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PHILOSOPHY

Becoming Chinese

January 12, 2003|Sam Crane | Sam Crane is the author of "Aidan's Way" and chairman of the Asian studies department at Williams College.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — I'll start with the relevant sociological information. I am a white, middle-class, American college professor, happily married with two children, two dogs, a cat and a Ford Taurus station wagon. My daily life is one of suburban normality: I mow the lawn in the summer, shovel the snow in the winter, root for the American League in October and pay my taxes in April.

How, then, can I say I am Chinese?

It is partly, I suppose, an occupational hazard. I study and teach about China, and have lived there for fairly long stretches; I speak and read Mandarin. But these factors, in and of themselves, do not tell the tale of my cultural transformation.

It was only recently, after years of struggling with my son's profound disability, that I realized just how Chinese I have become.

Aidan, our eldest child, was born with a peculiar combination of brain malformations, an unnamed syndrome that has left him unable to walk, talk or see. Daily, his brain is unsettled by an intractable seizure disorder. He must take all his food through a tube in his belly. Now 11, he has the developmental age of an infant.

Over the years, his medical misfortunes have caused a great deal of anguish for my wife and me and our families and friends. We strain to get through the bad days and try to hold fast to the good times when we find them.

Many Americans, when faced with such difficulties, turn to God for meaning and succor. My Catholic upbringing nudged me in that direction at first. But I quickly ran up against St. Augustine, who tells us that the dire things of this world are products of our willful divergence from God's goodness.

In Augustine's view, Aidan's condition would be somehow my fault. Embracing this line of thinking could lead me into a depressing swamp of guilt and self-recrimination.

There are, of course, other, more soothing, God-centered answers to the question of why Aidan was afflicted. It could be a part of God's plan, something we can't currently understand. Or we could have been specially chosen to realize the blessings of Aidan's life. Such beliefs bring comfort to many Americans facing painful family tragedies. But I could never chase the Augustinian voice from my mind's ear: "It's your fault, your fault."

Then I read Chuang Tzu. He is an ancient Chinese philosopher, an early articulator of Taoism, which looks not to a transcendent deity but instead finds virtue and integrity in each thing. All things -- good, bad, beautiful, ugly -- exist together in a complex totality, or "Way," that unfolds of its own accord, impervious to human desires or interventions.

"The real is originally there in things, and the sufficient is originally there in things. There's nothing that is not real and nothing that is not sufficient," Chuang Tzu wrote. "Hence, the blade of grass and the pillar, the leper and the ravishing beauty, the noble, the sniveling, the disingenuous, the strange -- in Way they all move as one and the same."

Taoism can seem enigmatic, but it clearly finds a place in this world for Aidan. Chuang Tzu affirms disability, finding in it a counterpoint to overwrought expectations of bodily perfection, intellectual achievement and self-righteousness. In his worldview, Aidan's life is just as meaningful and valuable as any other: He is real and sufficient unto himself.

In dealing with my son, Chinese cultural resources have served me better in my most intimate need than more familiar American ideas and practices. I also now see many things in a different light.

Taoism is famous for its skepticism toward grand human designs to shape the pattern of nature and the course of history. It favors doing nothing over doing something that may unleash terrible unforeseen consequences. So, just as I am more accepting of Aidan's reality, I am also more aware of my limitations.

The Chinese sensibility I have absorbed through my reading and reflection is of ancient lineage. It is a part of a universal definition of civilization, or Chinese-ness, open to anyone who cares to study the philosophic classics and live the good life.

From the imperial past until the beginning of the last century, any man (yes, there was gender inequality), even a "barbarian" from outside the cultural norm, could become civilized. He could become Chinese. Mongolians and Manchurians, when they conquered and ruled China, became Chinese. It seems preposterous now that someone could change cultural identity, but the early conception of Chinese was more inclusive and accepting. So if I use a Chinese worldview to navigate my most difficult personal trials, and if I invoke the same ideas to make sense of other parts of my world, then by the oldest definition, I am Chinese.

Oddly enough, much of the ancient Chinese perspective has been abandoned by most people in contemporary China. You will not find many Taoists among the highflying young businesspeople and consumers in Shanghai today. A self-interested materialism is far more commonly encountered.

But that's OK. If I can be Chinese, then they can be American.

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