“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.”
– Sebastian Junger (“Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging“)
When I began a new life in small-town Lakefield, ON, after spending most of my 20s in Shanghai, I felt irrelevant. Because I thought I was going to live in China my entire life, I had not been keeping touch with my hometown friends, and communication with family over the years was sporadic at best. Not to mention, the only family left in this town were 60+ years old and leading uneventful lives.
“They eat dogs over there, right?” That was about the extent of their knowledge about China. My adventures in China, learning the language, my travel experiences, my dating life – not only did few people ask, but when I answered no one was listening. Most people simply could not relate, while others thought my stories were so wild they thought I was lying.
You’re probably asking – why in the hell did you return to Canada when you were living the life in Shanghai? Well, I was diagnosed with cancer over there, my company did not want to pay my medical bills (which would have been in the tens of thousands), so I returned to Canada for the free healthcare. Thinking that it could have been the pollution in China that brought on this disease, I thought that if I returned to China I would just end up dying over there. So I was forced to figure out a new life in this country.
I was isolated and alone, and with few distractions. I thought – what better time to write a book? After a year of trying to write, I felt like I was going crazy. On top of feeling depressed, my social skills took a turn for the worst. I began to wonder – why do I feel this way exactly? Of course the obvious explanations – being isolated, no friends, poor physical health due to the cancer – those were all pretty solid reasons. But it wasn’t until I read this book entitled Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger did I fully understand why I felt like such a basketcase.
The first third of the book talks about how humans are happiest when they endure experiences that are similar to those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. It begins by discussing the history of native Indians and Westerners in America during, from the 1600s up until around 1924 – noting that many Europeans actually ended up preferring the Indian lifestyle over their “modern” way of living.
“PERHAPS THE SINGLE MOST STARTLING FACT ABOUT America is that, alone among the modern nations that have become world powers, it did so while butted up against three thousand miles of howling wilderness populated by Stone-Age tribes. From King Philip’s War in the 1600s until the last Apache cattle raids across the Rio Grande in 1924, America waged an ongoing campaign against a native population that had barely changed, technologically, in 15,000 years. Over the course of three centuries, America became a booming industrial society that was cleaved by class divisions and racial injustice but glued together by a body of law that, theoretically at least, saw all people as equal. The Indians, on the other hand, lived communally in mobile or semi-permanent encampments that were more or less run by consensus and broadly egalitarian. Individual authority was earned rather than seized and imposed only on people who were willing to accept it. Anyone who didn’t like it was free to move somewhere else…
The proximity of these two cultures over the course of many generations presented both sides with a stark choice about how to live. By the end of the nineteenth century, factories were being built in Chicago and slums were taking root in New York while Indians fought with spears and tomahawks a thousand miles away. It may say something about human nature that a surprising number of Americans—mostly men—wound up joining Indian society rather than staying in their own. They emulated Indians, married them, were adopted by them, and on some occasions even fought alongside them. And the opposite almost never happened: Indians almost never ran away to join white society. Emigration always seemed to go from the civilized to the tribal, and it left Western thinkers flummoxed about how to explain such an apparent rejection of their society.”
This got me thinking about why I enjoyed life in China so much more compared with life in Canada. Although Shanghai is a pretty modern city, the Chinese people are still new to this modernization. TV sets were first came to China in the 1980s and people were absolutely memorized by them. Up until around the 1980s and 1990s most roads in China were made of dirt. The Chinese are still very proud of their ancient history, their ancient Chinese medicine, and their ancient pictograph-like language. In many ways, the Chinese are more similar to the Indians mentioned in this book than modern-day Westerners. Moreover, the Chinese culture is a of a collective mindset rather than individualistic. For the most part, Chinese still believe in behaving in such a way that benefits the group as a whole. They also hold very strong family values. They are kind to most people – because they might be able to help you out sometime down the road. So many times in China I heard of “my father’s friend’s cousin’s daughter’s friend” got me that job, introduced me to these people, etc. In a nutshell, the Chinese, like the Indians, are tribal in nature.
It is no wonder, then, that Westerns love living in China. Most try to immerse themselves in the culture and try hard to learn the language. But you’ll also noticed that the reverse is not true – mainland Chinese who grew up in China and then emigrated to Canada – they prefer their own culture rather than Canadian culture. (Of course there are Chinese who are born and Canada and become a normal Canadian, but we are not talking about that group.) The ones I’ve met in Toronto speak Chinese with their Chinese friends most of the time, and have the occasional white friend. They prefer Chinese food, and prefer to have a Chinese set of values which are tribal in nature. They choose not to fully assimilate to Canadian culture – and understandably so.
This next quote from the book reinforces the above points. It mentions that even Western adults that were captured by the Indians chose not to return to the civilized, modern, Western lives:
“The reluctance of [the Weatern] captives to leave their adopted tribe raised awkward questions about the supposed superiority of Western society. It was understood why young children would not want to return to their original families, and it made sense that renegades like the infamous Simon Girty would later seek refuge with the Indians and even fight alongside them. But as Benjamin Franklin pointed out, there were numerous settlers who were captured as adults and still seemed to prefer Indian society to their own. And what about people who voluntarily joined the Indians? What about men who walked off into the tree line and never came home? The frontier was full of men who joined Indian tribes, married Indian women, and lived their lives completely outside civilization.”
