Wednesday, August 7, 2013

In Search of Dragons to Slay

My dad came down to Atlanta for a weekend in order to do some housework and inspections before his new tenants moved into a home my parents own. During that time, he also made time to visit me. Half of that time was spent talking about investing principles and the movement of stock prices. The other half was him and my mom (via Skype) badgering me about getting a girlfriend so I can marry her and then have her pop out some grandchildren. Let it be known that this is not an unusual way for Chinese parents to spend time with their kids.

This is a familiar routine in my life. My parents had a pretty laissez faire attitude towards parenting (in comparison to other Chinese families). Moderate to long periods of relative autonomy would be punctured by brief, but pointed, bouts of hectoring about something or other. The thing they were nagging about always changed as soon as I had achieved it. High GPA and SAT score? Get into a good college. Got into a good college? Get a good job. Got a good job? Get a good (preferably Chinese) girlfriend. Got a girlfriend? Why haven't you married her? Married her? Where are the grandkids? Grandkids are here? Now you have to be rich so you can provide for them.

Don't get me wrong. I didn't mind it that much and I don't think it's unreasonable nor unhealthy for parents to have expectations of their children. In hindsight, I can say that they steered me in the right direction to make the right choices that you need to make throughout your life in order to be a relative success in society. Looking back on it, I appreciate the fact that they pushed me in a direct and transparent way as opposed to the passive aggressive covert battles that upper middle class white parents fight with their kids or the hopeful-but-clueless manner in the way that working class families raise their kids.

But sometimes it gets exhausting. No matter how many rungs you've climbed, there are always more to climb. And the methods for climbing them change because the rungs themselves have different shapes and sizes. This is roughly analogous to the progression of the average human lifestyle.

In the 18th century, the vast majority (95%+) of people lived on farms. They worked long hours during the spring, summer, and fall so that they could harvest the food that would see them and their families into the next year. From the perspective of the modern American, life was pretty dull, exhausting, and fraught with uncertainty, most of which revolved around failed harvests and contracting diseases.

In the 19th and early 20th century, as people began moving into the cities, many of them worked in menial service jobs like porters, salesmen, food service, general labor. Or they worked in a factory. They could buy food for themselves and could afford a few luxuries now and then. This was also the time when organized entertainment became much more prevalent, as miraculous things such as the train, radios and telegraphs made it possible to dedicate more time to leisure. Even then, nobody from today would want to live the lifestyle that those Americans lived.

In the immediate postwar period, which saw the greatest period of families moving out of the drudgery of the Great Depression and into prosperity. Families formed at a rapid clip. People moved out of the cities and into the suburbs and lived in single family homes. And in those homes were a radio, refrigerator, dishwasher, television, and a car or two, depending on how far dad was in his career.

Modern medicine improved greatly during this time, with the widespread use of vaccines and antibiotics eliminating the diseases that had once been the scourge of mankind. It was during this time period where diseases of affluence (heart disease, various cancers, and obesity) started their ascent to the top of the mortality charts, displacing longstanding heavyweights such as starvation, exposure, communicable diseases, and warfare.

The era we live in now is unprecedented. The vast majority of a person's time used to be spent keeping themselves properly fed, clothed, and sheltered. Now, we take all of that for granted. And because we've become so efficient at feeding, clothing, and sheltering ourselves, it's created a whole new set of problems that we have to deal with. Health care, which is a relatively new concept in the course of history, is now regarded as something close to an inalienable right in the developed world.

During these past three centuries, humans have improved their lot tremendously. And it seems like we are never satisfied with what we have, even when what we have now could have only been found in the wildest dreams of those who lived just 50 years ago. As soon as we've conquered one problem, it's onto the next. We'll stop only when we're dead.

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