The best way to admire a place is from a distance. Once you live there, it’s a very different story. I know a couple who admired a house in South Brunswick township for a year when it was being built–that was years ago when many new development were happening there–and as soon as it came to the market, the couple bought it. After finally acquiring the dream house, their admiration faded into complaints: the living room is too spacious not to be drafty; heating bill too high; air-conditioning bill unbearable; mortgage gorging money every month; new development area with not many trees around; the school here not very competitive.
I thought as immigrants, they should have known. We have all experienced the beauty of distance, haven’t we? As soon as we leave our hometown to move to a new country, our nostalgia starts to plague us day and night. We forget the cramped living quarter but remember not feeling lonely; we forget the scolding of the relatives but remember the delicious food they cooked; we forget the frustration of queuing for hours for the latest Hollywood movie but remember the enthusiasm.
“Look, how fit I was back then. I could eat forty dumplings in one sitting without gaining any weight. The good old days.” The host was telling me about a photo on a side table while munching on some snacks out of a bag. This was right before the start of a dumpling party. He has twice the waistline of the man in the photo.
“Have you ever eaten forty dumplings in one meal?” I asked.
“No, my parents and my brother wouldn’t allow me to waste food like that. Now my wife doesn’t care how much I eat. I have to self discipline. 10 dumplings only. Still gaining weight though.”
My point exactly. Our nostalgia twists our perceptions only because the hometown is far away. From a distance, the competition for dumplings becomes a laudable act of not allowing him to waste food and helping him keep his weight down. I can imagine if the distance is not there to add rosy color to everything, the host could be fighting with his brother and arguing with his parents and telling them, “I hate you.” in various ways.
From a distance of 35 miles, New York City is a wonderful place–Edison Township is 35 miles away from Manhattan. I am content of dreaming of it and thinking about all the art and cultural events happening there. I know if I visit, as I did before, I would complain about its jammed traffic, its inequality, its crowded places, its confusing metro system with two hubs, its outrageous parking fee. I can go on to enumerate until my hands are tired of typing.
From a distance of hundreds or thousands of years, the ancient world of Rome, Babylon, Egypt, Qin Dynasty seem great. I admire them very much, but I don’t want to live in a place without modern amenities. Without a computer keyboard and a regularly cleaned restroom, life is not a life.
My point is best illustrated in the discrepancy between Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” and what really happened in Xanadu–the ancient capital of Mongol Empire. The Mongolians dragged the best craftsmen in the world to build this wonderful city of palaces for them at the southern end of the steppes. They were, like us, dreaming of nice things and wanting to possess them. Human weakness, same everywhere. However after the palaces were built, they couldn’t stand living in them. They erected their old ger, a kind of sturdy mobile tents covered with animal skins, and live their life in their familiar environment, leaving the grand and expensive palaces uninhabited. What a waste of human talent, energy, money. Much ado about nothing. They might as well admire those palaces of other countries from a distance.
Well, we can’t live without admiring something, but don’t take our own admiration too seriously. Don’t take ourselves too seriously.