Reflections from Beijing

Even though my father is an economist, I had not properly studied the subject before I arrived in Chicago two years ago to be a research assistant. Much of economics was really new to me. I sat in lectures and found myself suddenly understanding things that I never even thought about before and seeing the world wholly anew. Eager to learn I’d in drop in on seminars and classes between working on research tasks. I read textbooks and browsed syllabi in search of more things to learn.

My father was delighted that I had chosen the academic life. But my mother worried that I would grow insulated and solitary. Dismissing her concerns, I told her that she had nothing to worry about: I had plenty of friends and knew how to maintain a balanced life. I had found a passion that I had to follow.

The research assistantship turned out to be a dream job. After a year as a business consultant, I craved intellectual stimulation. I found exactly what I wanted in my new job and was constantly excited. Every day I had new puzzles to solve, and loved how I was challenged each day to figure out new things. I was a kid in a candy store, surrounded by new knowledge to take in. I loved, loved my work. I was happy to be totally absorbed.

Thinking back, though, I now realize that my enthusiasm came at a cost. When I left San Francisco, I left a job that I did not love. But I was the healthiest I had been in many years. I ate well. I regularly exercised. I biked each day. I built and was enmeshed in a web of loving friendships. After I moved, I loved my job. But I took less care to eat healthily. I exercised only occasionally. I had opportunities to build up and serve a close community of friends, but often neglected to.

I was fine with the tradeoff because I came to Chicago for a job, and I thought of Chicago as only a temporary stop in my journey. What I didn’t expect is that, because I lost focus on being the best “whole” person I could be, my initial excitement over my newfound profession would slowly morph into a more prideful and painful desire for advancement.

Eager to get my research career started and determined to get into a good graduate program in the past two years, I focused intently on my independent research projects. I saw my extended family less and less. I felt less and less desire to travel and explore. I wrote infrequently on this blog, too. Many academics glorify the life dedicated solely to intellectual pursuit, and I became increasingly unbalanced.

My journal entries from half a year ago show that I was unhappy. I clearly felt that I was losing my relaxed and gregarious self, and I did not like who I was becoming. I was often frustrated from research setbacks, even though I knew setbacks were healthy. Self-doubt and anxieties simmered beneath despite outward success.

I also felt guilty for ever leaving work unattended, and I also began to increasingly depend on research achievements for satisfaction. I felt a need to know that I was worthy; my passion for learning became tainted with a more selfish desire for affirmation. I kept on making research goals and trying to meet them. Perhaps I imagined that if I could achieve some success, then I would feel better.

I wanted to accomplish a lot before I left Chicago. From the end of March until mid May, I had to visit schools, put together my life plans, wrap up a few projects, say goodbye to friends, and pack up all of my stuff. I got into all the top economics programs, but somehow that did not afford me much joy. Instead, leaving Chicago overwhelmed me in a way that leaving SF did not at all. Before I left SF, I planned fun trips around SF and did my best to enjoy my time left. But when I left Chicago I almost never took the time to relax or enjoy. And I was nearing burn out. For my last two months in Chicago, I constantly felt like I was barreling towards a personal crisis.

Thank goodness, though. Now I have a few months off before graduate school. For better or worse I decided come to Beijing to check out the economics scene here. Officially I am visiting a professor. But really I have very little to do. I only have a few friends here. This makes me alone and bored, but it also means that I have in Beijing the perfect occasion for reflection. I have long needed the time and the space to think through many things.

~

Beijing is an unpleasant place, but it actually brings back some of my fondest memories. I have made two long visits here before. I was only ten on my first trip here with my mandarin tutor. Then Beijing was all dirt and bicycles. Roads and buildings were way underdeveloped, and I had never seen anything like this large, dilapidated capital. We flew kites in Tiananmen Square. We rode a taxi to visit the Great Wall. We ate dumplings and strolled down Wangfujing, back then no more than a busy street with lots of shops and stalls. Overall the place felt backwards and historical. Toilets were filthy and the heat was oppressive. My memory of the trip is patchy, but I do distinctly remember that by the end I was quite glad to come home.

