The late nineties were pivotal in my evolution as a thinking person. Y2K, partying like it’s 1999, and all the premillennial madness was drum beating me into a travel frenzy. Infected with the proverbial wandering bug, on steroids no less, I was anxious to launch that round-the-world trip I’d been dreaming of, before the gong sent Cinderella home. What if the world came crashing down before my jet-setting jaunts could be quenched?
I salivated over the lonely planet. Where to? Seattle > Anchorage > Seoul > Indonesia > Nepal > Johannesburg > Rome > London > NYC? Or perhaps Mexico City > Lima > Patagonia > Kenya > Delhi > Beijing > Sydney > San Francisco?
I chewed on each country like jeweled jujubes, until they blended into a kaleidoscopic jawbreaker. Turning to my sister, no neophyte in the Delta mileage program, for destination distillation, she emphatically warned me to stay away from certain Muslim-populated countries, informing me that there was a price on my soft American head by a radical faction led by a man I’d never heard of: Osama bin Laden.
Seriously, I asked? Who would want to hurt little ol’ me? I’m a nobody. But my awareness of the greater world was on the verge of being blown wide open, and simply that I carried a passport issued by the military and cultural powerhouse of the 20th century put me in the 99th percentile of economic and political advantage. In a dog-eat-dog world, this meant I was prime meat, and we all know our human tendency to knock over those on top.
So in 1999, instead of a twenty-country bonanza, I opted for just one: China, rumored one of the safest countries for a solo woman traveler, and fortunately home port for the Mandarin and Asian culture I’d been studying. Off I went to see the land of revered mountains, towering Buddhas, and great walls.
While teaching English there, in Changsha, the capital of the Hunan Province and hometown to Mao Zedong, one-time leader of the not-so-free world, I was assigned a “monitor,” Hsui (English name: David). His responsibilities included making sure I didn’t spread pro-capitalist propaganda, subvert the Communist government, or otherwise pollute the pristine waters of my students’ shallow worldview. (and here I had thought myself sheltered from those who sought to squash my red-blooded love of freedom!) What I didn’t know was how two-dimensional my outlook would prove to be.
Once, while trying to spice up a rote vocabulary lesson, I considered myself keen, dividing the class into two rows and giving the end person in each line an eraser. I’d say a word like ‘kitchen’ and the end person would name something that could be found there – chopsticks! wok! MSG! – and then pass the eraser. I explained that the first team to get their eraser from one end of the line to the other, with correct enunciation and accuracy, would be the winner. I thought my little game fun and lively. However, during the first round, David suddenly stopped the game, jumping in to declare authoritatively, “Friendship first. Competition second.” Lively, indeed. Score one for Mao.
Now, if you’ve ever played a card game with me, you know I turn it into a contact sport. I’m out to win. I even configure ways to beat myself at solitaire, just for the thrill. I never considered any other M.O. Wasn’t Darwin the centerpiece of Western education? Isn’t the survival of our species dependent on the biggest, fastest, strongest?
Clearly I had crossed cultural boundaries and sensibilities, for then and on, David wouldn’t even let me go to the cafeteria alone, much less around the neighborhood, lined as it was with dozens of mom and pop stores, all selling the same limited merchandise for the same price. How did they stay in business I asked? Was there any benefit to buying your thermos from one over another? All those shop owners smiling and nodding was confusing, and all those choices – not really choices at all.
Over time, David diplomatically played ‘tour guide,’ as we explored his city and developed a simpatico relationship, one that flourished with mutual Q & A’s. Over sautéed bok choy and cilantro we attempted to build common understanding, but it was a bit more like sparring.
“Why do you kill your presidents?” David would ask.
“Why do you throw your garbage in the rivers?” I’d counter.
Eventually, we called a truce (a veritable peace treaty at camp David), which led to a growing fondness as we opened each other’s eyes to the dangers of narrow stereotyping and believing what those in power tell us to be true. It’s all propaganda, we realized, but we still had to navigate its mire and muck, he more than I, perhaps. (Perhaps not.) When I finally left, I returned to integrate my experience of life in a communist/totalitarian state with a new eye towards the American democratic experiment/myth with more textured perspective. My unlikely new friendship enhanced my contrarian leanings as I doubted the headlines of home and questioned even more enthusiastically the gospel of a superpower.
Still, I appreciated that I could hop a plane anytime as long as I had the money, whereas David wasn’t allowed to leave his motherland, and was relegated to his job and apartment until the forces that be changed their mind. At least I had the American Dream to hold up as a shining star of possibility, pointing to our founders as bastions of the revolution.
I relished having not one, but two jobs to come home to, and the liberty to come and go as I pleased. While the rest of the patriots thought the dream was to work like a maniac, pay the bills, compete for limited resources, and hope to win the lottery, I said no thank you.
In order to finance this off-peak lifestyle and traveling affliction, I worked two restaurants in neighboring towns, and when I made a few thousand, I’d head off again on another globe-trotting adventure. Sometimes a thorn in my bosses’ sides – you want two months off this time?! – I nevertheless managed to keep my balls in the air to truly capitalize on the idiosyncrasies of the service industry. We were in it together, when we needed to be, yet we served self-interest first. No health insurance or paid vacation, but as long as the shifts were covered, there would gallivanting.
My peculiar philosophies were sometimes misunderstood, but more often they intrigued those around me. Pat, the hardworking owner of the first place once asked me how I felt when a new Italian joint opened up next to the second place.
“Aren’t you mad that your one horse town now has competition?” he prodded.
“Nope. The more the merrier,” I replied. Despite David’s reminder of the primacy of friendship, I still felt a little competition was a good thing. “It’ll bring in more people. Our small village will become a destination for dining, and customers can choose what they’re in the mood for once they get here.”
“Pshaw!” he said. “You don’t know anything about business.”
Maybe not, but I was familiarizing myself on the fluid spectrum between the polarities of working ‘against’ and working ‘with’.
For what it’s worth, his restaurant closed within a few years and I went on to earn a living with one of the best in the industry, learning that while the strong can survive with a little competition, they actually thrive exponentially in collaboration. I found that joining forces with both the people I worked with, and, ostensibly, those in vying establishments, caused greater prosperity and opportunity all around. Talent, ambition, and passion bred more of each, and my earlier adversarial tendencies evolved along those inklings I’d had of all boats rising with the tide. David’s legacy was intact. In fact, what I learned after being employed in both hemispheres can be boiled down to this:
Listen to the accepted truth, try to understand the foundation upon which it was built and the environment in which it was conceived, then discard 80% of it, keeping only the part that doesn’t make you bristle. Stay open to emerging ideas. (My contrary nature reveals there’s a little truth in everything, but most of it remains a mystery.)
Competition is a hulking, rusted relic of the past.
Cooperation is becoming the present.
For the foreseeable future, my modus operandi will be to prosper in the community of others. I am completely a product of alliance and reliance, as we all are. What lies beyond that, I don’t know. We may or may not have evolved from the apes, but we are evolving to create global webs and bridges and understandings. It’s what we gain from these interdependencies that propel us, allowing more precise and complex truths to emerge of who we are and why we are. Darwin was just a link in the chain.
More cross-cultural Q & A with David: Taking My Breath Away