When Something in Language Becomes a little bit Philosophical

Speaking English is like…

I taught my mom how to say “thank you” when she stayed with me in Minnesota.

Flatten your tongue, then let the force of your upper and lower teeth stabilize the soft flesh and gently squeeze it to burst the air out, as the “th” sound. “K” is a comma between “than” and “you,” it’s easy but don’t forget- it does make a difference. And finally consider “you” as a nice and cozy ending of a song, smooth and long. If you look at the person’s eyes and have the “you” sound pretty enough, no one will criticize your accent. Make “thank you” as big and fat as possible.

It’s hard for her. She doesn’t understand why she can’t just say the word. I tell her speaking English is tricky that you have to train your tongue for years to make a beautiful transition between words and sentences. She gave up immediately, and was proud that her daughter could speak American English for her.

Not really though. I often mistake “chicken” and “kitchen,” or “restaurant” and “restroom.” I can’t really tell the difference between “micro” and “macro.” And I avoid saying “girl” “sun” or” citizen,” if it’s possible.

The sound of a language is an elaborate game machine. Being a master of this game does not guarantee you would learn to play that game fast. Before you enter this game, the machine is bigger than you can imagine. After a while, you learn its limits as well as yours. One of my friends helps people with speech problem. She once played the note “do, re, mi, fa, sol” on the piano and asked him to sing with it. He said he couldn’t.

She encouraged him, saying that this was a safe space and any sound he made would be okay. He tried, in the end. He opened up his dry throat, waited and waited, and abruptly pierced some weird noise in that empty room. Then he cried, without knowing why.

Speaking English is like that.

Speaking English is like dancing at a masquerade. Matching familiar faces with unfamiliar names. Twenty-six characters, they fall in love, break apart, reconcile, and say goodbye. Knowing where they live, having appropriate conversations with each family and at the same time, minding your own step, one, two, three, four, oh backwards now, one, two, three, four…it’s nonstop words after words, talking of the talking.

Speaking English is like trying to have a good appetite every day. Voiced consonants are the crunchiness of the chips, or the crispness of your first biting of an apple. Voiceless consonants, on the other hand, are some unclear chewing noises in your mouth when it’s full of all kinds of nuts. Vowels should be some meaty grease main course, codfish maybe. Of course, I should love eating them all and have a very strong healthy stomach to support every meal I need to take. The hard part is always the question of how to eat the burgers, chips and donuts all at once while your mind is thinking as a kung pao chicken.

My favorite words to say are authority and authentic. There seem many layers within the sounds like the ups and downs in a roller coaster, and I get a secret excitement when I pronounce every part of it. “Walk with authority,” I tell my friend, “I give you this permission.” “Minneapolis doesn’t have any authentic Chinese restaurants,” I comment. I praise things that I like by saying it’s authentic with authority. It feels like narrating a little creature’s life. It starts with an ordinary “au” sound, next reaches to its proudest moment in life- “thori”/”then” –high, clear and has a straight power in it. The end “ty”/”tic” has a beauty of suddenness. It doesn’t need more explanation when it ends. That’s a person’s life I admire.

My least favorite words to say are rain and pain. The sound of these two words from my voice is plain, pale, no passion. They are the elegy of English.

 

A word of a day – Ajurania

I write down my goal: learn five new words a day.

But it’s never enough. It’s never enough to express what I mean, what I want and how I feel.

So I created a word my own.

Ajurania

Noun, verb, adjective

Definition:

  1. Holding lots of secrets in the dark: decide to tell or not to tell
  2. Waiting for the phone call: even though you know he won’t call, even though you want to call
  3. Wanting a soup to warm your heart, also wanting a salad to cool your mind. One choice, between a soup or a salad, as a side
  4. Following the instruction A®B, B®C; suddenly ask where do A and B and C come from
  5. Wondering if we see the same yellow when there is a giraffe
  6. Failed the road test, twice. Failed relationship, zillion times

Usage note:

-When after studying seven ways to prove God’s existence and writing down eight methods to prove the absurdity of God’s existence, still figuring out the key point is how he learned so many languages to understand different prayers, use Ajurania.

-When daydreaming you become a bird, at night you can’t tell if you’re still you or a bird. Tomorrow early morning when you even doubt that if thinking itself belongs to you, use Ajurania.

-Ajurania is a letter “H.” You stand in the middle. Afraid of going up nowhere, disappointed by ending up anywhere. Hesitating, crowded, carefully, standing in the middle.

 

Leave/Being left

He walked me to the subway station before it’s getting dark. I told him I felt really sad that I had to be the one who was leaving. Leave—Step outside of his apartment, take the subway, sit on the train for 45 minutes and be away. 60% of melancholy fell on my body, injected in my blood and when it ran through my heart, something kicked in my left atria, that’s when—feeling hurt.

He said, no it’s not true. Don’t you notice that many love songs and stories are about the person who’s left behind? The one who’s being left suffers more.

The one who’s being left weeps, whines, wishes and waits. He or she or they mark their time by singing and telling stories so their life stays and flows and stays and goes.

Who knows anything about the story of a leaving person?

I do.

 

I leave home for a boarding school when I was nine, and leave from one school to another, to the next, to now, where I am still laying on a bed school provides and wakes up in the middle of night and don’t remember which school I am at.

My family moves every three years and eventually I move myself out of their moving and leave them, leave my country when I was eighteen. From one city to another, to the next, to now, when I don’t know how to answer— “where are you from?”

How to answer, how to speak, what to say, what? I quickly pull out the choices of words, syntax in my head, with the appropriate manner to smile, to respond, to joke, to let you know—I do fit in your conversation. Who are you? It doesn’t matter, I can always behave. My German friend told me the English word “mask” in German translation has two meanings: one, a physical mask or cover putting on your face; two, you make a face to distort your original expression so no one can see the real you anymore. I don’t see the distinction here. The boundary is blurry.

Just like leave and being left might feel the same. I leave the past behind, yet the past is being left within me. Only I know the story of a leaving person because that story is left on me. I leave for a new language, a new world with the hope for a new kind of communication connecting the new me. Now the new me see nothing is new and the transformation doesn’t change me to a complete new person but split into two minds and bodies. What’s left between is the coexistence of leave and being left.

 

One of the first rules I learned about English writing is to avoid using passive tense. My grammar teacher said her sounds not as pleasant as she, and being feels passive while doing makes it dominant. But in Chinese, the active or the passive are merely two different voices, like yin and yang. No one is always stronger than the other. When you say, “I miss you,” does it always make you feel you are in control because I miss youyou becomes my subject? Do you ever feel vulnerable when you are the first one to say—I miss you—and you wait, until the quiet moment to be broken?

Is this why, I am the one who leave, but always felt I am the one who’s being left again and again? Being left from home, from the culture and the country who made the history of me that I can never erase or change? When you ask me where am I from, do you mean how did I leave to be here or who left me here?

I don’t know how to explain so I said I am sorry this is not the language I speak.

No language can I speak to explain the space between leave and being left. When I open my mouth, there is nothing I can explain.

 

Definition

I thought popcorn, by definition—popping corn, should be sweet. That’s why when I went to a movie theater in California for the first time, I couldn’t believe the taste of the popcorn in my hand, salty, plain, no sweet laughter, no happy memories. I asked him if you have other kinds of popcorn—like the one I had in China, pure honey sugary kind. He looked at me as if he heard the word popcorn for the first time. That’s the only POPCORN we have here. He said. It left me to wonder if I said the right word for the thing I had in mind.

Years later when I took a college class on philosophy of language, we questioned whether any word in any language could explain the things we are thinking of, as it should be, as it’s expected to be, such as crazy, respect, hurt, God, and the popcorn.

 

I don’t speak English

My grandpa said this to me when I was six:

Do not speak to Japanese. Do not trust Japanese. Do not make any Japanese friends. If you do, I will break your leg and lock you down in a room where ghosts live.

He told me he’s seen how the Japanese army invaded villages, robbed everything, raped our women, killed children and elders, and set fire to people, houses and our land. Since then, a Japanese solider often walks in my sleepless nights.

I was sixteen and lived in Gosford, Australia for one semester of studying abroad program. My school took all the international students on a cruise trip, to watch dolphins jumping in and out of the sea, which local kids no longer felt excited for. While I was laughing, clapping, taking pictures, a boy came to me and asked, “Are you from China? I am Japanese. My name is…”

I remembered my grandpa’s warning. So I said this:

“I don’t speak English.”

The exact words.

“I”  

I like apples.

                  I called him yesterday.

