Monday, April 30, 2012

Eleanor Roosevelt and Don Henley

You’ve GOT to be wondering where I’m going with this… right? Could there be two more disparate people in the whole world? Well, actually that is not exactly accurate, seeing as Eleanor Roosevelt is no longer of this world and Don Henley is very much a part of it.

One was a politician’s wife and the other is a rocker who was a founding member of one of America’s most popular bands, The Eagles. One was genteel and refined, born in New York City and educated at Allensworth Academy, outside of London. The other grew up in the tiny town of Gilmer, Texas and lived his young adulthood wild and on the road.

In spite of their differences, the two do have similarities. Both espoused environmental causes and both were heavily tied to politics. Mrs. Roosevelt for obvious reasons, Don Henley more out of a social conscience. If you’d like to learn more about either or both of them, please feel free to research them. We’ll wait. In the meantime I’m going to spend my allotted fifteen hundred some-odd words telling you why I titled this entry so.

Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with saying ‘The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams’.

Don Henley co-wrote a song titled The Heart of the Matter, which features the lyric ‘One day he crossed some line and he was too much in this world’.

Today I think about dreamers versus those rooted in reality.

My friend Ken is getting married tomorrow. I was supposed to be at his wedding. If you read No Xi’an For Me (two posts back), you know I’m not going to be there, and why I don’t regret it.

Ken and I used to be best friends. While I was living in the States we would chat on Skype for hours at a time. He was a passionate young man, wanting to study and learn, travel the world and accomplish great things. And then he met the woman who would become his wife.

I’m not accusing her of or blaming her for anything. She is a lovely young woman, well deserving of a good husband who will treasure her and stay by her side. It seems that man would be my friend Ken, he who so believed in the beauty of his dreams that, until he met her was doing everything to make his dreams come true. Now he is thinking ‘apartment’, ‘baby’, ‘better job’, ‘more money’. He is too much in this world to make anyone’s dreams come true, save for his wife’s and parents’.

In China, it is only possible to dream until the pull of tradition exerts such force that it must be obeyed. Customarily, a man gets his education, gets a good job, saves some money, buys an apartment and maybe a car, marries, has a child and lives exactly as his parents and their parents before them did.

I’m finding that not many men defy tradition. They try to, at first, when the ink is still wet on their diploma and the whole world stands ready and open for them. Freed of the tyranny of education, out from under the pall of their parents and with China opening ever more to the West, to capitalism and offering more opportunities to brave young people who would take them, it is easy to see why dreamers dream big. For the most part they have no follow through.

Ken is an excellent case in point. He and I, dreamer extraordinaire, used to have so much in common. Now he is such a homebody that we cannot even relate. Not that that is anyone’s fault.

My friend and fellow teacher, Sam, also dreamed big. When I first met him upon my arrival in Wuhan, he was still a newlywed and his wife was expecting. Now, two years a husband and nearly that long into fatherhood, he confides wistfully that he sometimes longs for those old days when he was a dreamer, out to conquer the world. He is tied to his wife by love and social decree, to his daughter by love and obligation, to his parents by duty and to his job by necessity. At times he resents the burdens he bears. He longs for his dreams. I wish I had known Sam before he became too much in this world.

And now there’s Tristan: recently graduated, unattached, no marriage prospect in sight, working his second job ever, proud owner of a newly minted passport and dreaming big. Rather than seek love he seeks knowledge. Rather than saving money he is spending it all on books. Instead of remaining in one place he is planning his travel adventures. Tristan believes in the beauty of his dreams.

However, he has confided that he will get married. He will follow tradition, eventually. Maybe not in the next 5 years but he does plan on it sometime before he turns thirty. Even though he is of a scholarly and dreaming mind right now, there is no doubt that he too will bow to convention. He too will eventually be too much in this world.         

Tony has told me he does not want to be too much in this world… at least not for a while. He has dreams of distant shores, exciting travels, new tastes. He is possessed of a consuming hunger for knowledge. Tony is a traditional man at heart. He too will succumb.

Gary is one of the few men I know who has thumbed his nose at tradition, even now, beyond that ‘thirty years of age’ demarcation line. At thirty two, Gary does not even have a marriage prospect and has repeatedly said he does not want to, nor will he get married. His family forgives him only because his business supports the whole clan. That forgiveness is given grudgingly.  

Gary, Tony, Tristan, Sam and Ken. All male. Don’t I know any females? Well, sure! I have classrooms full of girls. I have friends who are female. We play badminton, take walks, go out to eat, and we talk a lot. What about all those single friends of mine who are female? Don’t they dream?

Sure they do! They dream of getting a decent, secure job within their limitations, marrying, having a child and living exactly as their mothers, and their mothers’ mothers before them.

Susan is a charming girl. Cute of face and trim of body, an intellectual powerhouse, more than well grounded in the English language and graduated as of last year, she wants to go abroad to study. But only so she can get a better job with higher pay. Her ultimate goal is to be able to support her parents comfortably. There is no doubt in her mind she will marry and bear a child. To not do so is unconscionable.   

Other women, such as Hellen and Daisy long for nothing more than marriage and a baby. Hellen has in fact advised her students to not do what she did: put her career first. Now she says she waited too long for a good marriage prospect. At thirty, she is considered an old maid, and will most likely never marry. Daisy, at twenty-eight is getting dangerously close to that mark. Fortunately she recently snagged a boyfriend who seems to be a good and willing prospect.

Most females in China do not dream. At least, not the same way that males do. Males see it as thoroughly possible to conquer worlds and make a difference in their life, in their culture and in the world. Most females only want the small freedoms newly accorded to women in China: the right to work, the right to select her own mate, the money to shop with, the choice of when to have a baby – preferably before age thirty.

Some girls, like Taffy, a student in my Business English class, do not want to get married or have a child. I wonder if she’ll follow through with that. There is such pressure for girls to marry, both from their family and from society. One reason is the dearth of marriageable females, due to the One Child Policy-driven excess of sons. Another is, with females not actually being recognized on their own merit in anything from family records (see No Girls Allowed, posted April 2011) to professional circles, females who opt to not wed are spurned by society and usually cast out of the family.

Such a disparity between male and female mindsets and social roles in China, isn’t there?

Kind of quirky that it was the preeminent Mrs. Roosevelt who quipped ‘The world belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams’ while that very masculine Mr. Henley sings about being too much in this world.

It does seem that, in America the women tend to be more of the dreamers while the men are more rooted in reality. In China the exact reverse is true: the men dream while the women live rooted in reality.

Last time I saw Ken or spent any time with him was last year. There we sat: I, who walked away from everything to make my dream come true and he, who choked the life out of his dream to become only a semblance of the friend I used to spend hours talking with.

The light of passion had gone out of his eyes. His shoulders were hunched under the weight of obligation to family and tradition. He tortured himself over his inability to buy his girlfriend so much as a dress or a piece of jewelry because his job pays so poorly. His manner of speech was slow and ponderous, as though each word said, each thought expressed cost him unbearable effort. He had crossed some line and is now too much in this world.

How sad. Another dreamer lost.               

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