Wednesday, July 6, 2011

on origins and holding your ground.

Well well well, I finally did something "productive" with my summer and finished a book! My fantastic younger brother had recommended The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. He read it for an English class in high school (one that I hadn't) so I thought I'd check it out.

To give you a "brief" summary (come on, it's a 400 page book!), I'll edit the wiki summary and cut it down even more for you (ok, if you want to hear more, read it already!):

The story begins on Wang Lung's wedding day and follows the rise and fall of his fortunes. As the House of Hwang slowly declines due to opium use, frequent spending, and uncontrolled borrowing, Wang Lung, through his own hard work and the skill of his wife, O-Lan, slowly earns enough money to buy land from the Hwang family. O-Lan delivers three sons and two daughters; the first daughter becomes mentally handicapped as a result of severe malnutrition brought on by famine. During the devastating famine and drought, the family must flee to a large city in the south to find work.

While in the city, O-Lan and the children turn to begging while Wang Lung pulls a rickshaw. Wang Lung's father begs but does not earn any money, and sits looking at the city instead. One time, his son brought home meat he had stolen. Furious, Wang Lung throws the meat on the ground; believing that if they kept stealing, his sons would grow up as thieves. O-Lan, however, calmly picks up the meat and begins cooking it again; representing that she preferred health to honesty. When a food riot erupts, Wang Lung joins a mob that is looting a rich man's house and corners the man himself, who fears for his life and gives Wang Lung all the money he has in order to buy his safety. Meanwhile, his wife had stolen jewels from another house, hiding them within her clothes.

Wang Lung uses the money to bring the family home, buy a new ox and farm tools, and hire servants to work the land for him. In time, two more children are born, a son and a daughter. Wang Lung is able to buy the House of Hwang's remaining land. He is eventually able to send his first two sons to school and apprentice the second one as a merchant. As Wang Lung becomes more prosperous, he buys a concubine named Lotus. O-Lan dies, but not before witnessing her first son's wedding. Wang Lung and his family move into town and rent the old House of Hwang. Wang Lung, now an old man, wants peace, but there are always disputes, especially between his first and second sons, and particularly their wives. Wang Lung's third son runs away to become a soldier. At the end of the novel, Wang Lung overhears his sons planning to sell the land and tries to dissuade them. They say that they will do as he wishes, but smile knowingly at each other.

Ok, so you're like, great, another family novel about growing up. Well, sort of, yes. But what made this novel different from others I've read and enjoyed less? Was it the characteristically honest first person narrative? Was it the hardships endured and overcome? Was it the love/hate relationships between fathers and sons, uncles and nephews, brothers, sisters, and their spouses?

I can't honestly say that I liked the novel due to any of this, but rather from what I took away from the novel as a whole. Call it a "lesson learned," if you like, though I'd rather call it a "lesson revisited." Several lessons went streaming through my head, actually, so I'll jot them down here:

1. I am going to get old.
Ok, so, I texted this message to a friend upon nearing completion of the novel, and the response was: What are you, 8? Are you just realizing this? And the answer is no, I've always "known" I'll get older, but it was one of those "push it to the back of my mind" type of thoughts, not something that I greatly considered. And now, coming up on my 21st (and last important) birthday, I'm seeing it ever the more clearly: I am going to get OLD. And I don't mean "old" as in a college graduate. And I don't mean "old" as in, I'll turn 30. I mean elderly, I'll pass up 65 (assuming I'm around that long), and I will be OLD! I'll be retired.

And then it came to me: What am I going to do? I generally pride myself in being very future oriented: I have a plan, I'm getting through school (graduating in 10 months! woo!), I'm going to teach, I'm going to get a Master's in Curriculum Development and Administration, I might even do a few political things (education wise) here in the city... But realistically, all of that takes me to 35, MAYBE 40. And what will I be doing after that? I was really upset, so I talked to my roommate about it (if anyone reading knows him, you'll know why this is funny/ironic) and he just stared at me, and said something to the effect of: "Of course you don't have a plan. How could you even predict something like that? You gotta just keep your mind open and take it as it comes. The only thing you can be sure of is that 1. you'll be here and 2. you'll have your education (and any abilities, ie: teaching, associated with it). Yep, that's it!