I learned English by starting writing down sentences like these. It’s terrifying— the only sentence I could start with were always “I…” but growing up in a communal cultural and society, you are not supposed to say “I” want this or need that. I sounds so much smaller than we.

We serve the people.

We are the people.

For thousands of years, “I” never have a name—Wang’s second wife, Gao’s first daughter, the Beauty, the Mother…We always use third person to look at ourselves, to tell others who we are—some uneducated stupid women.

“I learned…” when my teacher asked me to finish the rest of part in class, I still didn’t know how to say “I did this.”

But I continued writing down sentences starting with “I.” So from the women to we, I am the one here who still writes about “I.”

Subjunctive

The subjunctive is an irrealis mood (one that does not refer directly to what is necessarily real)—it is often contrasted with the indicative, which is a realis mood.

The thing that I wish my mom could say to me was “I love you.” She loves me by taking me to private piano classes; by sending me to a prestigious boarding school; by paying all my college tuition and letting me choose what kind of car I want. It could be an inappropriate thing to say, such as meeting your boyfriend’s parents for the first time and expressing your opinions on politics, religion and sex. Mostly, it is embarrassing. Growing up in a family where no one ever said I love you to each other, you would wonder what reactions she would have if I said it first. Maybe she would’ve said, “I love you, too.” Maybe she would’ve asked me, “So what do you want?” Maybe she would’ve pretend she didn’t hear it and silently had tears in her bedroom at dark.

The thing I wish my future partner could’ve understood were both my left and right hemisphere. On the left, I try to pronounce the perfect “L” sound; I drink ice-cold water, go to Gay 90s, use tampons, wear a skirt in subzero weather, proud walking on the street for a late night party, read Nietzsche and Foucault, watch Sex and the City, write papers about third-wave feminism and how “personal is political”. Turn right, my fragile heart is made of Gushi, Dream of Red Chamber and Eileen Chang. Eileen Chang says, “The greatest happiness in the world is to discover that the person who you like happens to like you too.” So I believed it. I secretly wish I could’ve been melted into a piece of milk chocolate. Being sweet, happy and lovable would be my ultimate label. “Are you being a g-o-o-d girl?” Yes, yes, I am working on it, don’t say ugly words, don’t poke your tongue out, smile, be thankful, love, don’t be sick…

No matter what side that person sees, he knows both. So when I live, we will move far away, hold hands to fight this fucking world together. When I die, he will dial my home number, speak the language my mom understands, say, she loved you. She was happy. And I think she is waiting for you somewhere to be a family, again.

I wish my mom would’ve remembered to say, thank you.

 

Two Worlds

Summer Begins

In the summer of 2014, I started looking for writing jobs on Craigslist. I was 23, and according to my friend Mollie, 23 is an age when “you bend your knees and are ready to do something.” To me, that sounds like I can bend my knees and stand up, or I can bend my knees and feel too tired and sit down, settle, forever. I wondered how my coworker, a fine artist, still had the energy to make art after our shift at Blackforest Inn, a German restaurant in uptown Minneapolis. I was exhausted every day, every night. And I was annoyed by an old white gentleman who didn’t leave any tips every time he was there for lunch. I was also annoyed by another old white gentleman who liked to hold my hand and give me $20 tips for his $15 lunch.

The job searching didn’t go as well as I expected. I was still looking though; I thought one day someone might appreciate my interesting insights into David Hume’s arguments in An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. Apparently, a philosophy degree didn’t help with copy writing, humor writing, or writing reviews about video games. But one day, a post caught my eye: “An interpreter who can speak both Chinese and English is needed.”

The poster, Calvin, briefly explained that his girlfriend’s family from China was coming to the States soon and he wanted to have an interpreter to help him facilitate the dinner he was going to have with his girlfriend’s family.

This should be an easy temporary job, I thought. Right after I graduated from college, I also had plans to look for some translating jobs since being bilingual is one of my strongest skills in the job market. However, I soon found out that the fields that need translators or interpreters the most are medical, business/financial, and legal institutions. And jobs in these fields need people who have been trained in a professional translating program and have obtained specific certificates for it. So being a native Chinese speaker, living for six years in the States and having a college degree do not count as being qualified.

I completely understand these requirements, because being able to speak both languages fluently in daily life does not mean I comprehend those professional terminologies. I am a big fan of Grey’s Anatomy and The Good Wife, do I know exactly every word they say in an emergency room or in a court? Not a chance. I read the term “hedge fund” in the newspaper but if you ask me the Chinese equivalent, I have no idea, because I actually don’t know what “hedge fund” means.

This was different. It seemed they only needed someone who could make the conversation flow around the dinner table and I doubted that they would have in-depth discussions on how the ups and downs of Chinese stock markets affect the exchange rate between the the dollar and the Euro. So I emailed Calvin.

He emailed me back. A week later, he called me and said “You sound great for this job.” And if it went well, they probably would need me for the rest of the summer.

About three days later, I received a call from Kelly, Calvin’s girlfriend. She talked to me in Mandarin. I guess she wanted to make sure that I actually could speak Mandarin, not Cantonese. She said I sounded young and my Chinese name was pretty and she had a friend who had the exact same name as mine. Her voice sounded clear, calm, and had a tremendous coldness beneath it.

I didn’t have any particular impressions about Kelly or Calvin. I’d seen or heard of too many similar situations, a white American guy and an Asian girl. Maybe I did hold some stereotypes towards these interracial couples, because what usually happens is that a white American guy is looking for something special in his life, he is fascinated by this Asian girl’s foreign exotic culture, her cuteness and her body. And dating an Asian girl seems cool in front of his friends. This Asian girl comes to the States with a visa and she wants to stay. Marrying a white American means security and superiority. I can do the whole cultural analysis about how imperialism imposes these ideologies but the simple truth is that when I walk on the street and see these couples, I have these ideas about them and the couples often turn out to confirm these stereotypes.

 

The dinner happened on the second Friday night of June. It was at Little Szechwan in St. Louis Park, a Chinese restaurant in an upscale suburb of Minneapolis. I drove there around 5:45pm, parked my car, walked in the restaurant and checked with the reception desk. There, I took a peek and saw a young beautiful Asian girl standing with a group of people.

It must be Kelly.

She was about my size, 5’3 tall and maybe 95 pounds. But her figure looked so healthy and model-like. She was wearing a dark blue dress, simple cut. With her black hair around her shoulders, she was quietly elegant, maybe 26. She made you wonder who she was.

I introduced myself. She smiled back and said, “Hi, I am Kelly. This is Kira and these are my parents.”

At this moment, I noticed a little person running around us. I tried to comprehend all this within a second: this little girl, Kira, apparently is white. Whose daughter? Calvin’s?

They had reserved a big round table, and Calvin asked me to sit between his parents and Kelly’s. The talking started. I engaged the English and Chinese channels in my brain.

Kelly’s dad took a bag out of Kelly’s mom’s purse. It was a gift for Calvin’s parents. He explained this is a box of tea, very good tea and where they come from in China is famous for this kind of tea. They were originally from the north, a province right next to my home town, but had moved to the south, close to Taiwan. Calvin’s mom thanked them, complimented Kelly’s mom’s dress, asked about their trip to Hawaii (they had stopped there first to spend a week or so with Kelly and Calvin). They recommended a nice hiking trail near Kelly’s house in Minnetonka if they want to walk in the afternoon because Minnesota’s summer is so pretty and winter here is very brutal.

Very standard American style of social talk.

But all these are not the point.

What is the point here?

I didn’t know. But I felt I was in a negotiation between Mr. Obama’s representative and Mr. Xi’s spokesperson. We can all talk for hours about how international business creates our jobs; how cultural exchange programs help our understanding of each other but the point we are trying to reach is to find out exactly how you feel about Taiwan, how your nuclear program is going, or if you hold could your dollar strong while I am pushing this policy in our banks.

I had never had any experience or heard any stories of how American families meet and talk when their children are planning something serious, but I knew that this would be a completely different scenario if Kelly were dating a Chinese man. I felt Kelly’s dad was losing his authority here. In China, this meeting would be a discussion about money, power and little children’s futures. Lovebirds want to be happy together, okay, but let the real boss handle the realities. The reality is that in China, few young adults can have a start-up completely by themselves, financially and socially. Housing is ridiculously expensive no matter where you live, so they usually have to use their parents’ money. In tradition, the burden falls on the boy’s side. The boy’s family should be responsible for the house, the wedding and some cash as the Bride Price. Basically, the minute when you know you have a baby boy, you are doomed. If you are a responsible parent, work hard, harder, start saving money for another ten years for another house because one day you are going to sit in this meeting and some other parents will ask you, do you have an apartment for our daughter? Who’s going to pay for the wedding? You pay the meal and I cover the wine? What about the Bride Price? What do you think of the decoration for the new apartment? (it can get really expensive.)

