How East Asian Culture Saved My Life
[this is an excerpt from my unpublished book: Trying to Stay Out of Trouble: A Semi-Memoir about Education]
I still have my copy of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, first given to me in 1979. At age twenty I probably developed some measurement of myself in contrast to Suzuki, the master, and found myself woefully deficient. But Suzuki said that it is wisdom to seek wisdom, so in my own foolish way I was on the right track even then. Soon I would learn about the influence of Daoism on Zen, and how China had functioned as something of a cultural clearinghouse for millennia, disseminating all sorts of phenomena throughout East Asia. By then I had discovered that I could fulfill deep personal needs and get a college education at the same time. This was especially important during the following couple of decades.
From 1911–1926 my paternal grandparents were teachers and missionaries in Nanjing, China. My father utterly rejected his parents’ religion and was an avowed (and angry) atheist as soon as he learned the meaning of the word. He reflected upon his parents’ missionary years with a good deal of cynicism. In China they had lived like royalty in a fifteen-room, three-story house staffed by servants. They were surrounded by “rice Christians” who “converted” in order to avoid starvation. Dad figured all this out later, for he was only eighteen months old when they left China. But he grew up hearing the stories, including his mother’s frequent boasting of having been neighbors with Pearl Buck and enjoying teas and conversation with her.
Chronology and geography kept me from ever knowing my grandparents, and my father’s birth in China remained only a childhood curiosity or an exotic point to be made among any kids my siblings and I encountered during the nomadic years of our family’s early history. Actually I never gave it much thought. Once, in Durango, Colorado, we children dissected a dud firecracker and were excited to find Asian ideograms printed on the paper inside. We rushed home to get a translation from Dad, who bellowed with laughter. He did not read nor speak an iota of Chinese. His older brother David was twelve when they returned stateside, and had a fairly extensive vocabulary. Upon reaching San Francisco in the mid-1920s David was elated to learn that a large Chinatown was located there. He hurried over to use some of his Chinese only to discover mutual unintelligibility. They probably spoke guang dong hua and/or the Toisan dialect, while he spoke Mandarin, the Nanjing dialect, or possibly some of both. Uncle David’s language ability subsequently went to waste, though he was amused to relate how the American military sent him to Japanese language school when the war broke out, wrongly presuming that he could begin as an advanced student.
My own interest in East Asia arose from the context that shaped so much of my early life, that of the hippies. During my boyhood my father’s highly unconventional, iconoclastic lifestyle included frequent parties with various professors, students, and drop-outs associated with the counterculture. Where an earlier generation had admired John Wayne or Roy Rogers, my heroes were all rock’n’roll musicians. The hippies’ mostly superficial, passing interest in Zen had nevertheless produced some lasting results, one of which was the commercial success and continued publication of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. In Chinese history class, I made the connection between Lao Tzu and the Daoist influence on Buddhism in China, and then the travels and evolution of Chán (禪) Buddhism as it arrived in Korea (pronounced there as San) and Japan (as Zen). At that point I thought I might make myself into a sinologist. This ambition was inspired by my great admiration for Professor Young-tsu Wong.
Professor Wong was more than my teacher. He was my last adopted father-figure after a series of several. My own father was at turns abusive or neglectful, so naturally I looked elsewhere for guidance. As the Chinese say, a real teacher teaches through action, not words. My father set a very poor example but relished criticizing me; Professor Wong simply lived an example that inspired emulation and said very little, praise or blame.
I attended Virginia Tech, which was dominated by business and engineering schools and did not offer courses in Asian languages. After I completed the year-long survey of Chinese history, Professor Wong was apparently impressed enough with my interest and sincerity to suggest I might study Chinese with Mrs. Wong. Mrs. Wong was a very experienced language teacher whose students had included none other than Bruce Lee, whom she had taught when the Wongs were living in Seattle. Lee was studying Chinese in order to read philosophical texts pertaining to martial arts. His interests were quite profound, despite the image the popular American public developed of him as a mere punch-’em-up movie spectacle. Mrs. Wong remembered him as a serious student who was very modest and very polite.
