Cultural Crossroads: Mark Salzman

Mark Salzman’s interest in all things Chinese began in childhood, when he first studied martial arts. He went on to wash dishes in a Chinatown restaurant just so he could learn Mandarin. After that, he studied Chinese language and literature at Yale University, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude.

Once fluent, Salzman travelled to Hunan, where he lived between 1982 and 1984, working as an English teacher. His infatuation with China centred on his interest in the martial art Wushu — which he studied under Pan Qingfu, one of the greatest masters of his age.

Iron & Silk, Salzman’s book of his time in China, became a bestseller, and was turned into a Hollywood movie of the same name, in which he and his teacher played themselves. Salzman has published other books as well, and has written on the challenges for a writer, as well as on teaching creative writing to the next generation.

Mark Salzman plays the cello, and has performed as guest of YoYo Ma at New York’s Lincoln Centre. He is married to the film-maker Jessica Yu, with whom he has two daughters, Eva and Esme.

Photo credit: Jessica Yu

1. When you first ventured to China in 1982 and found yourself living in Hunan, China and the West were light-years apart in terms of lifestyle and culture. Do you reflect on the China you first observed with nostalgia now, and do you ever find yourself wishing life there hadn’t changed at such a furious pace?

I do succumb to bouts of nostalgia about the China that I remember, but not so much in the sense that I wish the country would revert to its 1982 form – it’s just that there are a few moments that I wouldn’t mind being able to relive. For example, one of my t’ai chi teachers used to take me to a nearby Buddhist temple to practice. One of the monks there was blind. If it rained and we had to stop practicing, he would serve us tea. We drank it in a little courtyard where a banana tree grew, and the sound of raindrops hitting the leaves of that banana tree – I’d love to hear that sound again someday.

But I confess that when I lived in China, I didn’t expect to ever feel nostalgic about it. I adored and admired many of the individuals I met there, but found the mainstream culture pretty unappealing. And most of the people I knew and liked there wanted change above all else. They wanted prosperity, they wanted televisions, they wanted flush toilets, they wanted economic stability and technological modernisation, and they wanted to be proud of their country. And they were willing to make all kinds of personal sacrifices and work themselves nearly to death for these things. Naturally, being a pseudo-Buddhist Westerner searching for enlightenment, I thought they were in for an unpleasant surprise.

Wait till they discover that achieving these goals doesn’t provide the happiness that it’s supposed to bring! Then they’ll know why so many Westerners, with more televisions and toilets than we know what to do with, are in therapy, learning yoga, or swallowing happy pills! But maybe the only way for any of us to make this discovery is the hard way: by striving toward these goals, achieving them, and finding that we’ve simply upgraded to a fancier treadmill. In that case, perhaps the faster life changes in China, the better for them.

2. Even though the modern manifestation of China is supremely commercial, would you say that – at a cultural level – the China you knew is still the China that exists, albeit hidden below the surface?

Yes, I would say that. The Chinese have all the cultural ingredients they could possibly need to create a life for themselves – in the modern world – that achieves a healthy balance between material/practical needs and what we might call spiritual or psychological needs. Or between what Pico Iyer, the great writer and heavyweight champion of balance, calls movement and stillness. It’s just that most of those cultural ingredients are being overlooked in favour of a small number of ingredients that are getting all the attention.

I’ll cite an example: Deng Xiaoping’s famous saying, ‘To get rich is good’. When he said that, I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean that all Chinese should aspire to become fat billionaires renting apartments in Shanghai for their mistresses and using $500 bottles of wine for drinking contests at banquets. He was trying to undo the damage caused by the extremism of the Cultural Revolution; during that period, it was strictly taboo to suggest that one might like to be able to afford anything that wasn’t strictly necessary, that brought comfort or pleasure. Pleasure was for decadent, evil capitalists!

But like the kid who is raised by parents that strictly forbid any candy or sweets, and who gorges on them once he goes to college, many Chinese are now gorging on the idea of wealth. They appear to be convinced that wealth is the answer to all of life’s problems – ‘wealth isn’t everything, it’s the only thing’, and so on. They have two or three thousand years’ worth of culture that could tell them otherwise, and could save them a lot of trouble. But, for the time being, that cultural material is hidden below the surface. It can’t compete with the fantasy, so long repressed and now released to run wild, of what it might be like to live like an emperor.

3. By studying Wushu in China, and by teaching English as you did, you penetrated Chinese culture more deeply than a great many foreigners who venture to the Far East. When you see package tourists on their high-speed travels – whether they be in East or West – do you feel they’re missing something?

