This article also appeared on The Huffington Post.
So my colleagues and I visited China from December 12 to 20. During our stay, we visited the country’s two most significant cities, Beijing and Shanghai. These places are laden with beautiful and historical sights to behold and they made me see China in a different light. The most interesting stories, however, happen when you least expect them.
During one of my late night walks in Beijing, I met a British guy who has been working as an editor/copywriter in the city for less than a week. After a quick introduction, we walked to a nearby hutong (alley) to get some cheap alcohol and a nice plate of Chinese pulutan (food eaten with alcohol). It was funny because neither of us could speak Chinese and so we had a really hard time ordering food. Good thing he had this app on his phone that taught us “Sprite” in Mandarin is “Xue Bi.”
Will (his name) enthusiastically recounted how he fell in love with China the first time he visited. He told me that the country’s unique culture made him decide to go back and live there. He used to be an English teacher for Chinese kids but said he hated teaching, and so he chose to take an office job instead. I asked if he wanted to settle in the country for good. He said he did not, and that he’ll probably just stay there for another two years. I told him that I envy that aspect of his life. I, too, wanted to live the life of a nomad — someone who may be poor with no permanent abode, but rich in worldly experiences.
After a few chugs of my Chinese vodka called “baijiu,” our conversation got even more interesting. We discussed about how society imposes on us some random, capricious blueprint of how we should live our lives, and shames those individuals who dare go against it. Ultimately, I told him that we should ignore the pressure and simply follow where our heart takes us. After 25 years of living as myself, I realized I have never gotten it wrong whenever I followed my gut and heart.
“Speaking of heart, have you ever had a boyfriend?” he asked.
“Of course,” I replied. “Lots of them.”
We both guffawed.
“I don’t think I have ever been loved though.”
“What do you mean?” he said.
“I think I have never been loved. Just temporarily needed.”
He wielded a stick of barbecue from the plate and munched on a piece of it. “I get what you mean.”
Aside from our love lives and the daily manifestations of our existential crisis, we also talked of Chinese culture and politics — the recently scrapped One Child Policy and its detrimental impacts on the country’s demographics, gender inequality and the situation of LGBT rights and culture in China. Our discussion of the country’s freedom deficits despite its quick and extensive economic development led us to a reverie: “Can material wealth make up for the bliss only individual freedom allows us to enjoy?”
Truth is, we couldn’t really decide. And then he recounted a story about his Chinese friend telling him how grateful he is that their government chose wealth over freedom. Now, they have money, unlike China a few decades ago.
“But that’s only because he never had freedom,” I reacted. “People cannot aspire what is unknown to them. And yes, he can have the kind of freedom we have elsewhere with his money. But it is never the same when you have it at home.”
In the end, we concurred that the kinds of happiness that wealth and freedom give us don’t fall within the same continuum or category. Can money buy happiness? Indeed. But can it buy the kind of happiness that freedom allows of us? No, it cannot.
I indulged in my last glass of baijiu. “I love Beijing,” I remarked. “Despite our political disputes and differences, I’ve learned to love the city. It’s not weird though. After all, cities are ultimately made of people, not just bricks and mortars or political ideologies.”
Will smiled and gave me a pat on the back. “I like you. You see right through the face-value.”
It’s the first time in my life a British man made me blush.