Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Path Is Made By Walking

Indeed it is. So walk it.

Disclaimer: it can’t be repeated enough times – so I’m sorry to beat you about the eyes with it – but I’m painting in very broad strokes in this post and trying, while acknowledging individuality and exceptions – to explore noticed trends. If you read something that you have not observed or don’t agree with, please do leave your own musings in the comments (but keep it polite), and keep in mind that just because others’ observations may be different doesn’t mean anyone’s are invalid.
I was talking to a student today about giving suggestions, recommendations and advice in English, and one question came up:
What would you recommend to a friend, colleague or subordinate who feels unmotivated?
We were taking turns, and it was my turn to respond, so I jokingly said “How about quitting your job?”
I know. Ha ha ha.
But really…we got to talking about motivation, passion and purpose in Taiwan. I mentioned that I always ask students how their weekends were and what they did, and I am fond of questions inquiring about hobbies, interests and life goals.
I said that I would tell that person to take some time to deeply self-reflect, to look at their current situation and try to pinpoint what it is that is sapping their motivation, and either to change it or to make a more drastic change. What’s more, I’d encourage them to take some time to ponder what it was they really wanted in life, and where they would like to be in five, ten or twenty years: not necessarily to plan and insist on that outcome, but to ponder what they might like.
And yet, when I ask a question like “So…what do you want?”, “What’s your goal?”, “What are you really interested in?” and “What would you do if you could do anything you wanted?”, I so often get shrugged shoulders, maybe a “dunno”.
My student had the same thought. She said (paraphrased, not an exact quote), “I think many Taiwanese would not be able to do that. Or if you ask them what could make them feel more motivated at work, they don’t know, because it’s just office work. It’s not special.”
To be fair, I see this in the USA, too, and no matter what country you’re in, knowing what you want and not doing it – at least not yet – is far less terrifying than feeling dispirited but having no idea what you want or what would motivate you, and staring at yet another work week in a job you don’t care about, or yet another weekend in which you sleep and watch TV and have no strong desire to pursue any other activity…especially if somewhere inside you feel as though you would like to have something to be passionate about…but just don’t.
I have to say, though, I get so many more of these “dunno” responses in Taiwan, and hear or see so many wistful comments along the lines of “I don’t know what I want” or “I don’t have any hobbies” or “I don’t know what I would do” or just…kind of…a shrug.
Or take a friend of mine for example – he said recently that in college, life was so free, the possibilities were endless, but that since he’s been working he feels as though life has been pre-ordained and he can’t choose another path.
“What do you like to do on the weekend?”
"I don't know - I like to sleep and watch TV."
I also see it a lot when I ask my students about their weekends, as I always do. I do have students who regularly answer with interesting stories of how they spent their free time, but I also get a lot of “I slept and I watched TV”, or “I don’t know…actually it wasn’t special so I forgot what I did on the weekend” or worse “I did some work, because I didn’t know what to do.”
I’m sure if you asked a group of Americans about their weekend you’d get a smattering of these ho-hum responses, but I also feel that generally speaking you’d get a higher percentage of interesting stories, or at least stories that speak to having done something with their free time.
I absolutely do not believe this is cultural, and I do not believe that it has to do with any lack of spark, creativity or imagination. I resoundly reject that line of reasoning.
I do, however, believe that it is the dejected offspring of a societal creation: the overworked kid – as well as the overworked kid’s sad morphing into an overworked adult.
There has been a lot of discussion on the different childhoods of American kids and Asian kids (for the sake of this post we’ll say “Taiwanese” although it applies to much of Asia, especially east Asia) – it’s fairly well understood that we American kids had more time to play, to fritter away time, to do nothing immediately useful. Americans will say that this along with different educational methodology is what helps American kids grow critical thinking skills and creativity. Asian parents will say that their system is what makes their kids so great at math, science and music and it breeds hardworking children who will succeed.
They’re both right, but really, I think the issue goes deeper.
