fulbright Taiwan online journal

fulbright Taiwan online journal

On Goodwill and Hospitality

     Admiring this living room in this guesthouse in Xincheng, minutes from the gate of Taroko Gorge, I am forced to consider what a villager from, say, northeastern Tibet/Western China would do with such space! Surely he or she would show it off by regularly hosting guests. But of course putting it this way suggests that hosts go out of their way to invite people over to their house. My experience living in such villages and in the nearby Buddhist monasteries of Qinghai and Gansu Provinces is that this is precisely the opposite of what happens. In Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, monks live in separate houses—“townhouses,” if you will—often with a close relative or a master. Guests drop in by simply pushing open the front gate and, once in the courtyard, hollering to see if anyone is home. The host responds by inviting the unexpected guest in, offering him some tea and the weekly loaf of bread that he keeps tucked conveniently under the table in his quarters. Depending on the time of the year, he may also have some candies leftover from a major ritual occasion that he can set out in a bowl.

     Whatever he had been preoccupied with is abandoned for the sake of conversation or simply for company—a pleasant word derived from “companion” and “companionship”—for the engagement that follows is bound to be frequently punctuated by long silences. At first these are awkward for the outsider unfamiliar with them. You see, there’s not the sense of urgency or anxiety that often pervades the periods of silence in a modern-day American home, for instance. One can simply sit for a moment with his company and consider what he has heard or what he was thinking. (Here I struggle even to find an English word to describe this engagement. A “hang-out?” “Shared time and space?”). I find that these silences become more comfortable and even liberating with time, although the nagging anxiety the outsider may feel never completely goes away.

     In a Qinghai villager’s home, a similar course of events takes place. Cousins, uncles, neighbors stop by. They are offered a seat around the hearth—the same kang or heated platform that serves as the bed of the host and his family at night (in such homes, the kitchen, living room or den, and bedroom are all one and the same room). And the guest or guests are offered tea and bread. If the hours roll by and dinnertime approaches, then preparation for the meal proceeds as normal, now with additional quantity. (It is almost always the women who perform the task of serving and preparing food. This sad and unequal reality need not, I think, be a necessary part of such exchanges of host and guest, however. One can imagine men and women or partners trading off or sharing the service role). So, the visit transitions into dinner, and smoking and drinking may be added to the banter.

     So, what happens in the American household? Weeks and sometimes months go by and no one sits at my kitchen or dining room tables except my nuclear family and I. The thought of inviting someone over—for surely no one would stop by and “invite him or herself over”—is itself exhausting. I have to pull out my computer to scour the schedule for an evening that might possibly leave my partner and me enough time to prepare the meal and recover the next day. I think about how I must do this—“they had us over … when was it? in March? Months have passed and we haven’t reciprocated …” I process all the necessary calculations before making any commitment—“is there another way I can show I like them and want to be friends with them? Could we go out to eat? How long is it going to take me to cook? What in the world am I going to make?” And, of course, I have to talk with my partner to see if it works with her calendar and to discuss who will be responsible for what. It is all a chore that polite people keep up.

     Why the disjunction or difference? One is marked by conviviality, the other by dread. I think the answer is clear. We are exhausted by our “careers,” and we think of time as a resource that is best spent being “productive.” Friendships and acquaintances are far less important in this regard, we think, in the rather anonymous, bureaucratic world in which we live. And as for happiness or fun, well, we have drugs and Netflix, which require far less time and commitment. And don’t forget that there’s always vacation! Now, I’m not so naïve as to think that those villagers I described earlier never think of time as an asset or that they never think of socializing as a “productive” activity in terms of building social capital. Of course they do! By they don’t do that all the time [1], and, moreover, despite such occasional calculations they still experience a far greater joy than one can from one’s lonely date with Netflix.

     It’s important, too, to realize that this joy is not merely the product of having tossed back a few beers with one’s childhood friend. It comes, too, from the visceral knowledge that one is establishing and cultivating bonds that make one grow as a social being. To give a rather crude but direct example, it’s the “joy” that comes from having a friend who owns a lake house or a friend who is a lawyer when one is in legal trouble (note that it is a glaring betrayal of my privileged status in society that my examples include vacation homes and lawyers!). This is the joy of society and of belonging to it.

     I want to make two points clear before discussing why many Americans (and other privileged “bankable”[2] populations of the world) don’t partake of this joy and what we might do to change it. First, society is not all peachy-keen. It is full of selfish and hurtful beings, and belonging to it does not bring one hundred percent joy (should such a thing exist). Likewise, being born into the “wrong” village or family—one that is oppressed and exploited by social forces, or one that is battling a physical or psychological sickness, for instance (I think, here, of someone close to me who was born into a religious family that attended a church whose minister was an alcoholic and pedophile)—then it provides little to no joy; and those souls would be rightfully pleased to have some alone time and TV binge-watching.

     But this brings me to my second point, which is that we have come a long way in terms of recognizing that social structures and the conditions into which we are born greatly determine our life outcomes—our success, as measured by the rest of society—and our joy. More people today recognize that our society is stained by patriarchy, misogyny, racism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination than did fifty years ago. We still have a long way to go, but my point is simply to say that embracing society does not mean turning back the clock. I do not want to go back to the 1950s or even to our fantasies of them. But I do want to help rescue society—and perhaps “community” is the word that will resonate better here—from the depredations of our late capitalistic, consumer society.

