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

Look Closer, Learn More, #GetAtHome In This World

Tag: at-home-making

Jiubujiang Reservoir Lake Swim

at-home-making/adventuring, In the Heart of China

“My” China is not that of so many a visitor to or expat in that country.

I have not lived there for so long, took quite a long time before I finally went and stayed, but then it was neither the Beijing or Shanghai (or other large city) of most tourists and expats where I found myself.

It was Xiangtan, Hunan, where I lived and worked for three years (with only a month’s each interruption in Beijing and Shanghai and, more recently, another 6 months in Beijing).

With the woman I got to know and love there, and everywhere, I have made it even deeper into the country, to stays with her parents in her home town of Jiubujiang.

Where that is? Here:

It’s the China of old stories in rural settings, a China where a foreigner is still a strange sight – and also the China where many migrants working in coastal factories come from (or have returned to) and where development is also starting to both take its toll and bring improvements.

Jiubujiang Construction

There used to be “only” rice fields here, now it’s meant to become a tourist village…

(If one wants to delve deeper, it is also the China where many revolutionaries and generals came from, not least Mao Zedong himself – and fittingly for my interests, many people like to blame the Hunanese penchant for the chile pepper for all that martial prowess and revolutionary / “red” zeal ;)

So, being there in China is another situation where I am “adventuring”. And making myself at home.

Admittedly, “adventuring” there is different from doing so when in Austria.

I grew up in Austria, after all.

Therefore, it takes somewhat more special things to be thrown out of a routine and into the spirit of “something else” that makes the ordinary less usual and more eye-catching.

In China, just living with the parents-in-law, going for walks, accompanying the mother-in-law on the local market, having fun going for a swim in the local reservoir-lake (which is increasingly being turned into a tourist attraction), is somewhat adventurous.

Jiubujiang Reservoir Lake Swim

Swimming in the reservoir lake of Jiubujiang… This is right below a sign saying “The lake is large, the water is deep… No swimming!” ;)

But, it is also an at-home-making, trying to get to really know the place and live there, not just be the tourist who sees nothing but the most noteworthy and most strongly promoted attractions.

This is easier to realize you need, and to do, when you go somewhere other than “home”.

In fact, I may have noticed that whole problem-we-don’t-know-we-have of our need to make ourselves at home (rather than think that “home” is something we naturally have and get to and then know everything about, merely through our familiarity with it) because I went somewhere else for long enough.

It is only too easy, though, to remain superficially “touristy” both at home and somewhere else.

If you want to become at home in this life, in the places you are, in this world, you’ll have to make yourself at home. Educate yourself, explore, experience.

It’s worth it.

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.

Ways We Are Not ‘at home’ 3: Not Being the Bodies We Are…

It is one of the great things about us that we have such a rich life of the mind.

Sure, we may be misled by it, ending up fighting over ideologies when we’d really much rather get along, falling victim to stories we tell ourselves of how life is, other people were, and we ourselves are… “You’re Not So Smart” (both book and podcast) is an excellent resource on that.

But, we can also learn. Beyond the abilities of all other animals, we can imagine, anticipate, ponder, and study things.

In thinking about ourselves and our minds, however, we keep talking of “our bodies” as something separate from the brain, and completely different from the mind.

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Ways We Are Not ‘At Home’ 2: Buying Rather than Being

Sure, there are nice things out there.
We all probably have some things we dream of having. And even if it isn’t things we are dreaming of so much as experiences, money seems equally as necessary for that, too.

Beyond the essentials, however, we don’t really need much in order to live well, and we don’t need to be able to buy in order to live better, so much as we need to be.


I have a particular problem with the notion of “not buying things but experiences” as good gear can help be a lot more active and for a lot longer than a fast-bought “adventure”. It just depends on whether you use it that way or not, so you can consider the cost-per-use.

This misunderstanding may easily be the most problematic way we are not truly at home in our lives, for it is simultaneously the easiest to break, and the hardest.

