Thor's China Diary

The Outside Track on Happiness

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Fountain of Youth / Letter to an Imaginary Lady .. ]

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Once, not so long ago and not so far away, there was a Chinese girl who wanted an answer to the great questions of life. Most of all, she wanted to know why she wasn't happy. Let's call her Song Li. She had been a happy and vivacious teenager, and swept into the independence of waged work with a gush of optimism. Now, a year down the track, Song Li was a stylish young woman in a big Chinese city. But the promises, the dreams of a perfect life were suddenly looking tatty around the edges. Why?

What she needed, she decided, was an oracle. Song Li tried talking to her friends, but they were actors in the same movie. What she really needed, they said, was a sexy boyfriend with a motor scooter and a big smile. Mm, maybe. Was there anyone around who had a different angle on this happiness stuff? Now although Wuhan in central China was a city of over four million, there were only a few foreigners in the place. Mostly they were bewildered souls, missionaries in disguise, an exiled businessman or two, some young Americans pretending to be teachers, the odd madman. They were often objects of elaborate public courtesy and private derision, but there was that magical, unpredictable element about all of them: they came from another, fabled world. Song Li remembered that a year ago, in her last year at school, her teacher had asked her to play tourist guide to an old hack teacher, an Australian, in one of the local universities. He had seemed kindly enough, and fairly harmless, so she took a gamble and sent him a couple of e-mails. She used an English name someone had given her at school, Virginia.

In shaky English it was damned hard to say what you really felt, but she hoped he'd get the drift. The Australian scratched his head. He remembered Song Li with some fondness. She was pretty, and as bright as a button. But he was, well, a bit perplexed to be cast as oracle. He'd spent fifty-four years dodging brickbats, and Wuhan seemed suspiciously like a last hiding place. Well, never a prophet in his own land, why not give it a try ...

So here is the story of what Virginia wrote, and what an old man tried to say.

Hello Thor,

How are you these days? My boss came to Wuhan this week, and upgraded systems in my computer. There were so many mistakes I always made. My office will move to Zhongnan Plaza at the beginning of next year which is near to your school. I have worked for nearly one year. Take a look at the past one year, I always found there was so many discrepancy in my real working life between my dreamed. How could that be? I go to work at eight o'clock every morning, and go back home at half past six, I do everything regularly. It seems that there is nothing happen to me. What is my dremed-life? Oh, it sounds impossible! Are you happy? If so, what makes you so happy?
yours, Virginia

Hello Virginia,

I'm glad to hear that you will be moving to Zhongnan Commercial Centre. Maybe I will see you sometimes then.

You often ask "are you happy?", so I get the feeling that you are not quite content yourself ! Chasing happiness is like trying to catch leaves falling from a tree on a windy day. Sometimes they touch your face in passing, but it is almost impossible to catch them if you try.

Here are a few ideas about happiness. I hope your English is good enough to understand my writing! Some of the ideas will seem very strange to you, so just believe what sounds true to you and forget the rest. Some of the writing below is very direct, and may not be what you would expect a Chinese person to say. We are at different places on the wheel of life, so we are sure to see things differently.

1. Happiness is partly a matter of the chemistry in your body. Even some foods can make you feel more happy or less happy! Some people's bodies make chemicals that make them feel very happy at one moment, then very sad the next moment. Some other people are never very happy or very sad. When I was younger my moods used to swing from very happy to very sad. Now I run about ten kilometers every day at 6am in the morning (sounds crazy, doesn't it..), and I no longer have those big mood swings. When you run long distances like me, a human body makes small amounts of chemicals called opiates to reduce muscle pain, but the opiates also have the effect of making me feel happier all day.

2. If you want or expect something very much, then can't get it, then of course you will be unhappy. I have noticed that most Chinese students have a picture of the world in their heads which is very unreal. Maybe they are never told all the truth. Anyway, while they are at school or university, they think the world is like a fairy story and have beautiful dreams. Then when they start work they become very disappointed, unhappy, cynical or even bitter. This is a great pity and can spoil their lives.

