Escaping Conformity in the US and China

Experience has taught me that individuals and societies are essentially the same the world over. Societies invariably seek to channel individuals into a pattern of behavior, and individuals struggle against it. Even in China, the communal society in which groupthink trumps individuality, people are still trying to get ahead, find their niche, do their thing and make things better for their progeny. No different than people anywhere else in the world.

As an American returning to the Homeland after a long sojourn abroad, I am in a unique position. I have a frame of reference that many Americans don’t have and I believe it can help me navigate this society I am re-entering as an immigrant and a stranger. But it goes deeper than just “American travels, returns, and is different” – I was able to opt out of society’s web for most of my adulthood and do things most of my peers in the US never did. Like travel around and write about stuff. I am on the extreme end of the general Generation X distancing from the demands of civilization. I left altogether.

But now I am back and I can’t hightail it to the woods or lurk about the alleys of some town and make a living off of the fringe. I got mouths to feed and such. I have to become a member of this society even though I revoked my membership for most of the last two decades. The US wants me to conform and submit, at least that’s what it feels like, and I knew this was coming.

The good thing is, being a vagabond prepared me for the web, and China specifically gave me a set of tools to help deflect the conforming wave that washes over anyone living in the US today.

Conform!

When I was in college, I was a rebel in a cloud of smoke, having deep thoughts on a crumb-covered couch with Bob Marley looking over my shoulder. I read about the Panopticon in those heady days and since then the idea of the State as the all-seeing, “truth”-generating force has stayed with me. Michel Foucault described the idea in his book, “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison,” but I find Jeremy Bentham’s architectural rendering the easiest way to understand the power that every State aspires to wield:

The Panopticon: Foucault's theories and Bentham's design

The Panopticon: Foucault’s theories and Bentham’s design

There has never been a State worthy of the name that hasn’t dreamed of becoming a fully operational Panopticon: the power to observe every moment of a person’s life, digest that data, and metabolize the knowledge/power morsel into the State’s version of the truth. There is no question that both China and the US are actively seeking to gain such power over their populations. Here it happens despite “privacy policies” and supposed protections of my rights; in China it happens in full view of a civil rights bootstomping.

No matter what color the hand that reaches out, what language the propagandists use to convince, or what cultural shibboleths are trotted out to back it all up, the State will always strive towards omnipotence. It’s comforting, in a way, to know that a beast will always be a beast.

Running on the Hamster Wheel

In the US, a strong tool of conformity is the authority of the rule of law, a concept any good man can get behind. Without the rule of law, there would no recourse for injustice, no organized apparatus to collect taxes and build infrastructure, no order. Only chaos and jungle law. The law is all pervasive and takes form as lease agreements, job applications, meter maids, seatbelt laws, immunization forms, health insurance and a wide web of responsibilities and services that all seem to tie back to a social security number and taxes. It’s a daunting system to take on after decades as a wanderer, but there is also a comfort to being caught in the web. America’s framework lulls you into a daze.

Me returning home

Me returning home

That’s why people here can watch their freedoms slowly dissolve into the machine’s gears and believe that justice is being done, that they hate us because we’re free. It’s an insidious form of control, because we trade one type of freedom for another. It’s hard to define what we lose and what we gain when we’re walking the streets listening to the police sirens blare and pass by progressive, fair trade furniture shops on our way to submit social security paperwork.

The hamster wheel, they call it in the working world. Most people I talk to who have inserted themselves into the web and received a home and stable income as a result moan to me of their chains like that other Marley, the first ghost to warn Scrooge of the trap he was falling into.

Unlike China, the web in the US is all around me, penetrating every single day of my life and channeling me into the wheel. I constantly feel the State’s presence here, in a background music sort of way, as if the beast were a sinister shadow, moving as I move.

The US controls its populace through a palpable legal web of black acts and white rules – be white and win; be black and lose. I wrote once about China’s agents of conformity, and at the time it seemed so specific to that one society, but now I feel different. I think every society has agents, and they are similar at their core, if different in the clothes they wear.