Love experts in China often tell you that marriage is never about two people, but two families. Three of my cousins told me the same story—they date someone they love, get engaged but when it comes to the final step, two families start to have second thoughts, and after my cousins’ dearest mom keeps telling them she or he is not good for them, they are exhausted and give up the negotiation. They call off the whole wedding, break up, and eventually marry someone from a good family. Kelly’s parents, of course, have prepared for this day for a long time, but today, they couldn’t do anything with their experience and knowledge, simply because they are facing Americans. The dad might think—I don’t know anything about them, Kelly said here, in America, it’s none of the parents’ business and I should be polite after all.

Kelly’s dad tried to ask something but often got interrupted by his wife. He wanted to ask if Americans eat beef a lot. There is a cultural myth that the reason why Americans are tall and buff is because Americans love to eat raw beef. His wife tried to stop him from asking these “silly and impolite questions.” I didn’t translate this question but answered, “Yeah, Americans do eat a lot of meat, but they eat chicken, pork and fish too.”

 

One hour passed. The social conversation slowed down. I was trying to grab a bite myself when Calvin’s mother, who sat on my left started talking.

“There is something I want to say but I don’t know if it’s appropriate in your culture. So maybe you can help with it?”

Here the real point comes.

Kira is Kelly’s daughter. Kelly is divorced. And Kira is a disabled child.

I noticed something about this little girl though I didn’t really have time to pay attention to her. I learnt she was six but she was really skinny and looked more like a four- year-old. She screamed a lot and barely could speak a full sentence. While the four parents were talking to each other, Kelly and Calvin were trying to feed Kira. A cup of rice, several shrimps and long beans were enough for them to say “Kira did a great job today!”

Calvin’s mother told me that Kira has a genetic disease. She has a part of a chromosome missing and she will never get better. She has learning disabilities; her body and brain develop slowly, and at a certain point, the development will stop. Her physical and mental obstacles will never allow her to live as a normal adult.

This nice Minnesotan lady was trying to explain that she loves Kelly and adores Kira. Because Kira is a kid that needs special care, she wants to give Kira extra love. But she didn’t know if talking about disabled kids is taboo in Chinese culture. Nor did she know how to express her feelings about Kelly and Kira.

I wasn’t sure either. Talking about disabled children in any culture is unfortunate and difficult.

Basically I said, she says Kira is a special child and because of that, they all love her so much, and Kelly too.

Kelly’s dad didn’t have anything on his face. He nodded.

 

I thought it was nice of Calvin to talk to Kelly’s dad before dinner ended. Everyone else was playing with Kira and Calvin came to me and had me say, “Calvin wants to talk to you.” He didn’t say much but “Kira did a great job tonight.” “We had a good time tonight.” “It’s really fun to have dinner together. Maybe next time we all come to my house?” “We had a great time at Hawaii too.” The dad didn’t say much and kept nodding yeah, yeah, yeah.

Suddenly the dad remembered something. He turned to me and said, “Translate this to him. It seems very dangerous to drive a helicopter. When we were in Hawaii, he invited me to sit in his helicopter and take pictures from above. I said no, no, no. I didn’t know how good he is. But Kelly did anyway.” Calvin tried to explain, “Yeah, I understand. But do tell him this—I will never do anything that might harm Kelly. I have a license and I have had lots of practice.”

That’s enough for Kelly’s dad. All he wanted to hear was this person’s promise to protect his daughter. The person he didn’t know anything about—where he from, if he had good education, where he worked, if he has good temper—made a promise to his only daughter. He tried his best to be a good father here and that’s all he could do in this situation.

 

Summer Burns

During the following two months, they had several dinners at Calvin’s house and Calvin’s parents’ house. As an interpreter, the more I talked to them, the more I wanted them to like each other. It sounds very unprofessional and strange (I was not a professional anyway), but I wonder even today if it’s part of our social nature that we desire for harmony and happiness in any kind of relationship. When I pass on words in a different language, I don’t translate every single word you say, I try to convey what you mean to say. Consider an unemotional statement like “I have a cup of tea” or, “There is a cat under the table.” They can imply completely different emotions in a different context. In this case, the family dynamics and the cultural perspectives all made me pay close attention to their meaning behind what they said. Needless to say, this kind of cultural and social sensibilities made the job harder than I had expected, but it helped me learn a great thing later in life that in conversation, tone is more important than words. The positive attitude you receive or send makes everything likable.

In fact, when I look back, I actually appreciate that I worked for two families from different cultural backgrounds. Because neither family was sure what counts as appropriate in the other culture, they were very carefully trying to be polite, and I could build on something interesting and fun. Once Calvin’s step-father complimented Kelly’s mom and her silk dress as a nice gesture from American standard of social talk. (Chinese men usually will not comment on women’s cloth in any social situations.) In theory, I should have said, “He likes your dress” to Kelly’s mom. Instead, I smiled and raised my voice to tell Kelly’s dad, “Wow, this gentleman thinks your wife and her dress are really pretty!” Kelly’s dad was quick too, “He’s old and bald. She (Calvin’s mother) looks much younger and nice!” The minute I translated back, they all laughed. (Though I have to admit if they were both serious people, this would be a terrible disaster). When the speaker doesn’t even bother to be polite, that puts the interpreter in a miserable position. Sometimes when I watch Putin’s speech on TV news, I wonder how much anger and aggression I would have to convey if I were his interpreter.

Both parents’ tones were right and that made the atmosphere easy and comfortable. Calvin’s mom shared her recipes for cooking long beans with Kelly’s mom. Kelly’s dad talked about how terrible the traffic is in every major city in China, and he was especially curious about what kind of car Calvin’s stepfather was driving and if all cars in America are cheaper than in China. They talked about travels, Chinese food and history, told interesting stories, brought up everything but Kelly and Kira.

They were not trying to avoid talking about Kelly and Kira, but this subject was naturally omitted. When Calvin’s mother baby-talked to Kira, Kelly’s parents just sat there, watched them playing and seemed embarrassed, because they didn’t know one single English word. Even as an English speaker myself, I had to admit talking or playing with Kira wasn’t easy. I had to pay attention to several words she yelled to made sense of them. Her emotions weren’t stable either. One minute she was talking and playing next second she cried for her mom. Kelly’s parents had no idea how to deal with this little girl. They seemed so detached from Kira, physically and emotionally. It was true that Kira is an American child, white, doesn’t speak any Chinese nor know how to use chopsticks, and that summer was actually the first time Kelly’s parents met their granddaughter in person since she came to this world six years ago. But I felt there was something they didn’t want to talk about and that could be unsatisfied, disapproval and this is not the way it’s supposed to be.

They love Kelly. Kelly’s dad once told me, “My daughter was so smart that she went to college when she just turned fourteen, and after she graduated, there were many famous professors asking her to go to their school but she insisted on coming here to finish her PhD. What’s good here anyway? Why are you here? Do you like it here? Do you want to stay here after you finish your school? You are so young too! Are your parents happy about this now? They must regret sending you here in such a young age! Usually when you are young, you adjust fast and get used to everything here and don’t want to go back anymore!” So he was proud of his daughter for being smart in school, for being strong-minded in life but he didn’t mention anything on her grown-up life, her marriage and kid. Was that something he regretted? Another time, Kelly’s dad was showing off his cooking skills, he said, “No wonder the little one is so skinny, Kelly doesn’t know how to cook at all. She always feeds her some trashy American food. Last week I cooked some fried rice and the little one loved it. She asked her mom if she could have the same thing the next day!” Everyone laughed—he wasn’t cooking but instructing his wife how to cook. But that’s a grandpa’s love, right? He cared for his little grandbaby, yet he wasn’t proud of her.

They never discussed Kira in details and Kira was confused about them too. When Kelly’s dad said something about Kira not playing with him, Kelly couldn’t help but interrupt, “She doesn’t know who you are and where you’re from. She needs time to figure out why you are in our house and staying with us.” She said it in Chinese so no one else but me could understand.

We pretended, let it pass, and moved on.

 

What was that? What were Kelly’s parents unsatisfied with and disapproving of? What was the way it supposed to be?