3. I read somewhere that people in Holland are the happiest people in the world. Maybe they have a clearer idea of what to expect in life. After visiting more than 20 countries, and working in about 7 countries, I can say that the people living in rich countries are mostly not much happier, nor less happy, than the people living in poor countries.

4. Happiness is often confused with power. That is, people think they will be happy if they have power over others. However, it is very clear that people who do have a lot of power are often very unhappy. I think that power is like a drug such as heroin. Once a person has a little power, they want more and more. They will tell any lie, commit any crime, to get more power. Most war, crime, and cruelty is caused by this lust for power. Family life can be very terrible if one person in the family wants power.

5. Marriages are still arranged by parents in some places (e.g. parts of India), but in other places people marry for love. It seems that people in arranged marriages are mostly just as happy as people in "love" marriages. In Australia, about 50% of marriages fail. When Chinese people come to live in Australia, about 60% of their marriages fail !! Maybe you can tell me why.

6. Sex has a big influence on the daily happiness of a lot of people. This is mostly because sex in every culture is tied up with all sorts of beliefs and rules, written and unwritten. The beliefs and rules can make life miserable if things go wrong. When you take away all the cultural stuff and get down to biology, sex for people is not much different to sex for cats, birds and snakes. A certain amount of sexual excitement is something that your body needs often, like food, but not TOO much (again, like eating too much food). Sex is best with a good partner, but that is not possible for millions of people, and they often discover that they can close their eyes for a few minutes every day, tickle their body, use their imagination (dreams are free) and get enough sexual satisfaction to keep their stupid body happy for another 24 hours.

7. We are all told that we should have ambitions. Men are expected to get a good job and work for promotion. Many young women want this too now. Traditionally the ambition of women was to have children and raise them. In truth, the greatest satisfaction that most people can have is in raising a family well. In this they are exactly the same as the cats and birds and snakes. Nature has arranged it that way. What you call "falling in love" is part of this. Nature has arranged for men and women to be strongly attracted to each other just long enough for a child to walk and talk. I think the technical name for this love is "limerance". After about three years limerance (love) usually dies, and couples stay together because they are friends, or out of habit, or because everyone expects them to stay together. If raising a family is your ambition, you can probably succeed, and probably find quite a lot of happiness in doing it if your husband is reasonable.

Job ambitions are much harder to satisfy, and the truth is that most people become quite disappointed with their own careers. After all, not everyone can become the manager of a company, and a country only needs one president. That means there will always be a lot of losers in the job career business.

8. If you are an average person -- not too clever or not too stupid, not too unusual -- then it will probably be not too hard to find an average amount of happiness, unless you are unlucky. The human world is made for average people, because most people are average. For example, an average person has many more marriage partners to choose from than a very unusual person. If their musical taste is average, there will be lots of music that they like .... and so on.

9. A little bit about me. I am a VERY unusual person. As a child I lived an unusual life (my family never had friends or visitors, I was very shy, and so even now my social skills are terrible); I was always near the top of my class at school; I have had more than 50 different addresses and more than 40 different jobs. Although I like children (and they like me), I have never felt any special wish to have my own children; although I would be happy to share life with the right woman (she would be very unusual too), I have never felt it important to marry just because most people marry. Above all, I have never been interested in an average career with promotions.

Rather, I see my life like a story-book. Every place I live, every job, is another page in the story-book. On each page, some things are sad and some things are happy, some things are interesting and some boring. If, at the end of my life I can look back and say, "well, 10% was boring, and 90% was interesting", then that will seem like a successful life to me. The other thing I like to do is to test my own limits. I try to run faster than my body can at the moment. I try to do things that maybe I'm not clever enough to do. This means that I often fail, but every failure makes me stronger. My life seems OK to me, but it would not be good for an average person!

10. Finally, here are two questions.

a) What is the most interesting question in your life?

b) When do you expect to get an answer to your interesting question?

I have asked all sorts of people these questions, and received all sorts of answers. Some want to know where dinner will come from tomorrow. Some want to know how to make a boy or a girl love them. Many ask questions like "why was I born?" and feel quite unhappy until someone gives them an answer, any answer. Religions and political parties stay in business by pretending to give an answer to that question. When people believe in these religions or political ideas, then they say they are quite happy.

