The Brood: A serendipitous connection with a stranger made me think of why it is we’re all grasping for something to belong to.
Susan, we’ll call her, is a professor of design splitting her time between Shanghai and Wuhan. As we spoke it became clear that her accent fluctuated wildly between Australian, English and something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. “I’m a dual citizen”, she explained. “Australian and Finnish.” Her parents had come to Australia from Finland. She was the first of their Australian children.
We had a good six-hour conversation where, more or less, she divulged a good chunk of her life story. Her parents had gone through the Winter War, and came out the other side “not really prepared to have children”. Her experience in Australia was disorienting. As the children of immigrants, she felt otherized by her countrymen and sympathized with her Aboriginal peers.
She went to England for boarding school. Found herself married then divorced with an Englishman. A second husband disappeared into a slow terminal illness. A supportive but unconsummated lover passed away to cancer that he kept hidden. She followed his family to Mexico, and then followed opportunity to China.
There was a theme that developed over the course of the conversation: belonging. In Australia, she was Finnish. In Finland, she was Australian. In America, she sounded like an English school teacher. In the workplace, she was a woman who had to work several times harder than her male counterparts. Her family being what it was, she didn’t have a lot to root her down.
In fact, her lack of rootedness became her identity. People like her are often called “Third Culture Kids” but Susan took to calling them functionally “Stateless”. Instead, she was planning to set up a “colony of the stateless” in Barcelona, where, for example, she would develop shipping-container pod homes which would allow people to live globally without having to heavily invest in more permanent residences.
But in China where, as I’ve noted recently, national identity is so fundamental, I can see the value of permanent residence and related social bonds at work. The very idea of Chinese-ness is the idea of being rooted. It’s the idea of collective obligation, fealty to the family, remembering the traditions that made you who you are that came from a certain place. Today there’s even a revival in traditional Han clothing.
The reaction to Xi Jinping’s abolition of term limits notwithstanding, it seems like trust in society and one another in China is pretty high. Physical affection may be more taboo here, but I’ve never seen people more invested and unashamed of friendship than the people I see here, as this article sums up fantastically:
[In America] friends split the bill, manage their time carefully, and shy from revealing their strongest emotions except in a real crisis. Unspoken codes govern what we can comfortably share with each other; small talk, irony, and phrases like “so good to see you!” allow us to socialize without getting too close. People can be amazingly generous, but you usually have to ask for it first.
[…] too much individualism can be lonely. At its best, Chinese culture facilitates intimacy — people act generous as a reflex, show their care through actions instead of words, choose sincerity over small talk, and give their total attention to the people privileged enough to call them friends. People have each other’s backs here. And the best part is, they do it without making a big deal out of it.
It’s in that observation that I start to understand some of where Americans have been going wrong. In our quest to be able to freely be ourselves, we’ve also isolated ourselves. By prioritizing our careers over relationships, we find ourselves stretched thin over cities and continents without many truly deep friendships. By making marriage a capstone accomplishment of a life well-lived rather than as a foundational part of a healthy life, have we commodified one another? By making the world more global, have we begun to make fuzzy some of people’s most fundamental identities?
Viewed in this light, I can see how, for some people, Susan’s multicultural identity-fluid existence can be threatening. After all, if your identity is based on place and cultural habits, then it can take decades to overcome the culture shock of mass migration. If your Chinese identity is partially based on skin color and cultural hegemony, then you may not be pleased that a “Chocolate City” has sprung up in Guangzhou, one of China’s most important cities. To these people, “cross-cultural” can sound like “erasure”.
Obviously, that kind of xenophobia is detestable. But juxtaposing America and China I can start to see what they have to offer one another. We may be going through social strife that, even from abroad, looks and feels like Childish Gambino’s “This is America“, but I still believe that America on balance is actually pretty good at slowly but surely improving society by negotiating across difference. If we can come out the other side, then we can be a model for other countries experiencing increasing levels of diversity.
China may have aspects we don’t want to emulate, like its Social Credit Score, but on a person-to-person level, I think Americans could learn a great deal about what it really means to invest in one another. Not only building government programs that support people, but doing the actual day-to-day personal work of care and affection. How do we synthesize those two things? How do we build a world in which we are free to have our own identities without retreating into lizard-brain competing tribes? When the goal is to value difference, what binds us together?