Operating in the Gray Area

China controls its populace through inference and indirect threats, while allowing for a gray area of struggle between the people and the State. Perry Link calls it the anaconda in the chandelier. You never know when the mighty snake will drop down and choke out the scholar with an opinion. So you’re always looking up, always watching out, being indirect and oblique with your words.

That is, if you are a citizen of the State. For us laowai, the Chinese State is only really apparent when applying for visas, checking Facebook, or during the odd encounter that usually went much more smoothly than it would have for a native.

The gray area allows us, as outsiders, to pretty much get away with most anything. We can drive without licenses, smoke trees in public, get drunk and cause havoc, be unemployed and scruffy, not give gifts or play the guanxi game … Chinese society and its web of indirect pressures is something we could always opt out of. In fact, opting out of the black and white web of the US is what brought me to China in the first place.

Not only does Chinese society give me the little freedoms I crave, such as easy access to alcohol (Minnesota liquor stores hours are ludicrous), late night food and the economic freedoms that come with a cheaper cost of living and other amenities … but I could always just leave.

Conformity in China is no different than conformity in the US at its core. One major difference I notice is that I didn’t conform in China, and wasn’t required to.

In Practice

Art via cryptik.com

Art via cryptik.com

My lifestyle in China prepared me for a life on the periphery, but here I am at the very center. What have I learned from my years as an outsider that can help me tolerate and even dilute the conforming power of American society? Here are some ideas:

#1: Keep Cool

In China, I had a “Buddha Face” I put on when standing in line, struggling to remain upright in a thrashing mob, or when dealing with any bureaucratic snafu. That face can be very useful in the US. One great time to pull out the Buddha Face is while driving. Don’t get furious on the road, as most Americans are wont to do, and just go with the flow of traffic. Chinese drivers do crazy things all the time, but they don’t seem to get as angry as your average American driver. There is a flow to the chaos that always amazed me, even when I was cursing the tendency of all Mainland Chinese drivers to hang a sharp, hard left into a crosswalk full of people, honking as they go.

There is a palpable tension in American society that most people are constantly defusing through political correctness, overt tolerance and cool behavior, and phrases like “it is what it is” … I think the Buddha Palm technique is a better tool because the above mentioned tactics seem to be band-aids. Seeking out the Buddha within is true holistic healing at play.

#2: Hold onto an Immigrant Mindset

Immigrants to the US have absolutely no qualms about seeking out the various government- or NGO-sponsored programs available to people who need day care, advice on buying a home, help with groceries, health care advice, loans and business services etc. White elites, certain political parties, and a few media outlets would like to convince us that only the weak, lazy, or incompetent seek out government help. Easy to say when you’ve built cities on the bones and backs of others. Immigrants, like Chinese grandmas sifting through the trash for plastic bottles, are not worried about what people think. They are concerned with the American Dream and how to achieve it.

My wife is very good at this because … she is an actual immigrant. She is slowly being pulled into the web, but for her the web means opportunity. When I told her that I fear the pit of home ownership and middle class ceilings (and regret!) she said, “All we need to do is get the basics down, and then we can choose how we live.” Made sense at the time.

#3: Eat Chinese Style

The eating habits of Asians are far superior to Americans, something the obesity epidemic in America makes clear. The sheer number of plus size asses in the US is something to behold. A little bit of China in your diet and lifestyle – such as warm water instead of ice water, more greens in your dinner, and a healthy regimen of green tea – can offset the retarding diet of the US. My wife recently said that the Cub Foods chicken tasted like it died a horrible death. We switched to the Asian market and Trader Joe’s, and now she claims the chicken tastes better. I’m not going to consult crystal balls for advice right away, but what I’ve seen in life makes me prone to heed metaphysical advice.

#4: Don’t Be Concerned with the Rules

This could be dangerous in a society like the US
where, despite all rhetoric to the contrary, many basic acts and all official ones are highly regulated. What I think I mean here is maintain an attitude of conscious objection to the chains by which many people are bound all day. In China, it was easy, because as foreigners we weren’t bound by many societal or legal chains. In the US, all of those reappear with a vengeance. If you can find that path between obeying society’s demands, while not being chained down by them, life can surprise you.

