Friday, September 2, 2011

China 2011 Chapter 3

China: Part 3, “No, Bo Bo, these flowers aren’t for everybody to look at. They’re just for PAN PAN to look at!”

Part 3a: “You are a kindergarten teacher.”

For my students: You guys/girls are bomb-diggity-awesome, and you’re going to be so good at economics or whatever you want to do, and I’ll be so proud that we spent 2 weeks in sweat-heaven Beijing through 200% humidity listening to our bomb-diggity-awesome Professor (aka “the Boss” aka “the Talent”) and trying to get to know one another through cultural barriers and weird accents (I’m sorry I can’t be less American, and that I sometimes, or lots of times, said words like “bullshit” and “crap” and “god damnit” in class. I’m not sorry for making you all speak in front of the class to practice your English public-speaking skills even though I know that was torture for some of you and that some of you probably lost sleep over it and practiced for hours the night before because you were ashamed or embarrassed of your accent and had never spoken to a native English speaker before let alone speak publicly in English about economics or about anything at all, ever. I promise it’s good for you, and I know how proud of yourselves you must be now that you know you did a good job, and that the next time you do it, it won’t be as scary and that you deserve to have just as much of an opportunity as everyone else in the English speaking world. I am not sorry for making you debate one another about monopolies and IPR and tariffs and who-killed-the-eonomy-in-2008, but I am sorry for openly laughing when some of you made up numbers on the fly about certain dead-weight losses to prove your point or got the axis wrong for your monopoly demand graphs while doing this. I’m sorry I made you get into groups with people who weren’t your friends nor spoke your native language, but I’m not sorry you ended up going out to lunch or dinner or drinks with them later and made friendships you’ll have for years. I’m not sorry for being anal and strict about plagiarism and citation. That is serious, and you WILL get in big trouble for it, but if you accidentally did it in this class because it was the first time someone really required this, you know I’ll let it go and sit down with you to go over what to properly cite and how to do it. I’m sorry I couldn’t answer all of your questions – like, what year will the United States lose its economic superpower over the world or like whether Warren Buffet is psychic or like how to derive the existence of real numbers –, and had to defer you to “the Boss”, but I’m not sorry for being honest about it. I’m sorry that it wasn’t up to me to give you your grades – it was partially up to you and really, the Establishment (aka “the LSE(&PS)”), but I’m not sorry that I made sure to let you understand that, despite what I falsely believed for 25 years of my life, grades aren’t all that important, and if you never tried something new or something you weren’t naturally good at, you’d just be following yet another group of rule-followers who really are just good at copying and regurgitating and not very good at innovation because innovation begins at the boundary and happens outside it. So the only way to make yourself better is to step outside your boundary. And like I said the last day of class, you don’t run a marathon by just running 5 miles every day because 5 miles is comfortable and you’re good at it. It doesn’t mean anything to be able to run 5 miles if somewhere inside you, you were meant to run a marathon. I really believe that. I’m learning that every day. Keep in touch. Keep training and be honest. Keep me posted.).
* * * * *
I’ve gotten a few questions about why I’m in China other than going on some cool trip to visit family, eat really good and cheap food, and buy pirated shit to take back to the UK/US. Here’s the short-end of the answer: I’m here to help TA an undergraduate economics summer school course at PKU, which is really more like “econ-camp” if you consider the 4 hours of lecture in the morning (starting at 9am, a time so early it’s late for most undergraduates) and then the 1-1.5 hour class/seminar facilitated by yours truly, where my main job was split into 3 parts: (1) manage “the Talent” by reiterating main points – in English – that the Professor (aka “the Boss” aka “the Talent”) wanted (2) listen to worries and reiterate that everything will be ok, and that, no, the world won’t implode if they don’t get an A (3) think of games to play that made things like comparative advantage and trade surplus more interesting. We spit our class into 2 sections in the afternoon since there were 50 students, which meant I was teaching 2-3 hours a day. It was the best 9-5 job I’ve ever had (minus the 4-5 hours at night correcting papers and preparing for the next day’s class): I had people bringing me my lunch, coffee, and snacks throughout the day and basically got lots of compliments on my teacher outfits. I slept 5 hours a night, skipped lunch, and basically never worked so hard for a job and had so much fun doing it since coaching NYU cycling (which, believe me, was a full-time job managing “talents”).