Oh, I have those thoughts, of course – ‘Look at them with their selfie sticks – one visit to the Great Wall and they think they’ve seen China!’ – but I try to keep those thoughts to myself, and here’s why: two years ago, my wife, daughters and I took a short riverboat tour through northern Italy. I know nothing about Italy. We had a lovely time; it was one of the most enjoyable trips I’ve ever taken. The food, the art, the landscape – it was all a gift. If an American living in Venice, an art historian with a passionate interest in Renaissance painting who had learned Latin and modern Italian in order to pursue his dream, were to scoff at us as we climbed into our gondola for a ride to the Doge’s Palace, I’d think he was being a poor sport. With that in mind, I wish every tourist a pleasant journey. Don’t miss the terracotta warriors!

4. Published in 1986, your first book, Iron & Silk, was a huge international success. More recently you have written about writer’s block, and the inability to produce the work you would wish to. Can you explain how the ‘block’ descended and how it has affected your life?

How many megabytes can your website accommodate?!

Seriously, this is a subject that I’m all too happy to ramble on about, so forgive me if I ramble on.

I’ll try to keep it brief.

I think of the best writers as the ones who can write on just about anything or anyone. Their imagination seems limitless. Shakespeare, Tolstoy; I’m not in their category. I can only write what I know, and all I seem to know, for better or for worse, is me. My nonfiction books are about experiences I had, and my novels are about fictional characters who are basically me with names, genders, and life circumstances changed to spice things up. All of my books have been about the same thing: my attempt to understand and solve a problem that kept me feeling uncomfortable when I had no good reason to feel uncomfortable.

When I was growing up, at the end of every month my parents would sit down to do the bills. They would look and sound so distressed while doing this that I couldn’t stand to be in the same room with them. They were kind, loving, cautious, hard-working people who never spent more than they earned, and they always did find a way to pay their bills on time. So why did they feel so afraid, so full of dread, so worried, so aggravated, so tense, and so often? Was it really necessary? Churchill described history as ‘one damned thing after another’. That’s how my parents seemed to feel about life itself, and I inherited the feeling.

When I first got exposed to Buddhism in 1972 through the television programme ‘Kung Fu’, about a Buddhist monk from China who meditated, played a bamboo flute, and beat up villains without getting frightened, angry, or upset at all, I thought: this guy looks at ease in this world. He seems happy – but not in a weird, ‘Tom Cruise on Oprah’s couch’ sort of way. No, he seems happy in a moderate, clear-headed, rational way. I wanted to be like that guy. So I began studying Buddhism, martial arts, and Chinese language, and ended up in China as an English teacher in 1982. When I got home in 1984, I started writing about my time in China because that was my way of trying to process what had happened there. My hope was that by putting the experience into words, I could understand it more deeply and finally achieve the goal I was seeking: peace of mind.

I didn’t understand that, by turning peace of mind into a goal and striving toward it with as much energy and commitment as I could muster, I was making its attainment impossible. Am I at peace yet? How would I know? What is peace of mind? Am I more peaceful than yesterday? Is this really peace, or am I just sleepy today? Am I striving hard enough to be effortless? Have I developed sufficient mind-control skills to be egoless? Am I serious enough about non-attachment to no longer care if I am attached or not? etc. Metaphor time: I was like a dog chasing its own tail. The faster I ran, the faster the goal ran away from me.

I kept chasing this goal, and I kept writing books about what it felt like to be chasing that goal. This kept me busy, and being busy worked well for me. And those books found readers who encouraged me and helped me make a living, which still amazes me. Then, two things happened that altered the narrative. First, my wife and I had kids, and I immediately became the primary, stay-at-home parent. I thought I could be a Mr. Mom and write at the same time, but I was wrong. Raising kids melted my heart in the best possible way, but it also turned my brain to mush. I couldn’t think straight – how can you, when you’ve got little kids who need your attention all the time? The interruptions, the interruptions, the interruptions. And they never seemed to go to fucking sleep, bless their little hearts. At that point, I did experience a form of writer’s block, and it frightened me. That fear increased the urgency of my search for relief from the uncomfortableness, the persistent worry and rumination. Come on, peace of mind, we could really use you around now.

Long story short, I chased my goal/tail until I collapsed from sheer exhaustion. And what happened next is so familiar to spiritual seekers that, really, it has become a tiresome cliché. I’m almost embarrassed to type these words: I learned that I had to fail and surrender before I could let go. Cliché or not, I’ll take it – my uncomfortableness problem cleared up after that and not a day goes by where I’m not grateful for it.