I couldn’t figure it out until a year later, in the summer of 2015, when I stayed in China for five months. I saw the same thing when my cousin married an abusive man, wanted to divorce but would never do it, even with the full support of her family; when my mom told me that twenty years ago, her cousin who had a daughter with problems left his baby girl on the train and walked away; when my other cousin, who dated a German boyfriend for three years during her graduate studies in Berlin, kept this relationship secret for the whole time because everyone knows that you date a foreigner—you are a slut. You marry a foreigner—how lucky you are! Foreign passport! Big house and international babies! You divorce a foreigner—poor you, I told you so, you are such a slut without any self-respect. I saw that every new couple needs a chief witness to their wedding ceremony, someone whom everyone considers respectable—someone healthy, old, of higher social status, married only once with a boy and a girl who had a good education, and had good jobs, whose children marry good families, having healthy children, who also turn out to be good kids. If any of these went wrong, this person’s life becomes incomplete, not perfect and he doesn’t deserve respect.

Every mistake and imperfection you make in life is a shame. That kind of shame leaves a dark hole in your heart telling you what you did, and prints a red mark on your forehead telling others who you are because of what you did, or didn’t do. Being beaten, being harassed, being raped, being robbed, being sick, being amputated, being not normal physically or mentally, being poor, being laughed at, being neglected, being cheated, being hurt, being weak are your flaws. If any of these things befall you in China, you are a damaged good, broken, incomplete, unable to become something pure and good, again.

Now I understood why Kelly’s parents were so cool toward her. Kelly had started life perfectly but made mistakes. She made a mistake by marrying someone who divorced her, by giving a birth to a child who couldn’t grow to be a normal, healthy human being, by not listening to her parents, by choosing a path on her own.

What everyone told me when I shared Kelly’s story with my family were:

“I told you foreigners are not trustworthy. They are too free and don’t understand our family values.”

“Interracial babies can be cute and smart, but could have something wrong too.”

“Why would she date another American? Doesn’t she know that it’s why her life turned out to be this way…”

That kind of shame made me speechless. I worried if I defended Kelly, I would end up being like her. That kind of shame followed me everywhere, all the time. The invisible prison cell labeled SHAME lock me in and carry me from my hometown in China to California to Minnesota, to my grave. It feels like SHAME follows everyone that Chinese culture and tradition create and nourish. Isn’t SHAME the most powerful keeper of this?

I understood perfectly why my family said these things about Kelly; it was the same as all the noticeable silence and ignorance from Kelly’s parents on the dinner table. I accepted and interpreted it so naturally and well—I was ashamed of my understanding.

 

Summer Dies

In mid-August, Calvin called me and asked me if I would drive Kelly’s parents to a doctor’s appointment. “I am sorry you are the only one I can think of now,” he said, “Kelly is on a business trip in Boston and she left me to do this but I got a meeting. It’s easy, just like babysitting. You pick them up at Kelly’s house and drive them to Hennepin County Medical center in downtown Minneapolis. You know where it is, right? The appointment is already scheduled so just help them check in and the doctor will do the rest. It should be done in an hour or so.”

I actually had lunch shift at the restaurant but I wanted to help. Every time we met for dinner, Kelly’s parents were so happy to see me and talk and ask all kinds of questions, the personal kind and the do-Americans-do-this kind. I understood. When my mom stayed with me here, she got so bored after one week. She became a baby that she couldn’t do anything herself: go to a park, talk to someone, make friends, go grocery shopping, read a book in library, or even watch TV at home. Kelly’s parents must’ve felt this too when everyone was gone for work or school in the morning. So I didn’t mind the questions and was glad my presence made them feel they had someone to talk to. They had their friends, their life and everything in China, but here they were lost kids.

“Oh, there is something else I feel I should mention to you,” Calvin continued, “You know, if the doctor says something which I don’t think they will, please don’t tell them and keep it yourself.”

“Sure, of course. I know!”

What I know is the Chinese doctor-patient culture which, whenever I try to explain and make it sound reasonable, all my American friends feel it’s too absurd to understand. In America, or in many countries, doctors are responsible and only responsible for patients. Doctors run the tests and diagnose. The patients will be the first ones to know their medical conditions and they can decide if they want to share this information with their family or friends. But, in China, the patient will always be the last one to know, and in many cases, will never be informed. You go to see a doctor, he runs your chart and has you do more tests, then he suggests you should be hospitalized for a week to wait for your family’s presence so he can come up with a treatment. Finally, your family comes, and the doctor talks to your family in his office while you are waiting outside down the hallway, and in the end your family walks out, shakes the doctor’s hand, thanks him and says they will keep in contact. All you hear from your family is, you are fine, you are okay, you just need to stay at the hospital a little bit longer. Two months later, at the moment of closing your eyes to die, you still don’t know if you have a brain tumor or breast cancer, and the last glance of this world is your family holding your hands, crying and telling you everything is fine and you will get better soon.

Chinese doctors and a patient’s family believe that leaving the patient out of the discussion is the best way to help. The terrible truth will give the patient tremendous pressure, stress or suicidal thoughts. So why not leave the burden to the family so that they can suffer all the pain and decide on the best treatment for you? The minute your doctor says, “Call your family and I will talk to them,” you know it’s something serious, but you will never know how serious. My dearest uncle was diagnosed with final-stage lung cancer this past summer and so far he still doesn’t know anything. One day, he pulled out all the scan pictures and studied himself. “It looks really bad, doesn’t it?” “You are not a doctor!” my aunt said, “Give that to me. The doctor said you just need to take these pills and rest!” she collected all his medical records, scans, doctor’s notes, and medicine purchasing receipts. “You are not telling me everything!” my uncle complained sometimes, but I know he would do exactly the same if she were the sick one. All his family, including his niece who recently came home abroad after many years knew that he only had a year or two to live. Even his coworkers knew, so they processed his temporary leave to something more permanent.

 

Calvin continued, “This doctor’s appointment is to do a CT scan. Kelly’s mom had cancer before, and that was under control. But now, has come back, and unfortunately I think it’s the final stage. Kelly and her dad decided that they don’t want her to know, so if the doctor says anything, please don’t share that with her.”

I understood, I wouldn’t. As the English in my brain told me how unfair this was to the patient, my Chinese mind admitted that I would do the same for my mom.

The hospital trip went well. I didn’t need to know that much to feel I was keeping a secret from everyone else. Kelly’s dad talked and talked while we were waiting. Everyone who passed by thought we were a family. On the way back home, I suddenly realized why they stayed with Kelly for that long this time. I thought it was for Kelly and Calvin, maybe they were planning for an engagement, or a wedding even. Now I knew it was for Kelly’s mom. She was dying and her daughter wanted to try everything. Kelly was a physician. I always wondered how she saw everything that happened to her—her daughter and her mother’s sickness. Her mother was dying without knowing it. Her daughter couldn’t live a real life. Yet, Kelly chose the Chinese way to see the end of her mother’s life, and chose the un-Chinese way to give a birth to a new life.

Did she ever feel shame about her failure in her parents’ eyes? Had she learned the only way to overcome it is not to care? One thing I was sure by then was that she didn’t need anyone to make her feel secure. She didn’t have to make Calvin love her and marry her. She had a professional job, a beautiful house in Minnetonka, and her own daughter that she decided to keep and stay with no matter what. She didn’t need my pity or anyone’s approval.

 

The last time I heard anything from this family was on Mid-Autumn festival, in early September 2014. I received a text message from Kelly’s dad, a Happy Mid-Autumn Day emoji. For some reason, I didn’t reply. They really liked me because I tried my best to behave as a good daughter in the Chinese definition. While we were sitting in the hallway at the hospital, he asked me if I had an American boyfriend. I said no and that seemed a relief to him in that conversation. In front of them, I was still pure and good and my life was still hopeful.

 

Almost the end of summer, a night when I was driving home from work, a thunder storm started right in the middle of my thirty-minute drive on I-94E. There was nowhere to hide or stop. I wasn’t afraid of thunder or rain, yet when the pouring water swirled over my little Toyota Yaris, I could hardly see what was in front of me. The lightning brightened my windshield and the thunder cracked immediately on the move of my wipers. I was terrified, then pretended I was not, to no one, silently moving my car until it took me home.

Walking from my car to the apartment, with my heart beating that fast, I thought I would vomit. I didn’t. I managed to get the key into the lock, open the door, close it, crawl onto my bed, take a breath, and call a friend, the only one I could still talk to in Chinese and don’t feel that SHAME when I told him I went on a date with Dylan or I went to a Goth club on a Saturday night and watched a live bondage show. I asked my friend in Chinese that if it’s easier to just go back home, be the good one that everyone expect you to be, so when thunderstorm comes, at least I am not alone.

I told him, how much I didn’t want to live like Kelly, how much I wanted to escape from SHAME, how much I tried to grow my 23 to a new world and how much I wanted to see if there is a different world.

