A reflection on living in China during a pandemic by a dear friend.
I would first like to take a moment to express my gratitude towards the amazing Miss Camille LaRocca for allowing me the space to share my experiences through words on this post. My name is 歐尼. I am 23 years old and graduated in 2019 from Pacific Lutheran University in the same cohort as Camille. I studied Sport Psychology, Chinese, and majored in Kinesiology with a concentration in Exercise Science. In 2018, I joined a study abroad program through my university and at the beginning of September until late December I travelled and studied in China. I visited Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai, Tibet, and the majority of my time, I studied at Sichuan University in Chengdu City. In December I returned home to Washington to finish my last semester at PLU, graduating in May 2019. However, since boarding the return flight home to America until I walked across the stage at graduation, I could not get China out of my mind. I knew my four months was too short and I had to return. There was something luring about China. The opportunities, the weekly new endless events, beautiful women, fast development, convenience of living constant stimulation of senses, rich history and special culture.
We live in a time where the future is unknown. This has always been true; however no time is more impactful to us than the present moment. Few people if any could have predicted the chaos that would consume the world’s minds that the pandemic would in 2020. Our parents instil in us the same message that humans have been striving for since the beginning of our ancestry ~ stability (food, water, shelter, income, etc.), safety, and order. Upon further contemplation and research, we can learn that life is a combination of order and chaos, 阴阳 (Yin and Yang), good and evil. However, life or “Being” is in a constant tilt towards “entropy” or disorder, chaos. Chaos is thus the default of our biology and life around us. For example, it is easier to tear down then to construct a building. It is easy and attractive to be lazy, procrastinate, drink alcohol, do drugs, be anxious, angry, depressed and seek immediate pleasures. Getting up when you are still tired, choosing to be calm, putting your life in order, working at a job you do not like day in and day out, or doing something that will lead to happiness in the future but not in the present moment are incredibly difficult and unattractive. They are difficult because we are working against the natural law of entropy. Although humans have always lived in a time of uncertainty, and entropy has always existed, nonetheless, our future is still unknown and life is still undeniably difficult and chaotic. Many of uswake up and do not know when we will return to our jobs, when the pandemic will “go way”, when we can return to what our lives once were…Unfortunately, this pandemic is an example of chaos wreaking havoc in our lives. The order we once knew and took for granted is not present in our lives anymore. Our jobs, income, food, water, hobbies, social life, future plans, travelling, family life, corrupt and idiotic leadership uprooted and destroyed our order within the span of a year… In a time of complete chaos everywhere we look, where do we find order? Although, I do not have the answer, I believe looking toward China’s modern history may offer some answers or at least a framework to help perceive one’s own chaos.
Brief History of Modern Chinese History
I have now lived in Chengdu, China for a cumulative time period of a year and a half working and studying. I have noticed several trends of the Chinese culture and more specifically Sichuan culture. Most people know China has the largest population in the world, however, few understand the effects of such a large population on politics, agriculture and day to day life. For the readers, who are unfamiliar with modern Chinese history or are in need of a refresher, I would like to share some background. When previously mentioning “change” and “entropy”, I argue there is no better place to analyse the increase quality, quantity and speed of change than in China.
After several millennia of order under Dynasty rule, in the early 1900’s the Chinese dynasty collapsed. Relative consistent order had been kept for 1000’s of years ~ tradition, culture, philosophy, cuisine, political ruling style, and values. In the early 1900’s China had a significant civil conflict over their new identity with new leaders rising from different sections in China declaring themselves the rightful leader of the country and fighting anyone else who disagreed…complete chaos. During world war one, China was dealing with their own internal problems and civil wars. Not to mention other problems in the late 30’s when Japan had motives to take land from China as they felt deserving of more land, amongst other reasons I encourage one to research in their free time. Eventually, the civil war evolved into two sides: The Nationalists led by Chiang Kai Shek and Communists led by Mao Zi Dong. The Nationalists were the former “entitled” rulers of China officially recognised by other countries rulers, including Western nations. Russia started to support the Communists with America supporting the Nationalists. Eventually the Communists beat the Nationalists making them join the Communist rule or be exiled to Taiwan. In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party was established. Following this came ambitious, aggressive and radical attempts for ORDER after decades of internal and external war and occupation. Although China was weak and fragile, however, they had ambitious goals for the people and country. Chairman Mao and the CCP dreamed of becoming the most powerful country in the world and lifting every Chinese citizen from poverty. Unfortunately, in the decades to follow, arguably the most CHAOTIC years in the history of the country, with an estimated 50-80 million Chinese deaths during the Great Leap Forward.
