May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
April 4, 2005
Money is everything, Alex said. I opened my mouth to disagree, but stopped. I looked directly at his face and saw that he meant what he said. He doesn’t have the luxury to think that money isn’t everything. Like most of the other one-billion people in China, his sole purpose is to get enough money to live a happy life. Alex is Chinese, 27 and he lives in Shenzhen, a prosperous city in the southeastern Chinese province of Guang Dong. It is the city of dreams, the United States of China, where communist sanctions are lifted to allow for a capitalist economy.
One man sells edible Styrofoam out of a wagon; this is his life. Another makes a living by folding long, smooth leaves of grass into delicate shapes of crickets and phoenixes. In the hot, torpid air of the city, the tips of each leaf curl inward by late afternoon—fading beauty. The majority of these fortune seekers earn only enough to continue their unconventional trade. They subsist on rice and noodles and sleep in their stores, in their wagons, or on the same curb where they sell their merchandise.
Alex said, “If you know English in China, you live like king.” He works as an elementary English teacher at a school for the wealthy children of Shenzhen’s gold collar workers, the few businessmen in the entire country who have become successful and independent.
“Some children very spoiled. We must teach them discipline and hard work,” he explained to me. I asked how old the children are. “Tall enough to scratch your hand.”
“How long do you work each day?”
“Many hour. Maybe ten hour at school, then in evening I work as translator and make much money—very good money.” He makes $1,000 a year. The average peasant farmer makes $300 a year.
His apartment is across the street from the school, up on the third floor of a building of flats, identical to almost every other building of flats in Shenzhen. Slabs of concrete: walls, floor, and ceiling converge in stabbing, lifeless angles. In the living room, only a broken bed without covers, and a bicycle; the bathroom has a rust-stained toilet; the kitchen is empty except for a withered lump of cabbage.
“It is a very tranquil dwelling,” Alex told me and I felt his eyes on my face. Crying was inappropriate, so I smiled and stepped forward toward one of the back rooms: “Is this your room?”
“Yes.” He opened the door. Color raced up from the floor. Foam pads that fit together like puzzle-pieces covered the cement ground. One had a picture of a boat painted on it, another a giraffe. Each had a different colorful design; all looked like something from a kindergarten classroom. I imagined Alex, every paycheck going out to buy a few more of these pieces of carpet and then carefully fitting them together, wall-to-wall.
The room also contained a four-post bed (no mattress), a desk (no chair), an electric fan, several books, and a stereo. A mirror shaped like the full-bodied silhouette of a woman leaned seductively against the wall and a small sketch of two faces hung from a nail near the bed. “My friend paint it for me.” A six-inch glow-in-the-dark skeleton hung from the corner of the mirror.
An enormous wave of embarrassment overwhelmed me. The most pressing issues in my life are: what happens to people after we die; who am I; is there any absolute truth; why is there so much suffering in the world; what kind of job should I get; who will I marry. These issues are complex and real, but also largely abstract.
Alex lives in a world of tangible complexities: smells of mildew and cold stairwells, an endless myriad of noodle shops, wooden mattresses, and starving children with laughless eyes. Alex’s eyes don’t really laugh either. His mouth turns down into a permanent seriousness and his eyebrows point toward his nose, leaving a single large crease straight across his forehead. Even when he laughs, he looks more nervous than happy, as though he doesn’t know what it means to be lighthearted.
“Do you have a girlfriend, Alex?” I asked.
“No. I have gotta no money. In China, we say ‘No money, no honey.’ It’s very difficult to find good woman. First, I must get more money.”
Although he lives like a king in comparison to many of Shenzhen’s curbside entrepreneurs, Alex only barely supports himself. He mentioned that he may never get married because he cannot make enough money. He sounded resolved to that lonely fate.
My embarrassment mounted as I considered my usual assumption that I will someday fall in love and marry someone, and that we will live together in our own apartment or house and raise as many children as we want, fat little children with good stores of protein and laughter.
But what if my first thoughts each day were systematically about whether or not my spouse and children will starve? Money really is everything then.
In the West, we pride ourselves on the masterful cultivation of grandiose values like beauty, truth, freedom, and love. Incredible stories, inspirational music, artistic masterpieces have emerged from our Western philosophical and theological ideas. We claim the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, Beethoven’s 5th, Wagner’s Ring, Puccini’s La Boheme, Grieg’s Peer Gynt, Mozart’s Requiem. Ours is Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Chesterton; the Pieta, the Waking of Psyche, Michelangelo’s David, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Munch’s Scream, Monet’s Waterlilies, Goya’s Crucifixion. Our resume includes the development of roads, aqueducts, agriculture, weapons, medicine, education, science, democracy—all of these accomplishments worthy of applause.
