Ontological Choices in a Chinese Supermarket
I went shopping the other day at a Chinese Supermarket that recently opened in the town where I teach at a local university. On the walk over to the market I passed by work crews replanting Jasmine trees. They had dug trees up in the very same spots a few weeks earlier. These were perfectly good trees and I saw no reason why they had to be dug up and carted off to “who-knows-where.” It was clear this was a “make-work-project.”
The road had just been repaved. I watched for weeks as it was dug up, replaced, and covered with blacktop. I smirked each time I saw a sewer pipe broken, power lines cut, and mistakes were made in the placement of manhole covers. I walked alongside a wall that had been built with amazing speed and skill only to be broken apart a week later in places where someone decided that a roadway had to pass through.
I knew better. I was smarter. I was king of a world filled with stupid people.
This way of seeing the world had nothing to do with the Chinese people. It is the way I see all people. I could have been in Seattle and I would have thought the same things. I finally arrived at the store. It was crowded with people shoving their way the edges of vegetable counters.
David Foster Wallace, perhaps the greatest essayist of this generation, in his speech to Kenyon College said:
So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.
Wallace made an interesting ontological appeal in this commencement speech. He said that the purpose of a college education is not just to teach us how to think but to choose about what we are to think. I looked at my mind and the way I have been so critical of the Chinese people over the last few weeks and especially on my walk to the supermarket. We have ontological choices to make in how we perceive the world. Wallace pointed out later in his speech:
…my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.
Not matter how “good” I think that I am or how intelligent or gifted I am at the very center of my being selfish and despicable. This idea comes from a Calvinistic western belief that has infused modern consciousness. We are born bad in need of salvation. We are doomed. But, post modern thinkers such as Wallace offers ontological hope. We do not have to be this way. We can choose to shift our being to a higher level. Learning how to look at the world in a more enlightened way is the task of true educators. When I say educators I am using this term in a broad sense. Parents, friends, elementary teachers, and cultural sages are all educators. Wallace gives an example of how one might shift perceptual being.
But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Each week I ride a bus to another campus 40 minutes way. The bus driver honks his horn incessantly. I counted 74 ear-numbing blasts on a trip back from the campus the other day. Each blast is an expression of egoism and a “I-own-the-road” attitude. Now I could think that perhaps this driver has had someone in his family die in an auto accident. Perhaps, this is an expression of fear and not selfish driving. To think this way may simply be an exercise in self deception and a way to make myself “feel” good and less stressed. This would just be another way of operating out of a self-centered state of being.
The real challenge is to be free of self. Many people, myself included, operate in an unconscious void. I am sure the bus driver is unaware of how often he honks his horn, the stress levels he raises in fellow drivers, and the danger in which he puts all of us passengers by driving like a bat out ofBeijing.
My job as a teacher is to be more aware of my selfish default setting and to choose, if need be, a thousand times a day to see the sacred and the heroic. The checkout girl who works 14 hours a day in that supermarket with speed, efficiency, is an example of sheer olympian strength and focus I could never achieve. She says to me “man zou” with the voice of a corpse. How many times a day she says this as if it is the motto of the supermarket zombies. I say goodbye, “zai jian.” I chose to mean it. I choose to be present and recognize her sacredness.
The choice shifted my perception on the walk back to the campus. I notices the new trees bearing ornaments of green bags. On closer inspection I see they are intravenous bags with tubes attached to the tree. The trees are slowing sipping nutrition and medicine. I saw the care and love for these living beings. Gone was the arrogance of seeing only the waste and mindless work project in a dusty faraway city in westernChina. For a brief moment I was free.