To Eke Out a Living in an Age of Hate
I’m going to try not to belabor the backstory behind this piece, because it’s truly a brilliant story from the author and I do think the moral here deserves to be consumed without too much distraction.
Let me just say that this piece wouldn’t have come to my attention, however, if my aunt didn’t get put on a WeChat timeout for sending this to our family group. Since I’m a sucker for reverse psychology, this pretty much ensured that I’d figure out what this article was about. And after reading the piece, I think it goes to show just how much tighter the vise of Chinese online censorship has become in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The original Chinese has been (predictably) removed from Weibo; the copy I used to create this translation can be found here. I recommend reading the original Chinese if you can; I’ve only captured a fraction of its charm.]
I came home from work to find my wife shedding silent tears. Immediately, I asked her what was wrong.
“Our son’s flight got canceled. He can’t come home now.”
“Come on, that’s nothing to cry about,” I said. “If he wears his PPE like he’s supposed to, he’ll be just fine.”
“I know,” she said. “It’s not just that though, the people on the Internet are vicious, you know? They hate the students who come home with a passion, they think that students like him are intentionally bringing the virus back to China — and the things they say are just awful, so awful!”
“I don’t understand!” she continued. “Back when the pandemic was really bad in China, he had organized volunteers to buy PPE from America and ship it here. And now, all of a sudden, he’s an enemy of the Chinese people. How?”
I had no words to give my wife. But in my heart, I knew that the seeds of hatred — after countless years of society’s reinforcement and nurture — had already cast their obstinate roots deep into the hearts of many Chinese people, to the point that their hearts no longer had room for love.
My first memory of hatred as a child is when I met my father for the first time.
I was six. He was an intellectual.
He’d never even seen a single hair of Lin Biao’s¹ before he was mysteriously implicated as a member of Lin’s entourage. After a series of inhumane experiences at the hands of a variety of tormentors, my father became intent on taking his own life. Fortunately, my mother had given birth to me at around the same time; after receiving her letter, he decided to live.
From that point on, he was imprisoned on a cargo ship and forced to take on the role of boatswain. Out of the extreme and irrational acrimony towards him, he was never allowed to see my mother or me until the year I turned six.
My mother had prepared a gift for the occasion: when the cargo ship made a stop in our town, I — and I alone — could visit my father for a moment. My mother wasn’t allowed to accompany me on board; my father wasn’t allowed to debark. It was already an act of monumental kindness that father and son were permitted to see each other at all. If they had conceded to a reunion of husband and wife on top of that — oh goodness, where would the revolutionary spirit have gone?
I remember it as a winter day, disconsolately overcast. I was holding a basket the size of my entire torso filled with some youtiao for my father. The basket almost completely blocked my vision as I slowly made my way up the plank that they had lowered for me.
The plank was narrow and long, and the riverbank the ship had docked at was very high. As a six-year-old without his mother, I was very, very scared.
There were many people watching as I struggled, but not a single person from onboard the ship offered the slightest modicum of help or hint of sympathy. Instead, these men jeered at me, laughing and trying to get me to call them “dad.” I didn’t know the significance behind the taunt back then, but what I did know — what I could feel — was the malice of these men. It made me nervous.
Though I had never seen my father until that moment, I was able to pick him out instantly, because there was only one man on that entire ship that day whose face was covered in happy tears, only one man whose eyes were overflowing with love.
I walked up to him, handed him the basket.
“Papa, have some youtiao,” I said timidly. Before I could say anything more, my father had taken me in his arms, his tears a downpour.
And yet, even in the presence of such a scene, not a single onlooker was moved. There was even a group of people interlacing their snide remarks with uncouth comments.
Just like that, the seeds of hatred began to germinate in the corners of my six-year-old psyche. I had stayed on the ship for a whole afternoon, which gave me plenty of time to have a good piss into all of their drinks.
The year I turned seven, I was enrolled in first grade. In our first semester, we were taught to sing, through clenched teeth, verses like “Take down Lin Biao, take down Confucius; they’re no good at all, they’re no good at all.” I was very confused: did this Confucius guy work in the same office as Lin Biao?
They also taught us about how evil the bourgeois landowners were, taught us to stamp down on their backs and skewer their bodies with ten thousand spears. It was an education mired in hatred: we were never taught love, kindness, or empathy for our fellow humans.