I’d like to tell you all the funny stories that happened in the classroom, but I realize that so many of those things are inside jokes (which, to clarify, I still find myself in hysterics over to this day), but that if I actually told someone who wasn’t there, they’d probably think I was the nerdiest person alive or had a really bad sense of humor or some combination of the two. There is, however, one incident that I think everyone can relate to. Here it goes:

The Professor (aka “the Boss” aka “the Talent”) and I were concerned over the review session and the time of the final exam since some students had expressed worries that they couldn’t get their party outfits on in time for the Friday night end-of-the-program banquet (I’m not kidding, this was a concern. Beijing is a big place!). The Professor (aka “the Boss” aka “the Talent”) was spending a long time giving detailed, democratic options for the students and wondering what their thoughts were. I interrupted by basically shouting, “Guys. Beggers can’t be choosers, so if you don’t pipe up now, don’t complain to me later.” To this, the Professor (aka “the Boss” aka “the Talent”) replied, “But also keep in mind, I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to answer one way or the other, but just let us know what you would prefer in seminar.” Given his wishes, I realized his concern was that some people would feel pressured by their peers to choose one option, most likely the one that involved skipping a review session and making the exam earlier so they can get dressed earlier and start drinking earlier and so on (which meant that the poor kid who was really shy but really wanted not only a review session but also that Q&A session with the Professor – aka “the Boss” aka “the Talent” – and didn’t mind if the exam was at 4pm b/c she/he could just run to the 6pm banquet right after the exam in blue jeans and sneakers and with books so that he/she can ask the Professor more questions later, was stifled into doing what the majority wanted for fear of being socially ostracized. Which, let’s be real: if you’re in summer econ-camp, you have no right socially ostracizing anyone for nerding it out.)

Now, this is something I also took very seriously. So very seriously that afternoon, I very seriously wrote up the 3 different options on the blackboard (YES, with colored chalk). Then I very seriously asked them each to put their heads down on the table and close their eyes (yes, you read right – and yes, some of these students were far older than me, and many of them already had master’s degrees or jobs or kids and family) and asked them to raise their hands when they heard the option they liked. Blind voting without all the hassle of ballots.

So far during the program, I never got a room full of stares (and proudly, I never got a “I’m so bored of you I am going to put my head down blatantly and sleep because you are asking for it, look how boring you are.”), which I can tell you right now must be the fear of every type of teacher regardless of how experienced or inexperienced he/she is. It’s awful: you stand up there in front of 20-30 people, insecure about whether you’re being clear at all or not and absolutely terrified of one of those curve ball questions from a student who you knew from day one is way smarter than you, and you know that question will knock you right on your ass and make you wonder whether you know a single thing about the subject, let alone try to explain it to 50 other people. You ask them a question, which is carefully planted and placed and scheduled because that question leads you to your next planned 10-minutes, which in turn, leads to the next 50. And nothing. Stares. You’re stuck. You answer your own question, and before you know it, you’re up there giving some horrendously boring monologue, which is basically a reiteration of what was said earlier, or what they read, and you feel like one, big, huge fraudulent tape recorder.

Luckily, the above Horror had never happened to me during this program yet. Even when they were exhausted or hung over or tired of 5 hours of class and getting up at 8am, I always had a faithful few who would answer questions and push through out of sheer loyalty or a collectively and secretly planned “I feel bad for her” attitude (and as an aside, to this day, I pretty much think that my students were the best bunch in the program. Ever.). This time, I found myself standing in front of a room of stares. They asked if I was joking. I replied I was not. Then I told them to put their heads down and close their eyes. They did not. Then I threatened them. Blank stares. Then I begged them. It worked marvelously. The Professor (aka “the Boss” aka “the Talent”) was pleased with the idea and results and named it the, “ostrich-head-in-the-sand-method”.

During the banquet, one of my older students said to me regarding my age (I had kept it secret for a long time, being ambiguous about when I graduated and when I worked so that I could leverage my authority): “I thought you were 35. You are like a kindergarten teacher.”
* * * * *
Thank you.
Part 3b: In the spirit of oral tradition and some good-old, home-grown family reunion awkwardness.
After the program, I basically spent an entire day lying in bed with empty nest syndrome, looking for papers to correct or emails to respond to and feeling disappointed when there was neither. This rest was, of course, short-lived as my extended family – fulfilling family obligations– found out my program ended and began calling to have dinner reunions. If you can imagine, this basically involved meeting a group of 6-10 people you’ve never met before (or who met you while you were a toddler and probably running around naked and probably eating things you weren’t supposed to eat and probably spitting and drooling on everything; they probably saw you have your diaper changed and saw you trying to eat that remote control or put that knife into the electric socket) and their friends you’ve never met before, and their friends’ friends you’ve never met before and so on.