When I was young, you bet I spent my free time having fun – I built blanket forts, tore up my mom’s garden, drew pictures, wrote stories, made crafts, took photos, read books, played games, played sports, took walks, hit things with sticks, tried my hand at cooking. I was expected to take part in some activities – learning an instrument, joining a soccer team or some such – but I as a child had a massive amount of control over what activities I did and while I was pushed to make an effort in anything I said I wanted to try, at the end of it the final decision about whether I liked something and would become good at it was mine.
My Taiwanese friends often tell me that as children, they didn’t have such choices – long hours at school, then cram school classes or tutoring, then homework. On the weekend they might be shipped off to still more classes, English school or music lessons or various other activities that they themselves have little control over. I’m not saying that Taiwanese kids have no free time – they do have time to play, just not as much as I did
I also had more control over my grades – sure, I was expected to do my homework and make an effort in school, but the extent to which I did that was, in the end, mine. If I wanted to do a half-assed job at school, get mediocre grades, have it affect my college choices (mostly regarding scholarships – one can get a perfectly good education at a university that will accept you with middling grades, but I had needed, and won, a scholarship to go to a school not under the State University of New York system)…well, the person who would pay the eventual consequences for that was me, and so I was expected to take responsibility for it from a surprisingly early age.
As a result, I had, all around, far more free time and self-direction than many Taiwanese kids I see, and more than many of my friends in Taiwan had as children. I do think my upbringing was similar enough to many American childrens’ that I can safely use it as an example, and I do feel the people I’ve talked to in Taiwan have had childhoods close enough to the norm to safely use them as examples, too.
I'll take the extreme example of one nephew of a former student. He would get up at 6 or 7 every morning for school, spend the day there and then go to cram school until 10pm. Then he'd ride the MRT home until 11pm, eat a quick, cold dinner and do his homework until midnight or later. Then he'd wake up and do it all again the next day. On the weekend, he'd catch up on extra homework and studying. When I used to teach in Wugu until 9:30pm twice a week, I'd be dropped off at Taipei Main at about ten and vie for a spot on the escalator and train with the hundreds of cram school students bustling home at that late hour, many with circles under their eyes. I can't say I've met many Taiwanese children with hobbies other than enforced music or sports lessons in fields the children themselves did not choose (although I can name two very bright exceptions in the girls I have "English Fun Time" with most Saturdays after lunch, who do have free time to play, imagine, dream or pursue hobbies).
“What are you good at? Why do you think you are good at it? Is it useful to have this talent?”
"I don't know. I never tried anything like art or any hobbies. I guess I like basketball."
So what did I get from all that free time? Many (not all!) Taiwanese parents might say “Nothing!”, but what it did give me was a strong sense of self, a lot of time to cultivate an imagination and a lot of different testing ground to try out new hobbies and explore developing talents.  My parents gamely – but within reason – paid for lessons for any activity I showed an interest in pursuing, which is how I managed from the age of 6 onwards to take classes in ballet, clarinet, tumbling and gymnastics. I had to finish the class, but if I didn’t like it and showed no special talent, I was not pushed to continue. I tried out soccer and eventually picked up the trumpet. My mom was happy to take me to Franklin’s, a crafting store chain similar to Michael’s but smaller that dotted the region, to buy me markers, pastels, sketch pads, calligraphy markers (the cheap kind), beads, yarn, embroidery thread or anything else I wanted to try out. I was given old scraps of fabric and bits and bobs of old jewelry and other goodies by my Grandma G., and encouraged to play with them: I made doll clothes, twisted together old jewelry into warped new designs and created paper confections iced with tremendous amounts of children’s glue and dripping with marker ink. I was allowed seeds and pots to try growing my own plants and occasionally given a disposable camera to futz around with. I wrote terrible children’s poetry and stories not much better than this and lovingly collected the marker-strewn sheets of scrap paper into a “book”. I was allowed to experiment with cooking under supervision. Back when I was made to be religious (my parents were big on church attendance) I taught Sunday school and realized I was good at managing and teaching a group.
It might seem as though no lasting good can be gained from dumping glitter on things and killing innocent plants that had the unfortunate fate of being “grown” by me, but really, I learned a lot from this pseudo-bohemian childhood.
