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The Art of Contentment

Ma low res

“We tie it up so that it knows this is home,” says Mr Sha Ma about his pet kitten, which is tied to a large slab of rock beside their makeshift stove, which is essentially a hole in the ground of their living room cum kitchen.

It’s probably the sort of statement that would rile most animal lovers, but up here in the mountains, some 3200m above sea level, one could perhaps forgive his seemingly primitive ways. The kitten’s sibling dashed into the compound a few minutes later and they started to play. This other cat, according to Mr Sha Ma, was raised the same way. It now “knows” this is home and though it roams free during the day, it always comes back home.

The Sha Mas are from the Yi ethnic minority group in Shaxi. They make a living as farmers but because of the high altitude the type of crops they can actually grow are limited to potatoes, buckwheat and what the Chinese are saying is the new Viagra – the maca plant. They also rear lambs and pigs, some of which are ridiculously larger than a motorbike with a sidecar. To call their home spartan might be a severe understatement. There is no sanitation system – they do their business with Mother Nature as the unwilling voyeur. There is no waste disposal system – they simply gather all the garbage and burn it.

Mr Sha Ma tells me that on a “good year”, he makes 10,000RMB, which translates to about US$1610. For a city-dweller like myself who had been complaining about taking a massive pay-cut to relocate to Shanghai, that figure was incomprehensible to me. Even my monthly salary back in Singapore some eight years ago when I first entered the work force was considerably more than that.

“Are you happy living here? Isn’t life tough up here?” I asked.

He chuckled, gave the question some thought and said: “It’s not really a question of happiness. I’m already used to this way of life. Move to the city? Perhaps. Why not? I guess life there could be more comfortable.”

Mrs Sha Ma then proceeded to retrieve the potatoes she threw into the pit. One by one, she peeled the skin off and handed us our share, seemingly unfazed by the heat. She jabbed the charcoals with a tree branch, shifting them around before returning to her seat. Those potatoes. Quite possibly the best I’ve ever had.

And I don’t even like potatoes.

The main course was a stew of preserved pork and cognitive dissonance. I wasn’t at a swanky restaurant along The Bund. The meal didn’t cost me several hundred dollars. It certainly wasn’t prepared by a master chef. But that murky brown stew laced with garlic and herbs was the best damn meal I had ever had since I came to China almost a year ago.

As we descended the mountain later in the day, a discourse raged within me. What exactly is contentment? Is staying content a sign of weakness? Is it due to a lack of ambition? I could not even begin to think of living in such a manner. It would’ve been, to me, settling for too little.

And then it dawned on me that I’ve simply been too plugged in to the system. Back home in Singapore, having a “Head of” or “Director” on your name card was indicative of your worth in a society that apparently values meritocracy over everything else. We craved for recognition, for power, for money, for things that don’t actually make life holistically better. Everyone wanted to be a home owner. Everyone wanted a car even though it costs close to S$100,000 these days just to buy a entry-level Japanese make.

And just what exactly do we want all these things for? Because everyone else has them, I suppose.

Those were the reasons I left Singapore for China, not to make a name for myself in the latter but because I needed a new perspective to life. But yet there I was, returning to the very same chains that had me shackled.

As the saying goes, “The grass is always greener on the other side.” Based on that logic, we are stuck in a never-ending vicious cycle of greed, likely masquerading as ambition. There is an often indiscernible line between the two but I reckon we all realise the difference when we’re faced with the dilemma. I know I have.

I’ve come to learn that ambition and contentment are not mutually exclusive. There is no such thing as having “too little”. There is no prerequisite for life achievements before you can call it a day and hang up your boots. You just drop anchor, stand your ground, and make a conscious decision to withdraw from the rat race. Sometimes, isolation is the best form of empowerment. It allows us to drown out the noises and hear our own voice. This voice, I believe, is true ambition.

And just like Mr Sha Ma and his cat, perhaps all we need is to tie contentment down before we can let our ambitions roam free.

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