After a few months of twice-a-week classes in Mandarin, I would spend my free time thinking up short (really, really short) stories that I could translate into Chinese and share with the staff during lunch. This impressed everyone, and convinced them that I was some sort of language prodigy, not just someone who had manically tried to memorize just the words written. Somehow, listening to an American recount a three minute story made the Chinese teachers incredibly excited. It gave my teacher—which ever of the staff taught me that particular month—a lot of face, and, in China, that’s a big deal. And everyone loved the story about the wolf and the dog.
At Jayland, the English training school I worked that first year in China, we had an AYi, an older woman who cooked, cleaned, and seemed to spend a lot of her time fretting over the state of the young female Chinese teachers’ marital statuses. We called her Dajie, big sister. She smacked my shoulder the first week I met her when, at lunch, I placed my chopsticks directly into the rice, leaving them standing up in the air. It was quickly revealed to me that chopsticks placed like that symbolized death, and I never did that again (but to this day think about it every time I have a small bowl of rice). She was also one of the most enthusiastic about my Chinese story-telling, and months later, I heard her repeating the final line of the story about the wolf who chose freedom over being made a pet.
The story I told about the wolf and the dog came from a Native American myth, but many similar stories can be found from all over the world. Essentially, a tired and hungry wolf meets an energetic and well-fed dog one day. The two get to talking, and before long, the dog convinces the wolf to come home with him and live in his house with his master. The wolf loves the idea of never going hungry again, and agrees happily. As the two march off, the wolf catches a glimpse of the dog’s neck. “What’s that there, brother dog,” he asks. The dog turns a bit dour and remarks that his master ties him up every day so that he can’t run away. This startles the wolf, who then howls in anger and shock, “I would rather die free then live fat and a slave,” before dashing off back into the woods.
Dajie loved this story, and I’m not sure quite why, but lately I’ve been thinking about what the wolf said to the dog. Freedom versus slavery is a no-brainer, but what about slavery is so scary? Having no right to change, living by someone else’s rules, not being able to do what you want—these are easily on the tip of the tongue, right? I agree to all of these, but I am sort of surprised by the odd arbitrary nature of this idea of slavery.
Calling slavery captivity works when you visit a zoo, or when the species is near extinction, but isn’t the captive in a cell from which he cannot escape? Doesn’t he get meals and free time at the discretion of another? When the crowds call, isn’t there sometimes a trainer there coaxing him from his hiding place? True, he’ll get medical care when he needs it, not need to fend off vicious attacks from predators, and probably live a longer life than he would in the wild. The wild is where he belongs, though.
Humans, many have argued, are in a similar boat. Our cultures and laws, taboos and norms, and even our religions tell us stories that, in many cases, place bars firmly around an invisible perimeter no one is supposed to cross. Traveling is a great way to get a superficial look at these boundary lines, but being a tourist doesn’t make you a captive of the cultures you visit. At most, the traveler is on a day pass from the prison, but is expected to return to his cell eventually.
I’m too tired to bring this argument subtly to the point I’m trying to make, but the bottom line is we are subject to the wolf’s dilemma every day of our lives. At eighteen who isn’t hit with a near unbelievably strong urge to hit the open road, to just rip the fabric of their daily reality in two and step through the torn canvas of their life, out into something different, into something new? I remember driving home at night down Genoa, a back road that led to my parents’ house, window down and my hand slicing through the air with my fingers spread apart. A lot of the time my Intrepid would be the only thing out there, and I’d have the open sky and 97.5’s classic rock keeping me company as I cruised along. There were times I’d wish that road just kept going, that it could run straight out passed all the boundary markers I knew, all the barriers I still needed break through.
I’d turn into the neighborhood at Mollane, never really giving the road the chance to be what I knew it never could.
There were other times, when I was even younger, when I’d fantasize about running away. These whims didn’t spring from traumatic experiences or family troubles—no, I just wanted to wander around with a backpack slung over my shoulders, stomping through the small woods behind our neighborhood, and maybe I even thought I could hop a freighter or something as it passed behind the middle and high school buildings, ride it out to a new city. A few times I even packed a sorry little bag and stashed it around my bedroom. Once or twice I even climbed out my window and hung out in the woods for a few hours. I’d always return because it’d occur to me that I hadn’t finished my homework or that I’d forgotten to pack underwear. Once back inside, no one even batted an eye once they saw me. Apparently being outside for a few hours during the summer afternoon doesn’t really constitute a full-scale Amber Alert.
This idea of slavery vs liberty, or freedom vs civilization, has been around since one proto-human looked at the other and said, “This cave mine. You want in, do as I tell.” And, since it was raining outside, the other guy said, “That sounds just fine by me. As long as I get to stay warm and dry, I’ll follow the guidelines you’ve outlined.” The other proto-human studied at proto-university, evidently.
We live this compromise when we buy Roth IRAs, open lines of credit, or even restrain ourselves from rear-ending the idiot in front of us. We’ve been schooled in the subtle intricacies of this covenant with others in our human society, and we in turn educate the succeeding generations year after year. Fear of the rain may have prompted the first deal that paved the way for the rest of the civilization pact, but each one of us also makes a private accord with the world, and that accord ends with us relinquishing parts of our freedoms in return for the benefits of captivity. In short, one could say we are afraid of going hungry, just like the wolf.
Without a doubt, the benefits of civilization are far-reaching and just about innumerable, but there is still something alluring, almost provocative about the idea of an almost feral freedom that answers to no one, heeds no man-made border or boundary. Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Paulson, Quinn, Conrad, Kerouac and the Beat Generation writers, and countless others all analyzed these prison bars. In fact, just about every age and era of literature has a group of writers that peel back the veneer I’m rambling about and take a good look at what’s behind it. They wonder what it’d be like to leave the world of the bimonthly paycheck and the alarm clock wake-ups. They preach and prattle about the power of the road and the pull of the wild prairies left undiscovered…but they, like all of us, almost always eventually subscribe, at least in part, to some sort of civilization membership plan. Thoreau camped out on his friend’s property and routinely went into town when supplies dwindled, Jack drank himself into an early grave, and some of the other greats ended their stories by their own hands while others just sort of went mad in their own private ways.
We don’t ever really escape. The most we can do is walk the perimeters and toss stones over the fences we see. Honestly, if I were feral or “free,” I have no clue what I’d do. My life would not be what it is today, wouldn’t even have the values that it has now, so who’s to say that it’d be a “better” existence? If I want to say, “screw it, I’m going to Australia,” I suppose I could. It would cost me money, and I’d probably lose my current job, but I could be in Australia tomorrow if I so chose…But I don’t. Because I don’t have money to burn, an expendable job, and a solitary life. It’s almost as if being able to rail against the “bars of civilization,” is a fringe benefit of actually following that civilization’s rules. If I were to step out of its confines I’d have no way to know who I would become. And that is scary because I more or less like the Jordan I am. The wolf has always lived his way, but when he saw the leash marks on the dog’s neck he refused that life. We—I—have always had the leash, and as I’ve grown, the slack in the line has increased, giving me the chance to globe trot a bit, but the thought of throwing off the collar all together scares the living daylights out of me.
Did I just ramble myself into a circle, or, as they say in a Chinese idiom, “wu bing shen yin,” moan about an imaginary illness?
Either way, it’s Sunday night, and I’m going to get ready for another work week.