And, for the most part, the same thing happened with Wang Lung. The novel opened when he was about 18, on his wedding day. And, it traced his life through (almost) his death, around age 70. That's over 50 years! And, Wang Lung did NOT have a plan. He knew that 1. he was a hard worker, and 2. he would survive, but never once did Wang Lung make any future plans. In fact, numerous times he referenced making more spur of the moment decisions, even when they could affect his life greatly (for example, moving from his land to the city). And, I suppose this opened me up more to the idea that, as much as I take comfort in having a 'plan,' that life doesn't always work that way, and that we can lead thoughtful, productive lives without always having an end in mind. Thanks, Wang Lung.

2. Your origins are important. Recognize them, honor them, but don't become obsessive about them.
Wang Lung is often referred to as a 'country bumpkin' because he takes great pride in several things: honoring the gods, his land, and his family heritage (and improving his financial state for his descendants). In the end, usually there are good times when Wang Lung is faithful to his family and the land, and there are generally worse times when he is not faithful to the land, letting other things get in the way of him and the harvest he is producing. Now, don't get me wrong, I am NOT advocating or suggesting that I go to the country and buy a farm. No, no, urban, or at least suburban, is the life for me right now. However, for Wang Lung, the land is more than just "land;" he comes from the land, he lives off the land, and when he dies he will be put in the land. And, I have to say, having such a devotion to one's origins is truly inspiring. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I had in my life that would be similar to Wang Lung's land, and I came up with the following: family and education. I mean, Wang Lung takes pride in his family, and when it comes right down to it, he values the land oftentimes more than he values his own blood relations. However, I think that my origins lie more in my family (not only for having produced me on a literal level, but also for having brought me up and encouraged me to think and be successful) as well as my education (which I suppose has done the same).

In other words, I think your "origins" can consist of what bore you (literally and/or figuratively) as well as what your means to success is; for Wang Lung, his origin was the land: he tended the land, it brought him revenue, and he knew no else. For me, however, it has (thus far) been my education; I have studied, I have been endorsed for work and teaching others, and I know no else. I can't say that is entirely a good or bad thing, but I am thankful for my origins nonetheless, and respect them to the nth degree.

3. Hold your ground, no matter what others think.
Not to beat a dead horse, but Wang Lung greatly values his land. And, I truly believe that one of the things that made him successful was the fact that he held his ground (no pun intended... ha... ha...) and he did not give up his land! Even when he was forced to go to the south and pull rich people around in carts for just pennies a day...he uprooted his family before giving up his land, because he knew that the land was the constant in his life that he could and would return to.

And I guess what I'm saying (and I'm rather tired, so I'm planning to say it quickly and go to bed!) is that in "today's day and age" (whatever the hell that means), no one is truly willing to hold their ground for something they believe in.

Well, that's not entirely true, but hopefully you understand what I mean. I recently blogged (or talked about, or something) the value and definition of "forever" and how it's basically meaningless today because people are generally afraid to commit (look at the bankruptcy rates, divorce rates, what have you). And, I think what I mean by "hold your ground" is that once you decide on something...stick to it! Let me give you a really bad/amazing example from my life:

I entered college as a Biochemistry major. What does that mean? It means I really love science! Ha! No, really it means that I wanted to study chemistry and (to a degree) how it interacts with the study of biology, and that in that course of study I would fulfill all pre-medical requirements and apply to medical school to become a cardio-thoracic surgeon (again with the planning thing). Well, I held my ground (or that ground, at least) from my sophomore year of high school until half way through my freshman year of college, about 3.5 years. And ground, my "land" if you will, well, it changed. Listen to this part, it's important: Throughout the novel, Wang Lung had a constant piece of land (that which his father owned before him) and then he kept on buying more and more land, so eventually he owned nearly all the land in sight. And, if you'll let me draw the comparison, my family is my original land. My education through elementary and middle school was buying a little more land. Then with high school, I bought some more land. Then in college, I bought yet a little more land, and with that land came a change in goals. I no longer wanted to be a surgeon, but rather a teacher; more specifically, I wanted to be able to teach the math and science that had influenced me greatly enough to cause me to have the desire to become a surgeon! Though my land was growing, I held onto it firmly.

And, when I told my parents of my decision to become an educator, and my father openly rebuked me saying that "I could do better," I went even further in holding my ground by telling him that I wanted to make a difference. As non-religious as I am, I do believe that I have a purpose. Not a predetermined one by some man in the sky, but one that I have set for myself, and that is to change and improve as many lives as I can of those around me. And what better way to fulfill such a goal but by inspiring awe, wonder, amazement, and thought in the minds of children?

So, thank you Wang Lung for reminding me to hold my ground. <3

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