Four years ago in Hong Kong, I picked up a self-help book by Dr. David Jundtz entitled Stopping. While the book itself is not particularly well-written (if a bit hokey), it touts a very important message: that in this capitalistic world of perpetual motion, taking even just a minute a day to stop and to do ‘nothing, as much as possible, for a definite period of time’ will ultimately allow us each to become ‘more awake’ and to ‘remember who we are’ so we can live in a more purposeful and peaceful way. The book gives many alternative methods by which to ‘stop’ including conscious breathing, attention, introspection, solitude, and effective listening. It is not about dropping out of society, nor about ‘wasting time’ – because really, what better use of time is there than truly enjoying and relishing each second of one’s existence?
Now what, you are likely thinking, does this New Age-y book have to do with traveling? Well, everything, I suppose. Because isn’t it on ‘vacation’ that we most enjoy ourselves? But why do we wait for that break from work/school/childrearing? Why not take a ‘vacation’ every day? (And here is where my diatribe takes a strange turn to Chinese ‘ghost cities’.)
I was reminded of the book ‘Stopping’ when I recently viewed a video by Journeyman TV. The program investigates the plethora of newly-built Chinese cities, malls, and apartment complexes currently sitting entirely vacant (like the newly constructed city of Zhengzhou and the South China Mall in Dongguan). While the reporter ultimately is asking whether or not China’s booming property bubble will soon burst, all I could think was (like the Chinese sociologist interviewed later in the broadcast) that it is time that the Chinese government (and all of us, for that matter) read Kundtz’s book ‘Stopping’ and apply its lessons to our lives.
When I first lived in Beijing in 1996, the streets were full of bicyclists pedaling to work. Most people lived in courtyard-style homes off the city’s numerous labyrinthine ‘hutong’
(alleyways) and worked for state-run industries. They didn’t make much money, couldn’t afford to travel, and barely ever spent a yuan on luxuries like McDonalds or a taxi ride (of course, back then, taxis were the clunky ‘mianbaoche‘—or bread loaf vans—replete with in-car benches, that circled the city looking for fares). Do I blame these Chinese citizens for wanting the freedoms that wealth buys them? Not at all. But do I worry that China’s growth (as well as the world’s for that matter) is not just unsustainable economically, but also spiritually? Absolutely.*
China’s current economic state, as one Hong Kong specialist notes, ‘doesn’t answer the betterment of people’s lives, but it promotes GDP growth.’ What it has created is not only ghost towns all over the country (and a growing polarization of Chinese society), but a deep personal and spiritual emptiness (perhaps ironically so, this growth and emptiness merely fuels the growth/emptiness cycle currently persisting in America’s capitalist society). Though the host of this program notes that the unoccupied South China Mall
(a.k.a. ‘The Not So Great Mall of China’) is an ‘unsettling and almost unending vista of emptiness,’ I firmly believe that such physical emptiness reflects an even deeper and more troubling emptiness that we all face: we keep moving because we, like the poet Pablo Naruda, are ‘afraid of the whole world.’ We, like China, are afraid that if we take a moment to stop, we might just see something in ourselves that we don’t like. We might have to admit to ourselves that all this running is actually getting us nowhere in particular (after all, if the universe and all its material is finite, but yet is expanding infinitely, then where we we in such a hurry to arrive?).
China, and all societies that adhere to the principle that ‘more is better,’ and that economic growth is paramount, need only look to my late Chinese mother (whom I lived with in 1996) for advice. I recall sitting with her at the same kitchen table she’d owned for 20 years, in the one-bedroom apartment she shared with her husband, daughter, and her
parents, sharing slices of watermelon. It was less than two years from the day she would die (despite her cancer then being in remission). I don’t know if I asked her about her happiness (which bubbled from her being every day), or if she said the following unprompted, but I will never forget the valuable lesson she taught me that afternoon. She said, matter-of-factly: ‘I have my family. I have my health. I have my family’s health. I have a roof above my head and food on my table. How could I be anything but happy?’
And when I find myself unable to stop, wanting more and more and not knowing when I will ever feel satisfied, I remind myself of Li-Ming’s words. I can only hope that the Chinese government will heed this lesson, that all world societies will. Because yes, there is a basic standard of living (that roof, that family, that food) that all human beings deserve. But beyond that, it’s just gravy. It’s not living better. Living is stopping while we still move. Because we’re not going to slow down the earth’s spin or our own bodies’ inevitable endings. But maybe if we pay attention, maybe if we stop in the midst of it all, life may not feel so fast after all. It may just feel long, infinite. It may just feel worthwhile.
*I fear the same for all capitalist societies; capitalism’s greatest downfall is its adherence to ‘growth’ at all costs. What is wrong with stagnation, recession, and regrowth? What is wrong with stopping? (One needs only to look at the natural world that surrounds us to know that slowing down actually can mean a more productive and sustainable growth/re-growth.)
For the video on China’s ghost towns, click here.