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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!