My dad once said, "You look around China and who's the happiest? Not the university professor. He sent his kids to America to name-brand colleges. Now one's in New York, and another in LA. Every two or three years, the whole family manages to reunite for a week.
"Who's happiest? The old man selling handmade dumplings in a stall by the side of the street. His daughter works the next stall over, selling soy sauce. His son repairs bicycles a block away. If the old man gets a fever, everyone comes over with soup and medicine to ask how he's feeling."
When I was in China last month, most get-togethers with my relatives turned into a 20-person affair. Lunch with my dad's relatives:
We had to book a three-table private dining room to fit the relatives and friends on my mom's side:
It was like plunging from winter air into a jacuzzi. Suddenly I'm surrounded on all sides by people who bring up my toddler days, people who remember each other's histories for the past three decades. People who go through everyday tasks together, commuting and cooking and mopping.
You know, family.
In Beijing at a friend's party, the earnest 张鹏 said, "What I really want to do is cook for someone. And then after I cook, we eat the food. I haven't cooked in so long!"
I was standing five feet away in the kitchen at the time. I was so drawn to this sentiment that I physically leaned forward.
I told Dan about seeing the inside of 张鹏's apartment. He is tall, and when he comes home after drinking, he sometimes bangs his head against the bathroom door frame. As a solution, he taped cotton around the frame. Now the door won't close.
I found it strangely endearing.
Dan said, "A simpler way of life can be relaxing. A bathroom door that is taped over and doesn't close is a different kind of problem than arguing with bathroom contractors for marble renovation."
"More actual problems, fewer concocted ones," I said.