But here’s the catch, which brings us to the second reason I haven’t published anything in years: I can only write what I know, right? Well, it turns out that what I know now isn’t any sort of permanent, mind-blowing bliss – it’s just ordinary, everyday life in the absence of uncomfortableness. It’s marvelous, but doesn’t make for much of a story. I’m not saying that writing about this ‘surrendered’ way of experiencing life is impossible – poets have done it for millennia, and are still doing it every day – but I’m poetry-challenged. I couldn’t write a poem if my life depended on it.

Narrative – or perhaps I should say, narrative as my limited mind is able to conceive it – needs conflict, it needs a destination, a propelling force. Narrative needs a character to be moving either toward something or away from something. And I’m a storyteller, that’s how it always worked with me. I wrote stories about people who were making the journey through inner conflict toward a place of acceptance, and who were very strongly motivated to get there. For the life of me, I can’t seem to think of a way to describe a journey that takes place entirely within the landscape of acceptance. Or at least, a story like that that anyone – including me – would want to read.

I heard a monk say that a true pilgrimage isn’t a journey you make to find the holiest spot on earth; it’s a journey you make where you realise that every spot on earth is holy, so you arrive with every step. That’s a wonderful way to live – but try to imagine a novel about a character who feels that way! It wouldn’t be a novel, it would be a lengthy blog – or in the hands of a genius, it might be Remembrance of Things Past. But – confession time again – I’ve never been able to read blogs, or more than a page of Proust’s masterpiece, without getting impatient.

Frankly, I’d rather be eating madeleines myself than reading someone else’s account of his morning snack, followed by two thousand pages of virtuosic nostalgia. Get a life, Marcel. That doesn’t mean I don’t love the idea that one day I might wake up and think: hold on! I can think of something I’d like to write! And writing may happen. But in the meantime, a prominent feature of the landscape of acceptance is that all directions lead in an acceptable direction, so I’m not in any hurry. And also in the meantime, I’ve found a job that I love. I teach creative writing – what else? – to seventh-graders at a little school near my home. So to wrap this up, I’ll briefly describe how my class works, because I still can’t get over that I’m allowed to do this in an actual school.

At each class meeting I begin by reading a few things aloud, short pieces written by people describing a moment or an experience that they will never forget. Then I give the students a question or prompt that is designed to encourage them to look inwards, explore, and respond from their own experience and memory. One example would be: describe a time you had to ‘wear a mask’ in a social situation in order to fit in, or conceal something about yourself.  Which of the many masks that we wear reflects our truest or most authentic self? Are they all authentic? Are none of them authentic? Do we become the masks we wear?

Here are a few other examples of prompts we write on:

– Describe a time you wanted something badly, but not long after you got it, you lost interest in it.

– What is one thing you wish you could stop thinking about?

– Describe a time when events outside your control – circumstances that weren’t your fault, in other words – had a significant effect on your life. How were you changed?

I give the students around fifteen minutes to write their pieces (for twelve-year-olds, that’s about as long as their attention span will allow) and after that, I ask for volunteers to read their work aloud or paraphrase what they wrote. The students also enjoy when I shuffle the essays and read a few of them aloud anonymously.

They hand in their work at the end of the class period, and they are done for the day. I don’t assign any outside reading or homework, and boy, does that make me popular. I take their essays home, read them, and provide written responses. I tell the students to imagine we are having a conversation that will last the whole year, and my responses are what I might say or ask if we were sitting in the same room and they had just told me what they had written. What I’m mainly trying to convey through my responses is: here I am, paying attention. This is what your essay made me think about.

Jessye Norman, the great opera soprano, wrote, ‘The arts show children at an important time in their lives that they have a voice inside of them, and that the world wants to hear this voice’.  It’s a wonderful ideal, but here’s the challenge that many teachers face: it’s easy to tell kids they have a voice inside them, but it’s hard to convince them that grownups other than their parents really want to hear that voice. I read around one hundred and fifty student essays each week, and nearly five thousand during the course of the year. If the kids were writing formal essays about the three branches of government or the uses of metaphor in Moby Dick, I probably wouldn’t last very long at this job. When they are writing about things that actually matter to them, however, and if they are writing sincerely, then I have no trouble feeling enthusiastic. And I want the kids to know that they’ve held my attention.

If I’m doing my job right, none of these students will ever again be able to say, ‘I hate writing’, or ‘my writing stinks’, without having to add, ‘unless I’m writing about something I really care about’. They will still have to struggle their way through mastering formal, expository prose, and they will probably still have to analyse the metaphors in Moby Dick someday – poor kids – but they will also know that if the day comes when they want to reflect on and understand something deeply, or convey something important to someone else – especially of a personal or subjective nature – they’ll have the tools for the job. And maybe a few of them, like me, will use writing to solve a problem that has vexed them for decades. That’s what I’m up to these days. Thank you for asking!