Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Courage to Say No

Lord of the Rings--if you haven't read the books, you've probably seen the movies. In case you have missed them both, I'll let you in on some of the basics. Our story is set in Middle Earth, a world in many ways resembling our own planet. The creatures found there are also familiar, though not entirely similar to the animals, plants, and humans found on the Earth we know. In Middle-earth, trees have the ability to assault passersby and birds engage in espionage. The story's protagonist, Frodo, is a hobbit, a race relating to man but shorter and of slightly different appearance and manner. Frodo, his hobbit buddies (Sam, Merry, and Pippin), a sexy elf who knows how to work a bow and arrow (Legolas), a grey wizard (Gandalf), a man who knows his way around Middle-earth (Aragorn), and a few others come together to form a coalition, a fellowship, if you will. Their goal: To destroy a ring. This, however, is no ordinary ring. This ring and whoever possesses it holds an unmatched amount of power. With this power, often comes evil. Ridding oneself of a ring sounds simple enough, but for Frodo it means journeying hundreds of dangerous miles to Mordor and throwing the ring into (the aptly named) Mount Doom. How Frodo began saddled with this responsibility doesn't really sit right with me. He is stuck with the ring and the task of destroying it simple because his uncle gave it to him and told him to do so.

I often get frustrated with stories of this nature. I have a hard time understanding why anyone would commit themselves to a seemingly impossible task that will probably kill them, a task that they are ill-equipped to handle and which someone else could surely do for them. In these types of stories the protagonist usually faces his challenge head on, overcomes adversity, and proves a hero. In real life, one is rarely so lucky. Whenever I do things I don't want to do, it inevitably leads to resentment or humiliation. I have learned this the hard way living in China.

While no one in China has ever asked me to travel to distant and remote lands to get rid of a piece of jewelry, I have been asked to partake in some rather ridiculous tasks. Why do I do these things? It's really not in my nature to commit to anything I'm uncomfortable with doing. But as any foreigner who lives in China will eventually find, the country and its people have a strange way of manipulating us into doing things against our nature. As Rachel DeWolfskin explains in Foreign Babes in Beijing, her spot-on memoir chronicling female ex-pat life in Beijing, sometimes its just easier to comply with people than deal with the awkwardness and confusion that arises from refusing them. I whole-heartedly agree.

I will now reveal to you one incident in which I was coerced into doing something utterly regrettable. This dates back to September 2005; I remember it well as the embarrassment of the ordeal has been seared into my brain. It was a Friday and I was on my computer working in the English office of Chengde's No. 1 High School. My boss, Celine, sweet and sly as she was, explained to me that the following day was Teacher's Day and that there was to be an assembly for the entire staff. I was required to perform at the assembly. My mouth dropped and my knees shook knowing that my worst fear was to be faced in less than 24 hours. The words whirled around in my head, “No, I can't,” “I don't want to,” “I don't have enough time to prepare,” yet nothing came out. With simple nod my fate was sealed.

At the assembly I watched in horror at the acts that proceeded mine. Most of the teachers participating performed in a group. Most of them wore costumes and had choreographed dance moves or played exotic Chinese instruments. I learned that they had over a week to prepare their performances. I got up on stage, in front all my colleagues, and sang Micheal Learns to Rock's “Take Me to Your Heart,” a horribly cheesy English song that was massively popular in Asia 5 years ago. For those of you who don't know me well, I am not a singer. Perhaps tone deaf would be an appropriate use of terms here. Despite my lack of talent, I was forced to sing a cappella since I had no time to find the accompanying background music. My singing didn't last long. Fifteen seconds into the song I forgot the words and ran off stage. The teachers gave me a round of pity applause as I sunk back into my seat among the English department staff. I was mortified, I still am mortified, and it all could have been avoided with a simple “No, sorry, I can't.”

Maybe living in China has helped me to understand characters (and real-life people) like Frodo--sometimes saying “yes” seems much easier than saying “no,” even if it means enduring unpleasantries such as public humiliation or, in Frodo's case, encountering Orcs. I personally believe it takes a lot of courage to say "no," but maybe not as much courage as it takes to cross Middle-earth to Mount Doom.

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