This evening my boyfriend, my boyfriend’s housemate and I sat around the living room and watched the BBC Storyville documentary about boot camps for teenage internet addicts in China.
Yes. In China, they’ve constructed these almost One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest-esque hospital/military barracks/schools where middle-class parents who are at their wit’s end with children who spend months on the internet, or on World of Warcraft, without paying much attention to their health or their social life.
There are plenty of things worth discussing about this documentary, and I’m not about to go into all of it in one single blog post. But one scene struck a chord with me, and made my think about something else in my own life, which is unexpected since this film was as far removed from my own reality as anything could be.
The director of this institution holds a wired microphone between his thumb and index finger, speaking with operatic passion in imparting nuggets of wisdom to his audience – the fathers of the teenagers holed up in this camp.
His voice echoes around the classroom on bad reverb, and he pitches a question at this sombre, uncomfortable cohort of dads. “One of the biggest issues among these kids is loneliness. Loneliness. Did you know they feel lonely?”
At this, I’m reminded of my own upbringing. It’s important to remember that Hong Kong is vastly, vastly different to China – but we still have a shared heritage, and we were spawned from the same traditions.
I’m reminded because I see a similar sort of loneliness in myself. I never resorted to the internet for friends, I was far too sensible and obeyed my parents’ advice far too much for that – but as I got to my teenage years, I found myself watching TV shows and YouTube videos for hours and hours and hours on end. I didn’t feel like I had anything else better to do.
I wouldn’t say that the way my parents brought me up made me lonely. Far from it – every summer my mum would irritate the hell out of me by signing me up to a huge range of sports and arts courses I didn’t really have an interest in doing, especially if I was going into it alone. They pushed for me to meet as many people as I could, by learning to do as many things as I could.
But everything was so rigidly ordered, and every action meticulously planned out with no room for emotional flexibility. No decision could be irrational, or impulsive, or made just for the heck of it. There was very little spontaneity.
I’m grateful for this mould of orderly living I was raised in; it’s enabled me to achieve a great many things I’d otherwise not have been able to. It means I like to keep a tidy bedroom, and a kitchen with clean surfaces, and a toilet with no mould. It means I like Google Sheets too much, and checklists on my smartphone.
But since living on my own – and more importantly, living with people who are capable of being spontaneous – I’ve found I no longer require those long hours of watching YouTube videos or TV shows as a daily part of my life. No more sitting in the same chair until my bottom feels numb, or waiting until I finally can’t bear the layer of thin, increasingly viscous sweat gathering under my armpits. (Lovely.)
I no longer felt so alone – because I was finally experiencing what it was like to be a human being. I’ve said yes to a Cardiff-Swansea-Cardiff drive at 3AM in the morning, opened my eyes to a whole new form of narrative entertainment, spoken about both really personal and really abstract topics until the sun starts to appear over the horizon of terraced houses, and cooked whatever the hell I’ve wanted to, whenever.
It’s liberating, this new way of living my own life – but even though the sheer quantity of people I spend most of my time with has gone down significantly, I feel like a much more wholesome person. Being orderly is great, but getting out there and experiencing things under the most romantic of circumstances is far, far greater.
I can’t say that this is the experience every person has or will have. But I know those hours of loneliness I used to endure, thinking that that was my lot in life, have now been replaced by so much hope for an exciting, novel-/film-worthy life. I won’t divulge the details – that’s too much to cover in one post – but let’s just say that I’m miles happier than I was before I started living on my own.