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As a an American Baby Boomer son of two Great Generation veterans of WWII (both served in the US Navy) I was trained to say please and thank you at every turn. As a Chinese woman who has never traveled outside of the Middle Kingdom, that personal habit annoys my wife more than any other.
The Chinese divide people into two groups – those they have a personal connection to and those they don’t. Within the first group, nothing tops the connection to your children. Parents, spouse, and siblings follow, pretty much in equal order. They are all important with a capital I.
With connection comes obligation. It is assumed that adult children will take care of their aging parents. And parents will often sacrifice their careers, their personal pleasure, and their own ambitions to insure their child has the best possible chance for a comfortable life. (There is no literal translation of the concept from Chinese to English but I think the word ‘ze ren’ comes closest.)
Obligation, however, works both ways. ‘I owe you’ means ‘We owe each other’ in China. Neither side of a connection has more or less obligation than the other.
That much is pretty easy to understand. What took me a long time to truly comprehend, however, is that obligation comes with certain expectations. Intimacy is the wrong word since it denotes a certain emotional attachment that isn’t necessarily part of the equation. Perhaps oneness is a better description but that’s a little vague and open to interpretation.
The point is that my Chinese wife is continually perplexed, and more than a little put off, when I say please and thank you to her. She inevitably retorts, “Why you say thank you?” or “Why you say please?” and then looks at me suspiciously, as if I’m hiding something or just impossible to figure out.
Erich Segal, author of the book, Love Story, made the phrase “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” famous in the West. I suspect that the Chinese were a little perplexed by that. In their culture, love is not the issue. Connection is.
The beauty of that, of course, is that connection is lot easier to identify than love. Writers and poets are still trying to figure out what love means and probably always will be. You don’t need a marriage counselor to figure out what connection is.
At 62 I am far too old to break lifelong habits. I have, however, come to see the inherent beauty of the Chinese perspective. When I say please to my spouse there is an inherent implication that I am requesting something outside of the normal boundaries of obligation. With marriage, however, there should be no boundaries.
So, what am I suggesting when I say please and thank you? Am I suggesting that there are limits to my sense of obligation? And what are those limits? Defining them would be to sail into murky waters indeed.
And isn’t that where a lot of marriages fail? We start splitting hairs over things like obligation and the meaning of marriage and our role within it? Trust collapses; sex evaporates; connection dwindles; the marriage ultimately fails.
The Chinese get divorced, of course. They’re getting divorced in record numbers, in fact. Part of that, in Beijing at least, is due to the fact that the government put in restrictions on the number of homes one family could own in an effort to cool down housing prices. And since real estate is THE investment of choice in China, some couples actually divorced to create two households and double the number of homes the family could invest in. The act, in other words, had nothing to do with love or their obligation to each other.
There is, nonetheless, a certain simplicity to the Chinese perspective that I find refreshing. While Chinese customs may seem a bit bewildering to the average Westerner, simplicity is a common thread throughout Chinese culture. As Confucius said, “Wherever you go, there you are.” It doesn’t get much simpler than that.
Western culture, by contrast, is fully of subtly and incongruity. And given our deductive worldview that compels us to understand cause and effect in everything, it should be no surprise that we suffer so much angst and stress in our lives. As my wife continually reminds me, “You think too much.” She sleeps like a baby. I’ve been tired my entire adult life.
In the end, I’m not arguing for one perspective over the other. I do believe, however, that the Chinese are generally a lot less stressed than their Western counterparts. They may, in fact, particularly the children, be under a lot more pressure. But pressure and stress are two different things. Stress comes, as my physician brother tells me, from the sense of a lack of control. That has been my experience but I might add to that by saying that stress comes from the sense of a lack of control or understanding.
Think about it. How much effort is devoted by Western men trying to figure out women? And vice-versa. I can’t open the home page of my Internet browser without seeing at least one article devoted to the topic. “Secrets to a successful marriage.” “How to know if your husband is about to cheat.” “What men really want.” “What men don’t get about women.” The list goes on. It’s never-ending. And after all of this effort we’re really no closer to the truth than when we started.
Perhaps that’s because there is no single truth. Perhaps it’s like The Way in Taoism; it’s just too complicated for our human minds to comprehend.
I will say that I have spent several years trying to train myself not to always try to figure everything out. Just accept things the way they are. And, as a result, I can say with conviction that I am less stressed than I have ever been. You should try it. (Be aware, it’s not easy.)
So, thank you for reading this. Unless, of course, you are a sibling or someone with whom I have a deep connection. (My wife never reads my blogs. She assumes she doesn’t have to because she is my wife and doesn’t find much entertainment in all the soul-searching anyway.) If you do fall into the latter category, well, have a nice day. I may not be polite, but I am there for you.
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