You’re Pregnant? Great! Are you Having a Boy or an Abortion?

Yes, the title of today’s blog is a tad off color, but I wanted to write about a conversation that I had with a coworker the other day. I should first provide a little background information. Although I’m American, I live and work in China. And although many of my coworkers are also from the West, I have lots and lots of Chinese coworkers too. Which is great, because it gives me the opportunity to peer into a world that’s very unlike the one I know.

So, I have a coworker named Lisa (that’s not really her name, it’s the English name she picked for herself since Westerners have trouble remembering Chinese names) (or distinguishing between them because everybody is named Li or Wei or Ma), and Lisa is a lovely youngish Chinese woman. Coming back from summer vacation, news spread that Lisa had gotten knocked up over the summer. When I saw her in the office, I thought I would congratulate her.

“Say, I heard you’re pregnant,” I said. “Congratulations!”

“Thanks!” she said, with a big I-just-got-pregnant-and-I-like-the-attention smile on her face.

“Is it a boy or a girl?”

“I don’t know,” Lisa said. “In China, they don’t tell you.”

“Oh,” I said, “that’s cool. It adds a bit of mystery, right? It’s like a big surprise!”

“Well, actually,” she said, “they don’t tell you because they’re afraid people would abort the baby if it’s a girl.”

That threw me for a loop. I hadn’t considered that at all. It was far darker than the fun ‘surprise’ angle I’d assumed was the rationale for keeping the gender secret. But it made sense. This is a country with a one-child only policy, so I suppose there would be a real danger in telling the parents the baby’s gender. I looked this up later on Google and learned the term ‘gendercide,’ and I also learned that this isn’t just a China problem, and that gender-based abortion happens worldwide.

Which struck me as crazy, mostly because I’d never heard about this before and also because I personally would much prefer to have a girl baby if I accidently impregnated my girlfriend. Going back to that conversation with Lisa, I don’t think I asked her any other questions because my mind was blown. I nodded and walked away and felt icky.

After thinking about it for awhile, I decided that if I was a doctor, I’d just tell everyone they’d be having a boy. And then I’d bring a video camera into the birthing room and tape the fathers’ reactions to their surprise daughters’ arrivals. And then I’d put the videos on YouTube.

Which is blocked in China, but still, it’s nice to dream.




Old School or Too Old School, Volume 1: Cell Phones in a Group Setting

Okay, okay, okay. It’s late Saturday night I have to work tomorrow, so I thought I’d quickly write up a new segment I want to start. You see, a lot of people I know call themselves ‘old school.’ And when they say this, it’s in a rather proud, unapologetic way. Like this:

“What? You use a dishwasher to wash your dishes? Nah, I’m not letting some machine wash my dishes! I’ll wash them my own damn self! I’m old school!”

Well, it’s something like that. The assertion is that this new generation has lost something. Call it grit. Call it independence. Call it rigor. It doesn’t matter. People who are ‘old school’ want you to know that this shit doesn’t fly with them. That the dainty, self-centered, ultra-feel-good ways of the people younger than them (especially millennials) fail to meet the superior standard established by their generation.

Which is fine. I get it. But lately, I’ve found that, well, a lot of people who describe themselves as ‘old school’ are maybe a bit too old school. Here’s an example:

“Email? I don’t write email. If you care about somebody, you would sit down with a pen and some paper and write them a letter with your own damn hands. That’s how you show someone you care. Not with some email. Me, I don’t email. I’m old school.”

Yeah, but…email is pretty old school. It’s not like a new invention or anything.  And, to be honest, I don’t own paper. I just don’t have any. I don’t go to the store with writing paper on my shopping list. Because that’s a bit too old school. Everybody emails, so let’s stop being stubborn, cranky old people.

Then, there’s something like this:

“What? Your parents let you watch TV during dinner? You all just sit there and watch TV and nobody talks to each other? Oh, in my house, I would smash the TV with my walking cane if someone turned it on during dinner. That’s the time for a family to be together and talk to each other. There’s no TV during dinner in my house. I’m old school.”

See, now I find this to be at an acceptable level of old school. It sticks to traditional values without being insanely out of touch. This, to me, is acceptably old school. I don’t really agree, but I approve of its old schooly ways.

Okay, with all that explained, we now begin my blog’s new segment: Old School or Too Old School. Where we take a topic and determine if a person is acceptably traditionalist, or if that person is just old and nutty.

Today’s Topic: Cell phones in a group setting.

Let’s let the old school person explain:

“Oh, man, I was at a restaurant the other night, and there was a group of four people sitting together. But no one was talking to each other. Nope. They were all on their cell phones. I tell you, if I owned that place, I’d put a big sign up banning cell phones. People should be talking to each other, not busy texting away on their phones. If that was my joint, I’d tell them to leave. I’m old school.”

