I’ve spent a long time believing that the only good thing in life is pleasure. Because what else is there? Only pain, and there’s no shortage of that in this world. But I’ve also long accepted that we’re meant to endure a hellovalota pain in life, if only to better feel pleasure when it comes.
I very recently moved to a place where I don’t speak the language, where I knew I’d never be comfortable because it’s the biggest city in the world and I don’t like cities, where they don’t have my preferred variety of medicine and in fact kill people for using it—a place where I knew I’d be challenged every single day, because that’s what I decided it means to not waste my youth.
I know this is all very abstract. I have trouble making things concrete. Let me see if I can: I moved to Shanghai with a childhood friend three weeks ago. I’m here to teach English and he’s here to break into the Chinese side of a technical sales career. We moved here without jobs and without a place to live.
I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t done all that well against the challenges of being an ex-pat so far. I’ve already thought about cutting and running a number of times. I take every opportunity to hide and insulate myself with Western culture (although I gotta say, on the ground Shanghai these days don’t look much different from, like, Manhattan). When things haven’t gone well, I’ve let the darkness in, and once it’s in I can’t see anything as it actually is.
I’m lucky enough, however, to have been guided by some amazing people in my life, and I’ve learned to remind myself of one important rule: hang on. Just don’t let go. I know it hurts, and everything around you can be overwhelmingly sad and infuriating, but if you can just hang the fuck on for a little while longer the darkness will go away…
Because it has to. If you are capable of tremendous sorrow then you are capable of extraordinary bliss as well, because you have to be, because of Zen and the nature of all that is, and if you wait long enough it will come… Because it has to.
I’m struggling as much as anyone just to put one foot in front of the other. But I believe that if I continue to do so I will eventually get somewhere I want to be.
All things are temporary, all things are in motion. All things are changing all the time. The universe is in flux, and so are you.
As we were told, and have been finding during our experiences here, everything in China is negotiable and no one follows the rules, which means no one cares if you follow the rules either. Furthermore the words on a contract don’t mean anything, it’s the relationships that count. Which makes you realize how cold-hearted and callous the American system truly is, where the fine print on page 36-B can bankrupt you or worse. China starts to make a lot of sense when you get past the strangeness, and everything tends to work out better than you’d expect.
The hard part is surviving with all that uncertainty. As the money starts to run out, and you wake up every day knowing that you only have one person in your world who can understand a word out of your mouth, gradually all the commotion in the city becomes louder, the rain smells like exhaust, the food starts to make you sick, the beer tastes like water and the water tastes like plastic.
When these things start to happen you must find moments, however small, to get you through; those brief seconds when the sparkling skyline makes you feel a thousand years of history at once, when a smile from someone beautiful fills you with confidence and desire, when a moment of silence on an empty rooftop under a cut-glass image of Buddha tells you that everything is and always will be alright. These are the moments you use to hang on when the darkness gets its hooks in you. It’s all you ever get, and it’s all you ever really need.
To sign off I leave you with a quote that I saved a long time ago, one that I serendipitously happened upon while writing this article: “…Whoever has at some time built a ‘new heaven’ has found the power to do so only in his own hell.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay, Section 10
Gibson wrote this article for Flux, an online magazine for those of us encountering adulthood. Gibson is an aspiring poet and author, an anthropology enthusiast, and an amateur songwriter. He is currently living in Shanghai, China, and teaching English to support himself as he pursues a writing career.