“Why not”, a very common expression in English, French, and probably many other languages, feels utterly alien when translated into Chinese. It is definitely not part of the vernacular. In fact, one can hardly recall one single instance when Chinese people have used it voluntarily.
I have often wondered about this interesting and telling difference, and how it reveals the latent mentality between the cultures that ask “Why? and the ones that ask “Why not”. The former need sufficient reason in order to do something, whereas the latter need only find no reason not to do it. “Why not” opens up possibilities, prospects that are adventurous, exciting, and unpredictable, while “Why” limits one’s options, connoting stability, practicality, and definitiveness.
The fact that “Why not” does not exist in the Chinese language provides a glimpse into a culture that urges its subjects to always opt for choices that make sufficient sense. Certain characteristics that are perceived as neutral or even favorable in other cultures are deemed rather negative in ours, such as eccentricity, aggressiveness, and “difference”. We have dozens of proverbial sayings to back up this rationale of “playing it safe”. We are brought up on “The bird that pokes its head out first gets shot down”, and “Ignore the advice of the old, and misery will be around the corner”. Through numerous means taking various forms, we are taught to stay with the tradition and hide amongst our peers.
Something that my high school history teacher said in class has been etched inside my mind ever since that day more than a dozen years ago. I remember vividly how self-complacent she looked, as if passing on to us the golden key of wisdom that unlocks all doors in life. “The key to happiness”, she claimed, “is to do the right thing at the right time. That is to say, you study hard now in your teens and get into a good university. In your twenties you think about having relationships and getting married. In your thirties, you work, raise a family, and take care of your elders.” That’s it. I was amazed that life, which already seemed to be messier by the day back then, could be wrapped up so neatly in less than fifty words.
Yet that is exactly how a lot of people live, without exploring, without questioning. Perhaps the problem is not that we ask “Why” instead of “Why not”, but that we stopped asking questions altogether. The Chinese definition of happiness seems to be an endless ready-made list of categories to be checked and rated: school, job, money, house, car, bags, marriage, kids, vacation, kid’s school, kid’s grades... By silently ticking off each box and secretly comparing our list with others, we have indulged ourselves in the roles of mindless travelers merely browsing through life, burying some of the most meaningful questions we can ask about who we are and what we want so deep down in our consciousness that we stopped being aware that they even exist. As a result, certain important concepts in life have shed their rich layers in China, left with a superficial veneer.
Upon introducing my boyfriend, who is French, to friends and family, the most common first response I get is, “Oh, French! He must be so romantic!” Though the French has this reputation of being hopeless romantics, for the first few years of our relationship I never felt that he was romantic in any way. He never bought me flowers, never devised any surprise declaration of love on special occasions, and of course, never proposed.
Having watched dozens of French films and fought with my French guy about a hundred times, it finally dawned on me: It’s not that he’s not romantic. He’s just not romantic in the way that most people in my culture, myself included, construe the notion. We understand romance to be grand gestures, the likes of candlelight dinners, 999 roses, and exotic vacations in luxury resorts. We want the appearance of romance, so we can show that we are happy. As long as our WeChat Moments are filled with breathtaking pictures, nobody cares about what is really going on behind closed doors.
True romance has nothing to do with relationships or marriages, or even other people, for that matter. Your relationship with yourself is the only thing that matters. True romance means being honest about who you are, no matter how unsympathetic the environment is. It means defining your life instead of following rules, no matter how many mistakes you end up making or how much a loser you seem. It means having candid conversations with yourself, and when necessary, looking judgment in the eye and telling it to fuck off. True romance means freedom. It takes so much more than big bucks. It takes balls.
That being said, I’m not accusing my history teacher, the older generation, or anyone else who settles for a so-called “normal life” of being cowards or mindless drones. There are people who truly thinks that a suburban home close to parents is their ideal of a happy life, and on top of that, this nation has
so many good reasons to choose stability over boldness. We are an enormous population with relatively limited resources, and our national memory is instilled with a constant sense of insecurity and fear that life can be upended overnight, out of the blue, and for no good reason at all. In our days and time, this fear has been gradually diluted as it passed down from generation to generation, but it’s still there, stubborn, unyielding, forever warning against the lure of straying from the beaten paths. My history teacher meant well, like our parents and anyone who generously offers advice on how to conduct a life as smoothly and safely as possible. Don’t ask questions. Don’t think too much. Thinking and questioning leads to mistakes, and who knows which mistake will put you out of the game?
It is curious how a people so bent on practicality and utilitarianism often laments on our lack of imagination and creativity. It almost feels ironic, if it’s not so profoundly sad. What’s the use of imagination if you don’t believe it can make a difference? What’s the point of creativity if it will never materialize into something you can enjoy? How are we supposed to mature when we are pressured to make commitments before we have a chance to explore our possibilities? As long as these questions remain unanswered, the “Chinese Dream” that we so much want to indulge ourselves in will remain an empty shell, a golden shell maybe, studded with diamonds, but with freedom forever missing as the centerpiece.
I long for a future in this country where our children can ask “Why not”. Why not stay in a tent instead of a five-star hotel? Why not buy an RV instead of an apartment? Why not enjoy being single if you haven’t met someone you feel comfortable spending your life with? Why not skip kids and focus on your career if you feel like what you create, be it a company, a book, or a building, says more about who you are than a couple of screaming and whining little things. (For the record, I like kids, but I have to portray them as screaming and whining little things for the sake of the rhetoric.) Why not be gay and celebrate it? Why not be a freelancer and work outside the box? Why not ask questions and explore answers, or the lack thereof? Why not make mistakes and find out who you really are in spite of what everyone else says? Why not take a chance, and say “Why not”?
What's your story?
I was born and raised in Shanghai. Did undergrad in Beijing (with one semester exchanged in Hong Kong), Master's in New York, and then moved back to Beijing. I've never lived in France. I have tried studying French, three times, but always gave up when I came to the "conjugations". So technically I only speak Mandarin and English, but I also know a little bit of French and Cantonese. I'm currently working in film. I'd like to think of myself as a producer in the making.
Are you a debater?
I guess I am, but as I grow older debating starts to seem pointless.
What's more important, being right or being convincing?
Neither is as important as feeling convinced.
What inspired you to write this piece?
Having been caught between cultures and having to fight off a lot of the "brain-washing" that was instilled in me while growing up, the "Chinese way of living" has been a constant subject of contemplation.
You are unique as a multi-lingual Chinese person. What is the big difference between knowing 2 languages versus 3?
Every language opens up new perspectives and new worlds. One more language, one more angle to look at the world and life.
I imagine you have many insights into cultural and linguistic differences. What are some other topics you may write about in the future?
Relationships. Women/Gender. Identity. An idea just occurred to me: It would be interesting if you have a westerner listing things he/she finds bewildering/shocking about China and me trying to explain everything. (Haha. Fun!)