I wasn’t raised to strive for work-life balance.
My parents, my grandparents and the rest of my ancestors don’t believe in the phrase “working too much”. They don’t even believe in having hobbies. One time, I asked my dad what his hobby was. Blank-stared, he answered, “Well, work.”
This isn’t to say that they don’t indulge in casual activities such as gardening or watching a movie before bedtime. They are just used to live life in-between work, especially since none of them hold a traditional 9-to-5 job. Generations of entrepreneurship have only further cemented traditional, hardcore Chinese work ethic principles in our family’s DNA.
In his semi-autobiographical travel recollection, Roughing It, Mark Twain wrote, “A disorderly Chinaman is rare, and a lazy one does not exist.” He later added, “[A Chinaman] always manages to find something to do.”
I’m not here to validate the model minority stereotype that has hurt my Asian American counterparts, but survival instincts and a go-go-go approach to life do run high around me. Fundamental Chinese dynamics such as guanxi are so ingrained in our lives; I didn’t even think there was a name to them until recently.
Guanxi itself refers to the development of strong personal trust between individuals which goal is a continuous exchange of personal favours or business transactions. It goes much more beyond Western-style networking in corporate events; you’d see my parents doing it during, say, a parent-teacher conference or in the line to greet the pastor after church. Guanxi isn’t necessarily opportunistic, but it is another way in which the lines between work and life are so blurred in their lifestyle. There isn’t a real distinction between who constitutes as colleagues, clients, or friends.
When I officially entered the workforce post-college, I thought I could easily flout the values my parents taught me. The times are a-changing; what do centuries-old Chinese principles have against the easy, breezy tips I’ve read in women’s lifestyle blogs? Drink a cup of matcha in the morning. Log off by 5pm. Separate work and life. (Your co-workers are not your friends!) Squeeze in a quick workout after hours. Go out with your friends on Saturdays. Spend time with your family on Sundays. Say goodbye to life on Sunday night. Back to work on Monday.
It felt like ticking off a never-ending checklist every single week. God, when will it end? Just as I began to fully feel the monotonous weight of this routine, the pandemic hit us big time. All work-life balance illusion went out of everyone’s window and the same underpaid article writers began preaching a different kind of lifestyle; they call it ‘work-life blending’. An epiphany so revolutionary, Inc.com calls it “the key to happiness”.
While Western writers are out here theorizing what makes work-life blending works, I only need to observe my family for clues on how to actually do it. They have long understood that there shouldn’t be a hyphen between ‘work’ and ‘life’. To think your life is on hold when you’re on the job is to kid yourself. And who is to say investing in your personal relationships doesn’t count as work? Work is life. And vice versa.
Looking back, the work-life balance school of thought has taken so much from us. A part of it is the monetization of passion as a way of cheating it. My generation in particular was taught to aspire to work in a field we’re passionate in. “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”, they say. Well, that turned out to be a pile of pseudo-feel-good crap. Every day, bright-eyed fresh graduates start their dream job and end up feeling dejected after discovering that the work they think they’re passionate about turns out to be… like any other work.
The rigidity of the conventional corporate culture doesn’t help either. In a world where clocking in/out is just a formality, have we ever even been afforded a real chance for a complete separation between work and life in the 21st century? (I’m looking at you, Slack.) So, why have we been killing ourselves to achieve an ideal that has never been within our grasp in the first place?
I’m laughing as I sit and type all of this because, damn it, maybe my ancestors are right. Letting go of the preciousness in the isolation of work from the rest of life sounds so freeing to me. At least, as free as one can be in a society where the quality of our lives ultimately depends on the level of our income. Out of the numerous aspects of life that have been irrevocably changed because of this pandemic, I do hope this is one of them.