at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Look Closer, Learn More, #GetAtHome In This World

Category: Life Learning Page 3 of 13

Footsteps in the Sand

The Really Hard Thing To Do

Know this feeling?

You are in a routine. A rut. You do what you have come to usually do, what became normal and necessary – and you are bored out of your mind. Life is so dull; it’s always the same…

Modern times and media seem to have made that ordinary situation all the worse.

While you live a boring life, the people you see on Instagram or Youtube – not to forget TV – seem to have such interesting and exciting lives.

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Living the Forever that Could End Any Moment

How do you make yourself at home in a world that seems, if only you watch the news, bent on your destruction?

Start to think about life and death, and – even in a year that was, statistically, the best for the greatest number of people – it is death that has the upper hand. It is death that is normal and everywhere, caring little what we do.

Life is a fickle thing.

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Food for Learning

Civilizing China

We are all being told how we are supposed to behave.

First our parents (and teachers and peers) tell and show us what sort of behavior is normal and acceptable; later, advertising and various public and educational campaigns try to push us towards their preferred ways of acting.

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The Pleasure of No Choice

Happiness is having choices, right?


Among the many ways we can go wrong with something that feels like truth, there is our popular thought that choice equals freedom, and choice (therefore?) means happiness.

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Bad Experiences Not to be Missed

Half a year in a pretty different country (again), in the diverse capital of one of the oldest civilizations on Earth, in terrible air quality, with dubious food, and without my wife.
Beijing, China, as “international migrant worker.”

That was my second half of 2014.

It’s a great example of the way such things go.

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Cross-Reading: China Rich Girlfriend and Primates of Park Avenue

A novel on the upper-crust and more-than-Crazy-Rich Asians and an “ethnography” of the high-net-worth women of New York’s Upper East Side…?

I had already drawn lessons from the former, and the two books are almost too similar to qualify as cross-reading. In fact, Amazon shows those books as “frequently bought together”…

Cross-Reading 3: Kwan and Martin

The parallels, however, are too great to resist them (much as cross-reading is all the more interesting when the lessons are more hidden).

China Rich Girlfriend

On the one hand, there is the story that does not purport to be anything more than a novel, if one that is inspired by real shenanigans of a certain social class.

China Rich Girlfriend follows up on Crazy Rich Asians and presents something of an insight into the lives of a social upper crust that has come under an extremely odd kind of pressure:

They used to be the new nobility, people who had a high social standing thanks to their family history as well as due to riches inherited and expanded. Thus, certain behaviors were passed on from generation to generation – and outsiders, especially from a different ethnic, cultural, and social background, not from a similarly “good” family, would be seen askance.

That was the main driver of Crazy Rich Asians.

Now, however, as one started to see there, but becomes something of a focus in China Rich Girlfriend, not only have more liberal lifestyles hit their traditions, but also is there yet another group of rich: “China Rich” who have made it big in (mainland) China’s turn towards capitalism and whose fortunes surpass those of many a traditionally ‘top’ family – but whose social background is far, if not as far as possible, as one could be from the top social strata (at least, as traditions of overseas Chinese rich would define them).

Primates of Park Avenue

On the other hand, there is the work that plays at being life writing in the spirit of the “literary turn” in cultural anthropology.

That is, what is ostensibly an ethnography became less about the “objects” of the ethnographer’s study than about the ethnographer and his or her life.

And so, Wednesday Martin is in a similar position, socially, to the new China Rich. Not that she were super-rich, as she is keen to remind the reader (she only has a closet for her handbags, not a dedicated room…), but she and especially her husband aren’t doing badly, either.

In fact, they were doing well enough to have moved into the Upper East Side of New York – and like the China Rich who suddenly enter the stage of the world, and especially the Asian, rich and upper-crust, so she enters the difficult circumstances of a new troop (troupe, one may think) of primates.

For the new, and especially female, wannabe of such a grouping, things are difficult.

Social ostracism of the established females is likely; different rules apply but have to be discovered before one can ever fit in – and does one even, really, want to fit in?

