This passing weekend a strange constellation of coincidences led me to a surprising insight into the lives of our millennial generation.
Mr Li had taken a flight back to his hometown on Sunday after we had a big birthday celebration on Saturday evening. I spent Sunday afternoon with a friend and then got home around 4pm. While I did have it on my mind to send a message to Mr Li to ask how his flight was, the afternoon in the crazy hot Beijing sun had actually exhausted me. So I just sat down on the sofa, put on some random TV show and just let it wash over me. After a while I nodded off. Until at around 9pm, when someone rings the doorbell. Still half asleep I was a little wary since I hadn’t been expecting anyone and as Mr. Li and many other local acquaintances often point out, one has to be very careful about who comes a-knocking in China especially when at home alone. Even more so as a “vulnerable woman”, as much as I dislike this idea.
It turns out, it’s one of my friends who lives a metro stop away checking in to see that I was okay. Since I had not been in touch with Mr Li and his repeated phone calls had gone unanswered with my phone on silent in another room, he had gone into a panic and had convinced himself I had been run over by a car on my way home from brunch. He contacted every single one of our friends and of course no one could reach me.
It was at this moment that I realised two things. Number one, I had always felt that Mr Li and his mother both tended to freak out very easily as soon as one wasn’t in constant contact with them. Once I came to Beijing while we were doing long distance and the same thing happened – for maybe 12 hours we just didn’t look at our phones and promptly a relative stood in front of our door to check if we were still alive. I do not know if this is my particular partner and family’s idiosyncrasy or a general tendency for Chinese to over worry, though I do feel it may be the latter. I could tell both him and his mother were genuinely worried; I myself was torn between appreciation for their care but also utter bemusement with a tinge of being overwhelmed. My mum and I might not message each other for a few days, and neither one of us has a meltdown about it (well, I do get the odd “Are you still alive?” if I don’t get in touch for over a week #daughteroftheyear).
But the other realisation I had was just how connected we are nowadays and how expectations of being connected and availability have changed. Part of me was just totally “socialised out” after the weekend and so I was happy to just lounge about all by my lonesome on the sofa. I actually really enjoy a little time out from the phone and chatting every now and then. But my not being available for just a few hours caused my husband and MIL to be convinced I was lying in a ditch somewhere and it shocked me how constant availability is just a given nowadays. It’s no surprise so many people suffer burn out when you have to constantly be “switched on” that way.
On top of that I feel like professional and private life have, especially through the emergence of smart phones and chatting apps, become entirely inseparable. It is not uncommon for work mails to arrive on people’s phones in the middle of the night, and who can resist the ding of the phone? No one, that’s who. Yet, we hardly resist it when at work either. Message from husband, MIL, best friend; we immediately have to respond. It’s not a very healthy way of living, I find.
I believe that it is very important for my sanity to every now and then just chuck the phone in a corner and say “screw the world, I’m N/A right now.” Though maybe next time I shall warn my immediate family members in advance.