In general, the majority of people living in the West now live like kings; compared to Alex’s self-professed kingship, we live like gods. And like the classical, western gods—Zeus, Athena, and Co.—we have our own “god issues” that don’t have much to do with the frailty and mortality that the other 98% of the world experiences daily.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow reminds us that basic needs such as food and clothing must be met before humans can act to satisfy needs of individual self-fulfillment. The highest category—the pinnacle—of human needs involves spiritual growth stemming from reflection on matters of knowledge, peace, aesthetic experiences, truth, and meaning. In our current state of material wealth, we no longer wrestle with physiological barriers, but adroitly surmount the pyramid of needs. We stand on two feet, god-of-the-mountain, our hands free to dip into chalices of ideas, values, “higher truths.”
Have we reached the top of human accomplishment—absolute fulfillment of every fundamental human need? Or is there yet a step beyond our masterful epiphanies, through the door of Idea and into the world of being-acting-living out our realizations?
Are we ignoring the most important step toward self-actualization? We are self-sufficient and have the privilege of not considering our daily bread. Yet, as the wealthiest two percent of the world, we consider higher truths, but not their implications. Love, for instance, is not self-seeking, sacrifices all, bears all in joy; we love the idea of Love, but do we live it out?
Or take our glorification of Freedom, which for us usually means the freedom to do whatever we want, uninhibited by oppressive economic or social barriers. Does our freedom necessitate others’ oppression? Can I afford such a nice lifestyle only because others cannot? Can an accumulation of material treasures be in tandem with self-seekinglessness?
When I returned from China, the first thing that I noticed in my apartment was the carpet. Why hadn’t I been thankful for carpet before? My landlord asked me if I wanted new carpet, since the last tenant left a small bleach mark in the corner near the closet. That question seemed incredible in light of Alex’s colorful foam pads. No, new carpet was unnecessary.
The next thing I noticed was how much food was in my refrigerator. And how white our toilet was. I almost think I couldn’t bear to show Alex my apartment if he ever came to visit, to show him all that I have and expect to have. I realized then that I don’t need very much to survive. In fact, I don’t even need much in order to continue with my philosophical extrapolations, or with creating art, music, love, and joy.
The father of Chinese philosophy, Kongfuzi (Confucius) said, “With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and my bended arm for a pillow—I have still joy in the midst of these things.” And here, we have a paradox.
Over-materialization, especially when unrealized by the beneficiary, can actually be a hindrance to living out the ideas of “higher truths,” whereas people with few material belongings are not stuck with the consuming responsibility of maintaining them.
Many people, like Alex, don’t choose to be in poverty. But those of us who are privileged can choose what we do with our abundance. A lifestyle of deliberate, responsible simplicity, especially with the intent of truly freeing the oppressed—this may be the ultimate self-fulfillment. I don’t think that abstract, philosophical ideas are the problem—clearly they are important for the development of a fulfilled human being, and as humans, we cannot help but ultimately to desire great reflection on questions of truth, beauty, freedom, and love. The problem is: the abstract is useless without the concrete (just as the concrete will have no meaning without the abstract).
Reflections of truth and beauty, if lived out by those who believe them, will ultimately address matters of hunger and poverty and act on them. Yet many of us haven’t acted to eliminate the suffering around us, but have isolated ourselves and moved on as an individual group of fortunates. We aren’t thankful for our carpet; we expect it. And we accept the fact that most other people in the world have cement, if they have any floor at all. We are irresponsible with the wealth that we have, ignoring our enormous duty to aid fellow humans and to be thankful for our blessings. We have the means to consider our responsibility and to act upon it. Why don’t we?
I share a special friendship with Alex and I am touched by his generous kindness to me when I was in Shenzhen. I think that he is glad for our friendship as well, but I understand now from sharing conversations and experiences with him that I should learn to have a greater outward focus; not only should I appreciate my privilege, I should seek to share it. The majority of the world’s population deals with life and death issues every day, and I am a part of this world.
If I wish to pursue the “higher ideas” of self-actualization, I will have to live as though I truly believed them or else risk being hypocritical in my pursuits.
“Can you give me a Chinese name, Alex?” I asked him.
“Of course.” A pause. Then: “I name you Kong Jie. Kong is name of first Chinese philosopher, Konfuzi, because you talk about many philosophical thing. Jie means pure lady.”
I am honored by the name I have been given, and I will try to live up to it, acting out my philosophical thoughts and beliefs purely and responsibly, not taking for granted the luxury of thinking that money isn’t everything.
 Shenzhen is a “special economic zone” in China which runs on a capitalist economy rather than socialist. This draws many Chinese people to the city to start their own business with the hope of being financially successful and independent.
Becky Crook currently lives in Berlin, Germany. She occasionally teaches English as a second language, works as an independent editor, and continues to improve her German. She writes poetry and short stories (in English), and her essay, “Reading Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita while Dating an Atheist in Seattle” is featured in our new book, “God is Dead” and I Don't Feel So Good Myself: Theological Engagments with the New Atheism.