Martin gleefully and thoughtfully, if with a dose of a sometimes aggravating ‘aware ignorance’ about her standing and privilege, aims to dissect these social patterns.

There is something to her writing where the comparisons with ethnographic and anthropological research she draws feel as much justified in their parallels between hunter-gatherer tribes, non-human primate troops, and the women she came to be with, as it feels like posturing by which she tries to show off her high education.

Her observations in the whole book work considerably better, and the whole tenor of the book seems more thoughtful, than the article for the New York Times that was published about it had made it seem.

Human, After All

This works all the better as the book has an arc, not just towards the adaptation to and acceptance of the new social group, but also to a climax in her life history and the insight into social life gained from the, well, normal tragedy, that makes it ultimately easier to connect with her.

Still, whether one learns from or just gets annoyed by themes like the chapter-long discussion of the symbolic (and thereby, quite practical) value of a Birkin bag will very much depend on the reader* – but then, that is just another parallel between the novel China Rich Girlfriend with its high-net-worth but not always highly functional people, who can similarly amuse or aggravate, as you read them.

(*Having been writing about the “enclothed life,” i.e. what clothing means, between the social statement of fashion and the performance value that – also – makes something good gear for a man, I found it fascinating to learn more about the social and marketing mechanisms surrounding the Birkin bags. Having someone “need” such a bag while struggling just to make ends meet oneself is still aggravating…)

Amuse Bouche, uh, Brain

I highly recommend reading both books (and starting with Crazy Rich Asians, if you haven’t done that already, before getting to China Rich Girlfriend and Primates of Park Avenue).

They are amusing, and where Kevin Kwan’s novels may make you wonder if the old or new rich could really possibly be like that, Martin’s “ethnography” lets you see, and understand, quite a bit more of where such behaviors come from, be that among Asian rich or those of Park Avenue.

By the time you get to the shunning of the newly rich woman in Manhattan who had the gall to interrupt the award ceremony for a noted philanthropist with her own, higher, donation, you will know exactly why the two (or three) books make for such an interesting read-along: The same scene happens in China Rich Girlfriend.

There, it’s something for the laugh about the craziness of it all; in Park Avenue, strange as the combination of observation and anthropological-study background can read (though it should fit), the reader not only enjoys the craziness but also learns a bit more of the social/psychological background at work.

Un-modern as armchair anthropology has become, you probably won’t get a more entertaining chance for people-watching among the rich… and in the end, if you look at these works closely enough, you may be shocked to find that Kevin Kwan’s works, obviously novels though they may be, actually say rather more about the newest of new rich. And old rich, as well.

Ways We Are Not ‘at home’ 5: Misunderstanding Life’s Connections

Like the proverbial fish that can’t realize it is swimming in water, we tend to overlook the matrix of life we are in.
At best, the same way we often think of ourselves as minds separate from (but within) bodies, we also think of ourselves as selves separate from (and only just within) surroundings.

For one, this surfaces in “environmental” issues.

The “I” in “The Environment”

“The environment” is often talked about as if it were an issue for some “green” freaks only.

In fact, what we are talking of is not even, truly, an environment in the sense of something that surrounds an individual, however.
Rather, it runs right through us and, to considerable extent, it is us.

Really, where would you want to draw the lines?

Really, where would you want to draw the lines?

With every breath we take, every drop we drink, and every morsel we eat, we take in a part of our environment.

Whether we freeze, are hot, or feel comfortable, whether that is because of the weather or because of air conditioning or clothing, it is part and parcel of our relation with our environment.

Even “our” bodies are oftentimes really “environment”, given the extent to which we are not just ourselves but bacteria and other critters on the skin, the microbiota of the gut, and so much more.

Our thinking, too, is very much shaped by our(selves with our) environment.

Elements of danger or disorganization easily make us edgy, whereas green views (even when they are just posters on the wall, better still when we walk through them) calm us and make us more creative and relaxed, and even get us to heal faster.

Physically as well as psychologically, there are intimate connections.

