An existential crisis

In the past when people asked “what do you want to do?”, my initial reaction was “to change the world”! But our very existence has already changed the world. Is it in any meaningful and lasting way? No idea. Now I can only answer “I don’t know” or “it depends”. What to do with all the choices, all the decisions and all the uncertainties? Do we… I… even have to do anything at all? I don’t think ‘existential crisis’ is too severe a term for some of my thoughts lately. For me, it’s more related to the purpose of our lives, whether we have a meaning or value or importance. I’ve never questioned my own mortality because it’s an undeniable part of our existence. Death and taxes, no? But our time is limited, pending science fiction discoveries in health, and what to do with that time has been troubling me. Though it’s not related at all to my academic background, maybe I’ll go work for that gaming company after all. Or flee back to the safety of academia, assuming there’s enough room for the underpaid. What bright prospects! No, maybe my existential crisis isn’t personal at all. Maybe it’s a crisis for all of humankind, for something other than ‘to survive’.

The recent discovery of the Higgs boson (or something remarkably similiar) hasn’t helped my thoughts very much. You can find a brilliantly animated explanation here from PHD Comics or some of the best analogies here. So many of the world’s most brilliant minds had gathered at CERN to discover the elusive particle and success finally came on July 4th after billions of dollars in investment and more than five decades of searching.

Though my knowledge of partical physics is probably limited to references from the Big Bang Theory, I still feel the importance of such a discovery. I remember hearing references to the Higgs boson from way back when, and the limits of science have been pushed far beyond traditional boundaries. Why am I, as an individual, not working towards a greater cause to alter human history? A part of me still wonders how so many resources could be devoted to this cause all the while children die from curable diseases. Another part wonders about the motivations of governments to fund such experiments – probably to produce weapons of mass destruction. Maybe even weapons of ultimate destruction. Maybe this is the beginning of the science fiction scenario in which surviving humankind must live in space because Earth has been rendered completely uninhabitable! Perhaps, maybe, possibly, probably, with a chance of, could be…

“Better than having no choices at all”, another part of me says. I then think of the strict, terrifying education regime in China and especially the recent fallout from of the national university entrance exam. Middle school students get IV drips as they study. A student learned his mother has passed away only after taking the exam. These are extreme cases, while high school seniors studying everyday from 7am-7pm (with a halfday on Sunday) and homework until 1am is the norm. I am grateful to have not grown up under such a system. And yet, because of the privileges and choices I’ve been given, I feel more pressure to achieve something. Once, I asked my dad what I should do for a career (aside from being a doctor like him). He answered: “It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re the best.”

China in general hasn’t helped my crisis much either. The entire country seems to be going through an existential crisis and living here has made the feeling all the more prominent. China is all the hype these days, and an Economist blog post on learning mandarin made it to the top ten commented and recommended lists. Conjugation doesn’t exist, but there are tones. Writing can be complicated, but speaking can be easy. To provide that extra boost, some parents have actually relocated to Asia so their children can have the benefits of knowing mandarin. The number of foreigners with fluent mandarin on the streets of Beijing continue to surprise me, though I don’t know why it does. So many have lived and worked here for years and may be more Chinese at heart than Chinese citizens abroad. On the other hand, the series of foreigners misbehaving in China continues with the pool incident as the newest installation. The country which once idolized anything foreign has been provoked and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a surge of nationalism in response.

The government has been featuring a series of unsung heros and Good Samaritans throughout the country. A recent SCMP article tells the story of how state propaganda is eager to show off the good side of China and the selfless sacrifices some have made. As the article not available without a subscription, here is a recent list of these heros:

  • Zhou Chong: rescued a three-year-old girl dangling by the neck while he was on his way to a job interview. “He has had his face splashed across Guangdong’s newspapers and television broadcasts. He was sent to Beijing to meet Politburo members, including propaganda chief Liu Yunshan, who dubbed him “a hero of our era”.”
  • Zhang Lili: teacher in Heilongjiang province whose legs had to be amputated after pushing two children out of the path of an oncoming bus
  • Wu Bin: bus driver in Zhejiang province who steered his passengers to safety after he was fatally hit by a metal object that smashed through his windscreen
  • Zhou Yulan: a teacher in Hubei province who risked her life to protect 659 college entrance exam admission cards during a robbery

These stories amaze me, and I become optimistic knowing there are still good people in the world, particularly in China. If in their positions, what would we do?

Unfortunately, these individual heroic acts are no match for the pervasive broader system. Want a fake degree from a fake institution? How about putting spikes under overpasses to prevent the homeless from seeking shelter there? Or sentencing a maid to 10 years in prison for theft of their employer’s cellphone? Or an abortion at 7 months? … Definitely a crisis, if not an existential one. With the new leader of Hong kong being met by protesters and the once in a decade change in leadership scheduled for October (or maybe November now), what changes will we see come this time next year?

Questions will keep on rolling in, and all we can do – all I can do – is try to gather my thoughts once in a while and hope not all my friends leave Beijing in July. I have reached one conclusion though: I want to stay in Beijing for the near future. Too much is happening here to just leave so soon. The challenge now is to find a way to stay (read: job I like). I am still ready for that epiphany and my fingers are crossed.

Although… it’s good to know my mindset isn’t quite as bleak as Mr. Jon Arbuckle’s. At least not yet.

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