#5: Remember the ‘Du

I have little reminders of my life in China all around me. It gives me perspective when I deal with the onerous demands of a litigious, divided society with delusions of immortal grandeur. The chaos of China is such a contrast to the regulated world of American society and I try and bring a bit of the ad hoc into my life here. It’s strange to accuse the many artists and innovators around me in Minneapolis of following a script, but that’s how it feels sometimes. I try and remember the improvised world of the Chengdu’s urban edge in particular, and try and channel the adaptations of Chinese people in a shattered landscape into the finished world of 21st century American urban life.

Keep a little Dirty Alley in your life

Keep a little Dirty Alley in your life

Conclusion

Let’s not get it twisted. America is dope. The radiance of the setting sun, a huge bulbous moon hanging above the treeline like a Spring Festival lantern, clean air and white snow, the excellent organic/cage free ingredients for our Chinese meals – thank you America! But when the US starts crawling up my back and I find myself submitting to intrusive background checks for a minimum wage part-time job, it’s good to remember the Dirty Alley, lazy tea sessions, laowai freedom, and the ingenuity and struggle of the Chinese I spent so much time with.

What tools of the wanderer’s trade did I miss? Add what I can do to fight conformity in the comments!

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About Sascha

Sascha Matuszak is a writer and commentator on domestic and international culture and politics. After living in Chengdu on and off for twelve years, he now lives in Minneapolis.

27 Responses to “Escaping Conformity in the US and China”

  1. Dan

    Lots of people living in China know that their time here isn’t infinite. Knowing you can take what you’ve learned here and apply it back in your home country is great for a couple of reasons: it makes the idea of moving back less daunting and reframes it in a way like “What advantages do I have from that experience?” Also, in 2012 when I moved back to the States after a year in Chengdu, I wasn’t in this mindset at all; instead, I was just thinking of all the things America has that I had been missing in China, to the point where I began overstating the comfort and pleasures of America. Finally, I don’t know about anyone else, but this article made me appreciate some of the things I know I and many others take for granted here – that freedom from social expectations and restrictions. The freedom and privileges here are not the same as those back home, and if you’re not appreciating or at least evaluating those, and only focusing on the negatives of where you’re living, you’re gonna have a bad time. Awesome post Sascha.

  2. Hi Sascha, I like the article, glad to hear you are getting set up in America. I’ve recently come back to England and I notice everything you mentioned.

    One thing I wanted to add or highlight is that people have changed in the West… There used to be fight against government overreach, people were trying to push the government away from the ‘Panopticon’, producing a balance between the power of the people and the power of government.

    But now, people are scared, scared of laws, scared of failure, scared of not being respected, scared of terrorists, scared of sex, scared of fringe groups in society. And their fear is causing them to relinquish their voice.

    In short, Western governments have figured out how to divide society and use fear to push anything they want, and very few people even see that this is happening.

    I have a phrase I say to people: tell me what you fear and I will tell you how the government is controlling you.

    And it’s not just about going from being on laowai law to being a normal person in the West. Things weren’t like this 10 years ago, it’s a modern phenomena and it’s changing fast. I think it is very dangerous.

    I really think people need to wake up. I cannot believe people gave up their ability to make up their own minds because of a bit of divisive scaremongering, but it’s what’s happened.

    It’s like the traffic differences in China/America… In America people get angry if there is bad driving and this keeps people in check. In China no-one says anything and so people carry on at will. I never thought I would say this, but I see more fight against the government ‘Panopticon’ in today’s China than I do in the West.

    What do you all think?

    • Charlie

      Hey Oz,

      It’s a little scary to hear such a similar testimony from UK, but it doesn’t surprise me too much because I have noticed the same thing in the United States.

      The West has assumed the moral high ground toward China with regard to privacy and transparency for decades, but that narrative has become much less convincing in the last 5-10 years. I think this is partly due to Western phenomenon like WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden revealing where the West is weak and hypocritical, and also China finding a lot of continued success even with its uncompromising top-down systems of control. It’s really just a lot more control in both societies, and all around the world.