I always enter into these engagements knowing that there will be stories told, and that chances are, the joke’s on me in front of a dinner table of strangers and family you don’t know but still love. It takes a lot of mental and social prep to get ready for this, and unfortunately, it’s totally culturally inappropriate to be the only drunkard in front of people who are family but who you haven’t seen in 22 years, which more or less destroys my Ace-in-the-pocket-method of getting myself comfortable in intrinsically awkward situations. Don’t even pretend you don’t know what I mean [footnote: come on, 30% of the reason why people drink at parties is to comfortably converse with that person they made certain unfortunate decisions with 2 weeks ago and secretly want to make other unfortunate decisions again, and instead of just saying, “Hi. I like you (or if you don’t really like the person, which is totally cool, “I am feeling ---- ”). Let’s ----- ” (which, in today’s young society, is considered to be far too straight-forward and therefore really confusing), one must engage in the ritual and pattern of (a) nonchalance and feigned disinterest (b) fake friendliness with some witty small talk (aside: this part really stresses me out) (c) and then when the party is sufficiently drunk (i.e. what my not-so-PC friends say, ‘when the straight, white boys dance’), messily begin flirting, etc etc . Obviously, none of this is pareto optimal, as it’s probably by far the least efficient way for people to get down, but right now, this is what’s culturally acceptable for better or worse.) 60% is to have an excuse for publicly totally acting a fool dancing. The final 10% is because no one wants to be more sober than the party and then subsequently have to be the responsible one out of moral obligation.].

This is what I’ve gathered from these stories: I was a difficult, stubborn, greedy kid who pretty much always got in trouble, ate everything, screamed a lot, and said really inappropriate things or asked questions that made people uncomfortable like, “Why is my great Aunt so fat?”
Story 1: (italics are voice of yours truly)
When Pan Pan was 2, she used to really like to pick flowers that were planted by other people. She wouldn’t pick wild flowers, but she’d find the ones that were clearly in national parks or in people’s yards, and she’d pick them all.
So once, my dad was trying to explain to her about how this is wrong and he said, “Pan Pan, don’t pick these flowers. They’re planted so that everyone can look at them and see how beautiful they are.” [PRC propaganda, I call that.]
And she replied, “No, Bo Bo, you’re wrong [uncle: or, in Chinese, older brother of my father’s]. These flowers aren’t for everybody to look at! They’re just for PAN PAN to look at!” [USA! USA! USA!]
Story 2:
When Pan Pan was 2, there was this one time when she got really mad at her day-care teacher, and even when her usual method of pooping in her pants didn’t work as defiance, she bit the woman’s elbow so hard, the lady had to go to the hospital! [I have no memory of any of this.]
Story 3:
When Pan Pan was 3, she ate an entire lipstick! [OK, I actually don’t think this one is true.]
Story 4: (told by my cousin on mother’s side while Story 1 is told by a cousin on my dad’s side)
Oh, that’s definitely true! When I was 7, and you were 1, my entire job when we visited was just to keep you from destroying people’s gardens. [Ugh, damnit. Confirmed and cross-checked.]
Story 5:
Pan Pan used to hoard food ever since she was a baby. She’d hide bananas and candy in her own room and eat it secretly so no one could take it from her. [Ah, well, this one still happens sometimes today.]
* * * * *
I’m glad to know that, intrinsically and without nurture or acceptable social guidelines, my true character could generally be described by misbehavior, a tendency to hoard, and strategically pooping in my pants to get what I wanted (the last of which, in my own defense, don’t even try to pretend you never did at least once before the age of 2 just because no one’s called you out on it yet).
Part 3c: When my uncle told me about the Great American Dream, i.e. When shit-got-real. (Warning: it gets heavy).
Note to reader and friend: I’d like to make clear that this isn’t a story about poverty or about being condescending and judgmental or about guilt (and I certainly don’t mean to sound like I’m giving a lecture). I hope what I write is a story about luck and belief (and a very real belief).

