How My Sabbatical Changed My Life (All the Juicy Details)

I’m living out the nightmare I had when I was 10.

When I was a kid, my biggest fear was to be shipped off to do Manual Labor on a Chinese farm, my back bent against the sun, having to use the local pig shed as my toilet.

Where would an American fifth grader get this idea?

When the piles of stuff in my bedroom got more out of control than usual, or when I slid past dish duty for a night or three, my (obviously Chinese) dad would tell me,

“I’m sending you off to long cun (the Chinese countryside), where you’ll learn how to do REAL work… just like your mother and I did!”

He was referring to Mao Zedong’s “Down to the Countryside” program, part of the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Educated, middle-class urban teens like him and my mom were sent to live and work on farms, where they had to do Manual Labor alongside illiterate Chinese peasants, and use the pig shed as their toilet.

I’d heard both my parents mythologize the experience as the worst of all nightmares, and I thought it could happen to me at any time. I’d get pulled out of Wedgwood Elementary School. I’d be on a Carthay flight, in the back of the plane with the middle-aged Chinese men in the smoking section. Eventually and inevitably, nature would call, and I’d be headed to the pig shed.

In the middle of a rice paddy. Away from my Stephen King books. Away from Nickelodeon. Away from cheese and my fifth grade ‘boyfriend’ Mike and all the other comforts I loved and thought I needed.

Me, a little daughter of fortune — a smart girl who’s meant to be someone — involuntarily dropped into a life of Manual Labor.

……….

I worked hard in school.

There it was in the back of my mind, an echo.

“I’m going to send you to long cun…”

I really didn’t want to go to long cun, and so I worked. I became a grownup with a liberal arts education and an internet job no one could explain to our Chinese relatives. Not the city relatives with the iPhones, but the country cousins who live beside their rice paddies in long cun.

For the most part, I didn’t have to toil in any fields or till any soil.

But now I’m back in India, and today I picked up two large bagfuls of other people’s half-burned trash with my bare hands. Dirty scraps of candy and chip wrappers and a few partially destroyed dead batteries.

And last week, I spent my days on my hands and knees or squatting on my haunches, cleaning the filth left behind by the monsoon and by my landlady’s party-guy son, back home in Goa for a few months before going back to his job in Kuwait.

……….

Our fears revisit us as reality.

And actually, it’s not the fears that are making the rounds. It’s we who seek them out.

We glimpse a tiny speck of sparkle in the things we find most repellent. And then we go mining for gold.

And so as I got older, I circled nearer to my old aversion.

In college, I signed up to work on trail crew in the North Cascades, and quit after two weeks because it was hard and by the way did I mention I hate Manual Labor.

Then, I enlisted myself to work on a vegetable farm in rural France, every day my back bent against the sun, under the guise of doing a research paper for Stanford.

And now here I am in India again, doing Manual Labor for my daily upkeep. Sometimes a little, sometimes a great deal. Always some contact with that which I’d rather just avoid, outsource, downsource.

……….

“Waaah, but what am I doing with my life??”

He shrugged. “Maybe you needed to see modes of living that are different from how you live. I mean, experience them, not just see them.”

Iain has a nonplussed way of answering my existential wails. That time, I think he might have been staring off into nothing, chewing his lunch, one hand waving away a half-interested mosquito.

People ask what I’ve gotten out of my sabbatical, what I’ve gotten out of all this Manual Labor. Good question.

Maybe you needed to see modes of living that are different from how you live.

There are many ways to explore. I used to transport myself with books, tv and movies, actual travel. But, the best way to explore is simply to experience.

And it doesn’t have to involve passport stamps and jet lag. It’s all around you, right inside the bubble next to you.

In fact, there’s no such thing as a bubble, not really, not even if you’re tethered in Silicon Valley or spending all your waking hours at the Googleplex. If you open your eyes to the life around you, you’ll see all the modes of living outside of your own, each a little bit different. No ocean of sameness unless you choose to see only sameness.

My only thing was that I needed the Manual Labor to open my eyes to it. And for all his issues, my Tiger Dad saw this one thing very clearly, from the beginning.

……….

Noticing

Today I noticed two vendor guys pulling wooden carts of potted plants and flowers along the main road, their bodies were shaped to the pull of those carts.

I noticed some beetle-esque office workers eating gigantic thali lunches with a mountain of chappatis to go with, their bodies shaped to the pull of those chappatis.

I noticed some Europeans on holiday, their skin looking hot and dusty and overpink.

I noticed the fruit lady, how she was round but hacked open my coconuts with impressive force.

There are modes of being different from ours, surrounding us at all times in all places. Not just on sabbaticals and adventures, but also at our office Christmas party. They’re there, look closely.

Beholding them can give us perspective. Seeing them can give us inspiration.

Considering them can give us a little reprimand, as my dad had hoped.

Or else they can give us permission, or a new idea, or just a laugh.

There are probably better ways to tell kids to clean their rooms than to threaten them with peasant labor. But, my dad’s bluff led me towards a still-unfolding lesson about how to see past my own Right Now life.

If you look past your Right Now life, past what you think you want and what you think is possible, what do you see?

Warning: it could be something very strange.

–Susan

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