      Recently there’s been a lot of controversy about the militarization of local police forces in the US, especially Ferguson, Missouri. I was in Xinjiang recently and was shocked to see tank-like vehicles parked on major roads with assault rifle-toting police officers mean-mugging passersby. But shortly afterwards I realized that the same thing happens in Ferguson in the states, but with even larger tank-like vehicles and and even heavier and more threatening police presence.

      Instead of freedom versus totalitarianism it feels more like one system of totalitarianism versus another, each with their benefits and drawbacks. I don’t think that there is moral equivalency between China and the US with regard to things like the rule of law and governance, but it seems easier than ever to make realistic comparisons between the two since they share so many traits.

      • Well, it’s good to hear that at least some people see the problems brewing.

        I often say to people here that 20 years ago China and the UK were polar opposites, but in the interim, China has become more open and forgiving and the UK has become much harsher, and now the difference is smaller, in some cases there are more freedoms in China.

        In response people usually angrily defend the UK, invoking things such as the one child policy (which they know nothing about) and religious freedom (which again they know nothing about).

        People don’t listen, because they want to believe they live in a good place, at least better than the rest, and use anger and stuff they have heard about (but have no real clue about) to brush off any comments about how the UK is dangerously becoming a police/surveillance state.

        I think I am not the person to make people see it… But people like Snowden are, and people totally ignored all this information and attack him for being a traitor, parroting the line that he caused deaths of UK/US citizens.

        I’m not sure how to open people’s minds, but I think it will be hard. People want to believe they live in the best, most fair country in the world, now there are lots of things that show the contrary, rather than changing their minds they stick their head in the sand.

        The main problem to overcome is the way people define things, or more the way they have been conditioned to define things, like terrorism, freedom, equality, justice, etc, have all become twisted. The government uses them to label in a way that allows them to do what they want. For example, they say ‘a terrorist group is attacking freedoms in a country’ and people will, without looking into the nuance of the situation, immediately blindly support military intervention.

        People need to see the nuances, that many many things our governments do would be called terrorism by us if they were the other way round. Not just that, it would be the worst terrorist incidents ever!

  3. Minus the mouths to feed, I’ve struggled with re-integration to the states, and trapped between some tri-national existence among pf order and chaos that was my time in in Germany and China.

    The buddha face is such a good tip, “murricans seriously lose their shit when things don’t go their way. But we know they are clowning ‘cuz shit is real in 6pm traffic on renmin nan lu. The bike/mbta commute in Boston brings good karma and training out to work allows me to write and read on the MBTA. Dem liquor laws tho, you are basically forced to always have a stash at home which induces more drinking cuz you have 12 on hand when maybe you just wanted 2. The immigrant community in Somerville is great though, if I so chose (only to troll my friends) I can pick up 苦瓜 from the Market Basket and there are restaurants that encompass every ethnicity within a 5min bike radius of my humble yet overpriced crashpad.

    Keep it real!

  4. It’s tricky trying to be objective about the countries you live in, especially if one is the place of your birth/development and the other is a place where you lived fundamentally different experiences to most of its citizens.

    I would say you are also following a script by being a man of Western European descent living a life of privilege in a poorer country than your own – the grand travel narrative of the English language – and then returning to the homeland slightly alienated, disjointed.

    It’s great seeing how you’re keeping “your China” with you. By not conforming you’re taking a stance – a political stance, a philosophical stance. It’s good.

    But sometimes people can get cloudy when they try to justify time spent away – i.e. you feel like because you put the years into something, you need to apply that experience as being of value to EVERYTHING you do. It won’t be.

    • It’s much trickier being objective about a country which you’ve only read about in an encyclopedia.

      Do we take Darwin’s account of Easter Island or that of those who used to live there?

  5. I believe things have changed in the US as well, there is more fear and tension than ever before. I felt it during my trips back home over the past few years, and now that I live here I realize that it isn’t as tense as I thought it was – as in bubbling violence always – because people still struggle.