Looking back at my first couple years in Shanghai, when I was working less than 20 hours a week, I was happy and free. It was enough money to live a no frills lifestyle and allowed me to travel too. This lifestyle felt natural to me – the sort of life that we are supposed to live. It’s work-leisure lifestyle similar to our ancestors:
“One study of the !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert needed to work as little as twelve hours a week in order to survive—roughly one-quarter the hours of the average urban executive at the time…
The relatively relaxed pace of !Kung life—even during times of adversity—challenged long-standing ideas that modern society created a surplus of leisure time. It created exactly the opposite: a desperate cycle of work, financial obligation, and more work. The !Kung had far fewer belongings than Westerners, but their lives were under much greater personal control.”
The book goes on to say that such a work-intensive, isolating, modern society takes a toll on our brain:
“The evidence that this is hard on us is overwhelming. Although happiness is notoriously subjective and difficult to measure, mental illness is not. Numerous cross-cultural studies have shown that modern society—despite its nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science, and technology—is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history…
As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down. Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it.”
The author then moves on to the most important quote in the book – defining happiness:
“…human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others. These values are considered “intrinsic” to human happiness and far outweigh “extrinsic” values such as beauty, money, and status.”
The quote really struck a chord with me. For those few years while living in small-town Lakefield, I did not possess any of these 3 basic things. I did not possess any real skills that would benefit me financially in Canada and realized my jobs in China were mostly based on my white face. I did not feel authentic – I feel like I was unable to express my true self and had not done so for years (all the while medicating myself with booze, clubs, and girls.). And lastly, I did not feel connected to anyone. Fortunately, since going back to school and working in Toronto – some of these things have begun to change.
The second part of the book talks about how people are actually happier when they come together during times of adversity and high stress – such as war and catastrophe.
“As people come together to face an existential threat…class differences are temporarily erased, income disparities become irrelevant, race is overlooked, and individuals are assessed simply by what they are willing to do for the group. It is a kind of fleeting social utopia that…is enormously gratifying to the average person and downright therapeutic to people suffering from mental illness…
What catastrophes seem to do—sometimes in the span of a few minutes—is turn back the clock on ten thousand years of social evolution. Self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss.”
The above two quotes made me think about my life in China and being part of the expat community – foreigners bonding together over a common cause. China wasn’t a huge “threat”, but at the same time you never knew what the country was going to throw at you. Chinese visa regulations seemed to change all the time and some foreigners were simply kicked out of the country on short notice and for no apparent reason. Also, getting screwed over by the Chinese business wise – this happened quite a bit. Moreover – tips on how to navigate the city, recommended places you should go, and travelling together in Asia to strange countries. All these things created a unique bond with other foreigners. The threat being the unknown, or just weird things that could happen to you in China/Asia. As expats we had no family in China – so the community felt like one giant family.
The author then talks about PTSD with American war vets as well as Peace Corps volunteers – how the real cause of PTSD has more to do with reentering an our isolating, modern society than trauma experienced abroad.
“…the problem doesn’t seem to be trauma on the battlefield so much as reentry into society. And vets are not alone in this. It’s common knowledge in the Peace Corps that as stressful as life in a developing country can be, returning to a modern country can be far harder. One study found that one in four Peace Corps volunteers reported experiencing significant depression after their return home, and that figure more than doubled for people who had been evacuated from their host country during wartime or some other kind of emergency.”
My time in China – probably not as stressful as a Peace Corps volunteer in a developing country, but still pretty stressful. Unable to communicate (at first), getting lost in the city (during the pre-Google maps days), not knowing where anything is, not knowing where your career is going, not knowing what is going to happen next. Not knowing when you’re going to get kicked out of the country. You just never knew what was going to happen next – many days were like an adventure.
There’s no sense of adventure here in Canada. Returning home to Lakefield was so depressing – all I did for 2 years is watch comedy movies and tv series – caught up on 8 years of comedy that I didn’t have time to watch in China.
This next quote from the book made me think about how I felt that Canadians are such whiners and complainers. And the news here is also full of whiners and complainers – everyone is playing the victim. We’re living in some sort of victimized society. Feminists are victims, blacks are victims, women are victims, white people are victims…whaa, whaa, whaaaaah. A bunch of babies. These issues are petty compared to real life trauma and tragedy – losing a spouse, a parent, etc.
“Because modern society has almost completely eliminated trauma and violence from everyday life, anyone who does suffer those things is deemed to be extraordinarily unfortunate. This gives people access to sympathy and resources but also creates an identity of victimhood that can delay recovery.”
In conclusion, reverse culture shock is a real thing – it can be as bad as PTSD. In China, I was part of a community, us foreigners looked out for one another. We were part of a common cause – to survive and thrive on Planet China. I also made many Chinese friends and was popular among the Chinese. Almost everyday, Chinese people I’d never met before wanted to talk to me. Girls giggle when you talk to them, other girls want to marry you right away. I felt popular, I felt special. Here in Canada – none of these things exist in my life – I’m just another white dude.
I know what you’re thinking – “whaa whaaa poor me.” Canada is great in many ways – but I can’t really see myself slaving away at a corporate job in downtown Toronto, freezing my butt off 6 months of the year. Still working on my next move.
…Junger’s book sounds pretty badass, right? You can get it on Amazon here: “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.”