Personally, I don't know "why" I was born, and I don't believe anyone else knows either. I don't even think there IS an answer, so it is a waste of time asking. The most interesting question in my life is "How does it work?" I get a lot of pleasure from finding out how engines work, and watches, and computers, and people (that is, the human brain). I came to China to find out how China works. Finding answers to this question, "How does it work?", gives my life a lot of meaning.

Well, this has been a very unusual e-mail, hasn't it. I hope that you can find a couple of useful ideas in it.
Best wishes, Thor

Hello, Thor,

I am so glad to hear from you. That is real a special mail I have ever read. It seems that there is not much difficulties for me to read it. I'm so lucky to make friend with you. You are so special to me!

I often asked myself "what's the meaning of happiness?" But the answer is often changed.

When I was very young, I wanted to be the top student in the class. Teachers praised me was the happinest thing to me at that time. SO I studied hard to get that kind of happiness.

When I was going to graduate, I was so eager to find a job which can make me independent. I was so exciting when I got the first job in a shipping company, I could make money by myself, I thought I was free at that time, I could do anything what I want. That kind of happiness I found was the very happiness I looked for. Afer a few months, there is something changes in my mind. I don't think I'm happy like before any more. It seems that I haven't found happiness at all.

Looking back at the changes of the happiness, it's so easy to find out that I am so greedy. But to some degree, greed is one of the temperaments the human beings have by nature. I come to realize that the one who can be satisfied easierly is much happier than others who always be cynicism.

There are lots of differences between China and other countries. Firstly, China is a traditional and old country as you know. Even though I am 20 years old, I can't do the things I like. I have to get the permission from my parents before I make decisions. I know they love me, they're responsible for me, they are afraid that someone or something will cheat me. But I'm old enough to get the ability of distinguishing truth from falsehood and good from evil. I wonder if I'll grow up under such kind of protection all my life!

Let's talk about my job. I want to be a businesswoman in the future, so I chose the business English department. I studied hard so as to find a good job as I expected. But now I'm working in a computer company with the help of my aunt. Oh, my god! Computer is one of my worst courses when I was at school. I could only type or do some simply operates in excel or word before I entered the company. But from now on, I have to study computer from the very beginning. Even though I made some progress on it, I still feel puzzled how the systems works. Maybe to the most people, to study computer is a wonderful thing just like my interests in language learning. But it seems computers can't attact me. Frankly speaking, I do the job for the salary.

The second different is that you can choose jobs as you like. If you don't like it, then you quit it. I also know unemploy is a universal phenomenon both in China and even in some developed countries. But it seemed now in China is much more serious. To the Chinese traditional concept, to get a fixed job is what they expected whatever you like or not. It sounds impossible for one could have more than 40 different jobs in China.

Thirdly, China is still a developing country. Not all the people can go out of China all their lives to visit other countries. That will cost a lot. Not all of us can afford it, like me. But I will NEVER give up the learning of language. I believe it is useful in the future.

The last maybe is the biggest difference is that how we treat marriages. I'm an average girl perhaps can represent most Chinese girls. I want to find a man who is not too rich or powerful but he must loves me. And then I get married, spend my whole life with him. At the same time, I'll go on my working. We go out travelling on hollidays, we share the housework.

That is my dreamed life. But there is always a long distance between reality and dreams. Most parents become the hindrance of young people. They will choose their son-in-laws or daughter-in-laws at their standard. They ofter say this is their suggestions. But in reality this isn't at all. People in big cities is better than the people in countryside. I hope it will never happen to me.

Maybe the above is only my own ideas which can not represent all the Chinese. But to an average Chinese girl's eyes, things are not all optimistic. How can I do? Right, to learn how to satisfy myself and never dream too much, because if I expect something very much, then can't get it, I'll be always unhappy. That's true I understand. I'm trying to express me clearly, I hope you can catch it. It's very kind of you to help me a lot. Thank you very much!

yours, Virginia

"The Outside Track on Happiness" copyrighted to Thor May 1999; all rights reserved

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