 

 

What Would Buddha Say

Buddha says it is Samskara (impulses, emotions, volitional aspects of human beings) that creates Karma.

 

The first stage: Seeing mountain as mountain and water as water

 

My grandma taught me how to eat soup. Rule number one: don’t open your mouth and blow the hot steam away. Rule number two: don’t make any noises, especially the ding-dang sound when your spoon hits your bowl – only beggars on streets do that. Rule number three: finish every bit of the soup because you don’t know the hard times we’ve been through.

I told my mom, after I went to college, that rule number one is wrong. Because I had learned that China has the highest rate of getting esophagus cancer in the world. Apparently, Chinese love to eat the food when it’s killingly hot.

“But you are a college kid, you know how to eat soup without burning your tongue,” she said.

When I shouted this scientific fact to my grandma’s barely functioning ear, she processed the hearing and thought for a moment. “No, it’s about luck. The soup’s hot stream is your good luck and you don’t blow that away,” she said.

Of course. It’s always about luck, Buddha says.

I could never figure out why the hot stream of water relates to my luck, to the probably, that I’ll win a million-dollar lottery, get a well-paid job, or have a healthy baby. When I think about all these possibilities, I simply don’t have the guts to blow that hot steam away.

Buddha has said so many things about luck, about things that can result in good or bad karma. It takes years of life experience to learn how to be wise and lucky. My grandma, a devout believer, could remember all the important dates in the lunar calendar, all the rituals, the right and appropriate way to welcome this or that kind of Buddha into a family. She knows which part of your house would be the best to serve Buddha, how a baby’s birthday on certain dates means she is going to marry into a good family, why a kid got bad grades because there is a ghost playing with him, and the reason why a person might get sick is because he forgot to pray to Buddha or visit his dead parent’s grave. All of this, despite the fact that the only three Chinese characters she could recognize were 1, 2, 3, written as 一,二, 三.

Here is what I’ve had learned about Buddha from my grandma and mom: Buddha is a chubby being. I am not sure if Buddha is male or female in our current gender definitions. Buddha definitely has breasts and long soft willow-leaf-shaped eyes, yet also has enough majestic authority to be venerated. I can’t use the pronoun “it” to refer Buddha, that would be hugely disrespectful. I know that one should never say, “I want to buy a Buddha statue for my house,” instead, you should suggest, “I would like to welcome a Buddha into my family to be served.” And since I don’t’ think either she or he is appropriate to be used here, I will refer Buddha as “IT” when necessary.

Buddha’s world is complicated. IT has many manifestations, each to address a specific area of concern. In our apartment, we have one Buddha who is in charge of the kitchen and the kitchen is important. It is the place where a family stores the food, cooks meals, and comes together to eat and share the food, so it represents a family’s productivity and property. That’s what this Buddha specializes for, a family’s property. There is another Buddha in the living room, whose job is to guard the house, protect the family, and deter ghosts and evil human beings. As far as I know, there are Buddhas for gaining wealth, getting healthy, searching for inner peace. dating, marriage, or having a baby (specifically you could ask IT for a boy, a girl, twins, opposite sex fraternal twins, and so on),

Places, dates, and rituals are essential. On some important dates, you need to go to specific places to pray. Mountains, temples, Buddha often hides somewhere far away, so you couldn’t just be like Christian going to a church on next block in your neighborhood, like a Parisian fetching a Café au Lait from a coffee shop on the corner of the street. Driving from the city to the countryside, walking step by step to the top of a mountain, the whole Dharma event could be scrutinized as a college major to study. You must know how to respectfully hold and burn the incense, how to worship on bended knees, how to talk to Buddha, how to talk to monks and nuns in the temple, how to make a donation for the temple, and every detail of these gestures has a meaning. It always means something if you use your left hand to hold the incense, if the incense burns fast, if the smoke of the incense goes up or away, or if the day is sunny, rainy, windy or, nothing really happens.

Don’t you think it’s a little bit superstitious? That everything means something good or bad?

I do, sometimes.

Growing up with my grandma and with mom’s Buddhas, I know they feel blessed that I was born healthy and grew up smart. Yet, if this system of belief is true, then why don’t I have a face and a body that they call pretty? My grandma would say, Buddha thinks you are smart enough not to care. If I ask why I’m so terrible at math and science, my mother might say, Buddha thinks you can do something with words instead of numbers. If I ask why my phone, wallet and even my heart got stolen, I’d be told, Buddha wants to get you new ones.

Everything is a sign. A sign tells you what you need to work on in life. Life is suffering and not all about happiness. Happiness is the candy you got for a reward not I deserve this. I deserve this —you think you are smart and hardworking enough to ask, no girl, that’s a must, but you also need luck. Luck is a little precious thing for which you don’t ask. Ask is all you can do sometimes. Sometimes, when Buddha ignores you, meditate, pray, smile, drink hot tea, adopt a dog or cat, give your grandparents a call, help your neighbor, water your plant, take vitamins, cook a dinner for your parents, read, recycle, don’t gossip, don’t complain with tears, don’t go out when it’s too late. Someday somehow, Buddha will come to you.

 

The second stage: Seeing mountain not as mountain and water not as water

 

I realized everything I thought I knew about Buddha was wrong, after I enrolled in a class called Buddhist Literature during my freshman year in college.

First of all, the Buddha who is supposed to be the security guard for our family is not a Buddha at all nor the kitchen one. These two so-called Buddhas are actually two figures imported into Buddhism from cultural and historical sources. The security guard’s name is GuanYu. He was a general in the Three Kingdom periods (AD220-280). As one of the most popular cultural figures in Chinese history, his life stories have been told over and over, and he has been deified for centuries. In the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, GuanYu is depicted as a loyal, courageous, chivalrous warrior who values brotherhood and willingly devotes his whole life to his warlord. I believe the real Buddha would agree that GuanYu is highly qualified to protect thousands of families, and should be respected on the same level as Buddha, though GuanYu also kills, swears, and has four children.

The Kitchen God, or Stove God, is more mysterious in its origins. There is no agreed upon view on whom this figure is based. Yet according to Chinese mythology, the Kitchen God is one of the domestic gods under the Jade Emperor’s governance. In Taoist theology, the Jade Emperor was the first god to organize an administrative office in Heaven. Various specialized gods work in their departments and help manage the human world. The dating god, the god who gives babies, the gods who care for rivers, oceans, animals, plants, and thunder, each has a specific responsibility to maintain the system and uphold justice. When there is a drought, we pray to the Rain God; when we want to make big money, we pray to the Fortune God; when young ladies wait for Mr. Right but are limited to have social life in old times, they pray to Yue Lao (God of marriage and love).

Think about all the Buddhas in all temples: are these authentic Buddhas? Yes, but I don’t think my grandma really understands to which Buddha she is praying. Her beliefs, theories, and approaches to Buddha are somewhat amorphous.

Maybe she should let the smart college kid educate her about Buddha.

The word Buddha means the “awakened one” or “enlightened one.” Gautama Buddha, the first sage who attained Enlightenment through months of meditation under a pipal tree, founded Buddhism. Yet, different interpretations of Buddha’s teaching have led to the formation of several branches of Buddhism. The two major ones are Theravada (Hinayana) and Mahayana.

The ultimate goal for Buddhist practice, including meditation, Four Noble Truths, Eightfold paths, and so on, is to get out of the circle of karma, to achieve the stage of emptiness, nirvana, and eventually, to become Buddha. Theravade believers are like Cynics, focused, striving. They follow strict rules, meditate through rigorous training, reject all conventional desires, and usually become monks and nuns and practice until one day, they are awakened like Buddha. Mahayana disciples believe that everyone should strive to become a Buddha, that each of us has responsibility to help others out of misery, and share the benefits of practicing the teachings of Buddha. The idea is that, because all living beings are suffering, and becoming a Buddha is about moving beyond suffering, if you know the causes of suffering and the path to the cessation of suffering, why not share this wisdom and save all suffering souls?

For Mahayana, the question is, how do you convince the public that Buddhism is the way to end the suffering? Or if people need help in the practice of Buddhism, to whom should they turn? Kuan-yin, a bodhisattva associated with compassion is the answer.

Kuan-yin is an expedient way to convey some of the core values from Buddha to the public, and also serve as “a means to an end.” Her job is to listen to the sound of the world, where people are suffering, give the sympathy to people and lessen their suffering. Kuan-yin’s ears are a wishing well. She hears and she helps.

