The pixels of sand in my virtual hourglass fell tantalizingly slow as I sat at the edge of my black swivel chair.
Goddamn it, a voice of fatigue screamed weakly in my aching head. Just work, just this once.
After two minutes that had stretched out into infinity, the screen lived up to its sadistic tendencies.
It was the 38th proxy I had tried on a list of supposedly functioning sites that Yahoo Answers had so incompetently provided me. The final strand of my well-tested patience had been robbed by the woes of censorship.
I was in the village of Dalingshan, China. My father, who spends the majority of his time commuting back and forth from Dongguan, had invited me to spend a month with him as I helped teach English to local children.
The first week or so of the Facebook and Gmail deprived, small-town rural experience was certainly interesting. It forced me to actively hunt for alternate sources of entertainment and thrust my head on into a cultural hurricane I was totally unprepared to tackle. It was exciting.
But after the first seven days, Dalingshan had become the bane of my fifteen-year-old existence. What the hell was I supposed to do in this godforsaken place?
When my father was done with work, we would take his car into the greater regions of Dongguan to experience city life. This was a commercial hub that, aside from its Pizza Huts and Wal Marts that I must guiltily admit provided me with some comfort and signs of civilization, at least gave me something to do.
Every time we entered and exited Dalingshan, the letdown and euphoria that became instinctually attached to my desire to escape my rural confinements were accompanied by a rather amusing image.
Without fail, at six o’clock in the evening, a modest crowd would begin gathering around a rusty black television that sat on the floor of roadside shop. On the screen flashed the hazy images of a Chinese soap opera. The first time I saw these locals flocking around the ancient TV set, I didn’t know whether I should revel in the cultural gathering or feel remorse towards their fairly disheartening circumstance.
By the time we returned to Dalingshan at about nine or ten at night, the size of the eager crowd would triple at the least. The people now occupied the space of three whole shops to look at that single screen. They laughed, they cried, they screamed. Some in genuine enthrallment with the fictional scenario unfolding in front of them. Others in drunken bliss. Regardless of why they were there, and I’m sure some came for reasons other than just the barely visible images on the TV, they came without fail. Every, single day. And during those few hours, they incarnated the spirit of humanity and an absolute, unadulterated willingness to live in the moment. In this case, with strangers, too.
The more frequently I saw this scene, the more my internet-less, boredom induced cynicism began to evolve into something more valuable. I didn’t know why those locals huddled around a soap opera struck a deep note with me until I removed myself from the moment and thought about where I came from.
I was a teenager from a well-to-do suburb of New Jersey. My town was continually ranked as one of the best places to raise a family in the US. We had one of the best school districts in the state and a ceaseless current of Ivy-bound overachievers who adorned our hallways with the gold medals of national accomplishment. Where else would you possibly want your kids to grow up?
Maybe in a place where families still eat dinner together. Maybe in a place where the concept of an uncompromising tradition of social gatherings is just as important as the numbers on the standardized test scores and transcripts. Maybe in place where people ,despite their respective problems and backstories, would come together and just live for a few hours.
Kind of like those people with the TV in Dalingshan. A town where people who had almost nothing more than the clothes on their skin and the smiles of their children found a way to make their individual relationships with the rest of the community a priority.
My proxy-less situation still tainted my immature 15-year-old perception of Dalingshan with the paints of routine drabness. But the image I took away from the experience is something that made me question the priorities of our goal-oriented society. And I seem to be remembering those people with the TV now more than ever.