However, love — along with the thickening of my vocal cords and the first signs of whiskers on my upper lip — inevitably came. At fifteen, I fell in love with a girl.
When our “licentious encounters” were discovered, my principal and guidance counselor summoned me, all smiles and courtesy, to their office. After going through the motions of moralization, they demanded that I give them all the “details” — how did I undo her buttons? How did I kiss her? Where did I touch her first? Where did I touch her next? How did I touch her? And they never could emphasize this enough: details, more details! There was hardly a shred of humanity, caring, or pedagogy to be found in the entire interaction, only perverse, leering voyeurism.
That wasn’t enough for them though. I had to make my rounds, write my self-reflections, admit my crimes, engage in self-criticism. In front of all of my classmates, the entire school, I was forced to narrate my “licentious encounter” over and over again in excruciating detail. Because of this, I became “famous” among the students.
Seeing their gleeful schadenfreude made me seethe with animosity. Back then, I remember thinking that if I had the power to control the world, I’d definitely have all of their bodies chopped up into a million pieces. I’d even grind their bones into powder and scatter it in the wind. The seeds of hatred had fully taken root in my heart, thriving and well.
Back when I was sixteen, having ten thousand yuan saved up was the benchmark of luxury — the equivalent of being a millionaire today. Having spent my time outside of school running a business on the side, I’d managed to accumulate a small fortune of 50,000 yuan. By the consumption levels of yesteryear, I should have been able to retire at sixteen and live comfortably past ninety.
However, everything changed after 1990, when hyperinflation of epic proportions not only stole away my hard-earned savings, but also robbed millions of Chinese families of their livelihoods. The year I married my wife, the fortune that could have lasted me a lifetime could barely buy us a wedding feast, and not even a good one at that.
In the blink of an eye, the wealth of many hardworking, kind, and frugal people vanished into smoke, into air. What scares me the most is that this cycle is destined to repeat itself, allowing hatred to live on.
Decades of hatred in our education, our culture has led to one prominent social aftereffect: egoism. People only have eyes for their own wellbeing and couldn’t care less about others — apathy and selfishness comprise the meager contents of their loveless hearts. Moreover, their minds are quick to agitate, having long been deprived of the ability to think for themselves.
Not that I’d been an exception; inexorably, I had also become a pawn in this game of ignorance and bitterness. In the early days of my company, my employees had no vacation days or holidays. I worked them until midnight each and every day.
Once, a friend had referred a new employee to my company. On his first day, the new guy ended his shift at midnight and hurried back to the office to get his relief, only to see an entire building’s worth of people still working feverishly at 1 A.M. He never came back the second day.
My old blog posts were filled to the brim with frenzied anger. Though I did make myself quite a bit of money, I’d always felt a kind of indescribable anxiety — a kind of nameless pressure that haunted me, made me suspicious of everything for no reason. Under its influence, I was prone to exploding with fury. My mood would swing from ecstasy to misery on a dime; I hardly ever felt happy.
That is, until I boarded a plane to the United States one fateful year.
I’ve always been someone who’s hypersensitive to my surroundings. If I’ve been somewhere before, I can usually sense if something has changed there since the last time I’ve visited — even if it’s a minor detail. So, when I first stepped onto my Delta Airlines flight, I immediately felt…off.
In our Chinese sensibilities, flight attendants should all be young, pretty, and slim. But that was not the case at Delta: I was greeted by kindly grandmas as well as full-figured Indian ladies. Through my apprehension, I watched as these stewardesses — no, steward-aunts, steward-uncles, and steward-grandmas—cheerfully served us our food.
And I could truly feel that their smiles and manners came from their hearts, that it wasn’t just professional courtesy. Their positivity was contagious: before I knew it, I had become happy myself.
Arriving in America also threw me for a loop. When I’d go out in the mornings, random people on the street, regardless of whether I knew them or not, would greet me as if they were happy to see me. Even the homeless people on the street seemed to radiate a sort of intrinsic joy.
I know that America isn’t a perfect country, and that it also has its own fair share of issues. But on the issue of happiness, it’s leagues away from the scowling, miserly, Machiavellian world that we’re used to as Chinese people. During that trip, and even after I returned home, I couldn’t seem to figure out why these American people were so happy. What’s more, we’ve always looked down on them and considered them lazy — after all, they didn’t work from nine to nine six days a week. How is it possible that they’re the people responsible for nearly 40% of the world’s GDP?