The Great Leap Forward was an attempt for China to catch up to the superpower nations of the world, and to be recognized globally as a powerful, respectable, rich nation. The intention was in essence, if we (China) want to become the #1 nation in the world, we must copy what #1 nations are doing. Watch, learn from and work twice or three times as hard(with almost a billion people) to catch up until surpassing them. I will not go into the details of the Great Leap Forward as I encourage readers to learn from the thousands of books written about this subject. However, I will say that the Great Leap Forward had good intentions. The primary intention was to make everyone equal (men, women, elders, children, teachers, students), to equally divide money, resources, and overall outcomes. The intention is Edenic, paradise on Earth. It is a noble idea…However, the results were filled with disaster. Inefficient tactics, technology, and planning led to great famine, poverty, thirst, overworking conditionsleading to the death of 50-80 million people. I want to reiterate the magnitude of this: national shame, famine, poverty, thirst, overworking, inefficiency and 50-80 million countrymen casualties. Moreover, the children alive during this time are elders alive today!!! WITHIN A LIFETIME, elders I walk by daily that lived during the time of this shame, famine, poverty, thirst, overworking conditions, inefficiency and death of millions of their friends, family members, and countrymen, NOW carry 5G smartphones, have unlimited food, cheap and convenient subway, bike or bus transportation systems and live in the country of the second strongest military and economy in the world… IN TWO GENERATIONS!!! Although the 20th century was filled with unimaginable chaos for China, how were they then able to become such a powerful, rich and ordered society and country? Within 50 years nonetheless?
ORDER AND CHAOS
Order and Chaos are not inherently good or bad. A chaotic mind is one that can lead to the world’s most brilliant and creative creations or without control can lead to depression, anxiety or schizophrenia. An ordered mind can create stability, routine, efficiency, but could also lead to a boring, mundane life or obsessive-compulsive disorder. A chaotic society is definitely not the most humane structure for a large group of people as one can conclude based on Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China or Trump’s America. However, since life is in a constant state of leaning towards entropy, I believe human beings are constantly trying to respond by reacting or planning ahead to limit the inevitable chaos. We must work together towards a collective aim of an ordered society. For the ALTERNATIVE is far worse… Trump’s America with rampant increases in hate violence, murders, protesting, division, combined with no justice and punishment for terrible acts going against the so call law… The ALTERNATIVE is Mao’s China where the people’s resources were destroyed and remade with terrible quality, where teachers were persecuted, and where people were not trained properly for their occupations causing horrendous chaos and tens of millions of lives lost. This is definitely not good. Hilter’s Germany and spread of Nazism across Europe or Stalin’s Russia:death camps, inhumane human experiments, murder in the thousands and suppression of speech. We must collectively strive for an ordered society while striving to avoid falling into the uninventable abyss of chaos. But what can I do to create and support order in my community, society, country and world?
