Top Ten 2013

It’s the time of year for Top Ten lists so I thought I might as well join the parade.  The top ten things I have learned during my 6 ½ years in China: 

1.    To look at problems holistically.

As a Westerner I was taught to solve problems by uncovering the root cause(s).  And such deductive analysis can be very helpful in understanding cause and effect.  Such granular reasoning, however, can cause you to miss the universe for the atom.

Instead of stepping into a problem, sometimes you need to step back to fully understand the context within which a problem exists.  It is this context that often defines a problem and gives it shape.  It may not amount to cause and effect but it is the context that often gives a problem sustenance, so it is context that often holds the key to definitive resolution.

(Side note:  In the West we sometimes call this the ‘big picture,’ but it’s not a picture at all and ‘seeing’ it is not just a function of enlarging the frame of your vision.  Context is more like an autostereogram.  It’s always there.  And you can’t discover it one section at a time.  It’s the picture behind the picture.  Once you make the right adjustment the original vision changes completely.)

 2.    To have hope.

An Indian writer noted that when she spoke to a man cleaning a public toilet in China he expressed great confidence that he would some day own his own business.  The man doing the same job in India, she noted, surely has no such expectation.  For the moment, the Chinese people are full of hope and it’s contagious.  A better life is just around the corner.  How can you not buy into that?

3.    To appreciate the importance of flow.

If you’ve visited China more than once you have surely marveled at the pace of change that is evident here.  As they used to say about the weather in my native New England, “If it doesn’t suit you, wait a minute.  It will change.”

Change, however, is only the superficial manifestation of flow.  To understand China, and, I am coming to believe, life itself, you must understand flow.  The Chinese, who understand the importance of flow and apply it to every aspect of life, from Traditional Chinese Medicine (the flow of qi), to the notions of good and bad luck (yun qi), to the weather (tian qi), recognize that life is not static.

Nor is it linear.  Beginning and end can occupy the same logical place on the continuum of reason.  (e.g.  In the death of an era comes the birth of another.)  ‘White’ lies and ‘black’ lies are but lies told in different contexts.   Success and failure exist only against a backdrop of time.

This must be why water plays such an important metaphorical role in Chinese culture.  As we all learned in elementary school the oceans cover ¾ of the planet’s surface.  To understand the oceans, however, we must understand the currents that define them.  It is the currents, not the water itself, that give the oceans their sustenance and define the mutable patterns within which the life therein transpires.

4.    The value of clean air and water.

The next time you drink water from the tap or swim in a clear lake with a blue sky above be thankful for what you have.  Clean water and clean air are priceless.  Truly priceless.  And like most priceless things (e.g. love, safety, etc.) I’ve come to believe that everyone is entitled to them.  The rest is just logistics and financing.

We get too hung up on who is to blame and who should pay (Linear issues of cause and effect, in the end.) and lose sight of the fact that we, collectively, allowed cause and effect to play out.  Either through our direct actions, our buying behaviors, or simply through our collective refusal to act, we’ve all contributed in a way.  Pollution is a global issue and we must all be part of the solution.

5.    The power of suffering.

Driving to work each day I leave the cosmopolitan comfort of world-class Beijing and enter the rural China that remains home to hundreds of millions of the poorest Chinese.  And as I watch them live and work in the harshest and most unforgiving of conditions I am forced to marvel, again and again, at the capacity of the Chinese people to suffer.

If the West needs to fear anything about the Chinese this is, in my humble glassmaker’s opinion, the one thing to be feared most – their capacity for suffering.  Whatever the contest – war or commerce – the ability to endure suffering is a weapon which, in the most literal sense, there is no defense against.

6.    What really matters.

In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs the need for connection is number three.  We cannot feel fulfilled or realize our full potential until we feel a sense of connection to the people and world around us.  I am a foreigner here, and will forever remain one, but I have learned from observation what true personal commitment and obligation really looks like.

If I can find but one or two friends in life with whom I can know and earn the Chinese sense of true guan xi I will be a lucky man indeed.  (Be careful, this word is often misused in its most superficial sense by Westerners attempting to describe Chinese culture.)

7.    To put process in perspective.

The violation of process is the root cause of a lot of stress in the West.  I know.  I was the quintessential rule-follower when I moved here.  It annoyed me to no end when someone cut in line or otherwise disrupted the orderly flow of everyday life as my deductively-molded mind came to define order and the need for it.

As I will reason in a future blog it is the lack of deference to process that is, in my opinion, the biggest obstacle China faces in its relentless pursuit of economic prosperity and social harmony.  In the meantime the Chinese have helped me to realize what a slave to process I had become and how much of my daily stress and angst flowed from that one simple obsession.

In the West we talk yearningly of the innocence of youth.  But it is not the innocence of youth we’ve lost at all.  I have come to believe that innocence never leaves us.  We just learn to confine it in a prison of adult-minded process.

8.    Pragmatism.

In the 1980’s there was an American television show called MacGyver, about an everyday guy who could accomplish anything with everyday things.  He could build a 1,000 KW power station out of discarded avocado pits or craft a working computer out of used paper towels.

Well, MacGyver is alive and well and living in China.  When you free your thinking from the burden of cause and effect and focus exclusively on outcome without the blinders that are the very purpose of process, anything is possible.  Things that can’t be done are.  To do is but another tense of done.

(Yes, I know, MacGyver relied on the physical sciences to accomplish his feats of wonder.  But that is but explanation.  What held our fascination was what he did, not how he did it.)

9.    To smile.

Most Westerners consider the Chinese to be inscrutable in their facial expressions.  And that, I believe, is a byproduct of the Chinese aversion to wasted effort.

When the Westerners aren’t looking, however, (Remember, we are foreigners, so more than a little inexplicable and worthy of caution, at the very least.) what the Chinese do best is smile.  I have endless images in my mind of Chinese peasants working in the fields under an oppressive sun smiling ear to ear.  It’s an effortless smile, full of abandonment and devoid of restraint or structure.

It is a smile born of hardship and the wisdom to put it all in perspective.  The wisdom to know that this, whatever this is, either bad OR GOOD, shall pass.  And wherever we go in this life, there shall we be.

10. How to communicate.

Language is but simple symbolism designed to promote efficient communication.  And it is notoriously poor at the job.

Or is it our reliance on language, not language itself, which is at the heart of the problem?  Is it our inability or unwillingness to listen that is the root cause of our universal failure to communicate?

I live in a country of 1.3 billion people whose language I speak no more proficiently than a two-year old.  And yet in all of my years I have never felt more capable of real communication.

The reason, I believe, is that my ability to rely on language has been stripped away, forcing me, appropriately so, given my location, into a more holistic, less process-driven approach to communication.  You might say that because I cannot communicate, I have been forced to listen.

And in the act of listening, really listening, with my eyes, my ears, and my mind, I have learned the greatest lesson of all – an understanding of self.  It took more than 1.3 billion tutors to get me there but I think I’m finally starting to understand me – a glassmaker in Beijing.

My sincerest and humblest thanks to each and every one of you for reading my musings.  May the coming year bring you closer to the world and the people around you.


Copyright © 2013 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.