I learned that while I can grow plants, I don’t have a natural green thumb. I learned that I am very good at music, pretty good at writing (you may not think so, dear reader, but I generally post first drafts of my writing on this blog – I don’t edit), possess some talent in art and crafting, enjoy photography and solitary outdoor sports such as hiking and biking, but not team sports. I learned that I am not very good at activities such as ballet and gymnastics, which require a build and natural athleticism and grace that I do not possess. I learned that I’m great at language and history/social studies, but can do well in math only if I work hard (which I never wanted to do, because I never enjoyed it). I’m pretty good at design – I did design my own wedding dress – but not that great at sewing. I learned that I love reading and hate soccer.
“What do you do for fun?”
"Sleeping! Ha ha ha."
This self-knowledge eventually fermented itself into interests and talents, and then abilities – because I stuck with the things I enjoyed and was good at, such as music, art and language. I cultivated a passion for good food and travel. Any one of them could have become a career – from musician (something I once seriously contemplated) to chef to artist to writer.
Of course, were I to become any of those things now, well, I couldn’t just up and do them: you have to choose your path and I didn’t choose one that included professional level training in any of those fields. I would need to get that training if I decided to pursue any of these hobbies on a professional level.
In college it was the same – I had free reign to choose a major and because I was given the time to figure out what I liked and had an aptitude for, I could choose something that suited me (and had the added bonus of being my own choice, which is its own reward).
“What was your favorite subject in school? Why did you like it?” “What was your major in university? Why did you choose it? Did you like it?”
"I don't have any opinion about that. I studied math and science hard because my parents told me. I didn't choose my major. My test scores told me my major."
My Taiwanese friends? Not so free to choose – their parents told them what subject to study most diligently, and their test scores determined what schools they could attend as well as what majors they could choose. Within that narrow range provided by test scores, parents will often push their children to choose one major over another. Education or accounting? Become an accountant. Medicine or engineering? Become a doctor (or engineer – they’re equally popular). History or language? Choose history. Math or biology? Math. The young adults themselves don’t get much of a say.
Perhaps in the past this was OK – having your path chosen for you has some benefits (no fear of being indecisive and no worry that you’ve chosen the wrong path out of many, because there never were many and you never did choose). It can lead to an inner confidence and bearing in knowing that you occupy your expected and correct place in your family and society, and that how you live your life is not entirely your own business or choosing. I can see how, while a bit clichéd, that could well have been the reason why a culture of “no free time, no childhood, no self-direction, no frivolous hobbies” has survived as long as it has. There’s nothing wrong with it, as long as it produces happy people. What I see it producing now, though, after industrialization and Westernization have shaken the foundations of the old system, are a lot of rudderless, tired people.
The life path I’ve chosen as a result, while not perfect, has been my own. This knowledge – that whatever I do is my own doing – has led to the deeper knowledge that whatever I haven’t done is also my own not-doing, and while some of it is “could-have-done”, it doesn’t matter: I have control of my future, at least as much as any person does, and it’s not as hard as one thinks to turn “could have done” into “can still do” and “will do”.  Time to play, to dream, to imagine and to learn your own abilities and from those choose your own path can also bestow a deeper confidence that your path can go (almost) wherever you want it to, as well as giving you ideas that bubble up from deep inside on where it is you might like to go. Or as one idiom goes: the path is made by walking.
I’m not saying that all Americans are supremely confident and self-aware – as Elizabeth Gilbert wisely noted in Committed, for many all that freedom, all those choices and all those paths can be anxiety-inducing and downright paralyzing, over fear of not being able to choose every path, or of choosing the wrong path. I also don’t mean that all Taiwanese are downtrodden and lack passion and self-awareness – they don’t, and I can name dozens of exceptions among my own circle of acquaintances (see disclaimer).
And then those college kids graduate into jobs where they earn too little money for too many hours, slaving for the entirety of daylight under fluorescent tubes, and are too tired on the weekend, if they have a full weekend at all, to consider pursuing anything else. If they do take time to think about it, they don’t have a solid foundation of childhood experience and trial-and-error hobbies to give them direction on what they might consider doing or might enjoy.
“What is your life goal? Where do you see yourself in ten years?”
"I don't know. Maybe making more money."