I only wish someone more talented or clearer than me can write this. All factual, tone, connotation, usage errors are made by the author. Stay with me, now.
* * * * *

I’m pretty convinced I have the coolest set of uncles in the entire world. I was able to spend a few days with three of them during my trip. I spent 4 days post-program in Beijing, and then took a train to Tianjin, where we went on a short family vacation to Beidahe (an ocean vacation spot). This is where I basically went on hikes with my Da Jiu (oldest uncle, but still younger than my Da Yi, who is the oldest sibling on my mom’s side) and Er Jiu (second uncle). This is also where we went on hikes, and where I realized that for all my cycling and running and triathlons, my uncles (who are well over fifty) could still hand it to me.
* * * * *

I don’t think my mom was trying to keep anything from me by not telling me. I’m sure she’s said things because I’ve known, but I think she’s kept some of the details because she either felt like they were irrelevant, she didn’t want to lecture me, or, she was protecting me as any mother would. Now, my oldest uncle is 3 years older than my mother, and I think his childhood and the decisions he made after the famine are part of his life to this day. I’m not sure he can separate it anymore.

This whole story isn’t possible without some history: Anyway, after the Communist party led by Mao took over China post-second World War, China experienced a number of “growing pains” and challenges, which for my rural-countryside family in Henan province, involved one of the worst famines in China’s history from 1959 (or so) until 1962 (or so). I can tell you for certain that no one in my family was ever famous, noble, rich, etc. I come from a very normal and impoverished genealogy of farmers from the rural countryside whose births and deaths are unrecorded and unknown. We were the missing statistics. We have no recorded history (But, I do think that it’s the story of the ordinary, unknown person and his place in history that reveals a truer story than what’s written by the rich, the known, the respected, the political, the feared – those people who cannot reveal the truth because they have a reason for rewriting it. What does it mean to write about truth if you have a purpose, an agenda?). These are the ordinary people who remember what it was like to starve, but then to be told that they’ll be given justice through 1966-1976’s Cultural Revolution even though they were still poor (and remained poor), and then told once again they had a chance to leave their poverty in 1977 with the opportunity to go to college once those doors were reopened, and then realized that they still couldn’t support their families easily in the 1980’s because the cities were so much more expensive than the countryside (they were making 9RMB a month – which is 1 pound sterling, which is 1.5 dollars, and if we roughly adjust for inflation might make it like 1.5 pounds sterling, and like, 3 dollars, and if we roughly adjust for purchasing power parity, is still not enough to ever buy meat to eat.). Then 30 years later, they are now tenured professors, managers of national highway structuring, phD’s, and so on, money being a problem of 30 years ago and a good story to tell at reunions and a nightmare that still lingers for a few of the older ones (because how can you really shed those memories of watching people starve to death and worry about starving to death yourself? You can’t.).

At some point in the 80’s, my mother married my father and had me. Then Tiananmen happened in 1989, which I still remember through my own retelling and my parent’s retelling (The fire on that huge road outside our window – “the students set the road and the tanks on fire” – and my boarded up windows and not being able to play outside and people who were so nervous). Here, I want to make clear, also, that this is not about politics: it’s not my M-O, and certainly, I know shit about politics. Nor do I really care to discuss politics or ever get into it. But you can’t separate these stories from history and subsequently from decisions politicians made. I’m just here to retell a story I’ve been told and partially remember. To continue: I remember being prepared to go apply for my visa to visit my mother in the US (she had left in 1990, alone, for an American University on scholarship to do her ph.D in physical chemistry because America, like Don Quixote’s Fountain of Youth, is all about that mythical American Dream) and practicing my line, “I’m only going to visit my mother”. Then I remember my mother raising me, while she is doing her phD, alone, without family or anyone she knew in the US. Now, if you can firstly just imagine doing a phD in physical chemistry in a language you barely spoke before leaving your country when you’re 31-years-old, you can probably imagine it’s pretty hard. You’d probably say my mother was more or less a rockstar. Now, imagine you have a 4-year-old kid on top of that (who also doesn’t know the language when she first gets to the US) and no one to help you take care of the kid, and the kid is stubborn and difficult but also completely helpless and quite funny at times and your only source of comfort because the kid tells you jokes and stories (and likes to crawl into bed with you, and you don’t realize it’s because the kid is lonely and scared too, even if she’s only 4) and the kid unknowingly makes you realize that no matter how hard your life is (think about how much a phD stipend is to support 2 people), you have no choice but to keep living (even if it wasn’t for yourself anymore, and you can’t run away because you have a 4-year-old kid, goddamnit.). Can you imagine how hard that must have been? I can’t. And I was there.

