My training starts the moment I begin to pedal my bike. As I wind through the old back alleys of an unknown part of an average city in China, I maneuver my bike tires so as to avoid the missing bricks and numerous potholes in my path. I move quickly to the right to avoid an oncoming motorcycle clamoring its way through an alley not much wider than itself. As it passes, I notice a frog perched directly in front of me. I swerve to narrowly miss it and scrape my shoulder on the decaying brick which serves both as alley wall and the outer wall of an ancient home. Pieces of the brick crumble to the dusty ground like falling rocks from a cliff.
Suddenly, the narrowness of the alley expands dramatically into an open area criss-crossed with cars, motorcycles, electric scooters and pedestrians. Scattered about are street vendors selling everything from mangosteen fruits and mountains of pineapple to lizard health tonics, knock-off Nikes and buckets of strange-looking shellfish called sea scorpions.
To my right, hanging on a hook is an enormous dried fish, its salty smell filling the air. Next to the fish vendor, three people haggle over the price of a dog carcass, believed to stimulate the body’s internal heat when eaten. There is constant movement in all directions. No space is left empty.
Dust attacks my eyes and strong, pungent smells threaten to distract me from the constant awareness needed to ensure that I don’t collide with anyone. I duck to avoid being hit in the head by a bamboo pole. Not a single thought can enter my mind which does not contribute to my complete awareness of what is going on around me. I must be absolutely aware.
It can be a challenge living in the densest part of the most populated country on earth. Learning Mandarin Chinese makes you throw all of your assumptions about language out the window. And, most jarring of all, discovering and investigating Chinese culture and customs makes you realize that everything you know to be “correct”, “right” and “common sense” is not universally shared. What is right and wrong can be, and often is, very different in China than it is in many other countries, including my own country, the U.S.
For the longest time, I would be disturbed or bothered by many things here. For example, in China people often don’t line up. I would feel frustrated or angry because if I did not shove my way onto the bus, I’d simply never get on. If a line did form, often it would collapse into a mad rush to the front.
There is a strong competitive mentality here; it is a feeling of lack. It is taught in schools and you see examples of it every day. Because there are so many people, it is commonly accepted that you will be left with nothing unless you fight for it. And this belief is reinforced again and again in people’s actions here. It is difficult not to get caught up in it. I am fortunate to have seen that abundance is possible, however many here never have.
Helping to fuel this competitiveness and sense of lack is the fact that, while morality is discussed, it often takes a back seat to “getting what’s yours”. And it is common to see this as the basis for what is right or wrong. “Life is a struggle,” people here tell me, “the survival of the fittest means that you have to do whatever it takes and it is okay to cheat someone because, if you don’t they’ll cheat you.” It is the law of the jungle.
Cutting someone off in line is acceptable, in fact it is seen by some as the “right” thing to do, because it helps them get theirs. Even long after you have graduated school, you are taught “to get rich is glorious” and that “life is an ocean of bitterness.”
Growing up, if I bought something which was broken or didn’t work, I expected to be able to return or exchange it at the store. This is not a generally accepted assumption here, which I learned years ago when I bought a microwave which didn’t work when I brought it home. Upon returning to the store, explaining my situation to the main desk, I was told, “That is why you should buy a more expensive microwave.” After much persuasion and making it clear that I wasn’t leaving, they made an exception and allowed me to get a different microwave.
When I told this story to a few Chinese friends, one of them told me, “If we Chinese tried to do that, we’d never succeed. They only let you exchange it because you are a foreigner.” I do, however, notice that this is changing and customer service is being more and more emphasized, though it is still the exception rather than the norm.
For the longest time, I struggled with this and the calmness of my soul would get disturbed. Rarely has a door been held open for me here. Each time someone would let the door slip in my face, I would feel anger and frustration begin to rise within me. I love the idea of holding the door open for someone, but this is not something that is often taught here. Does that make it wrong to not hold the door open? Maybe, maybe not. But what is certain is that I let it get to me and this brought about nothing positive for anyone.
As I paid more attention and learned more about Chinese culture I realized that I probably was doing things that would be considered rude and coarse here in China. I realized that it was simply because I was unaware of their standards, unaware of their own customs and what they considered to be correct politeness. I was taught a different standard and this brought about conflict.
Upon realizing that I was simply judging others by my own standard, came an epiphany. All the pain and suffering was completely created in my own soul, in my own mind, by my own thoughts. If I simply adjusted myself and no longer expected others to conform to my own standard of conduct, I could stay calm and at peace.
Yes, it would be great if we all held the door open for everyone, but should I really allow myself to get frustrated again and again simply because someone didn’t act in a way that I would like them to, in a way that I expect?
The storm is within us, not without. We stand at the gates of our mind and can put forth the effort to stay calm or allow the negativity to get a hold of us.
Today, if someone cuts me off in line, doesn’t hold the door for me or if I buy something which doesn’t work, I am better at maintaining calmness and equanimity because I know that it is my own assumptions and standards that cause me to pass judgement. By expecting others to act in a certain way, I end up disturbing the calmness inside of me. Therefore, I remind myself not to expect and not assume and in return I maintain serenity and composure, a beautiful reward indeed for my efforts at self-control.
When I relate this to others, many people wonder why I would choose to live where I do. Besides there being many wonderful things about where I live, these challenges push me to be stronger and more in control of myself. I am given endless opportunities to cultivate patience, compassion, understanding and forgiveness.
I see these challenges as my training and it makes me stronger and better.
If you would like to keep calm and prevent the rise of anger, frustration and fear, pay attention to what you expect of others. Seek out other cultures, new experiences and challenges, for it is through these that we grow into better versions of ourselves.