My second visit happened seven years later. It was only a year before the 2008 Olympics, and there was construction everywhere. The city was abuzz with a youthful energy – still yet not confident, but eager and optimistic. That youthfulness mirrored my own. By then I had finished three years of boarding school in the US, and was nearing college age. I was here with my best friend from middle school, Plato, who unlike me had remained in Hong Kong. Despite separation, we managed to stay closest of friends, and reunion in Beijing was sweet as hell.

For the first time in our lives, we were wholly unsupervised by adults and together we explored without a care in the world. Each morning I attended Chinese language and culture courses at Peking University, and Plato visited a violin teacher downtown. And then we’d spend the rest of the day roaming the streets of the vast historical city. A few times I sat on the back of his bicycle while we whizzed from one neighborhood to another. One night we drunk 二锅头 (a nasty Chinese liquor) after eating dirty popcorn from street vendors, and were so boisterous that we got yelled at by a security guard. Another night we danced wildly at a dance club and got kicked out. I even had a very brief fling that started on the steppes of Inner Mongolia.

And now, another eight years later, is my third visit. Some things have changed. Beijing’s subway network has grown from three lines to over fifteen. What used to be a sketchy bar area, Houhai, has commercialized and is now filled with tourist traps. Another sketchy bar area, Sanlitun, has thoroughly modernized and now boasts large outdoor malls and an Apple store. Most of the food around town remains cheap and salty and greasy and carb-heavy, but organic farmer’s markets have now popped up and coffee shops litter the city. Pavements are still dusty but some toilets are now remarkably clean. The streets remain chaotic as ever, but are now filled with Uber cars and fewer bicycles. There is no question that Beijing is growing up to become a thriving modern city.

I biked around Peking U the other day, revisiting some old haunts. The campus buildings have largely remained the same. What has totally changed, though, is my own frame of mind. Wandering through those familiar alleys, I recalled a bliss and innocence eight years ago that I have somehow lost in the past two years. I recalled a bounce in my step that I don’t as often feel now as I used to. Back then there was a feeling of two people against the world. A sense of adventure and a sense of home, too. Now something has gone missing.

~

In my last month in Chicago, I read David Brooks’s new book, The Road to Character. In the book, Brooks draws a distinction between resume virtues, the things that one brings to the market like skills, knowledge, or reputation, and eulogy virtues, the things that one brings to the community–love, leadership, loyalty, honesty. He argues that our culture today has put resume virtues ahead of eulogy virtues, and that we must instead put eulogy virtues at the center of our lives again. To advance this thesis, Brooks depicts the lives of men and women of great character – Dorothy Day, George Marshall, Saint Augustine, to name a few, and uses their lives to illustrate what he thinks a good life is.

I have chosen the academic life, and the rat race has begun. On paper my next ten to fifteen years is a mad dash for me to prove myself to the profession. First the coursework, then the dissertation, then the job market, then the tenure committee. I always knew that it will not be easy to succeed. I did not prepare myself, however, to learn how to stay happy and engaged in all aspects of life even while following my passion. I had thrown myself at my professional goals at the expense of other things, and I have made myself miserable.

Reading Brooks’s book was a wake-up call to me. Brooks sees the good life not as a life of advancement, but as a life of commitment making and devotion. He writes about a steadiness and humility that these great people have achieved in their lives. These people have learned to quiet the self. And they have developed a sort of unstirrable calm that others may depend on. This road to character was not the road that I have been traversing. I had been focused, wholly focused, on the road to achievement.

Recent experiences have made me more acutely aware of the sinful nature we share, the need for us to sink deeper into ourselves, and to surrender to traditions larger than us in order to mitigate our self-centered and prideful tendencies. These experiences have helped me understand why our traditions call for abstinence, self-control, and discipline to curb our selfish excesses, even as we must also nurture our loving and fun selves. It is too easy to forget what is important in life, that we must be good to ourselves and to each other. I don’t want to forget again.