Now you have the historical setting.
* * * * *
So let me get into the heart of it without wasting any more time. I don’t like to watch scary movies, especially movies about war. I can’t stomach anything that involves: stabbing, bombs, guns, blood, loss of limbs, screaming, crying. It gives me the shivers to even write about it because I know it really happened, and it’s still happening. I can’t help but grab onto my arm if I watch a movie where someone loses an arm, or automatically put my hand on my chest if I see someone get shot there…it’s instinctual, you can’t help but think about just how painful that must be, and before I know it, I feel sick and awful, and that’s why I never watch scary movies. But what about hunger? I never really quite got the same sickening feeling. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I can watch and rewatch footage from Save the Children or Oxfam or whatever other program that raises money for some village in some country, over and over again without flinching. It’s just that, I don’t quite get as visceral of a physical reaction compared to other physical pain (I mean, when I watched “Saving Private Ryan” from behind a couch pillow with both hands covering my face, I still vomited from the sounds coming from the movie). I realized recently it was because I felt so removed from ever feeling suffering from hunger. My first world, developed world, middle-class, however you’d like to name living in small town Cheshire Connecticut, United States of America life is filled with other types of anxieties and worries that are so far removed from the pain of hunger, that I can’t even naturally relate to it when I see it [insert footnote: Examples include –“What am I going to do with my life?”, “Is my dad going to call my mom again to ask her if I’m a lesbian?”, “Will I get married?”, “Am I a bad person?”,“I gained 2 pounds. I’m FAT.” – god, go kill yourself, Pan.] [insert footnote: Now, obviously, I promised I wasn’t supposed to be condescending or preachy, and I know the above footnote is just that. I’m not saying that not knowing what makes you happy, or the fear of being alone, or having no self-control over what you consume and realizing too late you just ate your day’s worth of calories in one depressive sitting in the form of cake isn’t warrant for unhappiness and distress. It absolutely is. Everyone has a right to be unhappy or distressed, and no one should feel guilty for it. I’m just sharing my personal, and rather neurotic, thought-process.]
* * * * *
When Da Jiu was 5, and my mother was 2, he has memories of helping my Da Yi find whatever leaves, tree bark, or roots they could eat. My mother spent a year eating corn husks (or whatever that stuff that’s inside the corn husk is called, the part of corn even animals don’t eat), which were so rough on her digestive system as a 2-year-old [insert story that is really kind of graphic and something I’d rather not have to try to describe/I couldn’t really understand all the Chinese he spoke, but I know it was bad. You get the point]. OK, now I have to do this to help my own understanding and hopefully convey just how bad this was. Now, can you imagine being 5-years-old, or 10-years-old, like my Da Yi was at the time, and observing what other people were eating safely – and I’m talking about weird shit like leaves and tree bark – so that you could bring back the same thing to cook? Can you imagine feeling so hungry you’re happy to eat a leaf or tree bark? Can you imagine watching your 2-year-old sister struggle and cry with the garbage she’s been fed and having to watch your mother take care of her and try to make her feel better even though she couldn’t?

Da Jiu has memories of standing outside a garbage can in the evenings when some people (who were slightly better off) threw out their trash. The tail-ends of turnips, right near the leafy part, is really hard and quite bitter and was tossed out after making stew or whatever could be made from the pathetically small turnips that could be harvested during the droughts. My Da Jiu remembers standing near the garbage can and taking those turnip ends and bringing them back to eat. After eating so much of them and feeling slightly fuller, he stopped tasting how bitter it was. There is one occasion when I remember being really hungry, and it was during a 5-hour bike ride in the rain when I forgot to pack enough food and pretty much ran out of sugar in my system around hour 3. Then the next 2 hours, I could barely focus and didn’t want to talk. I was also really moody and sleepy. By hour 4.75, I was incapable of moving more than 12 mph. My teammate had to push me up Arnely Hill to Crystal Palace, where I stopped at Café St. Germaines and ate 2 pastries, 1 bacon sandwich, and 2 cokes and got a really bad stomach ache for doing this all in about 3 minutes.