The “I” in the We

There is yet another “environment” we tend to overlook (and see as separate from the natural-biological): society and culture (which include politics, economics, and technology).

Who we are, what we take to be normal, how a life should unfold according to our assumptions, is largely not something we have actually thought about and decided for ourselves.
It is what we have, explicitly but more often implicitly, soaked up as individuals who have grown up in and with our families and peers and general social context.

Running among the Ramps

Running among the Ramps, for the synergies between sports and foraging and food…

Here, we have come to speak a lot about “connections” when it comes to connected technology and social networks.

As much as diets and fitness and environmental issues may be discussed on those social networks, alongside LOLcatz and gossip and general self-presentation, these are but additional examples of the gap we build up (and get built) between ourselves and the environments we are (also) parts of.

Fitness training just serves for weight control when it should really be about our functioning and usefulness in the world.

Diets take the luxury of being in a position where we can decide what we want to eat (rather than having to be happy we have anything to eat) and push it to the extreme rather than serve as joyful, flavorful and healthful celebrations of life.

Environmental issues get discussed as issues of an “other” outside of us, in our control in a way they aren’t, supposedly not influencing our lives the way they truly are.

Doing, and Doing Better – The Ultimate Gap?

The biggest gap that separates us from truly being at home in this world lies, perhaps, in the missing realization of the way(s) we can and must be changing things in order to live better.

Again, a lot of talk about it can be found; lots of advice are being given and purport to be about just that.

Life hacking, self-development, personal growth. There is a plethora of talk – but too much of it is not quite real, and even more misses that we are not talking about something that is just in talk and attitude and world view.

The secret to a better life is not The Secret…

The realization of our connections, and their shaping for better lives, has to be in the reality of how we live, the nitty-gritty daily routines and habits and ways of living.

What you eat, how you learn and grow bodily-mentally, and how you can keep yourself from getting misled into more mindfucks that just want to sell you on certain products and ideologies, that’s where we need to change things for better.

As connected beings, we need to do so in ways that fit in with what makes for a good life, as a part of life in this world – and not just imagining that all the connections that mattered were those provided by the internet…

iPad Photography vs Painting in Venice

Dabble 100%

The worst kind of advice you can get when you feel an interest in something: You can never be the best at it, never make a living from it, so just forget about it.

Chances are, if you really are interested, you will still not let it go completely. You will try it, but not gain much from it, always thinking that the warning voices were probably right and you are wasting your time.

But if you completely let it be, you will most certainly regret it. We typically regret the things we wanted to do, but then didn’t do, not the ones that turned out less well than we thought, but at least gave a shot.

The deepest problem, however, is not even that.

It is not trying and failing, nor not trying and regretting.

It is that nothing much will come out of a half-assed attempt at maybe doing something – and that has become a very common approach to things.

In school already, many students try getting parents or teachers to do the work for them, claiming they don’t understand before ever really having tried.
Men, it often seems, love to use the same approach with their girlfriend or wife, acting so bad at cooking or cleaning that the women will rather do it themselves… and women may limit themselves in pretty much the same way if they act as if it were utterly impossible for them to learn to fix an appliance or a car.

Sure, if you just want to do something so you can check it off your “been there, done that” bucket list, then fine. Do that. Try it, do it, just so you can say you tried and it didn’t work, or you did it and it wasn’t so great and now that’s that.

But if you really want to have the life-changing experience, the knowledge that turns from a few factoids and the sense of knowing into true expertise, the chance at developing a skill that is new to you and an interesting contribution for your life, then you need to try things out, to dabble – but with a 100% commitment.

iPad Photography vs Painting in Venice

Who do you think will have the deeper memory, the iPad snapshot-taker or the painter…? – Question from an earlier post already…

With fun and commitment, and with focus and attention, the – sorry, but I liked the movie in spite of serious defectsNZT of real life.

If you don’t dabble, you will never learn anything new.
Nobody can start at anything with perfection, after all; and you can’t know what (or if anything) will come of something new before you have gone far with it.
So you must do, and try.

