One of the greatest gifts my parents have given me is my ability to deal with a wide range of living conditions. Summer vacations were tours of the U.S. in an old Chevy van. My favorite spot was the “way back”, giving up the relative comfort of the bench seats where my sisters slept for the joy of flopping amongst piles of camping gear and supplies. On the extremely rare nights that we got a hotel room instead of camping, I was the one sleeping on the floor in my sleeping bag, developing even further my flexible lifestyle and affection for cold, hard sleeping surfaces. I naturally evolved into the guy who slept under the drum kit, rolled up in my leather jacket, even when the party was at my own house.
One of the many unique components of our house was a full sized pipe organ my parents scavenged from an old church. (Actually, I believe the first organ they got had already been scavenged and they picked it up off of a guy who was building a house himself.) The console sat on the floor below me, but the pipes were right next to my room. My mother would practice as I lay in bed, the soothing sound of air blasting through massive metal whistles coaxing me to sleep.
All told these adventures crafted some handy life skills. I can sleep through any kind of chaos and noise. My favorite way to crash is in the middle of a raging party or listening to someone learning to play the piano for the first time. When I was on a documentary crew and had to sleep on the floor of a trailer so tragic dogs refused to stay with us, we all rolled up in sound blankets like human burritos and I was happily dozing in no time.
Then I arrived in China. Weishi and I were picked up at the airport by a massive exuberant family who tossed us into cars and got us back to the apartment. We were surrounded by laughter and fed incredibly delicious dumplings that they had been cooking all day and then, suddenly, everyone was gone. The apartment fell instantly silent and there we were. Despite all of the love, I felt strangely uneasy and I couldn’t quite figure out why. I stepped out onto the balcony and looked around. Something about the place, as quiet and peaceful as it was despite being in the center of Beijing, made me very nervous. Then I discovered the switches.
The buildings around me were simple blocks of grey cement. Birthed during the communist era, they were not unlike low income housing projects. It suddenly occurred to me that if I was in a similar environment in Chicago when I grew up, I would have to worry about being shot. Here in China, however, this was just how everyone lived. Somewhere in my chest the first contextual interpretation switch popped and I relaxed immediately. Moments later the second switch, this one for “camping mode”, made the general level of cleanliness and lack of sophisticated tools fall right into place. The boiled water bucket bath was a luxury compared to cold river water. A pile of blankets is all I really needed. The tension lifted, clearing my eyes to see all of the magic that was China for the remainder of my visit.
By the time I reached India these switches had become so loose and fluid that I didn’t even hear them snap. I brought a sleeping bag and my own lights and supplies and was perfectly content hand washing my clothes or sleeping without heat. Oddly, I’ve even come to relish the challenges of living in different ways. It was only once the second camera crew arrived, however, that I realized how far I had come and how privileged I was. They were completely unprepared for the environment and were so caught up in their struggle to deal with the lack of Taco Bell, Starbucks coffee on demand and hot showers that they spent the majority of their trip blinded to the wonders around them.
So I have to give another couple of bonus points for my whacky upbringing. I hope my sister subjects her kids to more of the same. I’ll certainly do my part to make sure that whenever they come to visit me, I’ll be sure to clear off the floor and set up a drum kit in the corner.