A number of Chinese-Americans around Virginia Tech wanted their children to learn something about their heritage, and as part of this effort Mrs. Wong and other Chinese ladies taught them Mandarin. She asked if I minded beginning my own instruction with a primary school textbook. I was delighted. I’ll never forget the first lesson, which should have softened the most callous Westerner to Chinese civilization. A teacher walks into a classroom and all the children ask, lao shi hao? Teacher, how are you? The teacher responds, xiao peng yuo hao? Literally, how are you, small friends? To address children as “small friends” struck me as the most endearing form of benevolence I had ever encountered in such relations. It sure seemed appealing in light of my own upbringing, which had included numerous belt whippings and drunken adults confiding their lives’ troubles to bewildered children.
Mrs. Wong was a wonderful teacher. She was gracious and refined in manner, patient and thorough in her instruction. She tutored me as if I were her only pupil, as if time had lost its usual pressing demands. At that point the Chinese language still seemed like a miracle to me. I could scarcely believe that I was actually learning it. It was like a magic carpet that was going to deliver me from my dark world of depression. I carried scraps of paper with my latest ideograms into the steamy restaurant kitchen where I washed dishes, one of my many part-time jobs during an extended undergraduate career. I tried to remember the correct pronunciations and chanted them to myself amidst the clamor of clacking plates, waitresses calling out their orders, and nostalgic music blaring from the kitchen’s stereo speakers. I had had so many dead-end, tiresome jobs like that. But maybe I had found the way out at last.
In retrospect it is a little embarrassing to look back and see my ragamuffin self sitting in Mrs. Wong’s immaculate dining room. The Wongs’ home was immune from household dust. I emerged from my street urchin world to behold the High East transplanted in the college town West. There was the intricately carved wooden tea seats beneath their matching table, and an equally detailed wooden folding room panel. There was a sublimely simple ink and brush painting of a horse that seemed to move in still air. The entire basement constituted Dr. Wong’s personal library of literally thousands of volumes. As per traditional Chinese custom, I had to wait the appropriate number of years before being admitted to this inner chamber. In the meantime, Mrs. Wong employed that pseudo-naiveté (that allows others to save face) so common among the upper class Chinese: she assumed that I descended from cultured people simply because my father was an artist. If she knew about his boisterous unconventionality, which likely would have offended her socially conservative sensibilities, she never let on. I wonder if she ever knew how important my new journey was to me.
The period of my discovery of East Asian culture, the Chinese language, and a divorce coincided with troubling concerns about the “big” questions of human existence. Growing up with an atheist father and an agnostic mother, I had no reason to rebel against institutionalized religion. This was very fortunate, for my father and countless others have wasted a good deal of energy raging against the sort of obvious hypocrisy that Mark Twain and others had fun mocking. Still, by my mid-twenties this upbringing had left me with a void that began to bother me a great deal. I went looking for answers. I found them all in East Asian culture.
The contrast between East and West was striking to me. For example, the Zen world of the samurai involved these warriors’ utter conviction of the existence of a spiritual world and their eagerness to go there. Dying was a point of honor and was best achieved through one’s own initiative rather than through disease, accident, or old age. A cowardly death was to be avoided at all costs. This contrasted quite profoundly and favorably in my mind with Christians who constantly talked about a heaven but were afraid to die.
Zen master Suzuki had visited the United States during the 1960s and, to his surprise, ended up staying. Where many Japanese took Zen for granted, Suzuki was pleased to find among Americans the very sort of open-minded curiosity about his teaching that reflected his admonition to retain a “beginner’s mind.” Instinct drew me toward this modern teacher of ancient wisdom, and soon I began exploring the traditions from whence it sprang.
I began with the teachings of Lao Tzu and Zhuang Tzu, and Lao Tzu in particular was all I ended up needing to satisfy my personal questions. As it turned out, however, Daoism and Zen merely became doors that led to many other wondrous discoveries. For example, imagine my amazement to learn that, throughout traditional Chinese history, merchants remained practically at the bottom of Chinese society while the educated “scholar-officials” ran the country. And there I was, raised in a university environment, trying to get my own education, a misfit in the American world that championed business and commerce, conspicuous consumption, and no shortage of materialism. Another gem particularly impressive during my undergraduate education, which lacked no shortage of professors denouncing the sins of western imperialism, was the discovery of how China had periodically practiced “anti-imperialism,” or so I call here.
