Sunday, April 19, 2009

Happiness: Yours or Mine

"Authentic intimacy is not brought about by denying our own desire to be happy in unhappy deference to others, nor by denying others in narcissistic deference to ourselves." Loving-Kindness by Sharon Salzberg

Having lived 3 years in foreign countries, I find the line between my happiness and the happiness of others quite confusing. Sometimes I have had to deny parts of my identity to make others happy, denial to keep me safe and socially accepted into a community. Sometimes as a foreigner, I was given special privileges denying others their happiness. Sometimes I had to accept situations that made me unhappy, but made others happy.

The most recent example of confusing happiness is the competition for a piano room.

One Sunday morning, I went to practice piano. I thought Sunday mornings would be slow practice mornings at my college. I was wrong. I was using my American assumptions that Sunday is a day of rest. The Chinese students' viewpoint is that Sunday is the day to get back to work after the weekend. The practice rooms were alive with slamming doors, scales, opera, and drums.

The key woman took me to the best piano and kicked a student out. He left with visible anger and unhappiness to practice on a lower quality piano. As the foreigner I was given a privilege. This made me unhappy. This made a student unhappy. Did this make the key woman happy? After realizing that the music department was full of students, I practiced for 30 minutes feeling guilty for taking a piano from a student and then left.

Two weeks later, through indirect communication, I learned that the student had been criticized gravely for showing his emotions of anger and unhappiness for having to give up his piano to a foreign teacher. I was told that music students have bad manners since they are weaker students than the academic students. I was told to come back to the piano rooms to practice. I haven't been back since that incident not because I was afraid of taking another student's piano or because I was offended by the student's manners, but because I have been busy with sports and organized outings these past weekends. I wonder what the key woman assumed by my actions of not showing up weekly causing her to send me an indirect message through another teacher.

This incident is an example of the confusion of happiness. Culturally it is acceptable for a teacher to deny students' happiness for their own needs and wants which resulted in the music student's criticism. I would be happy using a piano that was available. I would prefer to be told that the practice rooms are full and to come back later or to be given a piano that is not the best one. I am only playing piano as a hobby not as a major. What would make the key woman happy?

Who is right in this situation? I could comment that the Chinese culture is wrong to deny others in narcissistic deference to ourselves. But saying that another culture is wrong and my culture is right isn't helpful. The Chinese could criticize me for denying my own desire for a piano in deference to others or could say, "Why don't you accept our kindness of trying to give you a good piano to use?" There lies the confusion. Do it my way. Do it our way. We are just culturally different. I am the guest in this country. It is my role to somehow fit in, to find a balance that I can live with and still make those around me happy, right?

If my language skills were better, I wonder if asking the key woman to give me a piano that is free no matter it's quality, would that offend her? It makes me uncomfortable kicking a student out to be given the best piano, but maybe it would make her uncomfortable giving me a poor piano. So the best solution is to try to find out when the rooms are not busy; however, the best piano will always have a student won't it? The situation will always come back to the competition for the best piano.

Maybe I should just find a way to be comfortable with always being given the best piano even though I feel it is wrong for me to take a music major's piano and should just be thankful for the key woman's kindness.

Sharon Slazberg wrote, "Of course, in different life situations, many different courses of action might be appropriate. But the point here is that metta (loving-kindness) does not mean that we denigrate ourselves in any situation in order to uphold other people's happiness."

When am I belittling myself, sacrificing too much, denying my own happiness, feeling that I am not worth the kindness of another versus trying to be independent? Am I being a people-pleaser because it makes me happy or because I don't feel the self-esteem to take or even know what I want to be happy? When am I being too culturally sensitive and flexible? When is denying my own culture to make the foreign society that I am living in more comfortable, not healthy for me?

Living in another culture I must create a balance. It takes work, self-awareness and understanding of the other culture. I have learned to be a chameleon. I can only hope though that by adapting and changing to fit my surroundings I am not losing something important.

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