Picture this. It’s a beautiful cloudy Sunday afternoon, and you’re having a pleasant stroll back from the bakery with a bag full of cakes. Suddenly, the thunderous roar of motorcycle engines growls into the silence as a band of hairy bikers skid to a stop at the four-way intersection.
The pungent smell of gasoline fills the air. Children point. Adults whisper, and couples stare at the group clad in leather and ripped jeans as one of them takes off his helmet. It is black, with a flaming skull painted on it, and beneath the head full of dreadlocks is a Chinese face. As some of the bikers light cigarettes, you overhear a mother telling her child, “Stay away from those people, dear; heaven forbid you ever become one of those ‘另类’ (‘linglei’; other kind)”. As the light turns green, the front motorcyclist revs his engines and pulls into a wheelie as the rest of the band follows suit; blaring their engines at everyone behind them as they ride off into the distance.
Now, if you are anything like me, you would be left dumbstruck and even slightly amazed at the group which had just passed by, especially due to the fact that they were Chinese (maybe you feel terrified, happy, no reaction, you tell me), but it is the very fact that you have some sort of reaction that is becoming an issue, especially in China. Although alternative lifestyles have slowly been accepted into popular western culture, its gradual development within China is a completely different story. As I am sure many readers have realised, the concept of living an alternative lifestyle has slowly spread throughout Chinese society; first in the form of the uniquely China sub-culture linglei, while other spiritual or philosophical lifestyles such as hippies, gypsies, artists and bikers have only recently started to show up within local culture. The concept of living an alternative lifestyle is already old news to Chinese society, but the traditional mindset of Chinese people allows little room for acceptance of different conducts or habits, which, in the constantly changing paradigm of popular culture, should really be more open to different ideas as China’s international reach continues to grow.
Traditional western alternative lifestyles all have some sort of driving belief or set of values behind them; the hippies believing in the pagan back-to-nature type of spiritual lifestyle, modern nomads valuing the vastness of the world and believing in the yearning to explore it, even nudists who believe that the naked body is the true natural form of humans. Although China has shown a degree of immunity to western cultural waves such as the tattoo wave in the 60s or the hippie wave in the 70s, it too has experienced ripples of Chinese alternative lifestyle culture; most notably the linglei in the 70s-80s. Thought to erupt from political dissonance with the Chinese communist party, these people living linglei lifestyles originally displayed behaviour best described as a rebellious hipster. This alternative conduct often began with an individual dropping out of school, or disagreeing with the current system of society in one way or another as they rejected the values they were taught as a child, going on to living a life without a care in the world. As the driving force and values behind this type of alternative lifestyle stemmed from China’s political system and its society, the phrase linglei came to obtain a negative connotation with time as many linglei expressed political radicalism against China’s conformist political party.
Nowadays, the term linglei has slowly started to regain a neutral connotation as more Chinese people have started to flock to such lifestyles. As its definition in Chinese society starts to shift from “nonconformist” to “alternative lifestylist”, its acceptance and the public’s view of these linglei will undoubtedly start to improve. I am sure many readers have or will come to feel the impact of this cultural paradigm shift as I have in my own life; for my piano teacher is probably someone you would define as a freestyle artist. You see, he is not exactly what you would expect a piano teacher to look or be like; with dreadlocks, a hip sense of fashion as well as a very professional but relaxed attitude towards musical education that makes him seem like a cool teacher from whom anybody would enjoy learning. As he said to me once, he hated the forced smiles and the dinners he would have to attend in order to save “face” for his boss and himself, so he opted to hone his piano skills instead to become the accredited competition pianist he is. Today, due to his extensive knowledge in the field of classical piano music, he merely needs to teach for 7-8 hours a week in order to live a very comfortable life in modern China. This just goes to show that these alternative lifestylists, or linglei, are simply people who reject the typical lifestyle laid out by others and instead wish to carve out their own path through the journey of life.
In truth, it is the people like this within any community that often grow into the crown jewels of society; Bob Marley’s hippie and relaxed lifestyle brought the soothing rhythm of reggae music into the mainstream, Edgar Allen Poe’s gothic lifestyle led to the creation of definitive literary masterpieces, or even college dropout Steve Jobs’ electronic hobbyist life which eventually came to lay the foundations of the information era. It has been these pioneers of new lifestyles who have turned us from the cavemen we were thousands of years ago into civilised members of the complex, modern communities we have today.
Now, what do you believe defines an alternative lifestyle? I think that to truly answer this question, one must look at what it really means to live an alternative lifestyle regardless of cultural, racial, or any other type of context. I believe that in its very essence is an embracing of the avant-garde of life itself, while daring to embark upon a life against the norm. In these terms, the “norm” then would be the defining factor of alternative lifestyle; with the equivocal nature of human diversity, the term “alternative lifestyle” would be completely contingent to any individual’s own interpretation of the norm.
Keeping this in mind, to the view of the modern West, the typical lifestyle of China itself could be viewed as an alternative lifestyle. As the West developed, China downright denied its inquiry based education system and insisted on sticking to their traditional learning by memorisation, while Chinese citizens often come to live lives entirely different from their Western counterparts, due to differences in cultural values, beliefs and traditions.
By this logic, do expatriates also count as alternative lifestylists? We live our lives amidst the vastly different society of China, yet we retain the core beliefs and values of the West or from wherever we come in the world to live through experiences unparalleled by any other type of lifestyle. You may not have come to realise it, but you too are an alternative lifestylist.