Bowing is an ancient rite. It seems quite strange and foreign—especially in America. But I have been bowing to my parents.
It is not because I believe in ancestral worship but because I appreciate their presence in me. Because I can apprehend them, I can truly respect them – a duality that exists in unity.
Looking back, I guess I can say my childhood and adolescence were not very satisfactory. My parents divorced when I was nineteen but they had already been separated for about eight years. When I was in fifth grade, my father told us that he wanted us to get a better education in America. We all knew it was because he had a new girlfriend. My mother had fought with him over this girlfriend but it only deepening their mistrust of each other.
We eventually moved to the United States. I did not like living in America for a long time. There was a strong anti-immigration sentiment in California in the early 90s. Some students often made fun of me, so I felt very inferior, and in retrospect, I was very angry. Unable to assert myself in public, I gave my mother and my brother a very difficult time.
When I entered college, I thought everything would change. In the fairy tales told by Chinese parents, college is where young men and women go to live happily ever after. Just study hard for college, and you will find everything you wish for. Somehow I never really questioned this belief. But I soon realized that things were not going to be this simple.
My mother forgot to submit my dorm application while I was outside the country. I did not get to live in the dorms when I returned after the summer. As a result, I did not make many friends and was often lonely. I was also shocked by the competitiveness in school. High school was easy but in college, you are with other students who excelled in their high schools. I began to realize that college is not a destination but just another starting point. I still had to work and compete in order to advance. In addition to good grades, there are internships to do, and after college, there are jobs and promotions to get. After I jumped through a hoop, there was another hoop waiting for me. There seemed to be no end to this.
I felt lost. At a deeper level, I felt directionless. It was a persistent feeling, like the fear of death, but I learned very early not to think about it. Before college, I could always look to the future. However after entering college, where I was supposed to have the time of my life, I realized that the future is only better in my imagination.
My turning point happened on a cruise ship with my family. On a cruise, there are certain days when you are stuck on the ship. In this case, it was not just being stuck on a ship, but being on a ship loaded with exuberant people. I am not sure what they were exuberant about, maybe because cruises are supposed to be filled with excitement. Anyway, I got depressed and started thinking about my problems – why wasn’t I happy when I was supposed to be?
After some serious thinking, I concluded that there could only be three possibilities: One possibility was that I did not have what I wanted. It seemed simple: people are happy when they get what they want. Of course that raised the question, “What do I really want?” I thought money, status and a girlfriend would probably do it. However, looking at my father and his friends who had successful careers, none of them were happy in the sense that I wanted to be. There was always more to get and no end in sight. Plus, upon deeper examination, I wondered if I really wanted these things or if they would really bring me happiness. I really didn’t know.
I also remembered the VH1 TV Show “Behind the Music” where they examine the life of rock stars. One recurring theme on “Behind the Music” is that people dreamed and tried very hard to be a rock star, but when they succeeded, they realized that it was not what they imagined. Soon they began to abuse drugs and engage in other self-destructive behaviors. It may sound strange, but I saw the rock stars’ experience as a pattern in my own life. I thought that happiness was about getting something or achieving certain goals. However things were usually not what I imagined them to be. Things are just the way they are: limited and imperfect. Therefore, even when I achieved my goals, I was disappointed.
What was worse is that the belief that happiness can be obtained automatically puts one in a position of being in a state of unhappiness. It implies that I will be happier if I have more. Therefore I will never be happy, just “almost” happy. As a result, I dismissed the possibility that happiness can come from possessions even though it seemed to go against the values of mainstream society.
The second possibility, I thought, is that my parents really damaged me with their failed marriage. It must have somehow affected my subconscious or something. It seems that you can trace everything in your life back to your childhood experience. On TV, I saw how psychologists can guess a person’s childhood experience just by listening to their current problems. Therefore I found this possibility quite plausible because the analysis on the TV shows are almost always correct, and I could definitely see how my parents could have changed my life.
Yet there were also many questions. As I thought more deeply, I wondered, “Who has the perfect parents?” I have a brother and a sister. The perfect parents for me may not be the perfect parents for them. Is happiness impossible just because our parents are not saints? Are we like robots that are programmed for life? Although the psychological argument sounded compelling at first, I had to dismiss it because if it were true, no one could possibly be happy.
The third possibility was that there was something deeper in life. Maybe I needed to examine things more closely and not simply accept what was commonly accepted by most people in society. What is happiness? Or more importantly, how can I be happy? And above all, who am I? How can I be happy if I don’t even know who I am and what makes me happy?
At first, it seemed obvious, I am this person. But if I know myself so well, how come I don’t know how to make myself happy? If I do not know myself, who does know? I tend to think that I know myself more than others because I have a private side that others do not see. However my knowledge of myself also comes from a limited perspective, so how do I know it is more true? Sometime I saw people who thought of themselves as being higher than I would think of them. Are they as high as they think of themselves or as low as I thought of them?
These questions were much more difficult than I expected. So I began thinking and thinking. Every question seemed to raise more questions so I got quite confused. I kept thinking even after the cruise ended. My family all gathered at my aunt’s house, but I kept thinking. We all went to the mall to go shopping, but I kept thinking.
I guess I wasn’t really thinking, it was more like I was self-absorbed, and so I wasn’t much interested in shopping. I saw a coffee stand and went over to buy a cup of coffee. Since I hadn’t had a coffee for a while, it felt kind of nice, and I really enjoyed it. Then a thought came to me – this coffee is actually not that good! How come I enjoy it so much?!
It seems that I enjoyed it because I haven’t had a good coffee for a while. It might sound weird but it was like something clicked in my head. My experience of the world was largely interpreted, I realized after seeing how my mind shifted from one perspective to another. Through judgments and comparisons, I created values. Ultimately happiness and unhappiness were just a thought derived from my interpretation of the situation. Thus I had the power to just choose and be happy, without reliance on anything external. It is not like the happiness of going to a party, but more like being at peace, enjoying and appreciating the moment knowing that everything is going to be OK.
Along with this feeling of freedom and happiness, I felt the whole world somehow brightened. Everything seemed more beautiful and everyone seemed more likeable. This feeling made sense because the world I experienced was interpreted by myself; when my feelings changed, the world I experienced changed as well.
My happiness lasted for about two or three days until it got interrupted when I got into an argument. I tried to return to the feeling quickly, but it was a little diminished. With every shock and interruption, the feeling continued to fade.
I tried to comprehend the transition I had, wishing to sustain what I experienced. Instinctively I looked for religious books. I knew I could not find explanations in typical books because they were written based on mundane experiences: space, time, self and others. Not that I don’t think these things exist, but I think they don’t matter much in terms of happiness. I believe that people are most concerned about being happy. Now that I saw that happiness was independent of these things, I viewed these things as not extremely important.
I settled on Buddhist books. Growing up with a Buddhist grandma, I already had a leaning towards Buddhism. However, my understanding of Buddhism was only superficial. I gave other religions some thought, but most of them were centered on worshiping a Creator. I was not very interested in the questions relating to a Creator, because it seemed to be a distant question when I did not even know my “self”.
To be continued