My grandmother, from whom my mother’s rockstarness is inherited, made stews from whatever they could find for her four young kids. She’d make theirs a lot thicker with more food, and she’d just drink what was left over. My Da Jiu remembers this. He remembers when she got really sick towards the end of 1962/1963, when her digestive system became so empty that parts of it began to stick onto itself, and she had to be rescued by local doctors. My great-grandmother, his grandmother, died that way. She died of hunger. What is it like to die of hunger? It’s not something that happens in a few seconds, or a few hours, or a few days (what I had previously imagined to be the most painful types of death, and I’m too queasy to really list out the ways someone can suffer like that before finally dying, but I’m sure you can imagine it). But what is it like to die a death that takes a year? Or two years? For your body to literally implode and self-destruct because your cells have nothing else to burn except your own proteins. Your body literally consumes itself. I imagine at first, the person probably feels a lot of stomach pains, and then, the person gets really moody (this is the extent of my worst hungers). Then, you probably can’t sleep at night, since we all know that you can’t sleep on an empty stomach. But, what if this lasts more than one night? And it lasts a week? A month? Many months? I imagine you probably begin to feel really tired and fatigued, but then, you don’t even notice the fatigue, and all you feel is that your body is really tired and sore and your stomach feels like it’s the biggest organ on you. You can’t ignore it it’s so noisy and in pain. At the same time, you can’t do anything to make the pain go away, even if you try tricks like drinking a lot of water, because no matter what, the worst time is still at night when you have to stop drinking water to try to sleep, which we all know is impossible at this point.

To this day, my uncle doesn’t eat turnips.

And my Da Yi, the one who was responsible for taking care of all the others, I now understand why she sent her daughter, Dan Mei, from Louyang to Beijing on a 13 hour train ride to basically babysit me in the hotel room in Beijing. I’m pretty sure she gave Dan Mei instructions to never let me eat alone, walk on the street alone, cross the street without holding someone’s hand, or talk to strangers. Even when she’s doing her routine check-ups, she asks to speak to both my uncles separately, and I can see the 50-year-old men who like to break every known rule ever (because they are so badass), sit and nod and say, “yes”, “of course”, “no problem”, and “I understand” even though I can tell from their expressions and body language they’re agitated. As my Da Jiu said, “we grew up listening to her, and mow we’re still listening to her.” And who blames them? This woman, my aunt, at the age of 10, more or less helped raise 2 kids during a famine and can’t help but worry about every single detail of every single possibility of every single thing that could ever go wrong. Ever.
* * * * *

Now, I promised a happy story. I’ll describe the turning point with an anecdote (retold from what my Da Jiu said, so there may be a few mistakes because you all know from my previous update how my Chinese is). One day, when my Da Jiu (12) and my Er Jiu (5) were both hauling a huge cart of rocks back for some project or other, my Er Jiu decided that he had had it. He was really tired. He threw a tantrum. He said that he would never haul rocks again. My Da Jiu, who was used to telling him what to do and being listened to (and who also ended up as the disciplinarian of the family – you can still see each of his younger brothers, even at 40 or 50, still listening to him), genuinely felt badly for Er Jiu. He let him go and carried the rest of the rocks himself.

The next day, my Er Jiu immediately started studying as hard as he could. He didn’t study because he enjoyed it or because he could show off to other people about how smart he was; he studied because it was the only way he knew how to leave his life. Today, as a professor at a University that focuses on technology and engineering, he’s the most academic of any of my mom’s family. He is also by far the worst dressed.
* * * * *

What does it mean to have hope? I’d imagine it must be something similar to an unproven belief in a religion. It must be some idea that your life will change even though, at the time, every single thing around you tells you otherwise – that you are suffering and that those around you are suffering and the suffering is just so bad that you can’t imagine life without it. I tried to think of what my grandmother must have felt during those years. She was a young mother, my Da Yi born when she was only 17. I can imagine the greatest pain she could have felt was seeing her children suffer. I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to be a mother, let alone to be a mother who was trying to take care of four children during those years. I mean, can you imagine what it must have been like to listen to your kids cry, or tell you that they’re hungry, and for you to not be able to give them anything and not know if you’ll ever be able to give them anything anytime soon? When your son asks you if it’ll ever end, can you imagine what you’d say? Can you imagine how you would feel knowing that you brought them into this world, and now you have nothing to give them? Can you imagine not knowing how to read and not knowing what your government is doing, and quite frankly, not really having a reason to care, because whether it’s the new party or the old party, you were always poor and you’re still poor? Can you picture it? Can you picture those nights when you’re trying to get your kids to sleep, and you hear them crying or tossing in the night? I can’t. I’ll tell you right now, I can’t.