    I have noticed a collective weariness that I think set in right after Obama failed to walk on water and wash away evil with a wave of his hand. Since then I have noticed most of my peers just chuckle wryly at politics and just focus on a narrow and much more attainable level of happiness and content. I think of Candide often when I seek anything but simple pleasures.

    I am def. part of a tradition of Westerners who have traveled and returned, and your warning not to apply my experiences to all things in hopes of staving off regrets of “wasted years abroad” is one I take to heart. I am currently using my experiences as a shield to keep this lifestyle of acceptance with irony I see here at arm’s length.

    • Charlie

      I’ve found the same thing when returning to the states every year, although I’ve noticed that it’s very localized. In Washington, DC and San Francisco (the places I visit most often), everything seems to be going well. Once you leave prosperous major cities though, you are forced to confront signs of struggle and decay. Half-finished and abandoned development projects, decrepit infrastructure, and a populace that is desperately clinging to the status quo of America as the world’s sole superpower.

      China is the opposite: ready and willing to discard everything that came before, all tradition and history, for the sake of the future. In China I feel like the only thing that matters is the future, which is both a constructive and haphazard way to manage a society. I think this is one of the core elements that makes China so dynamic and interesting: the fact that no one knows how this bold and daring experiment is going to work out.

  6. LOL, the gubbmint is comin ta gitcha! It’s always hilarious hearing right-wing nutbags scream about governmental overreach. Face it, in the years and decades to come, the US government is going to become a part of your daily life. You’re going to have a relationship with the government the same as anyone else. And you’re going to HATE it, and people like me are going to laugh, and laugh, and laugh.

    Panopticon. You morons will grab at any straw to criticize Obama, won’t you? Yes, there will be social obligations on you. As a white person you’re responsible for a lot of problems, and now it’s time you pay.

    • Dan

      Your willful misinterpretation has been noted. Thanks for commenting!

    • Gobbldy hardy har you’re great dood, keeep up the great talkie talkin’ hahahah life is like a apple PIE! hawr. hawr har laughin wit ya!

    • KB

      Right-wing nutbags? The article above is so far beyond bipartisan bickering that your comment is laughable. Conservative/liberal! Red team/blue team! Do you cheerleaders ever quit? By the way, Lewis Black has so accurately pointed out that the two-party system in the USA is merely “a shit sandwich looking at itself in the mirror”. Certainly not far from the truth.

  7. Charlie

    This was an enjoyable read and an intriguing comparison between China and the US. You returning to the states after spending so much time in China is fascinating on many levels, both from your own personal development and all the changes that have happened in China and the US over the last ten years.

    I remember, shortly after arriving in China, discovering the kind of freedoms that expats have here. China is the kind of place that you think is highly restrictive – and in some ways, it is – but it also affords freedoms that you can seldom get anywhere else. The same is true of the states in a way, which is simultaneously open and closed to non-conformists. China can be the most “hands on” and “hands off” country at the same time, with a million rules on the books that are ignored in China, creating the opportunity to do things here that you couldn’t get away with in the developed world.

    In any case, great post. Before this I didn’t know about the panopticon, which is fascinating. I spent time reading about that on Wikipedia after finishing this article.

  8. Scuse me. wanna let us all know how choosing tofu over steak sposed to save us from the crushing hand of the man? are you proposing fat asses an agent of the all seeing state? That’s oppression I can get behind know what I mean. Trying to anorexify the nation and shit what in Lords name is wrong with you. And do you mean to tell us that you found Buddha over there in China and are trying to spread the word through his face and his hands? You bout to catch these hands right here smh bringing your false af palm reading over here. Dafuq outta here. Buddha can’t save you.

    • Dan

      Watch out! Sascha from a regional expat blog is gonna make you eat tofu and make you think about secular applications of Buddhism! Your freedom is in danger, Dafuq!

  9. Enjoyable article! One quibble…
    “such as warm water instead of ice water”
    Please be joking! No matter the temperature of the water you drink, it all becomes more or less the same temperature once it hits your stomach, which means that the warmth (or lack thereof) of the water you drink has no effect on your health.

