Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Happiness (With Chinese Characteristics)

If I had to choose a five-dollar SAT word to describe the people of Sichuan Province in the year 2010, the word would be "ebullient." I didn't even know what ebullient meant until I came to China. I mean, I could've defined the word for you, but I wouldn't have been able to conjure up a mental picture. But now the word "ebullient" is synonymous in my mind with the streets of Nanchong on a bleary Tuesday afternoon. Outside, it is cloudy, rainy, smoggy, almost Dickensian; the streets are crowded, filthy, and migraine-inducingly loud - but the Chinese are ebullient. Ebullient are the Chinese.

When in their natural habitat - the smoggy, filthy, overcrowded city - the Chinese do not seem to have any discernible mood other than delirious happiness. Imagine if you will: toddlers frolicking in the middle of a four-lane highway, bare butts exposed to the oncoming traffic; college kids chasing each other up and down the sidewalk, squealing, giggling, playing grab-ass; middle aged salarymen smoking, smoking, smoking and cursing with much zest and zeal; and the old timers just sitting and watching the merry madness unfold from a park bench, smiling and nodding like the universe is in perfect order.

The Chinese have moods, of course. But as a foreigner, it is unlikely that you will see many of them. Confucius say you gotta keep that shit bottled up, son. In private, the Chinese leave much to the imagination. In public, aside from the occasional haggling showdown or marital dispute, the Chinese are positively euphoric, as though there is nitrous oxide in the air - and considering what passes for oxygen in these parts, that isn't such a bad guess.

China is quite a change of pace from America, where a kind of paranoid irritation reigns supreme, and it is a world away from my Polish mining town, where everyone seemed at all times to be recovering from a mind-splitting hangover. China is a happy place. Not even Mexico comes anywhere near the sort of manic glee that slaps me in the face whenever I step outside my apartment. There in the driveway are oldsters hoisting up somebody else's grandson: hello, they whisper as I pass, hello! And the baby vomits on himself. And the oldsters laugh. And the baby shrieks. And the oldsters laugh. Baby vomit, and the universe is in perfect order. I will hereby declare, until I am proven otherwise, that China is the happiest country on Earth.

But it is a peculiar sort of happiness. It is Happiness With Chinese Characteristics. The Chinese are not happy in a wishy-washy existential sense, because we are all human beings and if we set aside our differences and work together, we can accomplish beautiful ... - no. The Chinese are happy because they are Chinese. Their happiness stems from the fact that finally, their China is making good on its potential. There is food. There is family. The family has food. That's a lot to be happy about when you think about it. And business: business is good these days. There is no capitalist ennui in China. Making money is still new and exciting, relatively untainted by rich man's guilt. So when business is good and you've got a well-fed family, what else is there to be but madly, deliriously happy?

Meanwhile, as a foreigner, you remain as moody as you have always been, perhaps even more so.

Monday: it rains for the sixth day in a row; you sink into a troth of melancholy.
Tuesday: you figure out how to order hot and sour soup; you're so happy that you weep hot and sour tears all the way home.
Wednesday: the school neglects to tell you about a schedule change; you miss a class and know that you have lost your students for the rest of the semester; when you get home, you punch the hell out of your pleather sofa.
Thursday: the old shopkeeper down the street waves at you and smiles broadly, warmly; this makes your day.
Friday: the water shuts off for 48 hours.
Saturday: somebody claps for you at the Jack Bar.
Sunday: you go to the bank and immediately the bank tellers start laughing at you; you tell them politely, in half-decent Sichuanese, that you would like to withdraw 200 kuai, and they laugh even harder; one of them grunts and slides a piece of paper your way and you write "200 kuai" on the piece of paper and grunt and slide it back; she shows the paper to her friend and together, they laugh.

What in the sandhill is this? you think. I am a customer! Nay, a client! I am a client with two bank accounts! I lend your bank $150, nay, $175 of my hard-earned Peace Corps blood money every month! Granted, I spend most of that money on Chinglish t-shirts and off-brand cola products, but still - your bank is borrowing my hard-earned volunteer blood money and you have the nerve to laugh at me! Why, I'll withdraw every last fen and take my business elsewhere, to the Agricultural Bank of China. Surely there they respect the common man, with his mold-encrusted facial hair and rumpled suitcoat! But no. They would laugh at you there, too. And who can blame them? They are happy and you are moody. And why shouldn't they be happy? It is you who have crashed their party, not the other way around.

So you play the part of the Good Christian and take your 200 kuai. You thank the bank tellers and they laugh at you. You shrug. And then you think of all the wonderful things you'll buy with that 200 kuai: Chinglish t-shirts and off-brand cola products and Panda cigarettes. And for a flicker of an instant, you can see why everyone is so damned happy here. To quote a rock band: here we're allowed everything all of the time. But then you worry whether prosperity might not get old after a while.

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