China, the Middle Kingdom, logically thought of itself as the center of world civilization. The Gobi desert and Himalayans lay to the west, the Pacific to the east. Forbidding grasslands flanked China’s north, and comparatively less concentrated Southeast Asian societies flanked the south. No wonder the early Chinese thought of themselves as residing at the center of the world. The emperor was the Son of Heaven and led the country with no less than a heavenly mandate. During certain wealthy, politically stable periods, Chinese would load junks with riches and visit places like Vietnam to show the glory of their empire. The bargain was, the Vietnamese leader had to visit the Chinese emperor annually to “pay tribute,” but in return would receive monetary compensation far exceeding the value of tribute. Additionally, China promised to protect Vietnam militarily if another power ever threatened them, but otherwise would leave them alone. Make no mistake, the Vietnamese disliked this arrangement from the outset, and certainly came to resent it quite deeply. In part, the more they learned of Chinese culture, the more they saw their own leader as the Son of Heaven who should kow-tow to no one. Additionally, this anti-imperialism might be interpreted as excessive Chinese pride. Unfortunately, these sorts of deeply historical points were lost upon United States foreign policy makers of the 1950s and 1960s who succumbed to the monolithic communist myth. In any case, it was the obverse aspect to western colonialism, so vociferously denounced by the Sixties generation, that struck me at the time and impressed me most favorably.
On a most personal note, I was in Professor Wong’s class one day, when we were reading the Confucius Analects, I came across the passage: “The Master said, ‘Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous.’” [ Analects, II:15] It was the second half of the phrase that struck me so profoundly. It spoke to me because I had a lot on my mind in those years (too much), and without engaging my brain in difficult, consistent, mental work . . . I was in danger of spinning out of control, sort of like an engine being revved to death without being in gear. Confucius was addressing something both deep and widespread in the human condition. Intelligence needs somewhere to go. As a humanitarian society, we hope more will go to school than to prison or the insane asylum.
Like many scholars, Professor Wong lived for research and writing and more or less tolerated teaching as a necessary duty. He was not an entertainer in the sense that American college students came to demand by the 1990s, if not earlier. And yet he was the greatest possible teacher. His breadth and depth of knowledge were absolutely stunning. I enrolled in every class he taught, which amounted to four classes pertaining to China, two on Japan, one class of American history (his MA was in U.S. history, his doctorate in Chinese history), one colloquium on the Yüan Ming Yüan (圓明園; one of the most magnificent gardens of all time), and one independent study focusing on my memorization of Daodejing passages written in the original Classical Chinese. During all those classes, never once did I see him lost for an answer. It wasn’t just his encyclopedic knowledge of the matter at hand, but also his ability to make analogies, comparisons, and contrasts among the histories and contemporary societies of Russia, the United States, and East Asia.
Even though his research and publication focused on nineteenth and twentieth century China, Professor Wong had spent an additional two years in graduate school studying the Chinese Classics. This would be somewhat like a scholar of modern American history having a strong mastery of Greek and Latin. Professor Wong was like an atavistic Confucian scholar who had stepped out of some earlier century and into the strange world of post-war America. The Chinese say that a teacher merely opens a door that the student must walk through. I became the eager, often ridiculous puppy charging through the passages.
It must have been the summer of 1986, a year before I finally graduated from college, that I began applying for the Fulbright scholarship for language study in Taiwan. How I wish I had saved those earlier drafts for the biographical sketch and proposal. I started out by apologizing for not attending a university with an East Asia studies program, but explained how poverty limited my options to my adopted hometown university, how an early departure from my disruptive family led me to drop out of high school, but how I had hitchhiked to a community college and made up the difference; how I began work in 1972 at age thirteen (minimum wage, $1.60), and other irrelevancies I have since forgotten. My coach in all this writing was one of those princely gentlemen that one rarely meets in life. Professor Arnold Schuetz was from Austria, taught International Relations, and ran the Cranwell International Center. He told me there were no social “classes” in America (an obviously European perspective), so I needn’t explain to the Fulbright committee that I had been in the “working class” (a phrase derived from my father, evidently picked up during his college Trotsky period). Professor Schuetz said that in Austria there were special incentives for attending one’s hometown university and that I need not be ashamed, and otherwise urged me to express only positive accomplishments and future ambition, and to omit all apologies. He later confessed that he knew I lacked even a remote chance of actually winning the Fulbright, but that he wanted me to get experience writing a proposal. You have to think highly of someone who would spend so much time with an obvious lost cause.