China and America
Throughout my time living in China, I have noticed one significant difference between China and America. Americans believe every person has the right to life (or safety), free SPEECH, and free EXPRESSION of themselves and others (as long as other laws are not being broken in the process).Chinese people in contrast are content without certain freedoms as long as they have SECURITY, SAFETY, and CONVENIENCE. While Americans and Chinese can both agree that safety, and security are important, we cannot agree as much when it comes to the method for this or the importance or freedom (much less be able to define freedom). Are Chinese people free? Is China a free country? Why would Chinese people care less about freedom then Americans? Maslow’s Hierarchy can help us navigate these questions.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a motivational theory that explains human’s motivation in life, based on their needs met. In the structure of a five-tier pyramid, at the bottom is physiological needs: food, water, warmth, and rest. At the Second tier is safety needs: safety and security. At the Third tier is Belongingness and love needs: intimate relationships, marriage, children, friends, family, and community. At the fourth tier is Esteem needs: prestige, feeling of accomplishment, individual improvement. At the top of the five-tier hierarchy is Self-Actualization: achieving one’s potential, including creative activities, improving one’s community. I hypothesize that freedom of speech and freedom of expression would fall at the highest level, rather than the bottom levels.
Two generations ago, the Chinese people did not have the bottom two level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs met: not enough adequate food, water, safety, security, shelter…In other words, basic “ORDER”. TWO GENERATIONS! Every day, I walk by and interact with individuals who lived during this time, whose parents lived during this time of great suffering and chaos. To say the horrendous chaos that occurred under Mao’s China is not affecting the minds and culture of the people of China today is simply not true.
Security and stability are what I have found to be most important to the (especially) older and middle generations. Basic needs being met are far more important than the top two tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which many Americans, including myself were raised to learn about and think about. The older and middle generations are focused on accomplishing the bottom three levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy: physiological needs, safety needs, and belongingness and love needs. Even once obtained, there is still a fear of it being taken away with a snaps of the finger.
The older and middle generations instil Chinese children with several ideologies for “success”. They tell the kids that stability, is most important. To achieve stability, one must educate themselves to the highest level they can (as expressed in high grades), then go to a good college (preferable ivy league school), then find a high paying and secure job, find a marriage before 30 (if a woman) and 40 (if a man), have children, work to support your kid’s future, and work even harder for a house and car to then retire at 60 (once your kids have a job). Once retired, one can focus on the higher levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Stability is most important and thus education is of high importance in China. Education is seen to directly correlate to a stable life including, high salary, owning a house, supporting family and finding a suitable spouse. However, since the population is so great, class sizes are anywhere from 30-50 children in primary, middle, high schools and colleges. The teacher thus, must adopt an authoritarian lecture style of lecturing in order to teach this many children. Standardized tests are the only realistic way to manage and measure the success of this many students. There is not enough time for questions, critical thinking or student’s opinions. The alternative would be an infinite amount of work for the teachers and administration…Now imagine this on a larger scale…China’s population is 1.4 billion people. The government must adopt an authoritarian, style of leadership to control such a large amount of people to accept and work towards the collective goals stated and ORDER. There is not enough time or energy from those at the top or for the people below to argue, ask questions, voice or express their opinions or critically think. Moreover, the government recognizes the slippery slope of people asking questions, voicing and expressing opinions or critically thinking. The single greatest threat to this type of society is critical thinking and expression of thoughts through actions in large enough and unified numbers, especially ones that contradict the ideals and actions of the government. Thus, is it the secondary goal of China (and America) to create an illusion that the countrymen are happy, free and safe. How do you keep people from questioning authority? Harsh punishment, lack of education regarding critical thinking and keeping the people tired and busy working. Check and check. Furthermore, the people must be influenced in a way that make them feel not motivated to voice and express their opinions while simultaneously making the people think they do have freedom to voice and express their opinions.
The future of China: A revolution or greater control
The future of every country is unknown…COVID-19, economy, jobs, finances, the environment, technology…Everything is unknown, “CHAOS”. However, we do know that once a person, country and society have the first level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs satisfied, they will strive for the next higher tier. Chengdu is one of the fastest developing cities in China with a strong economy. Five new subway lines were completed this last year, a new airport was completed and life has returned to normal with less than 10 Coronavirus cases *knock on wood*. People are becoming more comfortable, stable and the society is becoming more orderly and poverty is decreasing at a steady rate for the last several decades. What’s next?