It is so very easy to break because all it takes is for us to decide we have enough, get up, and get going.

We just need to explore more, of our surroundings, of life, of the world, and we can discover more.

It works both physically, by moving and getting fitter and developing new physical skills and capabilities. And it works psychologically, by exploring new landscapes out there or of the mind, learning and studying and putting the knowledge gained to use.
Both interact with and positively contribute to each other…

But it is also the hardest to break.

All those easy things that we could do and that would make us be more and live better are just too many things to easily decide what to try and find what will really satisfy – and they all require that we ourselves take our lives and learning in our hands, even as the potential result seems unclear and may be a long time away.

The next great experience, meanwhile, seems just the swipe of a credit card away, and with guaranteed immediate results, and the next new product that promises to be so much better than the one that came before, and promises to make our life so much better, also just awaits (and gets pushed on us with a lot of promising marketing)…

It is the most noticeable – once you stop to think about it, anyways – how strongly we get immersed into the customer’s approach to life if you look at all the great and anti-materialist advice columns that tell you to “Buy Experiences, Not Things!”
True, there is a lot to be said for experiences and for putting “experientialism” over consumerism – but a consumerist anti-materialism (that may not even be against a true materialism but itself an expression only of a shopper’s attitude to a cheap life that makes life itself cheap) isn’t *it*, either.

To get around this, two approaches may be recommendable:

One, keep a diary. Write down what product has lured you, what you expect and why you want it, and if you end up getting it, also note when it frustrates you and doesn’t turn out quite that good. It may help the next time you’re tempted to change your life by shopping.

Also write down what you’ve done beyond shopping and what that has done for you. Chances are, especially with the effect of memory coming in, experiences turn out even better.

Above all, however, make a habit of active living. Preferably, not just a shopping habit but one of things you do for yourself and to make your life more interesting.

Go for walks, try out new things in the kitchen, see more, stop and smell the roses – or plant some…

Ways We’re Not ‘At Home’ 1: Seeing and Seeking Only the Outstanding

Sure, we all have places we’re familiar with, life situations we don’t think much about, circumstances in which we feel comfortable.
Even (if not especially) in such familiar circumstances, however, we often remain on the surface, skimming over things like tourists rather than delving deeply and making ourselves at home.

One way this is happening, especially now that we could learn more and go deeply, but are driven to the extreme and superficial, is by only noticing the extraordinary and seeing only the outstanding.

Case in point for the power of the non-familiar sight to excite - and remain superficial: Views from the plane, here over the United Arab Emirates

Case in point for the power of the non-familiar sight to excite – and remain superficial: Views from the plane, here over the United Arab Emirates

It is only natural that we should react to novel things more strongly than to things we are used to.

Adaptation to the familiar keeps us from expending too much energy on that which we already know; novelty-seeking makes us aware of that which has changed and could present a danger or an opportunity.

No animal needs to see every individual tree in a forest anew every day, but the one that has started fruiting or been marked by a potential mate or competitor is interesting. Likewise, we don’t have to notice every single thing around us.

Our problem, however, is that we will often notice only the novel even when it would do us good to see what we have.

We notice the new functional food making great promises but overlook the real food we have always seen but never learned to appreciate and prefer (even as there would still be a hundred new ways we could prepare it).
We notice the new gadget we hadn’t seen before (and don’t have), but overlook the gadgets we have, feel familiar with, but don’t much play around with anymore just because they feel old (even as they would still offer many more functions we never learned to use to their full potential).

Even, and perhaps most obviously, in places we have grown up and lived all our lives, we often notice only those things that obviously change, but never deviate from our habitual routes, never stop to look anew and learn more about these places, and never notice how much we actually don’t know about them.

Ask yourself this:

Do you know all the fruits and vegetables in the market you usually go to? Do you know how to prepare them well?
Where you often go, have you ever taken *this* road rather than that road you usually take?
When was the last time you picked up a book to learn more about the world that surrounds you, or picked up a tool/toy you own and looked at more of its functions or possible uses?

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