Creative non-fiction / February 2009 (Issue 6)

Confucius and Hair

by Xu Xi

The Master said, At fifteen I set my heart on learning; at thirty I took my stand; at forty I came to be free of doubts.
From Book 2 Confucius: The Analects (translated by D.C. Lau)

At forty, I had my hair cut stylishly short. It had always been long, shoulder length or longer. I scoffed at fashion, at women’s magazines, and considered "styling" hair frivolous, demanding always, "just a haircut".

In 1994, the year I turned forty, I’d been back home in Hong Kong for two years as a marketing manager for Federal Express and was up for a promotion to a position in Singapore. Writing and publishing fiction was my other full-time job. My first novel was due to appear that year, and I’d recently won a New York state fellowship and the local short story contest. Forty should have been a good year.

Turning thirty had been a non-event, at least in matters of fashion. At thirty, Confucius claimed he "took his stand". As a cultural descendant of the man, I decided for once to pay attention to him rather than worry myself with passing youth. In my thirties, there were Important Concerns (á la Pooh Bear) ahead, which was to write and publish serious fiction alongside my marketing career. I had my MFA in creative writing, seven years international marketing experience, and, thanks to my then husband, a green card to work in North America. My parents didn’t have my privileged education and access to the West. It was time to repay their patient support, make money and succeed.

Ten years, one layoff and four jobs later, the first book was only just being launched. I was rethinking the meaning of success in light of this "stand" of mine. Colleagues in business were breaking glass ceilings with a seriousness I lacked; MFA classmates who wholeheartedly devoted themselves to their art had bigger writing careers than mine; friends and relations maintained stable marriages. Meanwhile, my marriage was shaky, and life, chaotic. Everything seemed indistinguishably important and of immediate concern. I worked seventy hours a week and praised the insomnia that kept me writing. My parents were less interested in my success, or lack thereof, having pretty much accepted my stubborn independence. Forty was drowning me.

But I had a public persona, a well-paid job, the opportunity to travel and good future prospects! Surely I should be proud of my resilience and successes. Perhaps I wasn’t quite "rich and famous", but millions would kill for a fraction of my life. Yet looking ahead, all I saw was a joyless treadmill in a "privileged" but meaningless first-world existence. So much for my cultural heritage and the decrees of ancient philosophers.

Must you "take a stand" at the risk of your soul?

Confucius, despite his penchant for rituals and decrees, did bequeath some wisdom to the ages. To be "free of doubts" seemed like a desirable state for forty. Yet there I was at forty, mired in doubt over self-worth, questioning the pointlessness of my existence compared to more successful friends. I never quite believed in my parents’ love, despite their years of support. I perpetuated chaos and instability, trumpeting my "strength" at adapting to change. I "managed" the unduly complicated — dual career responsibilities, long hours, constant moves, a tenuous marriage — but evaded love, health, and making peace with myself. Above all, I simmered in silent rage at the course of my life, upset at the choices that brought me to where I was.

Why was I still trapped by myriad doubts instead of tripping the light fantastic to freedom like that ancient sage?

The day a Hong Kong hairdresser said, "Consider a new hairstyle, perhaps short?" I looked in the mirror and asked myself why I had disdained this simple decision that thousands of women make all the time. Perhaps it was doubt, anger, or Confucius, which I’ll never know, but something surrendered me to the cropping that day. Forty minutes later, I did not recognize myself. The hairdresser looked worried. Would I burst into tears of panic? Here was Madame Samson, shorn, trivialized by her moment of weakness — a spoilt brat demanding pity from the gods for a fashion mistake.

Then, the mists cleared and I smiled. The hairdresser was relieved. I left his shop feeling elated yet foolish. Could joy really spring from such a tiny thing?

The mirror doesn’t lie. The first step beyond doubt is to view yourself without guises. Having taken my stand, I succumbed to meaningless activity without ever questioning the validity of my desires. I wanted money and success, so multi-tasking like a computer operating system puffed up my self-importance in a fast-paced world where more is never enough.

Hair, however, is simply hair, much as the mystery of life is simply the mystery, much as all that my parents were trying to do was keep up with the next, unfathomable generation. I kept my hair long the way I sustained anger or a complicated life because I could, because it required merely the expenditure of energy, but not reflection.

My forties were a transformational decade. I quit corporate work, divorced, surrendered to an international life, and wrote. My father died unexpectedly, forcing the issue of mortality. My real "job", once the shock and pain subsided, was to be there for my family, to comfort my mother as she ages. I scoff less at values I do not share and try instead to act on those that matter. I look after love and health and my corner of humanity. I care more about the mystery of existence and less about success. I reflect.

We are born dying, said Edvard Münch, best known for his youthful painting, "The Scream." In Oslo and Bergen, I stared long and hard at his path to death, the mirror-image self portraits he painted as he aged. He captured a calm resignation in his various faces, far beyond the scream. Peace begins with that calm. Doubt lessens, life simplifies.

I keep my hair short.

Shortly before I turned fifty, my New York hairdresser suggested a different style. Why not, I said. The mystery of existence embraces the rich and famous, hungry and impoverished, wars, injustices, women’s magazines, fashion, social change, racial discrimination or harmony, immigration laws, terrorism, and hair. My time before death visits is probably not enough for what I’m here to do, but that doesn’t mean I can’t try to foster change that's necessary, rather than adapting to meaningless change, for as long as my time permits.

The examined life, coupled with hard work, pays off in far more than material rewards. I now have books and my writer’s life. More important, I’m beginning to learn that true success comes from accepting, and respecting, the choices I make.

Turning the corner on fifty was much less melodramatic. Confucius had wisdom to impart for that moment too. "At fifty," he said, "I understood the decree of Heaven." Such a claim seems unnecessarily grandiose, but then, I am neither Confucius nor a traditional Chinese man. Instead, this middle-aged, contemporary, mostly-Chinese woman takes comfort in the vernacular of the young, one that used to irritate me, unnecessarily. These days, to this ancient wisdom I reply, "whatever".

Hair, I’m happy to say, can just be hair.

(This piece was first published in Imprint 2007, the annual anthology of the Women in Publishing Society of Hong Kong)

Editors' Note: A review of Xu Xi's Evanescent Isles by Eddie Tay is available in this issue (issue#6) of Cha.

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