So, when I saw my friend’s Facebook comment about feeling as though possibilities were endless as a student but now he felt that his path was pre-ordained and nothing he could do would change it, it punched me in the heart just a little bit – because when I ask the questions used as headers in this post and get answers similar to the ones I’ve highlighted over and over again, well, isn’t it a sign that a lot of people feel this way? Is it a sign that it’s a problematic trend in Taiwan? The first generation of Taiwanese born into safety and prosperity, who have generally not known poverty, illiteracy or oppression, and who have been force-fed an education and told what their abilities and future careers must be, who were never given much free time or chances to try out their own aptitudes or self-reflect…has this become the fallout?  A nuclear winter of feeling like their paths are not made by walking, but are made for them to walk, of not knowing what they really want because they never had time to find out?
Granted, I don’t know if the friend who made the comment had a childhood in Taiwan like the one I outlined. I’m using that comment as a springboard to explore a host of issues and trends I’ve noticed, not to pinpoint one specific person.
When someone asks me, though, where I see myself in ten years, I can tell them. If someone asks me to think about how my current life situation motivates me or not, or what I really want in life, I can answer.
I see myself holding a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics, speaking fluent Chinese and doing some tutoring or even training in that on the side, and continuing in the same realm of English teaching/corporate training, or possibly working at a university. I see myself writing a book, but will only do so if I ever feel sufficiently inspired regarding the subject matter. I see myself continuing to travel, improving my photography and cooking skills, and maybe someday buying a small townhouse or rowhouse in a funky urban area with Brendan, or staying in Taiwan. I see a lot of things that could happen and have the confidence that if life takes a different turn, that my path is still made by walking, and Brendan and I will be able to wind our own way through whatever happens.
I just don't get a lot of Taiwanese students who can answer that question, and almost none who can answer it with much conviction beyond wanting to retire after making more money (again, there are exceptions - students who want to travel, learn about art or become stellar photographers come to mind).
So when I answered that comment, I said something along the lines of – when I was in college, I didn’t know what I want and I kept looking for signs or for the world to tell me. But no stars shone, no omens came. Nobody was ever going to help me. It was up to me to make the most of life and expand my horizons. I know you believe in fate more than I do, though.”
(It sounds a bit overwrought in English, but this is translated from Chinese).
I want nothing more than to see more people in the world with that confidence – and while I hate to imply the superiority of Western culture (or any culture, in any regard) – I do think that giving children and young adults more free time and more self-direction can build a stronger self-confidence and inner motivation than what I often see in Taiwan. I do not believe that a test score can determine an appropriate major anywhere nearly as well as the person who will study that major. I do believe that choosing for yourself is its own reward and bestows its own decisiveness and confidence, and more people should be encouraged to do it. I’d like to see more people in Taiwan – and East Asia, and the world – with a stronger knowledge of what they enjoy and what motivates them, and to know that their paths, too, are made by walking.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I often think about how to meld the positive aspects of cultures together, and cut out the negative--but I recognize I'm dabbling in a large dose of fantasy. Cultures survive and propagate because they have some value that people recognize, towards basic survival or otherwise--and an infinite number of complex trappings get caught up in them along the way, much like cascading effects of any ecosystem.

The same features of conformity that make many Asian societies safe and polite from an American or Canadian's eyes also make their people cling to conformity and suffer long hours at jobs which bring them no joy. My dad, who has been an engineer in the semiconductor industry for the past 35 years, once remarked to me about the many Chinese PhDs he has interviewed over the years who didn't make the cut because they couldn't answer basic logic problems he posed to them during the interview which required them to think in a slightly unconvential way.

Conversely, Americans love to talk about their level of independence, and that we are the country where anyone can do anything (the myth of that aside). It is not a long stretch to see some connection between these ideals and high levels of violence and crime (compared to other modern societies), a strong and pervasive sense of entitlement/materialism, and deep problems of class division which I don't see likely to disappear anytime in the future, simply because we seem to essentially be OK with these problems (or more likely, wanna/gotta have it all, without compromises, anything that bears and resemblance to commie socialism, etc.) compared to Europe and Canada.

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