Some (Chinese) philosophy on relationships


Forbidden City, with the BNU Philosophy Summer school 2016 batch

Context: This is a reflection on the friends I made at Beijing Normal University Philosophy Summer School. as well as some musing on people from my 23 years of relating with human beings.

Prior to the trip in Beijing. I had two intentions: First, I want is to learn more about what is happening in Beijing and China at large, what people there care about and how they are thinking about the country and where it is heading towards. Second, I want to make some new connections, for people always trump places for me. I was excited to know that the group was rather diverse; my 45 classmates came from many different places in the world, from the land of the Kiwi to various parts of Asia and Europe to the US of A.

There are a lot to observe about Beijing — the streets, the city planning, the pace of life, the way people interact with each other. Whenever I travel to a new place, I always ask “Can I see myself living here?” I do have that sense in Beijing, even though I don’t speak Mandarin. The city reminds me of Saigon, Vietnam somehow — things move fast, lots of opportunities and exciting happenings beyond commercial stuff. Nevertheless, people have always left a  stronger impression on me, so I find it easier to reflect on the people I met. I learned a lot through the perspectives of my friends, especially how they all see China and have different responses to the lives here.

It is such a rare and wonderful opportunity to have people who care about philosophy not only in the academic sense but also in a personal sense.  When a group of thoughtful people is put together in a new environment for two weeks, some close friendships are bound to happen. I made new friends, some at a deeper personal level. Some opened up and drew for me their inner landscapes, which are all very beautiful. I did regret not having enough time with some people. Nevertheless, I know this human to human connection takes time to grow, and every encounter we have is always the beginning of something real and good.

The last night many of us went to have a drink at a street restaurant (that is how people in many Asian countries “hang out”). We all sat around a few tables, playing a drinking game as a way to share and know more about each other. The experience was particularly memorable for me, partly because of what was said but even more so because of what it reminded me about being human.

As the night went on, we were more and more drawn into each other’s life through the questions we asked the group. I could tell that the quality of my listening started to shift to a deeper place. What are the important lessons you are taking away from this experience? How has our sexual identity influence our lives? What makes a good person? What would you do differently from the trip? Each question asked met with many beautiful responses. Our Brazilian friend Hander made a comment: “This group of philosophy people is way more interesting than political science people”. Perhaps philosophy students do ask good questions, although I don’t know if the experience was meaningful because of our philosophy background or because of our shared humanity. After all, there should never be a distinction between the study of philosophy and the living of it.

I closed my eyes and tried to resonate with the emotions behind the stories. The whole scene felt like a piece of music that was both well-written and spontaneous, so beautiful that I could not just stand by listening to but have to sing along. Whenever I am engaged in anything, from writing to listening to good music to talking to people – and this maybe a common experience for many –  there is a paradoxical sense that I feel like already knowing what the next moment is and yet every moment feels fresh as it arrives. Every note is at the right place; every story shared at the right time. Even and especially the silence seemed right, when I could step back, breathe, shifting my attention to the whizzing sound of the cars on the street and take the entire scene in. Staying silent allows me to enjoy the beauty of the moment and also to honor the person behind every story with their full, messy, pretty self. It was important to be in and to hold the space.

In a sense, the stories told were not entirely new. They were all parts of the collective human experiences — be it self-doubt or the pain of rejection or a struggle to accept ourselves and other people. I’m lucky enough to have been a part of several circles of authentic sharing like this. Yet they were so fresh and delicious — the difference was as stark as between frozen packaged broccoli and the one we get directly from the farm.

There is something quite sacred about being on the street of a foreign place, with a group of initial strangers who turned into friends. It must be strange for the Chinese restaurant owner to see a group of mixed colors and genders occasionally bursting into tears (as long as we were still getting more beers). Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate that tear is what happened when a person feels connected with oneself, with others and with some greater Force. That is why crying should be celebrated instead of shunned (plus the salty tears are pretty tasty – try licking next time).

Speaking of tears, whenever I hear stories of “Big men don’t cry” and how it leads to the over development of “maleness” nowadays, I just feel thankful for being raised by a single mother. If crying is ever bad, it is because it is messy, not because it is a sign of weakness, which is really nice because messiness for me and many others is much easier to embrace than weakness. I’m also less inclined to make the trite distinction between “masculine” vs “feminine” energy; it just means we are exploring and embracing a fuller sense of who we are and how we can be in the world.

The experience also made me think more about how to respond in the presence of someone’s outpouring of so-called difficult emotions. I often don’t say “It’s ok” and “We love you” and I wonder if I should say these phrases. To this day, I still wonder how to show my affirmation better. Should I say something along that line, offer a hug or just stay silent? The answer is always “It depends”. What does the situation look like? How does the other person tends to receive? From my side, I have to learn to both be more well versed in these different expressions of affirmation as well as to read the situation better to know what best to do. Words can be powerful, sometimes too much so. Hug is great, but I wonder if I hug people because they really need a hug or I just really want to hug?

Generally, action does speak louder than word, yet especially in this kind of situation it might be better to do nothing. As the Daoist concept of “wu wei” goes, sometimes nonaction speaks the loudest.

For example, when someone expresses how she feels about me, should I respond “Thank you” or “That means a lot to me” even if I don’t feel it? Or should I remain silent? I used to value sincerity and only express what I really feel. My common response to compliment these days is silence. If the person is curious enough to ask me how I feel, I will say “I’m just enjoying the moment.” Learning about Confucius and his emphasis on ritual has swayed me a bit though. It is tempting to think of ritual as insincere scripted actions, but that is missing the spirit of his teaching. Sincerity is to stay true with one’s feeling, but feeling can be cultivated. As such, sincerity and tactfulness do not contradict at all if we cultivate ourselves to have the appropriate feelings in every moment. And as with anything else for the Chinese masters, it is a life long practice.

Generally grownups need to have a clear, compelling reason to do something. (That’s why Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan is mostly for them; children don’t need that push) I often hear “start with Why”, yet what happened when I dug deeper within myself with these Why questions is the realization that I could not get to the answer just by asking. I have to start doing something. In other words, I can also start with What.

It has got easier for me to practice something without fully understanding the reason or meaning behind. With diligent practice the meaning will come. (Perhaps my next practice will be to say “I love you” more often to more people more often. Too much philosophy like “What do we mean by love?” and “Who are you and anyway?” are pretty counter productive as you can tell.)

On the last note, I’m often humbled and inspired to hear what people are working on about themselves. In our journey of becoming, we all need support in one way or another, even and especially those whom others have always leaned on. Which is why my answer to the question “What will I do after the trip?” was “To do a better job of following up and following through”. Even though I will probably never know the impact I have on people, I know for sure that I can be a lot more, and that I will have to do a lot more.


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