With a head full of doubts, I would visit the United States several more times before I was able to figure it out.
You see, in America, discriminatory hiring practices are frowned upon. Airlines aren’t allowed to tell people they can’t be flight attendants simply because of their body type. That’d be illegal. In their country’s founding principles, it’s established that all men are created equal. If you have money, I can look up to you, but it doesn’t mean that I’m any lesser than you as a person. It’s possible for members of majority groups to hold a decent amount of respect for minority groups — genuine esteem from the bottoms of their hearts, not patronizing and not out of pity.
A classic example of this is their practice of tipping: in the beginning, I never wanted to bother with tips since I thought they were a pain, but I eventually realized that tips were a respectable way for people who have extra to help out people who might have less. A few extra dollars on a bill isn’t asking too much of most anyone, but if everyone gave a few extra dollars every day, that server or bellhop or barber can accept a sizeable increase to their income with the satisfaction of knowing they’ve earned every cent of it. The entire society is built around the assumption that everyone has love in their hearts and the ideal that everyone should receive an equal amount of respect as a human being. In this way, if people are encouraged to give love, they’ll receive happiness, forming a positive feedback loop.
When it comes to notable events in history, we can’t go without mentioning the two World Wars. After Germany lost World War I, the British and the French sought to punish Germany through imposing economic strictures and demanding reparations. They sought to fight prejudice with even more prejudice. As a result, this collective hostility set the stage for Hitler to come into power and cause an even bigger tragedy in World War II.
The second time around, America learned from the world’s mistakes. They not only refused reparations from the Axis powers, but also initiated the Marshall Plan to financially assist the Western European nations that have been badly damaged by the war. Through this act of generosity, America won the sincere gratitude of many nations, ensuring peace and prosperity in Europe for decades to come. It goes to show that the strongest force in this world doesn’t come from any sort of artillery — but love, plain and simple.
Before I came to this realization, I had been quite cold and uncaring towards my own employees and the underprivileged. For instance, I used to say that I would never hire people with families. I never acknowledged the janitors who were helping me keep my office clean, and I’d even pick fights with parking attendants when parking my car. I was always looking to provoke, always disregarding the presence of others, so it would make sense that what I received from society was also provocation and disregard in return. It was small wonder that I had been plagued by anxiety and mood swings. The money I made never made me happy. My company also felt like it lacked a self-sustaining, core competitiveness — nothing felt steady. I always had to keep prodding and pressuring people to keep us afloat, which exhausted me wholly, body and soul.
Under the influence of American culture, I gradually learned to respect each and every person I came across. I began greeting my janitors whenever I’d see them in the building. If I went to park my car and the attendant was busy with other customers, I would wait for them without complaint and even pay them a little extra.
At first, these were deliberate acts, but over time, they became habit. By then, I was truly able to feel an unprecedented sense of happiness.
Around the same time, I started protecting my employees from overtime work, fighting off client requests so that everyone could maintain a healthy work-life balance. When any of my employees had children, I used to put a stamp on their papers to deduct their benefits accordingly. Now, that stamp is hardly ever used; I also look to help out my new parents wherever I can. Because I recognize now that while to a boss, their company might be the world, a child is a parent’s whole world. Everyone possesses different ideals, energies, and families — so it’d be unreasonable for me to hold other people to my own standards of intensity and performance at work.
This world needs racers who run free on the track just as much as it needs cheerleaders who boost morale from the sidelines. And every person has a natural, unalienable right to choose the way they want to live, whether it’s the ideals they strive for or the lifestyle they prefer. To a boss who has a dominating personality like myself, it’s a right that I need to pay special attention to. I have to take care not to lord over all my employees and realize that at the end of the day, we’re all equal as humans.
Previously, whenever I heard that a company was “rockstars-only” or that a company participates in “wolf culture,” I’d always feel a sense of admiration.
But a while back, I heard about something that happened at Huawei: one of their top employees wanted to resign because his wife didn’t want to stay in Shenzhen, so Ren Zhengfei told the guy to divorce her.
Though I used to look up to Ren Zhengfei as an entrepreneur, this story shattered my impression of him completely. Each and every person has their own life: they fall in love, they drop their kids off at school, they help their kids prep for college, they take care of their parents — it would be impossible, not to mention inadvisable, for them to devote the entirety of their time on Earth to a job. As a people manager, no matter how much pressure you might be under or how much opposition you may face, you shouldn’t ever let your employees sacrifice their own pursuits of happiness for a mere job. It’s a principle I now truly believe in and truly live out.
