I am writing this piece on the airplane, on my way home from two weeks in China, where I’ve wanted to go for at least 25 years. I wanted to see, with my own clearly biased eyes, what life is like there. In part, to have some pre-rudimentary understanding of another culture that’s had such a long tradition and which has given so much to the world. In part, to understand how a country with SO many people can function. Originally, I also wanted to have some grasp on what real life communism means. Although I guess I missed that boat, I still felt a deep pull to be there.
Then the opportunity came when I met Yin Hua and Liu Yi a year ago, while passing through China (see In Defense of Complexity).
My passion for supporting fledgling Nonviolent Communication (NVC) communities in the world, along with my deep desire to offer the tools of collaboration to people working in NGOs, served as the impetus for arranging this trip.
With the warmth and depth of connection I felt with Liu Yi, with her extensive knowledge of and connections within the NGO world, with her willingness to embark on the unbelievable amount of work that it takes to organize a visit of a foreign trainer, and with Yin Hua’s support of the project, the road was clear for the trip that just ended.
There is, of course, no way I can capture and share the layered texture of two weeks in China, including four training events, two cities and one village, two families I stayed with, and two women, Ya-Ping from the US and Kanya from Thailand, who came to accompany me, learn from and with me, and support me along the way. By necessity, the snippets below provide only a fraction of what I experienced. You can find some of the more specific bits about NVC and about my personal adventures here.
A Chinese Businessman
The last day of my trip began with a breakfast at the house of the family that hosted Kanya, Ya-Ping, and me in Beijing. Although only one among many conversations I had, this one was extraordinary in its compact and rich meaning. I will call the man John, not his real name, because he introduced himself, and so did his entire family, by their Western names. His wife and teenage daughter remained, for the most part, silent, except during a segment when John was speaking in Chinese with Ya-Ping, and Kanya and I initiated a separate conversation with the women.
John is a small business owner who is clearly doing well, a deeply committed Buddhist who chants every morning as part of an eight year training course. He lives with his family in a gated community, what I imagine is a relatively new phenomenon in China. His life, on the material plane, is comfortable. While we didn’t speak directly about that, he spoke a lot about the complexity of the challenges that China is facing.
I still am unable to imagine one country with over a billion people. How can they all be fed? How can all their water be supplied, and their waste be processed? John explained to us that China has attempted to go the American way, as he referred to it, and that it soon became clear that if every family has a car, it will block transportation altogether.
What is the next step? He didn’t know, because, as he said: “Everyone wants to be rich.”
I’ve been aiming to speak about this difficulty for so long yet never found such a succinct description of it. So many people malign the rich, always have, yet, when given the opportunity, almost everyone would want more access to material resources than they have already. What I loved about this so much is the recognition that the desire to be rich is independent of where one is in terms of economic resources. Since not everyone can be rich on a finite planet where most resources are controlled by a small percentage of the existing population, what is the alternative for a country as big as China? What is a way to address this challenge?
When I asked John what he would say if someone came to him for the solution, he smiled broadly and said: “I don’t think about that very much.” Then he shifted the focus to what he most wanted to share with us: the insights and wisdom he is gaining from his study of Buddhism. His conclusion about life is to focus on his own development, his own capacity to find peace and calm in the midst of whatever life creates.
He never quite specified in any way what the path would be – for China or for any other place on the planet – to move to. I recognize how immense the problem is, and his explanation of what he is learning from his Buddhist master added rich texture to the dilemma. He used computers as an example. When we get a computer, it adds to our lives, and then, soon enough, we become dependent on it, and then something else comes along, and we become dependent on it, too. When you multiply this challenge to the scale of China, and, by extension the entire world, he was clear that we are marching, quite fast, towards ruin.
He is slowing down, by choice, as much as he can, to allow himself to be more present and choiceful in his own life, perhaps to savor life instead of running forward, not because he believes this could avert the impending disaster for the world.
Where, then, do I find hope?
In China, as well as anywhere else I have been, I hungrily look for and lean into any evidence that I can find to support my deep and abiding faith that the desire to be rich is far from the only or primary motive that propels us to action.
This is where my work is such a profound privilege. Wherever I go, anywhere on the planet that I’ve been to, I encounter people in their vulnerability. They tell me, and sometimes discover for themselves, what most matters to them. It’s never once been about money. I am not saying that the desire for wealth, material advancement, status, and the like is a fabrication. Far from it. Walking around the streets of Shanghai and Beijing that reality is painfully clear. The number of people on the streets wearing some version of Westernized fashion, and the flashing neon lights and billboards that, language aside, could equally well be displayed on Times Square, leave no room for doubt. The excruciating traffic jams in both cities drive home John’s point that a car for every family may well be an impossible aspiration for China even barring the environmental catastrophe that Beijing is already experiencing, and yet everyone wants it.