 

So now you see how bizarre my grandma’s Buddha system is. What Guanyu represents, the spirits of righteousness and loyalty, are fundamental principles in Confucianism; the figure of the Kitchen God only appears in Taoist theology; in terms of traditional Buddhism, Kuan-yin is the deity she would agree with relate to in life, which, it most closely resembles the Mahayana tradition. Still, she somehow combines three belief systems into her one religion, which she calls Buddha.

My grandma wouldn’t want to become the Buddha, if she knew becoming a Buddha is about emptiness, about not wanting anything, about freedom from karma. She wants things. She wants a big family, she wants my grandpa to wait for her until the last minute, she wants all her children and grandchildren to be healthy, get decent jobs, marry good people, have babies, live a long life, and extend the family bloodline that makes her, and every one of us become something in life and history. Family is all she cares about. As a girl from a poor family in a small village in 1920s’ China, she’s supposed to take family as her true value and life’s mission. If there were nothing for her to hold onto, how would she open her eyes when the darkness came for her, massive yet quiet? How would she hear it, the wind blowing through the underbrush, the cats in the barn, the snakes in the grass? How would she see if there was a ghost living at the bottom of the river, or what it looks like on the other side of the mountain? How could she hear, the sighs of those without enough to eat, the cries of someone’s husband dying, the silence of a neighbor who has lost another baby? How could she see, children laughing, their fragmented teeth ready to eat you, old men crying, their tears printed on their wrinkled faces?

She manages it well, like millions of other Chinese women. For her, whether it’s the fusion of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, she generates a kind of Buddhism unique to her, and she passes it on to her children, to me.

Everything is a sign. A sign tells you what you still can do in life.

 

I was sent to a boarding school when I was 9. I learned about the Industrial Revolution; the creation of the Berlin Wall; how the Japanese create asset price bubbles; and what F = mv²/r means.

I knew this world. I saw it when copper gradually dissolved in hydrobromic acid, and the solution turned the most beautiful blue I’ve ever seen. I heard it in a man’s deep voice reporting news on Voice of America, his New York accent comforting me in my dreams every night in a dorm with five other girls. I saw it in a music video that featured a man playing the drum on a beach in Jamaica, and my eyes focused on his hands, his body, and my heart followed his rhythm; I knew it when I heard someone tell me “I love you” when I was 16.

I knew this world, a world where you can see what’s on the other side of the mountain, where you know dead people are powerless, where you stand on the street as millions of people pass by the office buildings, restaurants, shopping malls, parks, streets.  This is real, all of it, and I am a part of it too. This world would ask a question, how can your faith of Guanyu save you in your real life?

 

The third stage: Seeing mountain still as mountain and water still as water

 

In the winter of 2013, after a heartbroken breakup and months of struggles at school and at work, I went back China and stayed with family for a month.

The breakfast was already served when I woke up at 9:30. Scrambled eggs with onions, white carrots and bacon, steamed bread, and congee soup. Grandma was waiting for me at the dining table. It had been five days since I arrived home in China. Finally, she said, “You can talk to me. Now it’s just two of us.”

Thousands of emotions enlaced my mind, heart, body and soul. Where to begin?

Tears started, couldn’t stop.

She wiped my tears with her handkerchief, held my hands, and took me to the living room upstairs. In the corner, Guanyu stood within a frame holding his sword.

“You can let him know all your difficulties,” she said, “he can protect you.”

I stared at him for a few seconds. It was all the same, his face, his posture, his cloth, the whole setting had been the same for years. When I was a kid, I imagined a thousand times that if he truly existed, as a spirit or supernatural power, there would be a sign, like something would happened, so I could see and believe.

I was down on my knees, my hands in the center of my chest, my eyes closed, as my grandma had trained me. It became quiet. My meditation instructor taught us that we need to close our eyes to meditate because we usually perceive things only with our eyes, and what we see sometimes deceives us. When we close eyes, our other senses wake. We hear, we smell, and we feel.

In that second, kneeling in my childhood home, I heard the clock on the wall clicking. I heard my breath. I heard, for the first time, my desire to want to believe.

 

Bertrand Russell in The History of Western Philosophy, begins by saying “The conceptions of life and the world which we call ‘philosophical’ are a product of two factors: one, inherited religious and ethical conceptions; the other, the sort of investigation which may be called ‘scientific,’ using this word in its broadest sense.” Later, he defines philosophy as “something intermediate between theology and science.”

That’s why I wanted to study philosophy in the first place. We all need beliefs. Yet as rational human beings, when we see things fall apart, see the problems in the belief systems we grew up with, we need reasons to justify our beliefs. Philosophy is the middle way, a place where we may begin to investigate.

At my first philosophy lecture, I took notes on seven ways to prove God’s existence and another eight ways to disapprove it. For the next three years, I pushed my mind’s cart through a philosophical grocery store. Socrates’ dialogue was the frozen buttered waffles you keep having for breakfast everyday until you want something less sweet, but still exciting; Descartes’ dualism is a piece of watermelon stored in the fridge, which refreshes your heart when you need it on a hot summer day but it’s not enough for a decent meal; Hume’s inquiry concerning human understanding is a large double cheese sausage pizza, and when you are hungry late at night, you throw it in the oven for 25 minutes and tell yourself it is the best pizza you will ever have, otherwise, usually you don’t remember where you place it in the freezer; Kant, a 20-pound turkey, which I don’t think I will know how to deal with it until I have two children and want to be a presentable mom on Thanksgiving; Nietzsche, an expensive steak, one that could be cooked following the recipe in Le Guide Michelin, or could be turned into a cheap hamburger.

When I was ready to check out, with all of the groceries in my cart, I forgot to ask myself, so what am I going to have for tonight’s dinner?

 

Great philosophers are like grand mountains. I keep climbing, trying to see what they see on the very top of each peak. They take me on great adventures that I could never have imagined. I’ve seen mountains, rivers, forests and some of the most breathtaking scenes imaginable. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, I always need to go back home, face it alone, and ask myself, what do I believe? I ask myself the question Socrates asked thousands of years ago, how do I live a good life?

Sometimes, I wonder if knowing makes us not bother to question the unknown, and thus, we know less. I wonder if debates about culture and morality make us so uncertain about everything we’ve been told, that we would rather not have to choose one ethical system over another, and thus, we become less ethical overall. I wonder if having too many choices creates unnecessary desires and disturbs our naturally rooted inner peace making us less grounded, less free. And sometimes, I wonder, whether my grandma is happier than I am. She has her Buddha, but I have everything, and nothing.

 

Shaolin Temple is about a two-hour drive north of my hometown. Nowadays, it’s famous for being the birthplace of Shaolin Kung Fu and Chinese martial arts. People often forget it is also the place where Bodhidharma found Ch’an, which we also call Zen.

According to some historical records, Bodhisdharma traveled from India to China around the 5th century. He visited places, and observed local culture and social conditions from south to north. On his journey to search for the truth of Buddha, he settled down at Song Mountain, where Shaolin Temple now stands, and started to meditate in a cave.

The story says he meditated for nine years, staying in a sitting posture and suffering tremendous physical pain, as well as hunger and coldness, all while putting himself through arduous mental and spiritual struggles of finding the Buddha. When he finally came out of the cave, he started to teach students what he had found: the truth about Buddha—Zen.

In my college class on Buddhist Literature, the professor listed three things about Zen:

-Emptiness

-Every moment brings the possibility for enlightenment

-Every day is a good day

I am sure that Bodhisdharma realized more than three things during his nine years of meditation. But for Zen, three things are enough for a lifetime.

Zen teaches that any kind of practice is merely what Buddha does, not what Buddha is. Talking, learning, and practicing scriptures do not make you a Buddha, they make you a good interpreter of Buddhism. You could reach nirvana and become a Buddha without knowing anything about Buddha. The more you focus on becoming a Buddha, the further you go away from Buddha. Buddha doesn’t mean anything after you become a Buddha. Zen is not about becoming a Buddha but being a Buddha.

Zen emphasizes being rather than doing. Doing implies a desire, to achieve, to gain, to own. Being is accepting the way they have been, the way things are, and the way they may stay—accepting the way life flows or disappears into nothing. Zen teachings also posit that every minute, second or moment is a good moment. This moment and where you stand are your infinite time and space, where it lives within you and defines who you are. Every moment offers the possibility of being awakened. You are a farmer, farm; you are a solider, serve; you are a mother, parent; you are in love, love; you are hurt, be hurt; you are driving, drive; you are eating, eat; You are living, live. You must focus on each moment, not on the past, not on the future. Enlightenment happens upon you as within you.

What would Buddha say about Zen?

I believe IT would endorse Zen’s approach. See, I choose to believe and I believe. Consider the statement: I’ll believe it when I see it, or I’ll see it if I believe it.