If all you do is dabble, here and there and everywhere, without commitment, however, you won’t be going far with it.
You will need to give what you are doing, when you are doing it, your full attention.
No half-assery.

If you can only invest an hour a week, then at least focus on the skill you are working on during that hour.

More likely than not, though, even if you want and need to balance the demands of work and personal life as well, there is time spent “relaxing” with social media or TV or both that you could, if only you got serious about the thing(s) you wanted to learn and approached the dabbling with focus and commitment, invest in that learning and practice instead.

Beijing's China National Library

Ways We Are Not ‘at home’ 4: Be(com)ing More than a Body

All too often, we misunderstand and fail to accept that we are bodies-with-minds, not (at least, for all that we can know scientifically) souls temporarily inhabiting bodily vehicles.

On the Hong Kong Trail (Dragon's Back)

On the Hong Kong Trail (Dragon’s Back): Notice how even our physical practices often are, or become, about things other than the body. Good looks (according to social conventions), physical self-mastery, exploration and adventure,…

It isn’t only a way we are not ‘at home’ that we misunderstand our bodily being/being bodies, however.

Strangely, at the same time at which we seem to overemphasize the mind, we also tend not to be quite ‘at home’ with our peculiar, human, mental faculties and consciousness.

We often give in to urges and comfort and assume that we are – and can only be – as we have come to be. Nothing to do about it.

In fact, it is often presented as a good thing, not least after only too many ideologies wanted to create (what they considered) the perfect human being (and subject to the ideology); it had come to be the pinnacle suggested by self-realization: “Just be yourself!”

As human beings, however, we can be more, do good, and become better – or at the very least, we are free to try for better.

In a world that mainly runs on instinct and urges, we alone are conscious to such an extent that we can aim higher.

Of course, we usually misunderstand and even refuse to learn about the ways our conscious minds are wont to be tricked and trick themselves in a myriad ways, just because that rejection of the truth feels better.

We are likely to believe that we have understood and approached perfection, or at least become sufficiently good and also fixed in our psychology, so that there isn’t much to be done – or indeed, that needs doing – anymore.

Language learning materialsOr we believe that we weren’t all that good at the learning we had to do at school, and promptly think that we don’t have anything more that we could and would want to learn.

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” even codifies the idea into some kind of folk wisdom. It is not great wisdom, however, so much as it is a cop-out.

It is all the more lame an excuse if you look at neurobiological research, which is making it pretty clear that we are constantly learning; our brains are changing with every experience we have, making new memories, strengthening old – or new – habits, increasing the store of knowledge we have.

So, we can still learn more – including about the ways we often get tricked and trick ourselves, the ways we feel good about learning but don’t learn quite as effectively as we could, and so much more.
And, staying mentally active like that has even been shown to keep some of the deterioration that may come with age at bay, at least somewhat. (And being physically active also helps.)

We can learn to know more and be better human beings – and we do not even need to go for the world-changing success that finds so much popularity nowadays (in yet another instance of the #1 way we’re not “at home,” Seeing and Seeking Only the Outstanding), but we can do quite enough just aiming to become better at being human:

Get yourself into new situations, and if you are not totally closed off to new experiences and ways of seeing things, you will learn something new.

Even just (just?!) reading a novel can expand your sense of self – let you “Becom[e] a Vampire Without Being Bitten” – and get you to consider new perspectives; in books and with blogs and videos, there would be a lot to learn – first of all, perhaps, to deal with all the distractions that prey on our monkey minds for their own purposes and to use the ‘social media life’ for our growth instead.

Beijing's China National Library

There are lots of other possibilities for learning and growing, too.

As with all adventure, what it takes mainly is the attitude to go and do… and if it’s not learning you want to do, do something for others, and you can also learn and be more than just the bodily self and its urges.

Approach life with a humanist attitude, thinking that you can learn more and become a better person, and you probably can.

You are more than you are, anyways, in all the different roles you play ecologically and socially, but don’t just stay there, passively…

You are a human being. Live like it.

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