Even so, I am confident that this desire is not what matters most to anyone. I know the truth of that, because people tell me what is on their hearts, and their speech often comes with emotional expressions, often with tears, even in contexts or cultures that frown on crying (are there any that don’t?).
John believes that, after decades of enforced non-religion, there’s no moral code left in China that would provide a counterpoint to the rampant drive of self-interest. I was astounded to learn that, from his perspective, religion does provide such a restraint in the US. Knowing what I know about the extremes of profit-driven behavior that often leave me wondering whether some people have fully lost their capacity to care, the thought that self-interest among business owners in particular is restrained in the US seems, frankly, ridiculous.
Little did I know that on this flight home I would be sitting next to an economist who’s been coming to China for a while to support a university program in economics run by the University of Utah. Without being asked, during the course of our conversation he volunteered a similar perspective about how self-interest and the profit motive run amuck in China, with nothing to curb them. His perspective as to what’s different in the US: public opinion, an institution that apparently has little room to flourish in China. According to him, if things get bad enough for, say, employees of a certain company, there is likely to be a public outcry that will restore balance.
As part of my conversation with the economist, something crystallized for me. In the very few conversations that my friends or I had with people who’ve been alive and adults since before commercialism became the norm in China, they all said they preferred the earlier times, with the simplicity and the relationships that were the foundation of life. It is relationships that provide the restraint, the balancing power to the infinite possibilities of making money.
When we know who would suffer on account of choices we make, we are less likely to make them. When the people who suffer are removed from us, we are less likely to include their wellbeing in our deliberation.
The more we are separated from people systemically, the more inner integrity and commitment we need, if we are to continue to care.
Most of us don’t have the capacity to stand up to norms to such a degree. We need to be embedded in a web of relationships, or otherwise have our societies structured in a way that encourages care and generosity. China is, apparently, losing that communal net. Would its government, the only entity that is charged with holding the entirety of the project of attending to the wellbeing of everyone and with keeping that on the forefront of its priorities, find a way to restore that sense?
Friendship and Deep Fun
One of the main highlights of this trip was the experience of being with my two friends through thick and thin. We were, technically and otherwise, inseparable for two whole weeks. Liu Yi found families for us to stay with so we could be in one house together. Ranging from transportation adventures through workshop challenges to satisfying trips on our days off, we were a unit that functioned collaboratively and smoothly, even when working through our one and only conflict.
Kanya Likanasudh, former student and assistant trainer, and current colleague and friend who moved back to Thailand to share NVC there (with astonishing results) provided unexpected and unplanned support in the form of assistance with the training, behind-the-scenes support with the multiple and complex relationships with the organizers, and friendship and laughter. Ya-Ping Douglas, a more recent connection and current student and supporter, came to China explicitly to assist me with all manners logistical and otherwise. If not for her knowledge of Chinese and of Chinese culture, I don’t know where I would have been by the end of this trip. The times that the three of us shared are a memory I am sure I will carry forever.
Given that all three of us love laughter, are passionate about caring for humans and about understanding systems, and are sensitive to cultural differences, we also accompanied each other on a journey of deepening friendship and learning. When we walked on the Great Wall, perhaps the most emblematic moment of our trip, we were almost speechless: whether due to the strenuousness of the walk or the depth of the experience. I was overwhelmed with the magnitude of it all. The natural beauty of the wall, perched on majestic mountain scenery, the human accomplishment, and the knowledge of the suffering and cruelty that made the wall possible, combined to provide a sense of awe that makes me deeply grateful to have taken the three hour drive there and back in one day.
Such complexity is the very fabric of what China seems to be about these days, perhaps always.
Yet not everything is complex. On our very last day, walking the side streets of a semi-preserved ancient part of Beijing, Kanya captures this picture. These two men, in their almost toothless smile, remind me of that deeper layer that makes evident how little the drive for money captures our essence.
They demonstrate a core dimension of what life is about, anywhere in the world: two people who love each other, who are happy to show their love, to celebrate their friendship and the simple being of life. It is not, ultimately, about who we are.
In the final analysis, I continue to believe that it’s the systems we create that will either divert our attention to the pursuit of material success and status, at our peril, or will allow us to prioritize what most matters to us.