The younger generation is special. Almost every single high schooler has a VPN and thus access to Instagram, Google, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter. The younger generation is aware and fairly educated about world news, politics and life outside of China, generally more than the middle and older generations. The younger generation is slowly starting to increase their world view. More and more foreign music, culture, language, cuisine, entertainment and people are coming to Chengdu and greater China. Soon, the younger generation will find themselves asking the same questions that we ask back home in WA and America: “What do I want to do with my life?”, “What makes me happy?” “Should I stay with this marriage/job/relationship even though I am not happy?”, “Should I voice my truth or stay quiet and comfortable?”, “Should I risk my freedom and safety for what I believe is moral?” The more these questions are asked, talked about and acted upon, the more likely conflict and arguments will occur between everyday life, culture, government and humans, thus, “CHAOS”. China can no longer offer/force blinders to the people. The younger generation is growing up with all their bottom tier needs met. These days, more and more of the younger generation are striving for Self-Actualization at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Technology has allowed the people to see EVERYTHING! China has a huge choice to make: “bad cop”: increase control, punishment, and limit freedom creating conflict with the highest level of Maslow’s Hierarchy, or “good cop”: act as friends to the people and offer some freedoms; enough for the people to feel and believe they are free. Either way, I believe there will be great conflict and chaos ahead as the motivation for the people and the government are in conflict. The people and China both do not want chaos, but chaos will come (as it naturally will). How will ORDER continue to stay? This will continue to be a question asked in 2021 for China and every country around the world.
The pandemic has brought chaos to at least one part of our lives to everyone I know and I’m sure everyone else who is reading. In a time of complete chaos everywhere we look, where how can we create and maintain order? I personally believe we must first acknowledge and accept that chaos is a natural part of life. Acknowledge that there are things in life, we cannot control. Once acknowledging this, we can now begin to bring order into our lives, specifically bring order to what WE CAN CONTROL. Dr. Jordan Peterson wrote a book about order and chaos; I highly encourage readers to add to their reading list, “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.” Dr. Peterson suggests that in order to bring order into one’s life, it is best to start with simple things that one can control as thinking about trying to solve terrible, large problems can overwhelm and depress anyone. He says “set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world”. Bring order to your own house before focusing or criticising greater problems outside your “house”. Dr. Peterson’s meaning of “house” is not only your physical living space, but it also, and perhaps more importantly your mind (one’s internal house). Make your bed. Find one thing that is disordered in your physical space and create order. Then find one more disordered thing and this will create a positive feedback loop to propel one to continue bringing order in many areas of their lives. Marie Kondo is an expert at bringingorder into one’s physical home (I recommend her book and Netflix special as a productive framework to bringing order and love into one’s physical space).Once the positive feedback loop continues to propel you, keep going. Make a schedule for yourself doing things that make you 1% better or even .0001% better today than yesterday. Or at least not .0001% worse today than yesterday. A schedule filled with healthy mental and physical routines for one’s day is incredibly helpful for physical and mental order. In the morning, drink a glass of water, journal three (or more) things you are grateful for. Write three (or more) affirmations of the person you want to be (writing in the present tense i.e. “I am a handsome man with vibrant health”). Read 10 minutes (or more). Meditate for 5 or 10 minutes (or more). Do something physically active for 10 minutes or more (running, walking, workout, yoga, etc.). Visualize what you want in your life. Find little ways to bring order to your internal and physical “house” and the little positive changes will propel you. If you increase order in your life .01% everyday and every other person increases order themselves .01% everyday, that is a 3.56% increase for the entire population only after one year, 17.8% in five years and 35.6% improvement in a decade. This community, society and country would be unimaginably better for everyone. For the alternative is far too easy to become nihilistic and destroy oneself and then fall into internal and external chaosindividually and as a collective. Let’s collectively work together to move far away from the default chaotic society and keep each other accountable for the most ordered individual lives and most ordered community, society, nation and world!