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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Things that make you STOP going "hmmm…"

[This essay was originally posted to a blog on Weebly. In transferring it I have updated and made corrections where necessary.]

Take a look at the faceplate of my water heater:

The first thing I thought when I saw it is, "Why are some letters in italics, and some not?"

After staring at it every time I took my monthly shower (whether I needed it or not), I noted that the only letters not italicized are A, P, and R.

AHA! I thought. But then I realized that that's just a description, not an explanation.

If you live in China for more than 15 minutes, you will surely run into a seemingly-simple situation that is 100% incomprehensible. Neither you nor any expat that you know will have the slightest clue as to what's going on. To make it even more frustrating, the Chinese people around you will not see any problem at all.

And in fact, that "obliviousness" to the problem is a clue to how to deal with it.

In My Country and My People, Chinese scholar Lin Yutang wrote ('way back in the 1930s) that the primary trait of the Chinese was "mellowness." I long struggled with this word, and finally realized that Dr. Lin was alluding to a sort of fatalism that is still prevalent among the Chinese. There is a characteristic smile and shrug that conveys the mei banfa of the Chinese, the shoganai of the Japanese, and the Bahala na of the Filipino. Basically, it means, "What can you do?" or "It can't be helped." Just accept things as they are.

The first step (which is also, paradoxically, the final goal) of Zen is to "see things as they really are"--without fear or desire. It's not easy for a "foreigner" (the universally-used word for expats here--even expats call themselves "foreigners").

But we foreigners have a saying, evoked when confronted with the unfathomable: "T.I.C." It means, "This Is China." Like my insight that only A,P, and R are italicized on the water heater, this is not an explanation. Nor is it an excuse, nor an accusation. Rather, it is simply a statement of how things are.

This Is China. This is the way things are. Stop beating your head against the wall. Roll with it. Deal with it. Live with it.

Maybe if I live here long enough I'll stop going "hmmm..." and learn equanimity.

If I don't kill somebody first.

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