I knew full well that Professor Wong was an unusual treasure in any university. But Virginia Tech itself had zero reputation as a center for Asian Studies, of course, and this presented a permanent handicap I regularly encountered when I ventured out into the wider world. Still, it is difficult for me to regret attending this school. I was forced there by circumstances, and yet knew that higher profile schools would not have provided me an atavistic Confucian scholar, my own personal teacher to emulate. So I always counted myself as incredibly, serendipitously fortunate, even if the rest of the world did not recognize my good fortune, the merits of my study, or the diligence of my efforts.
In the autumn of 1986 I went before the campus Fulbright screening committee. I think I might have worn a necktie, which felt exceedingly unnatural, the way it might have felt to Huck Finn. The committee grilled me and I took it all very personally. I felt quite ashamed and humiliated afterwards. I did not get the Fulbright scholarship, though to my astonishment I later learned that the campus committee had given me their highest recommendation. It was the national committee that shot me down. There was no way I could compete with those Ivy League kids. But how odd it all seemed, the elite Fulbright organization rewarding the privileged higher class. It is easy to see how some vicious circles perpetuate themselves.
The bad news arrived that winter. Appropriately, there was a little snow on the ground, and in my anxiousness I ripped open the envelope and read the contents right there in my apartment’s driveway. Even as I read the rejection I felt my angry determination rise up inside me. I would go to Taiwan anyway.
That summer, after graduation, I went to work full time waiting tables at the Greek restaurant that had sustained me part-time during my senior year. I sold my motorcycle, which had been my sole mode of transportation after the divorce. By August I had managed to scrape enough money together to buy a one-way plane ticket to Taipei with $200 left over to get me started until I could find work teaching English. It was $50 more than I had taken to California eleven years earlier, hitchhiking across the USA from Virginia. I still had the inappropriate hitchhiker’s mentality as well and traveled with a single small suitcase. The lack of a proper wardrobe among the clothes-conscious Taiwan Chinese was one of several enduring embarrassments I lived with during the next ten months.
Before I left the United States my Uncle David told me to carry on our family name of Xia (夏). He reminded me that I was third generation, since the Nanjing people had bestowed this name upon my grandparents. Xia means “summer” in Mandarin and is also the name of the first dynasty in Chinese history (2205–1766 B.C.E.). Since I was born during the summer, enamored of Chinese history, and because the aesthetic qualities of this particular ideogram appealed to me greatly, I was very happy to perpetuate my family name. I went to Taiwan with little else.
I spent the first night in a Taipei hotel that cost $25, quite inexpensive for the big city, but very clean and nice. Still, two nights in advance cost me a fourth of my total cash, so on my first morning, not even eight hours in the country, I felt my survival threatened. Those who have never known poverty and desperation will not understand. I can still see myself running through the sweltering streets of Taipei that first August morning, for I had located the international student dormitory, which cost only $3 a night for a room shared with four other people. I didn’t have the language skills or knowledge of the city to take a cab or bus, so I was running as hard as I could to reach that hotel before the 11 a.m. checkout time so that I could get reimbursed for the second night’s stay and thus save $22. That is poverty, desperation, and perhaps a Depression era mentality almost always lost upon the smug bourgeoisie, not to mention the wealthy.
I attended an excellent language school, National Taiwan Normal University’s Mandarin Training Center. I acquired several part-time English teaching jobs, studied as much as possible, and enjoyed almost no recreation except for walking around the city. I did well enough in school and most of my employers seemed satisfied with my teaching, but it is difficult to say I had any fun. I could have enjoyed myself if only I had had a sense of security. This was what the Fulbright rejection denied me. The money was almost incidental; the prestige certainly would have been. Instead, I felt somewhat threatened during my entire stay, and that kind of stress makes for an untenable existence.
I thought I might stay with a Chinese family, but the school counselor — a veteran observer for twenty years — talked me out of it. “We have no sense of privacy in our culture,” he explained. “You Americans in particular have difficulty living with Chinese families. They will want to include you in everything — every weekend activity, every meal, every nightly gathering. They will want to help you with your Chinese, even though they do not speak Putonghua (the Beijing dialect) you are learning here at school. Even if you want a little time to yourself they will feel insulted. I strongly recommend you not try this. I have seen it fail many times.”
