I’ve been traipsing through Asia over the past month—it’s one of those hybrid trips; a little work, a little play, a lot of airports, security checks, and death-defying taxi rides. For a hybrid trip, it turned out to be a lot more work than I expected. As much as I love meeting potential new clients and creating new business opportunities abroad—I have to say, holding yet another meeting while Beijing’s Forbidden City beckons through the window, unexplored, just sucks. Sometimes, I just hate being on the job.
After two weeks of more work, less play, Uncle David and I made to Yangshuo—a tourist town just south of Guilin, China, where the Li and Yulong Rivers meet.
Arriving in Yangshuo wasn’t as relaxing as we’d hoped. The “Shangri-La” hotel that Uncle David booked turned out to be Shangri-Less-Than-We-Could-Tolerate. This beaten-down hostel with no Wifi would have been charming, even adventurous with its breathtaking view of Yangzhou’s karsts mountains and jade green rice paddies (water buffalo included). But I’m not 25. This began our search for a new hotel as the sun set and the brownout flickered.
Two hours later, I finally found myself sitting in the Imperial Suite in the center of Yangshuo. Trust me, this isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. I didn’t feel like an Empress, I felt bedraggled, cheated, beaten-down, and angry at my life.
Then David pulled the curtain back in our air conditioned room to view the hopping nightlife on West Street—and there she was. A 60-year-old woman sitting by herself selling tangerines on a tourist-trap street at 10pm. She was bored out of her mind. Dozens of tourists walked past her without so much as a glance in. Still, she never stopped working. At her feet were two stacks of red plastic take-away bags. To the left, they were crunched up; to the right, they were expertly folded. I watched her carefully and neatly take a minute to fold each as if she were handling an Hermes scarf. She was clearly creating busywork to occupy her mind. Or was it pride of ownership? Whatever it was, anger wasn’t part of it.
I watched her on and off until midnight, and I couldn’t take it anymore: Out of respect for her diligence and commitment—not to mention my own OCD appreciation for her folding skills—I ran downstairs, and purchased more tangerines than I could eat in a week. I think I spent about 12 yuan, or $2.
The next night, threading my way through a packed pedestrian street, I saw another woman. She was selling assorted fruit—bananas, oranges, passion fruit—on a woven-bamboo plate. People were pressing past her, annoyed, like she was the car clogging the expressway. But the way she kept the fruit neatly organized on that plate every time someone jostled it struck me again: pride of ownership. I will never know if she loves or hates her life, but one thing was obvious: nothing stopped her, she wasn’t complaining, she was doing her job the best she could. I bought another bundle of fruit I’d never finish.
The next day, Uncle David and I trekked 800 steps (that felt like 8000) up to the scenic vista called Moon Hill. We’re not in bad shape, but by the time we could get to the top, I was so sweaty and bedraggled I refused to let Uncle David memorialize the climb on his camera. The view was amazing, but my eye went straight for an elderly woman hunched protectively over a Styrofoam cooler filled with cold water bottles and Coca-Cola. I don’t know if I’ve met a happier person in China or anywhere. After I bought a bottle, she shoved a tattered journal into my hand and grinned ear to ear (bless all four of her teeth). The journal was full of notes and blessings from travelers worldwide. “Never thought I’d climb a mountain and find a 70-year-old woman at the top selling water!” said one, dated several years earlier. “Zheng climbs these 800 steps every day! God bless her.”
I admit—I’m a job complainer. Nobody thanks me enough, nobody appreciates me enough, I don’t get paid enough, I work too hard, my colleagues don’t understand, my mother doesn’t respect what I do…this is just the beginning of my list.
So, encountering these three women blew my mind. I can’t begin to compare what they go through on a daily basis to the ease, support, compensation, and appreciation I receive just for making it to work on a Monday. Not to mention the break I get most nights and weekends. Or the simple fact that I could consider taking a week off in Yangshuo between business trips in Beijing and Shanghai with my husband.
The change was immediate: stop complaining! Sometimes the wifi won’t work. Sometimes things suck. Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want—in work and in life. I wanted to scratch my own eyes out the next day when Uncle David, beaming with childlike excitement, grabbed my hand and said, “Let’s go to the Chinese Nibble Fish Spa!” Nothing sounded worse to me in that moment than dunking my feet into a nasty aquarium (who knows how many people had been there that day) and let freaky frenzied fish nibble the dead skin from the soles of my feet. I could feel the complaints start to bubble up. I knew the drill: I would agree to go with David and do whatever stupid thing he was excited about today, and then complain the entire time. Misery loves company, and I can sometimes be a bit aggressive making sure those around me are as miserable as I am. But why do that to Uncle David? Why ruin it for him? In fact, why ruin it for myself?
That’s when I realized that the decision to have fun or be miserable was all in my head. I white-knuckled it, stuck my feet in the water, and turned around my whole attitude. I ended up having a great time and very soft feet.
We’re still in Yangshuo, and one of the clients we’ll be meeting next week in Shanghai just wrote and asked us to meet him at his favorite bagel restaurant—about an hour out of our way. Oh God. That was the last thing I wanted to do. Didn’t he understand that I didn’t know the Shanghai subway system and would probably get lost? Did he really think that a New Yorker who regularly eats the best bagels in the world would care about some knockoff Shanghai version? Or was this all an ego trip, to see how far out of my way I’d go to get his business?
Wow—I hadn’t even left China and I’d already forgotten the lesson of the three Chinese vendors. I’d forgotten how much fun I ended up having with the nibble fish. So I decided to change my iPhone screensaver to Zheng up on Moon Hill. Now I’m reminded of how to live a complaint-free life every time my phone rings.
I get that your life sucks sometimes. Like me, you are certain that no one respects your work and you’re annoyed that your family wants to go to Six Flags, when all you want to do is kick back. It’s so easy to complain, so easy to ruin the moment. So enjoy the three pictures I posted here. Put one up on your monitor at work. Put another up on your bathroom mirror. Put the final one in your wallet—and next time your spouse is excited to do something you aren’t, or your boss wants you to work overtime, or your mom complains you don’t call her enough—just look at one of these pictures. Remember what an amazing life you have. Be thankful, take pride of ownership—because only you own your life, and only you can sell yourself out to complaints, anger, and regret.