This is the moment I realized my desire to want to believe in Guanyu made him believable. At last, I understood my grandma’s Buddha, how IT could be the ultimate spirit of the real Buddha. I had to spend years studying, had to travel over half of the world, in order to come back home to find the answer, to wait for the moment. Her Buddha was always there, even before I was born.

 

During that one month at home, Buddha intervened my life a lot. Buddha said my cell phone number in the United States was not good, so I’d better to change it when I got back. Buddha said next year, specifically, in April, I would have a boyfriend. Buddha said my ex-boyfriend was not a worthy man and I should not go back to him. Buddha said I would have great luck in finding jobs. Buddha said I need to pay more attention to health and exercise. Buddha said, be nice to your parents.

Where did all of these messages come from?

My grandma and my mom. They know how to communicate with Buddha and they translate his dictates, so I listened.

I remember my grandma telling me never to blow the steam off the hot food because the hotness, the steamed water, was your luck, and you don’t blow your luck away. So I listened, and I sat there, eating every bit of soup and never daring to blow.

Sense vs. Sensibility

I. People think before they Act?

In a Writing for Social Change workshop, the instructor asked students what they hope for this society. Students shared their answers such as “justice,” “equality,” “acknowledgment and respect for social issues,” and so on. One student said, “I hope people think before they act.”

The classroom went quiet for a minute. Some of them were thinking, maybe that’s exactly what we need and want for ourselves and others. If people can really think before they act, war will not happen, medical care will be accessible for everyone, all criminal acts like murder and rape will not happen in the first place, and TV audiences probably will not see the kind of presidential candidate debate where Donald Trump sincerely says, “I am a very very rich guy,” and Carly Fiorina states her plan of “building five missiles” with that determined face. Reasoning reveals the truth that fundamentally people will be better off when the world is at peace and the society has a healthy strong workforce, that punishment will come if you do anything inhuman, and that a country needs at least a rational leader rather than a number of childish bullies. If people can really think before act, being selfish, lying and intentionally hurting others will not exist at all. All these qualities make a person a less desirable partner, both in romantic relationship and in professional working place. Therefore, bad consequences are bigger than temporary benefits, and a person who thinks will not pursue a less rewarding decision for himself.

However, the facts of human history and our daily life effortlessly demonstrate that a rational state for any individual or community has never been achieved. Though Western society and culture cherish the principles of rationalism since the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, the endless wars, political corruptions, economical crashes and individual crimes all point out that the evil parts of human nature, greed, jealousy, lust and hate simply triumph the reasoning we’ve been educated and trained for years. Then why, faced with the law enforcement, possibility with even death penalty, life-long moral judgments from the society, neighbors and relatives, and the religious curse “go to hell” which punishes not only this life but also after life, a person still commits something that hurt others and eventually himself too?

David Hume would explain, it’s because a person’s moral acts are actually based on sentiment rather than reason. Your sentiment determines your decisions and final acts. Reasoning merely provides a way to achieve what you desire.

II. New Yorker:” Don’t take it personal.”

                    David Hume:” How could it be?”

David Hume in his An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals argues that when we take actions or make moral judgments, usually “reason instructs us in the several tendencies of actions, and humanity makes a distinction in favour to those which are useful and beneficial” (83).

 Hume’s question on morality:

We all have “images of RIGHT and WRONG” (13) through education or common sense, but the question is “whether we attain the knowledge of them [general foundation of MORALS] by a chain of argument and induction, or by an immediate feeling and finer internal sense, whether, like all sound judgment of truth and falsehood, they should be the same to every rational intelligent being; or whether, like the perception of beauty and deformity, they be founded entirely on the particular fabric and constitution of the human species” (13-14).

 Hume’s definition of reasoning and sentiment:

Sentiment: “No other than a feeling for the happiness of mankind, and a resentment of their misery” (83).

Reasoning: deals with Matter of Facts and Relations (84). Matter of Fact is that if a billiard ball hits another one, the second ball will move. We learn matter of fact through observing and previous experience. Relations are science that can be either intuitively or demonstratively certain, such as two plus two equals four.

Hume’s investigation:

Premise 1-

Hume:

“Why do we need to exercise?”

“Because we want to keep in good health.”

“Why is keeping in good health important?”

“Because sickness is painful.”

“No further question needs to ask why being painful is bad. Avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure are our basic desires and ultimate causes for actions” (87).

Implication:

You quit smoking not because it is bad for your health; but because you want to quit based on the knowledge that it is bad for your health.

 

Premise 2-

Hume:

Take the crime of ingratitude as an example. Is there any reason for a person to return ill-will when offered good-will?

Reasoning cannot explain this crime as a matter of fact. Matter of fact examines the essence of the crime, which in this case is being ungrateful. Being ungrateful cannot constitute a morally negative fact unless our sentiment tells us so.

Reasoning cannot explain the moral relationship either. Some people may argue that the reason for the crime of ingratitude is the contrariety of moral relationship between offering good-will and replying with ill-will. Yet if in the scenario that people give me ill-will, and I, in return, give back ill-will, then my behavior will not be a problem, or even will be praised for returning good-will, though it is the same contrariety of moral relationship.

So, the way we judge an act as good or bad depends on our moral sentiment. There is no reason why ingratitude is bad except our sentiment of blame.

Compare our concept of natural beauty to morality, and we notice that beautiful things in nature are not judged by what we see as all the parts and the relationship between parts that are obvious to our eyes, but rather how we feel the objects by sentiment.  In terms of morality, if a person carefully considers his own conduct when he makes a moral decision, he lists all the matter of facts, separate relations in every situation and so on, yet the judgment of final actions is our moral approbation or blame, which is felt by heart (83-84).

Implication:

How many things do we see or experience every day that are legally right and nothing morally wrong but we feel and judge it as immoral?

-Someone who doesn’t give his seat for a senior on subway (He doesn’t care for anyone).

-Your friend meets your three-year-old baby for the first time and doesn’t say your baby is cute (Your friend doesn’t like any baby at all).

-Someone who truly loves two people at the same time (He wants and wants and wants and it’s none of your business).

If some moral acts that don’t hurt any legitimate items, your body, your life and your property, why do we care for those that hurt our little precious feelings?

 

Premise 3-

Hume:

Most of us need and want justice in a civilized society.

He proposes “That public utility is the sole origin of justice, and that reflections on the beneficial consequences of this virtue are the sole foundation of its merit” (20). It sounds like he is agreeing with the view that justice is needed because it is useful and beneficial to our society. In other words, we have justice because our rational thoughts conclude that this is the most helpful system to our society. However, later he explains, “the USE and TENDENCY of that virtue is to procure happiness and security, by preserving order in society” (23). That the real reason why we need justice is because we want happiness and security, and justice, as the most beneficial system, could bring these to our society.

Suppose a virtuous man lives in a state composed of ruffians where everyone does not want benevolence. Though justice might still be the most beneficial system to this state, if people do not have desire for securities and equality, they will not want nor need justice. And that’s why justice cannot justify public war because war itself reflects our unwillingness for benevolence.

Implication:

What we need is what we want. What they need is what they want.

 

Hume’s conclusion:

“The ultimate ends of human actions can never, in any case, be accounted for by reason, but…entirely to the sentiments and affections of mankind” (87).

 

 III. Sense vs. Sensibility, pick a side

Whether you agree or disagree with Hume’s opinion, let’s have some yes or no choice tests and help us understand our position.

Case 1: Do you accept and believe any break-up reasons other than I don’t love you anymore? Such as long-distance, I want to focus on my career right now, timing isn’t right, my family doesn’t like you, you don’t want babies, our personalities don’t fit together…

No. Hume would say that all other reasons imply one explanation, which is not enough love. Romeo could die for Juliet, and you think Skyping two hours every night is too much to deal with? You don’t love first, then you come up with reasons for giving it up.

Yes. We do love each other but we also have legitimate reasons for breaking apart. For example, I am crazy in love with him but he is an alcoholic, or he is abusive, or he isn’t committed so my love sets us both free. Another example, she doesn’t want to have babies and what’s the point of this love when we have different ideas about future?

Please circle your answer:

A. Yes        B. No.

 

Case 2: Do you think we should suggest all K-12 school programs cut half of their classes and use this time to educate students on love and sympathy because Hume says what determines our acts is sentiment rather than two-plus-two-equals-four kind of reasoning?

Yes. College and even PhD students can mass murder people without feeling anything. Children need to be educated to be good people. We can spend 9:00am-12:00pm every Monday to Friday teaching children to say and feel, “I am sorry if I hurt your feelings,” “I long for world peace,” and “I love you.”