What could I say? I respected his opinion and could see the accuracy of his comments. So he talked me out of the idea. I envied the strength of the Confucian family unit, but acknowledged the impossibility of ever transcending my own American upbringing. The wisdom of Mengzi’s mother in choosing her son’s living circumstances — rejecting company among butchers and soldiers until finally finding scholars for her son to emulate — quite contrasted my own youth. Even the commonsensical wisdom of Mengzi’s mother was lost upon most Americans. At the risk of romanticizing Chinese culture, I believe Chinese in general tend to have an intuitive appreciation of almost every social circumstance; Americans, virtually none.
For example, college students behaving rudely around older people would likely draw the following responses. A Chinese would say something like, “One great advantage about growing older is the opportunity to learn good manners.” An American would say, “Stop being rude!” or worse. The former response is just as disapproving, but allows the offenders to see their mistake, save face, and learn the wisdom of improvement. The latter is blunt, crude, and invites further rudeness or even retaliation. The greatest mystery of all is how so many Americans would dismiss the former response as yet another example of the “inscrutable Chinese.”
Another example of cultural intuition involved the polite way a wholesale computer firm in Taiwan fired me as their English teacher. In reality they were not looking for an English teacher so much as an American advisor and sales representative who could help them with trade shows in the United States. I did not discover this until after they hired me to teach English. I was so disinclined to get involved with business that my venture with them was doomed from the outset. But my poverty also shocked them, even horrified them a little. I think some of them nurtured the usual illusions about wealthy Americans. Within a couple of weeks they had seen me wear every garment I had brought with me at least twice, and none of these clothes were up to Taiwan standards. They even asked me what my father did for a living, wrongly assumed his salary was a source of support for me, then politely suggested I pick a different profession myself. And then they fired me. But they did not fire me as a typically crass American would. The fired me with compassion and consideration.
I arrived for my nightly class to find the office empty. Only the vice president was there, and he quickly offered me cake and tea.
“It’s all my fault,” he explained in flawless English (another indication that they needed no teacher). “I ask my employees to come at night, after work, and finally they must use their spare time for their families,” he said, smiling broadly. In reality, of course, he had instructed them to be absent. He insisted on paying me the full week’s salary, even though we had three days to go. Naturally there was never a critical word, not even a frown; only thousands of years of civilization manifested in this businessman’s effort to help me save face. Most Americans would not understand this at all. They would shout, “Fire the dumb bastard!” and laugh raucously with no consideration for a person’s feelings and the inherent disappointment of failure that needs no additional ridicule. This is the difference between a civilization and a frontier culture.
The sad part was, even after I had hoarded enough money to cover my return air fare, I still did not buy a proper wardrobe. I was too deeply insecure and thus afraid to spend money. This reaction reminds me of Jack London’s short story, “Love of Life,” in which rescuers save a man from starvation in the northwestern wilderness. As they begin going south by sea, the rescuers notice that the man is hiding food near his bunk. They try to tell him he is safe, that they have plenty of food, and how they will soon reach safe harbor. But the man keeps stashing food, unable to alter the imprint of dire hunger. Thus it is easy to see how one insecurity feeds into another — such as financial insecurity feeding into emotional insecurity — and thereafter causes all sorts of problems. This was unfortunate, to say the least. To some degree it doomed my language study before it ever began.
I remember the day I decided to leave Taiwan. It was early evening, light gray overcast, and I went for a walk as I habitually did in those days when troubled over one thing or another. I did not even make it past the large, unoccupied expanse between the international dormitory and Taida University before I gave up the fight. I could almost feel myself physically collapsing in upon myself a little bit. Never again would I have the nerve and determination to venture out into the world like that, braving isolation and such dire penuriousness so far from home, intent on accomplishing something. My sinological possibilities also died that day, although I had difficulty recognizing this for many years. I returned to the United States and, under Professor Wong, wrote a master’s thesis heavily reliant on English translations about the Medieval Chinese poet Tao Yüanming (陶渊明). A second Fulbright rejection guaranteed no further language study. That was really the epitome of what I was up against; having gone to Taiwan and survived against such odds, without connections and with no financial backing — well, obviously that impressed the elite not a whit. So, I looked for employment and found a few antiquarian engagements that paid slightly above minimum wage. Chinese culture had saved my life personally, but I lacked the aristocratic background to make it a profession.