  10. Are you aware that the government is analyzing your every move? They are looking into your every action? They are just waiting for the perfect time to put you in your place?

    Chinese response: Yes, of course! [read: no shit, Sherlock]

    American response: Fuck you! Get the fuck out of here! You fucking terrorist!

    Chinese are much more aware of the reality than Americans are. They’ve learned to deal with it much more than Americans ever could. When shit really hits the proverbial fan in the USA, the country itself may or may not survive. The people are just too numbed and stupefied by years of Hollywood propaganda, corporate news and Monsanto nutrition.

  11. Ray

    ..and the Chinese are kept in place by “the Chinese dream”, the aspirational lifestyle of the A6, the LV, the 6+, and absurd property prices that mean you WILL knuckle down for the next 30 years and NOT rock the boat. You give the working class the illusion that they can almost reach it, just gotta keep your head down a little longer, can almost feel it, and you don’t the stick, cos that carrot just looks so damn good…

    • Charlie

      That is an interesting analysis, I have personally not heard that theory. It makes a lot of sense that the Chinese citizenry is forced to be on-board with whatever happens as long as their fate is tied to the fate of the current systems in place. The degree to which people invest in these systems (real estate, automobile ownership) is truly remarkable.

      Today I had a conversation with an Uber driver who told me that it doesn’t make sense for someone living in a major Chinese city to own a car with things like Uber and subway systems. I was genuinely shocked to hear a local say that – I’m much more used to people not understanding me when I say I have no interest in car ownership in China.

    • Regardless if they can afford a sub-quality luxury car or overpriced home, they have complete certainty that they have no political power. This is something their government reminds them on a constant basis.

      The “American Dream” promises you any material thing you could want with some significance of political power, which is a massive lie. Acts of war have been occurring for decades without any congressional approval. At least the government in the USA could be honest as opposed to the Chinese gov’t which tells you exactly what they are doing.

      • @Goatboy: the Chinese government isn’t honest with its people either.

        Its propaganda claims that the people get to vote for their representatives in the NPRC, and that China already is some sort of democracy. Nobody takes it seriously, but that’s what they claim. They also teach their people that democracy in other countries is nothing but a lie, a sham, and that in the US and other democratic countries people with money control politics. That may be true, but this obscures the very real differences between China and democratic countries in terms of the rights people enjoy.

        • So then I see no difference, except that Chinese are smart enough to ignore the government, while Americans take government very seriously (maybe because it’s a police state). I don’t know if you’ve been to the states, but there’s no way in hell you can effectively argue against the government in any social setting there. People just plain flip out and start referencing the Islamic State or the dem/rep. party (we only have two)or whatever. In China, it’s commonplace to talk shit about the GCD.

  12. Yo Sascha I liked the article. Something you’ve written about before that really resonates is maintaining the immigrant mentality. I read somewhere a while back that there are three attributes that make stereotypically successful minorities (as defined relative to US population, us article) like Jews, Chinese, Indians, etc. I grew up around Berkeley and would often hear suburban white families complain about how these students, particularly Chinese and Indian, were dominating the more merit-based UC systems. The first of the three attributes is an inferiority complex or a chip on your shoulder, the belief that, as you are, you are not good enough. The second is a superiority complex, the belief in the excellence of your potential, that you can be exceptional if you tap everything you’re worth. The third is grit.

    For some reason the article stuck with me, and I see it in all of the academically or professional “successful” people I know. When you talk about the immigrant mentality, some of it is just being able to dislodge yourself from restrictive social norms, to strip away the excuses of what is proper, what is not, what is socially noble, what is base.

    One other bit about the immigrant mentality though is that immigrants often pursue fairly conventional metrics of success: doctor, lawyer, consultant, banker. The point seems to be just to make it, not to do it through some idea of what is cool or who you are or what you were made to do.

    Also, yes on living more of a Chinese lifestyle back in the states. I’m taking it with me everywhere.

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