent truth. In Israel and Palestine, in India and Pakistan, in Ireland and Northern Ireland, in Turkey and Armenia, narratives are split about what things really happened and what did not.

Yet another example is Chinese and Japanese narratives on what really happened during the Nanjing Massacre. “300,000 dead,” read the signs in the museum in Nanjing, China, whereas the Japanese claim it was closer to the 50,000-100,000 range. How can something as concrete as 200,000 human lives become a disputed fact? I’m not sure I understood until America spent a week arguing over what we could all plainly see with our own eyes: whether Obama’s or Trump’s inauguration photo showed more attendees.

For in the wake of the 2016 US election, it has become popular to talk about Americans’ “bubbles.” We grow up in certain neighborhoods, surround ourselves with similar friends, and only read newspapers that confirm our original beliefs, therefore we live in bubbles which need to be popped.

I agree to some extent, but “bubbles” is a bit of a weak word for something that is more like “alternate realities.” And it shouldn’t exactly be treated as something unprecedented. All it proves is that America has joined the “society-in-conflict” party, alongside places like Taiwan and China.

In other words we are not alone, but it is not exactly good company.

________________________________________________________________________

Calligraphy art

Some people like to treat differences in interpretations of reality as though they are differences in interpretations of art. As a dreamer and idealist myself one might think I would count myself among their ranks. And believe me I have tried. During election season I lapped up every single article I saw about the perspectives and characteristics of Trump supporters, hoping to at last find the key that would unlock a comfortable understanding of them. As someone with a relentless desire to understand absolutely everything it filled me with so much frustration when every article seemed to fall just short of enlightening me as to what exactly their reality is constructed of.

Art can be so peaceful because of both its connection to, and separation from, genuine reality. With a friend, you can stand in front of an abstract painting and give your own opinions, considering each other’s viewpoints equally.

“I think it’s a horse,” your friend whispers.

“No, I think it’s a birthday cake,” you whisper back. But you still leave laughing and walking together, no matter how strong your disagreements on the painting.

Why can’t the real world just be like this? I suppose it’s because art may either inspire or depress, but rarely does one leave the halls of a museum totally changed. Rarely therefore does art affect one’s actions in real life… but a person’s view of reality does matter, and it deeply and severely affects real life, especially for those whom that worldview hurts.

Whether the police shot an innocent man or a dangerous criminal is of huge importance; whether a woman was saying yes or no is a matter of serious gravity; whether climate change is genuine or a big coordinated hoax is a matter of the actual survival of our planet.

In these types of situations, it is absolutely imperative that we know the real truth, and cannot leave room for “interpretation.”  So yes, reality matters, and reality is a matter of life and death.

________________________________________________________________________

Palace Museum Interior

The real truth can be hard to come by. As humans with the capacity for logical thought, our instinct is strong to always use facts in our arguments, assuming they are more accurate than emotions. This can be a problem. While most humans agree that emotions are fallible and should always be taken with a grain of salt, we do not exercise the same amount of caution in trusting the facts we see on the Internet or even the ones we hold in our own heads. Facts are seen as iron-clad and argument-ending, while in reality, facts are just as slippery as emotions in that we need lots of context to fully understand where they’ve come from and why they exist. Our understanding of the world will never be objective and uncolored, because we all are susceptible to fallible emotions—and we all are susceptible to fallible logic, too.

I wish I could be more kind and forgiving towards alternative viewpoints on reality, recognizing that all of us struggle with finding the truth at some time or another. And yet reality deserves urgency. A potential genocide is going on in Syria. Am I supposed to nod and listen mildly when someone suggests with “purity of intent” that letting people die there is safer than letting them into the US as refugees?

Am I supposed to be cordial and accepting of the reality that my fellow citizens voted for a man who bragged about sexual assault? Am I supposed to accept that in their realities where the same words were said, somehow those words didn’t reek of the same grotesque meaning, the feeling of being grabbed in a dark bar or catcalled on an empty street? Am I supposed to pretend it’s okay and acceptable to me that so-called “alternate interpretations” exist where either I’m being silly, those words don’t mean what you think they mean, or the worst, the reality where all men just go around saying and doing those things? Is that really something I’m supposed to hear with an open mind, like Trump is not disgusting because all men are absolute pigs, and both men and women are allowed to live in a world where they believe this to be true and unchangeable?

Don’t people want something better?

________________________________________________________________________

Me and Blurred Reality

In a way we all have the power to create the realities we want and then inhabit them. Social media makes it even easier. We can curate our experiences on Instagram and Facebook to make glorified lives for ourselves. In a more tangible sense, the way we act often dictates how others act to us. Those who believe no one can be trusted are generally not trustworthy themselves, and those who believe the world is beautiful seem to find the most beauty.

Those who don’t want to believe their own clothes are on fire can stand there grinning in denial until they die, if they so choose. Those who don’t want to believe Trump is a bad guy can create a reality where everyone else is somehow worse. But honestly, what good is that doing anyone? Shouldn’t the opposite also be true, that if we dream up a reality where the world is peaceful and loving we could live there too?

I still believe we can. I believe in a reality where people first and foremost respect other people. Where we all fight together to understand the absurd complexity of this world. Key emphasis on together, because some of the few things I know to be true are that human beings all want mostly the same things, life is kinda scary, and all of us are super confused.

Look, I wish we could live in a world where looking at reality was like looking at a painting, and we could all see something different and that would be okay. But in real life, if we build the wrong reality people get hurt.

At the very least, can we agree to show ourselves some respect by believing in a reality that’s better than this?