In this journal prompt students were asked to write about something they learned from their time in China. Below is Jack’s response:
Dear Me, Myself, Godzilla; August; Levi, the curly-haired philosopher; Heino; Jingle; Teacher from Wisconsin (I hope you make it out alive); my naked little brother in all his Buddha-ness; and Whomever it may concern-
“There is a Chinese joke,” My host brother said, one hand on his big Buddha belly, the other holding tight a piece of watermelon, “that some boy, or girl… works hard in school, and they say to him ‘Work harder, you will get into a better college!’ In college he will relax… they say to him ‘No! Work harder, you will get a better job!’ Then he leave college, they say ‘Work harder! You will make a better life for yourself!’ Then he is 50, 60, they say ‘Keep work harder! you will make your children’s life better!’ Then this same man becomes the… voice, he teach his children ‘Work hard! You can relax later!’ and they all work until they die… Nobody is happy…” He leaned back.
“In fact, it is terrible,” and he lifted the piece of watermelon to his mouth, but could not bring himself to eat it.
At the foothills of the Qinling mountains, next to a cemented-in pool strewn with cigarette butts and pre-caught fish, I sat with my friend Heino, our legs crossed, long plastic poles across our laps. He was second in his high-school class before he came to America, and now was 140th. We talked about the Chinese education system, that Heino explained starts as early as kindergarten.
“Your first day of school, they teach you: ‘one plus one equals two.’ On the second day, they ask you ‘Okay, you know one plus one, now what’s the distance between the earth and the sun?’”
“The man who owns this pond made so much money, he could send his kids to America.” He said, staring somewhere above the lazy brown water. The new Chinese gold standard: having multiple children and getting them the hell away from here.
“And you?” I asked.
“I will not raise my kids here… unless… everything changes.”
“I mean, do you want to be rich?” I asked.
“Sure, rich enough to be happy.” He closed his eyes and smiled.
On a boat ride down the Li River, two old mothers wanted to know how heavy my book bag was and whether I liked playing on my cellphone. Their grandchildren, they said, hurt their backs carrying all their textbooks to school, and don’t sleep enough because they stay up all night playing cellphone games.
It reminded me of a monk we saw tucked up in a monastery’s prayer room in Shangri-La, maybe forty years old, head shaved, and legs crossed, bent over under a big cloak. A blue glow spread over his wrinkled face. He couldn’t talk to his family, make friends, or look at himself in the mirror, but at least he could tap away on his hidden little cellphone. He is the same as the millions of little black-haired children that were raised in China, doing nothing but studying all day, leading a truly hollow existence.
Americans have no conception of Chinese life, or of China’s most basic problems. It is not, in our experience, a country of people in any way scared of their government. There are no deep desires for freedom of press or real government elections among the college kids we’ve met. The Chinese are not a people defined by communist ideals or anti-Japanese sentiment. However, it is not a free country. It is a country imprisoned by its cult of learning and hard work. Its scariest institutions are not shadowy political prison camps, but schools, that mold every single Chinese life into one of conformity, pressure, and meaningless study.
“Yushuan,” I said, over our plate of watermelon, “promise me you’ll be happy.”
“I already am happy!” He said, and I believed him. He sang in the street and laughed loudly and slept in class and ate whole bowls of rice in one breath. He was bigger than everything around him.
“But one day I will move to an island in the ocean… Pacific… and lay in the sun, and there will be a lot to eat.” We both smiled.
As for me, I also am already happy. Difference is, I have immense amounts of freedom- I can stay out late and yell about anything, and trespass, and steal, and do as much or little work as I want, and, even go to China for four months. I decided, behind a big beige Buddhist temple on the Tibetan border, the same one with the cell-phoned monk, that I would try to be remembered. The only afterlife I’m certain of is when people keep talking about you after you’re gone. But maybe (hopefully) I’ll be reincarnated as a grasshopper for saying that.
“Yushuan,” I said, “Do you want to be famous-“
“Of course.” He said, and nodded seriously.
We made a pact that if I got famous I would call him up and if he got famous he would do the same. We would charge the world by force and sing songs for everybody. We shook on it.
“You want to be remembered after you die,” I asked “forever?”
“People talk about Taylor Swift, but maybe in 20, 30 years they will forget. Even… Mao, Mao will be forgotten… in three hundred years.”
“Maybe…” I said. “Anyway, sometime the sun will explode.”
“Yes.” He agreed, “You cannot live forever.”
“Then why be famous?” I asked.
“Everybody… I and you, want to live famous life, and relaxed life, hard-work life, and simple life, city life, and country life… island life, love life, and exciting, exciting life.”
“Beautiful.” I said, and we sat in silence for a while.
“We forgot to laugh,” he said, remembering the Chinese joke.
“Now… laugh!” He ordered
And we both laughed our asses off, he squealed and bellowed, and watermelon juice dripped down his chin.