My Chinese friends used to tease me about how I romanticized East Asian culture. Since it had been my salvation, I suppose I was bound to come across as uncritical at times. But I contrasted the strength of Asian families with discordant American counterparts. I talked about respect for elders and the market-driven American youth-cult society. I mentioned Confucian reverence for education, in stark contrast to the deep strain of anti-intellectualism in the still-barbaric frontier that the United States has yet to supersede. In return, they kidded me for seeing it all in idealistic terms. They had a point, but so did I. I am still grateful for my education, for the pains that the Wongs took on my behalf, and the personal enrichment I carry with me to this day.
Personally, the foregoing essay seems like a time capsule. Like a great many obscure writers, I tended to accumulate massive piles of unpublished manuscripts over the years. My earliest dated versions of the above go back to 2002, and the only thing that changed over the first few following years was the ending paragraph, which oscillated between disappointment and optimism about the way things had turned out in my life. Other than that, at some point such pieces seem to become almost set in stone, and altering them substantially would then become some violation of the original spirit of their composition. Not that I ever had any inclination or motive to alter the essay. But it also seems antique. I did finally get over my infatuation with East Asian culture, though my long and deep journey was obviously the sort of thing that shapes a lifetime. Certain tenets of Buddhism and Daoism have remained my guiding principles and aspirations since the 1970s. I now see aspects of Lao Tzu as merely a school of philosophy that lead to endless questions and no final nor definitive answers (inherent in the overall endeavor of philosophy), but the mystical aspects that originally appealed to me, drew me in and somehow resonated so deeply with me, have remained unchanged in what seemed (and continues to seem) to be as their intuitive truth. If you have similar intuition, you know exactly what I am talking about.
Ironically (or not) Confucianism made a pronounced later appearance when I realized how well it fit with worldly endeavors, including nonfiction writing in general. I also came to enjoy Zhuang Tzu more than I originally did. In any case, by now it is safe to say I will go to my grave shaped by this culture, and all for the good.
In a way this was a small part of an anti-racist’s journey in life. For whatever flaws that characterized my upbringing, my parents raised me to be accepting of all people, including people of other races and sexual orientations, the latter still “scandalous” in the mid-1960s of my boyhood. They were ahead of their time in this regard.
My cultural idealization of Asia gave way to acceptance of mundane reality and the impossible aspects of bridging cultures. The culture saved me when I needed saving, then set me free whether I wanted liberation or not. It was all part of my larger destiny, I suppose. I was never meant to live in the scholarly world. My education in the Chinese language alone came in piecemeal fashion far too late in life. Privacy and solitude in an American college town was my natural place, meaning I could never live in an intensely social Asian city like Taipei.
I’ve forgotten most of the Chinese I ever knew, but for some reason I can still write the first twelve ideograms of the opening chapter of the Daodejing. I once had entire chapters of that famous work memorized. That in itself is no big deal, but it reflects an old-fashioned approach to education that is sorely lacking in current Ethnic Studies curricula. One is genuine multiculturalism; the other is superficial culture masking a political agenda. Language takes years of dedication and effort, but so does the reading of another culture’s history. It is honest, deep, scholarly work. It means years of dedication with no agenda other than expanding one’s horizons along moral cosmopolitan lines. The philosophy of moral cosmopolitanism, by the way, is one of several major antidotes to PC multiculturalism.
Poverty ended my ventures in Taiwan and my greater sinological aspirations, but it is more complicated than that. I also lost my youthful hitchhiking spirit, which carried me over 9,000 miles on various cross-country trips during the late 1970s and early 1980s (not counting local hitchhiking commuting to work, home, and school). Depending upon your point of view, hitchhiking is nothing if not courageous or foolhardy in a high crime nation like the United States. Some things we only have the nerve for when we are young, and if we have any charm protecting us, that is confined to youth as well. Barely being able to afford a one-way plane ticket to Taiwan with only $200 left to my name? Well, that is something that seems to have happened to an entirely different person. Not me. Surely I did not have the audacity to do something like that.
Copyright © 2002, 2019, 2022 Will Sarvis. All rights reserved.