Okay, so let’s start with the traditional point of view. Like most old school complaints, this centers around the idea that people have lost touch with each other. That we just don’t communicate like we used to. And that’s a valid concern. It’s probably true that some people have difficulty interacting and are more comfortable messaging on whatsapp. To further this old school argument, there’s something to be said about how self-serving this all seems. It’s as though these people are telling each other, like, “Hey, friends, entertain me with interesting things…and if you don’t entertain me good enough…I’ll entertain myself by updating my Grinder profile.” Or something like that. In the old school mind, a person does not demand entertainment value from their company. They just demand…company…from their company.

Now the flip side of this is that the old school person isn’t realizing the greater good in what is happening. An old school person complains about the lack of connection between people, when we live in an age where we’re more connected with people than we ever have been. Why should these people be limiting their interactions to four? What is so bad about including other people who aren’t there in their conversation? If the complaint is that people are losing touch with each other…well…that’s just not true. We’re extremely in touch with each other, so much in touch, we can’t stand to be out of touch with each other. And hence we text and send emojis to people when they’re not around.

To continue the too old school argument, I think about my father, who used to literally leave our family sometimes and go talk to strangers if we bored him. Isn’t that how things were before cell phones? I remember going to a bar, and when I’d get sick of my friends, I’d go start talking with random people. Why is that any different from tuning out your friends in the restaurant and liking some stuff on Facebook? Essentially, in both cases, you’re giving your attention to a person you’re not hanging out with. But…

That brings us to the big truth – old school people hate group texting, because old school people irrationally hate cell phones.

Really, they irrationally hate all technology. But cell phones really piss them off. Cell phones are sort of what rock n roll or drive ins used to be, I guess. Evil young person stuff.

Anyways, here comes the verdict. Cell phones in groups – old school or too old school. 

Verdict: Old school. The fact that cell phone conversations are really no different from any other conversation will never be understood by someone who is old school. To an old school person, talking with your mouth is the only way two people can communicate. And because no one is talking with their mouths in our case study, the group cell phone dynamic is something appropriate for an old school person to complain about. However…

Then banning cell phones from the restaurant – too old school. Now you’ve gone too far and have become crazy.

All right, so that’s settled. Come back for more Old School vs. Too Old School sometime in the near future. Now I’m going to curl up and go to bed, until my cell phone alarm wakes me up, because I’m not old school, and I don’t rely on a rooster.


Just Say No…To Pizza

It’s a Friday night right now, and I’m sitting here alone in my room writing this. I’m more ADHD then usual – in addition to reading blogs, I’m also reading the Chang Rae Lee novel “On a Full Sea” and watching the movie “Southpaw” in alternating increments of time. This is my Friday night, and I’m good with it. Outside, somewhere in my apartment building, there’s a guy named Frank, and the fact that I’m not with him now, at this moment, well, that’s my major going-into-the-weekend victory.

Because tonight Frank represents temptation. Vice. Deviance. But, as I write this, I’m quickly realizing that temptation just isn’t what it used to be.

Around three in the afternoon, I ran into Frank in the laundry room. We small talked a little bit, and then he said, “Hey, man, let’s get some beers tonight if you want.”

This set the red flags off. I’d decided already that I wasn’t going to drink tonight. So, because of that, I looked at Frank and responded by saying, “Yeah man, sounds like a plan.”

I’m like a diabetic when it comes to will power. My ability to say no to things dips like someone’s blood sugar level might. And so Frank and I made a tentative plan to get drunk together on the roof of our building.

“Or we could start at PPD,” he said. “Does that sound okay?”

PPD is a pizza place in Changping. I’d already taken out some chicken to cook for dinner, which I planned to eat with seaweed soup. This is part of my new diet. And by diet, I mean ‘plan to get rid of my man boobs.’

“Great!” I said. “I’m totally down.”

Afterwards I felt guilty. I decided not to message Frank. If he messaged me, shit, I’d have to go get the pizza and beer. But if not, I could just sort of avoid him and have my depressingly healthy and sober Friday night.

See, this is what age does to you. When you’re in your twenties, you deal with tempting things like weed and cocaine and unprotected sex with promiscuous hippie girls. Will power means having to refrain from drinking too much beer at home before you go to the bar to drink more beer, or turning down the sketchy stranger when he approaches you on the street and offers you some mushrooms. Then you get older, and suddenly temptation has less to do with drugs and more to do with calories. Instead of the sketchy stranger on the corner, your pusher becomes McDonald’s. And instead of worrying that pot will kill your brain cells, you worry that it will lead to you eating potato chips, and the next day you’ll have to balance things out by eating raw carrots.

So, yeah, hooray for me. Frank never messaged and I survived. Fifteen years ago I might’ve gone home from a club without getting any phone numbers and I would’ve felt a little disappointed and regretful. And tonight I feel the same way. Only it’s about a pizza.