Strangely enough, by running my company like this, our growth didn’t stagnate, and my customers didn’t complain. Instead, we’ve found an invisible force that’s made us even more competitive, that’s made me more tranquil. I found that I no longer experienced mood swings or angry outbursts. For the first time since I entered the business world, I found a sense of strength, confidence, certainty — and most of all, peace.
In recent years, as Chinese society’s general standard for conduct has improved, many people are starting to look down on the older members of society who cut in line and pick fights with other people. Though the behavior of these older people is nothing to commend, what a lot of us forget is the fact that they grew up in a radically different time, where if they didn’t learn to cut in line and fight tooth and nail, their children may starve to death. These older men and women are actually parents, noble and dedicated. Their behavior isn’t what we should be condemning; instead, we should look to the people who forced these parents to have acquired these habits.
Only after I came to this realization, did I find myself able to forgive — those sailors who insulted me as a child, my principal, my teachers and guidance counselors that disgraced me in front of all my classmates — I forgave them all, with my whole heart. They were only the sacrificial lambs of our society’s reinforcement of hatred.
A relationship counselor said it best: “There is no such thing as a ‘manipulative woman.’ We all start out kind; what’s key is which partners we encounter.”
This same general principle applies to our society as well.
I’ve always appreciated the ideal of simple pleasures. On a beautiful April day, perhaps you’d make yourself a nice pot of tea. Perhaps you’d gather up your kids and your partner, and watch the peach blossoms softly disintegrate into a rain of feathery petals. Perhaps you’d listen to the gentle breeze and the song of spring birds. Perhaps you’d admire the colors of a glorious sunrise or a fiery sunset, bathed in the delicate fragrance of an Earth in bloom. But when everything is uncertain, when we don’t know what we can trust, when people’s hearts are filled with ignorance and hate — even if we do manage to have a good day once in a while, it will be very difficult to maintain a life where we can enjoy these simple pleasures. A person who relentlessly disseminates hatred might feel a thrill in the moment, but hatred will ultimately eat them up and destroy their entire being, as it’s wont to do.
Just last week, I was on a business trip where the plane was delayed in taking off. Apparently, two returning students who were supposed to board our flight had to get their physicals done. When these two teenagers, who couldn’t have been older than sixteen or seventeen, finally boarded the plane, the cabin erupted in fury. Insults were flung freely. Some admonished the children for daring to bring the virus back to China, others threatened to sue the flight attendants and the airline, another group demanded to deplane. Nobody would let the children sit by them.
Not knowing what to do, the two children burst into tears.
In that moment, I was reminded of that one winter afternoon many, many years ago, where six-year-old me had scaled a steep and narrow plank to see a father that I had been forbidden to see. I was also reminded of my own son, alone in the United States, who might be going through similar pain, facing similar animosity.
A pang of sadness struck my heart, stronger than the worry in my mind, and I couldn’t help but wave the two of them over to me and offer them a seat.
Through tears, the teenagers thanked me, but the knot in my chest still remained. The economy now is far better than the economy of decades ago, but the hatred and egoism in society remain the same. We only care about success or failure, not right or wrong. We only care about “picking the right side,” not of our own humanity. The middle-aged men like me, of society’s mainstream, only care about getting rich and richer; nobody cares about the kind of world we’d be leaving our children, whether it’d be one full of love or full of hate. And like this, hatred and egoism will be passed down generation after generation, leaving our progeny with no option for a peaceful life or any simple pleasures.
I told the two teenagers not to thank me. Instead, I asked them to remember not to grow up into adults like the ones they just saw, but also not to hate people like the adults they just saw, because these adults are also victims of the hatred in our society. The light of conscience has yet to pierce the darkness of their loathing. But the greatest force in our world isn’t hatred: it’s love.
For hatred can only uproot a few wildflowers on the wayside; it cannot prevent the coming of spring.
 Lin Biao was a vice premier of China’s Communist Party, second-in-command to Mao. From 1966 until his death, he was appointed as Mao’s successor. Though he led the People’s Liberation Army to many decisive military victories and helped build out much of the Party’s strength since its inception, he was later denounced by Mao and given blame by the Party for the worst of the brutality in the Cultural Revolution. He died in 1971 in a plane crash of dubious origin, igniting a purge of his “faction” within the Party.