     What determines our relationship to society is a complex question that I’m not fit to answer in its entirety. I’m sure (and I hope) that some readers are better prepared than I to talk about American individualism, selfish genes and reciprocal altruism, and so on as explanatory factors. I would like to focus on the ways in which we have chosen to organize our societies. Here I am no doubt influenced by my recent reading of David Graeber’s critique of bureaucracy in modern life, but I’m also invoking those who have identified the role of suburbanization and car culture in the creation of the modern person. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the world’s most voracious consumers are also its loneliest. We work all day for a massive economic and legal apparatus, the purpose and beneficiaries of which are beyond our comprehension. Just ask someone what they “do,” and you’re sure to be met with much equivocation and lengthy explanation or with an explanation replete with vapid, bureaucratic jargon that tells you nothing about what they actually do all day (“I’m a ‘junior executive.’” Or, “I’m a professor of religion.”) That’s because we are all caught up in forces that orchestrate society in such a way that those on the top get their returns and more while the rest of us work for them and sense deeply a loss of purpose. Vocation means nothing to us today.

     We return from a day’s work too exhausted to consider what it is we want, let alone what our neighbors might want. The “best” of us manage to at least privilege our partners or spouses enough to maintain a long-term relationship and the semblance of stability, but let’s face it: we’re miserable and just want out of the “rat race.”

     But does it have to be this way? Why do we all continue to race in the rat race? We may not have designed it—more powerful interests and classes do that—but we contribute to it by accepting both its rewards and its punishments. Would Americans not be happier if instead of spending nearly half of the federal budget on war (including caring for veterans of past wars and military training) they spent more on such things as education, time off for civic engagement, or creative and experimental projects? Would Americans not be happier if as the nation’s wealth increased, they worked less rather than more? The answers to these questions are obvious. However, if you’re looking for the number one thing that will immediately boost one’s joy and simultaneously signal to the rest of the world what your priorities are and that the world should change, too, then try spending more time together. As a friend said to me recently, people don’t realize how much they want to live together.

     This means making radical changes to our social norms. One must knock on neighbors’ doors and initiate conversations. Invite people over for coffee, and then make it clear that you want them show up at your door. You must be willing to drop whatever it is you’re doing to host them. And when you begin to realize that your job doesn’t afford you the time or energy to be so socially and civically engaged, then start to talk with others about that fact. Perhaps a movement for a thirty-five hour workweek could emerge, or one for time off (proper holidays) to vote in elections. Or, perhaps something more radical happens. With our priority being spending time together, the apparatus dictating that we all participate in purposeless work may be beaten back by new ways of organizing work and society that grow directly out of the very socializing we have prioritized. Perhaps the joys that come as our social being grows will make up for the costs of offending the bureaucratic machines.

     I don’t expect such a transition to be easy: there exist powerful drives to mold each human being into a worker-consumer whose sole interaction with the outside world is reduced to shopping and to inanities and vitriol espoused on for-profit, online platforms. Nonetheless, it is often said and widely agreed that “less can be more,” by which I here mean we can do with less work, less stress, less competition, and even less income if we receive in turn more time, more composure, more kindness, more care, more social concern, and more companionship. After all, we have learned that “more can be less:” more work, more industrialization, more “development,” and so on have not solved old problems but have actually exacerbated them (here I am thinking in particular of global inequality and climate change).[3] Moreover, competition and acquisition are not the only basic human values; so, too, are cooperation, redistribution, and reciprocity.[4] Claiming and pursuing these latter values in the face of imperious market forces and old ways of thinking requires real changes to our everyday practices: opening our doors, eating together, drinking together … Time is not money. Only people and their labor are converted into money. By choosing to spend time with people, we are choosing not to spend people and their labor—we are choosing not to participate in the status quo and instead choosing to treat each other generously.

Editor: Josh Stenberg


[1] I’m reminded here of some of Mohandas Gandhi’s writings in which he criticized the excessive amount of unproductive time that villagers in India had, i.e., time that was not spent being productive. He hoped to harness that time and the villagers’ skills and labor for Indian independence.

[2] I borrow the term “bankable” from Philip McMichael’s Development and Social Change. It replaces the concept of “developed nations” and refers to that segment of the global population (roughly 20%) that is entitled to take out loans. The other two segments are “insecure” (i.e., precarious labor; roughly 30%) and “excluded” (or “expendable”; roughly 50%).

[3] See McMichael’s discussion of global development’s “legitimacy crisis” as it fails to efficiently alleviate poverty or even consistently reduce malnutrition around the world.

[4] McMichael, Development and Social Change, p. 5.

Good pieces need to be seen.


Picture of Brenton Sullivan 邵雲東

Brenton Sullivan 邵雲東

Brenton Sullivan is a 2018-19 US Fulbright Senior Scholar hosted by Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica in Taiwan. His research is focused on the history of Buddhist institutions in Tibet and the history of Sino-Tibetan relations. He teaches courses on East Asian religions at Colgate University in New York.

Explore more

Research & Reflections

fulbright taiwan online journal