My guess is that if you’re reading this (from your Macbook or your PC or whatever on facebook or through email in your air-conditioned room because, god, it’s hot in August), you can’t. And there’s nothing wrong with it. Our parents, our grandparents – they did what they did so that we would never have to imagine that.

Anyway, this isn’t a story about guilt even though I can write plenty about it. This is a story about hope. If my grandmother can successfully raise 7 children, with 6 (not 1, not 2, but 6) getting college level education or higher and taking each of their families out of poverty and into lives of the first world, when she herself is illiterate, then I’m pretty sure you can do quite a few things you thought you couldn’t do. I won’t even try to be poetic about it. See, if you’ve read what I’ve written carefully you’d know that at the time, there was nothing telling her that she would be ok. There were absolutely no signs from anyone – the government (I mean, I say this because my grandmother couldn’t read, and forget about television), her friends, her family, Jesus Christ, Jaweh, God, Allah, Buddha, Krishna – that in a year, the famine would end. It’s not science, either. It’s not predicable. It can’t pretend to be predicable (oh, right, we’re in a recession, but give it three more years, and consumption will increase and people will work again, and we’ll be productive, and there’ll be another bubble and another recession and so on). The only thing in those moments is some kind of belief that you just have to make it through another day. Or, if it’s really bad, just the day you’re in. That’s hope, whether it’s third world, developing world, first world, or uber first world (like the kind of world Steve Jobs or Bill Gates must live in).
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Why do I love America? I love America for the propaganda of the mythical American dream: that you can, given whatever your starting circumstance is, achieve great things against huge odds if you just believe and try really super hard. Now, I say that this is an “American dream” because America is one of the only countries that has taken a basic, human condition (one of my personal favorite human conditions) – hope – and decided that it would be something that would be some characteristic description of its own culture (and now, we can make lots of references and jokes about the American cultural imperialism, like how stupid of a holiday Halloween is, about loudness, or how America basically is a huge economic and political bully that wants to always be the center of attention and the life of the party. But I’m not going to do that because I find that offensive. And let’s keep in mind the 200-year history of the country was created from this idea. Like, if you really wanted to, you could have made it the Great French Dream or the Great British Dream or the Great German – or Prussian – Dream, the Great Russian Dream, the Great Japanese Dream, etc etc, but you didn’t. So stop hating.).

The genius in the “American Dream” is exactly the form it’s taken: propaganda. My economics analogy is that it’s like managing forward looking expectations. My movie reference to that is from Kung Fu Panda when the egret dad says to Po, “To make something special, you only have to believe its special”. Or, let’s for a moment put aside (and I’m not saying forget, just put aside for a moment) how the Man keeps people down, or how some people suffer from inequality, and there are structures in place that keep some people from ever fulfilling their potential or even a small part of their potential, and how even today, there’s lots of barriers against certain groups of people, etc etc (plus, I promised I wouldn’t get political, and truthfully, I know nothing about politics). I’m not saying those things don’t exist or that we can’t fight against them or at least be sensitive to them and aware of them – knowing better, we absolutely should. I’m just saying, while you’re also doing all this fighting, and being sensitive and being aware and a really good person, don’t forget about my grandmother in 1960, bitter turnips, eating leaves, hauling rocks, and most importantly, being able to rise above that. [insert footnote: I know you can say that there were structural, political events that happened that allowed her and my family to get to where they are, and I don’t deny that. I do deny, though, that she knew this was to happen because of political event X, Y, Z and for that to have caused her to believe in something. My story, my argument, here is about what hope is when there is no reason for it.]

So what do I believe? What has the past few weeks of trying to muddle through my slowly re-emerging Chinese comprehension skills given me? Right now, the more detailed story of my family, a story that began in the People’s Republic of China in some rural town in Henan, has taught me – ironically – what it really means to have the Great American Dream, and subsequently, to entertain the belief in Free Will, Causality, Rationality, and the Mysteries of What We Don’t Know and Can’t Know. Maybe tomorrow, I’ll learn something new from it. I’ll stay tuned. Stay laughing.
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Thanks for reading. I’ll send something light-hearted soon.

Big love,
Pan Pan, August 30, 2011, Tianjin, PRC.

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