Good or bad


“There was an old farmer whose only horse ran away. Knowing that the horse was the mainstay of his livelihood, his neighbors came to commiserate with him. “Who knows what’s bad or good?” said the old man, refusing their sympathy. Indeed, a few days later his horse returned, bringing with it a wild horse. The old man’s friends came to congratulate him. Rejecting their congratulations, the old man said, “Who knows what’s bad or good?” As it happened, a few days later when the old man’s son was attempting to ride the wild horse, he was thrown and broke his leg. The friends came to express their sadness about the son’s misfortune. “Who knows what’s good or bad?” said the old man. As it happened, the army came to the village to conscript all the able-bodied men to fight a war against a neighboring province, but the old man’s son was not fit to ride and was spared. And so on…”
Ancient Chinese story as told in Nan M. Sussman’s (2011) Return migration and identity: a global phenomenon, a Hong Kong case, p233

While research on return migrants from Western countries has found that many feel distressed and like they don’t quite fit in upon returning home, Sussman’s study of Hong Kong returnees finds that the majority have no similar conflict, and are relatively comfortable just adding aspects of what they learned overseas to a new life in Hong Kong. In order to explain this difference, Sussman draws upon the differences between Confucian philosophy and the tradition of the Greeks – particularly in relation to their approaches to uncertainty and contradictions. Traditions of finding pragmatic compromises in Chinese culture, she suggests, make adding new experiences into a hybrid or bicultural outlook easier. The either/or approach, however, which draws more upon Greek philosophy, has the potential to create complications when one is no longer purely American or European or Japanese in outlook and culture.

As a trained sociologist reading Sussman’s psychological study, I kept thinking that a more social analysis of this difference in return migrant experiences would also be illuminating. Nonetheless, it is interesting to think about how elements of philosophy might be reproduced through generations of cultural institutions and interpersonal relationships.

One of the reasons I was so attracted to learning about Eastern religions and philosophies during my first degree was that in practice they didn’t always insist upon resolving contradictions. The possibility of leaving questions and interpretations open was extremely appealing after growing up in a media culture where morally-deterministic binaries dominate. Though at times it is important to advocate for what is good and bad, it is equally important to understand when this question doesn’t need to be resolved.