The Slaves of Pragmatism

“Have we not done the job of becoming our best selves?” – Chang-Rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea

The year is 1999. I’m sitting in a dorm room at art school, smoking a cigarette and blowing the smoke out the window. There are a bunch of other people in this same room, and we are all majoring in different things. There are painting majors, acting majors, literature majors, film majors – all the kinds of majors one would expect to find at an art school. I’m a writing major, myself. But that’s only because I went to film school first and failed out, so the hope of making some killer movies had to change into the hope of writing some good books (which would, in theory, then be turned into killer movies by people that didn’t fail out of film school).

There is beer. We’re probably listening to Madonna (I don’t know why this is, but my memories of that year in art school involve lots of Madonna being played). I’m likely arguing with someone about a film or a book and everyone else is telling me not to be so assertive because my tendency to be overly opinionated offends people. There’s probably one person sleeping already. Someone is talking about how shitty one of their teachers is. Everybody is sexually frustrated even though everybody is simultaneously having good amounts of sex (it’s art school, after all). One girl is depressed and a circle forms around her, two people to hold her hands and tell her that she’s beautiful.

This is a typical night in our lives. We don’t like the same music (baring Madonna, apparently), we don’t like the same books, and maybe we don’t even like each other that much. But there’s something that brings us together, one thing that bonds us together the same way a family is bound by blood.

And that’s a complete and utter lack of any business sense. None of us know what we’ll do in the future. We don’t think about jobs or financial opportunities because we don’t know anything about those things. There’s an old adage about writing that says one should ‘write what {they} know.’ We hold that true in other aspects, too. We talk and think and spend our time with the things we know and only the things we know – independent movies, television shows, rap albums, industrial rock music, beat generation literature, pop culture, and, of course, ourselves.

While the world changes and technological advancements become the signature of our generation, we’re busy being not busy. Psychoanalysing ourselves and fighting over whether or not Pokemon is cool.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that time recently. It was interesting because it was a time for dreaming, yeah, but it certainly was not a time for dreamers. We all knew that the bubble was going to pop eventually, and that we’d have to turn our ambitions into something employable. We all had parents that reminded us of this on a consistent basis. Every triumph in writing workshop was, for me, undercut by the knowledge that there was a real world out there waiting to suck me into it. I probably wasn’t going to be a writer, so I had to consider doing something that involved writing. Maybe I could be an editor. That could provide me with stable employment, a paycheck, and the distinct air that follows one around when they contribute to their society like they’re supposed to, which, as I was led to believe, was the whole point of college.

The next year I dropped out of art school. I was too depressed to carry on. I’m not sure why exactly I was depressed but I was. I moved back in with my parents and got a job in a deli. Later I’d finish school and become a teacher. Now I’ve been teaching for over ten years. All of my friends from art school (the ones I keep up with, at least) have jobs and are – to different extents – incorporated into the real world. I don’t talk to them that much, but when we do talk, somebody almost always brings up my former roommate, who is now a working actor and plays the main character on a popular television show. He’s important to us, I think. When we talk about him, it’s clear that none of us are jealous. The tone is always upbeat. Because one of us did it, and as the rest of us slog through 40 hour work weeks, at least there’s some glimmer of hope left for future generations.

I’m writing this because something really struck me today – I realized that I have never, since I got my first full-time job is 2001, been without a job for any lengthy period of time. I’ve always been employed. How sad, I thought. I never moved somewhere and just let the pieces fall where they might. I never needed to get a roommate because I couldn’t pay the rent. I never had to take a weird job out of desperation, work as a cook in an all-night diner or something. This made me shake my head. I’ve always been at least somewhat comfortable, with money in my savings account and food in the fridge.

I thought about that and I felt a little bit ashamed. What happened to the dude in that dorm room? The one without a plan or a goal or any ideas at all? The one that cared so little about things like success and, um, well-being? How come I made the decision to never give that guy a chance?

The answer is that I, like a lot of Americans in 1999 or any other time, am a slave to pragmatism. I don’t want to be, but I can’t help it. In a way, it’s maybe what makes me feel the most conflicted. I always thought the oddball writer guy could co-exist with my second half, the provider side of me that would work and wear a tie and bring home salmon to cook. But in the end, the writer half has nothing to show. No books. No film adaptations that aren’t true to the source material. Nothing. All that’s left as my legacy, if there is one, comes from the pragmatist. The side that worked and, in its own reluctant way, found some sense of value in life.

So I’ll finish by asking a simple question: Did I allow myself to become the best self that I could have become? I’m not really sure. I think maybe if I could ask the guy in that dorm room he would say ‘yes,’ because I took good care of him and, deep inside, one only sacrifices a dream when they know it won’t come true.