No. Our current education programs have already taught students to be polite and nice. Secondary education can’t change a person’s nature, but help improve a person’s reasoning skills so he can choose better and smarter on what’s right and good for himself and the public.

Your choice:

A. No          B. Yes

 

Case 3: If you were a jury in a court, when you heard the lawyer arguing her client becomes a serial rapist and murderer because his father was gone since he was born and his mother was a prostitute, so that’s why he targets blondes who look like his mother, rapes them and cuts them pieces. Would you understand and accept this emotional appeal? (please consider both if you didn’t know any of the victims and if one of the victims was your sister, dear friend, wife or daughter).

Yes. No man is born to be a monster. It is our society that creates this horrific monster. Suppose the same man was born at a loving family and today he probably won’t be here. These are his actions but not his fault.

No. Absolutely not. There are many other people who grow up in similar conditions but turn out to be good. Some of them even go to college, become a community leader and aim for social change. They were emotionally suffered too but they made a decision at some point in their life that they want to be a better person and help others who’s been through the same.

Please circle your answer:

A. No           B. Yes.

 

Now let’s collect your answers and read the analysis.

–If you have two or more than two As, you are anti-Humelist. You agree that sentiment plays a part in our moral decision and acts but you also strongly believe that our rational thoughts can help us understand what’s good or right. You are more likely to separate your personal life from your professional one. You believe our society and humanity are progressive to something better.

–If you have two or more than two Bs, you are a confirmative Humelist. You are more sympathetic to people around you. Between an honest but not that smart friend and a clever but not that honest friend, you are more likely to choose the honest one. You value love, friendship and family very much. All social issues concern you and you think our society is repeating the same mistake in history.

 

IV.  Yes, or No vs. I don’t know?

Here is Hume’s life resume:

–Father died at early age.

–Around 18, mental breakdown.

–Early 20s, no income, no profession.

–At 25, a job as a merchant’s assistant.

–Four years of writing A Treatise on Human nature, which it later turned out to be a failure in book market.

–At 33, applied for the Chair of Pneumatics and Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh but got rejected because he was seen as an atheist.

–Later, applied for the Chair of Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, but even his personal friend Adam Smith was against his appointment because of his religious view.

–In fewer than five pages, he wrote an autobiographical essay titled “My Own Life.” Disappointment is the keyword in this essay.

–About two weeks after he died in August 1776, in Letter from ADAM SMITH, LL.D. To William STRAHAN Efq, Adam Smith wrote that Hume once discussed what he would say to Charon for letting him have a few years to live– “see the downfall of some of the the prevailing systems of superstition,” and the ferryman replied, “You loitering rogue, that will not happen these many hundred years … Get into the boat this instant”(XX-XXI).

–Never married.

 

If Hume chose to be religious, which was a popular life choice for most people in 18th century Great Britain, maybe all his disappointment or confusions about life could be understood as everything happens for a reason, or these would accumulate for next life’s good luck. If Hume chose to be a rationalist, which was also a well liked decision for many scholars like Gottfried Leibniz and Immanuel Kant around his time, he probably could draw some conclusions and learn a few lessons from rejections in reality. For instance, the reason for Hume not getting the professional jobs is because he is an atheist. Therefore, if he wants the job, becomes something other than atheist. If he doesn’t, don’t bother. But for a philosopher who thinks that even the phenomena of hitting one billiard ball making the second ball move needs to be observed to agree with, maybe he felt these two options were too mediocre or absurd for a stubborn mind and a disappointing heart. He needed to know why his philosophical writing wasn’t recognized in public. When he confessed all his efforts in life were to satisfy the desire for literary fame, all the blames could fall on the dark and fatuous sides of humanity.

He was also looking for a theory, an explanation, a supporting point in his value system that he can rely on. This sentiment theory made sense for him. Rude people might be jealous of you, an angry mother might be angry about herself, a selfish sister might feel insecure about her status, and a nice gentleman probably does everything to fulfill his own sexual pleasure in the end…That is to say, Hume’s sensibility is another kind of sense.

 

But in 2015, after human species have been through and survived from existentialism crisis in 19th century, life choices in front of us are no longer just yes or no two choices. Is it possible for us to doubt, with trembling hearts and clueless minds, that sometimes there is no sense or sensibility to explain human’s behavior or all the life stories in this crazy universe?

 

 V.  There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win. Or maybe it doesn’t, and you lose.

                                                                                                                               —Match Point

In Taiwan, a famous criminal case happened several years ago still deters people’s heart. When a wife was cooking in kitchen and arguing with her husband, the husband got so angry that he grabbed his baby son and threw him in the frying pan. He was sentenced to prison. Many therapists had tried many ways including hypnotherapy to help him and us understand what happened and why he did that. It doesn’t make any sense that a reasonable human being could harm his own son in such a horrific way. His behavior couldn’t explain his anger, nor the emotional burst. He was mad at his wife, not his baby. To this baby, the accident was cruel, random and without any cause-and –effect meaning or purpose.

All experts drew the same conclusion from the research, that this man didn’t know or wasn’t aware of his doing when it happened. He described that his mind turned off at the moment of arguing with his wife and when he consciously realized what he did, he couldn’t believe his behavior either. According to Lin Cheng Jiang, a well-known Taiwanese defense attorney, at least 90% of felony is committed under this “turning off” mode of our brain. It includes not intentionally committing a crime (not premeditated or planned) but acting in a moment, such as, in the process of robbery or rape, a person was killed; or someone acts with depraved indifference, which means someone commits a crime with wanton and disregard to human life; or someone like this father, a good citizen and father until acting out of his mind at the moment of no one possibly understands why.

So people conclude this as a tragedy. What is a tragedy?

When real life challenges our logical understanding of cause and effect, the unfortunate stories become the tragedy. The phrase we often say in life, “I don’t deserve this,” reflects our basic anticipation of what a fairness or unfairness looks like. A 27-year-old woman who never drinks or smokes, and practices Yoga twice a week would have more anger and confusion than a 60-year-old male who is an alcoholic, a smoker and never bothers to eat greens, when they are both diagnosed with cancer.  Whether you are religious or not, there seems a Law of Nature in everyone’s mind, which we assume that something is supposed to be if we follow the logic. But in Greek tragedy, such as Oedipus the king, where everyone is doing what we expect to be a good cause, yet end up forming one horrible effect after another. The reason why it happened is only a mass of unexplained darkness.

When do we actually think about the question of why in real life? We don’t, until a natural, social or personal disaster happens, we pause for a minute and wonder, why. Alain de Botton writes, “continuity and reliability lasting across generation…[We] assume that tomorrow will be much like today” (86), We hardly ask ourselves why we spend another safe and nothing-happened day, like today was so fortunate that no crazy New York aggressive drivers hit me, that no terrorist hijacked the subway I took, that I didn’t have a panic attack though doing a presentation at work was really scary, and that none of my family or the family’s dog died. Yet, when a stranger steals your iPhone, or yells F*** you on your face, when your girlfriend texts you that she doesn’t want to see you ever again, you will spend some amount of time trying to figure out, why.

Rarely people examine why they do what they do, but others’ behaviors that affect our own life are often questioned. Good incidents seem acceptable and normal to us, yet terrible accidents make us doubt life and universe. In the end, whether you are a Humelist or not, something beyond reason or sentiment explanation becomes a tragedy, which relates to fate, karma or the randomness of universe.

 

If Hume, or all of us, lives a perfect healthy happy life, we don’t need, or won’t be bothered to question why; rather, we simply enjoy whatsoever comes to us. The truth is, we do question, sooner or later, more or less, deep in heart or a thought crossing in mind for a second, that how do we respond and fight through this madness. No matter what kind of tool we borrow, reason, sentiment, or the kind of luck no one can really explain how it works, what we need is what we want to believe.

Now, please circle your choice:

  1. I trust in science and believe in logic orders in our society. Reasoning is the way to save this brutal savage civilizing society.
  2. I understand and accept the flaw in our humanity and think the way to build a benevolent community is to acknowledge this and continue working on being a better individual for everyone.
  3. …I am not sure…I don’t know…I guess I will just wish everyone good luck?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Citied:

Hume, David, with introduction by J. B. Schneewind. An Enquiry concerning the Principles of

Morals. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1983. Print.

De Bottom, Alain. The Consolations of Philosophy. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print.

Hume, David. Letter from Adam Smith, LL.D. to William Strathan,

Esq. The History of England, from the Invasion of Julius Cæsar to the Revolution in

1688 1. London: Thomas Cadell and Longman. pp. xix–xxiv.