Saving Face

A powerful wizard, who wanted to destroy an entire kingdom, placed a magic potion in the well from which all the inhabitants drank. Whoever drank that water would go mad.

The following morning, the whole population drank from the well and they all went mad, apart from the king and his family, who had a well set aside for them alone, which the magician had not managed to poison. The king was worried and tried to control the population by issuing a series of edicts governing security and public health. The policemen and the inspectors, however, had also drunk the poisoned water, and they thought the king’s decisions were absurd and resolved to take no notice of them.

When the inhabitants of the kingdom heard these decrees, they became convinced that the king had gone mad and was now giving nonsensical orders. They marched on the castle and called for his abdication.

In despair the king prepared to step down from the throne, but the queen stopped him, saying: ‘Let us go and drink from the communal well. Then we will be the same as them.’

And that was what they did: The king and the queen drank the water of madness and immediately began talking nonsense. Their subjects repented at once; now that the king was displaying such wisdom, why not allow him to continue ruling the country?

The country continued to live in peace, although its inhabitants behaved very differently from those of its neighbors. And the king was able to govern until the end of his days.

“You don’t seem crazy at all,” [Veronika] said.

“But I am, although I’m undergoing treatment since my problem is that I lack a particular chemical. While I hope that the chemical gets rid of my chronic depression, I want to continue being crazy, living my life the way I dream it, and not the way other people want it to be. Do you know what exists out there, beyond the walls of [our world]?”

“People who have all drunk from the same well.”


Paulo Coelho, Veronika Decides to Die

Crazy. It’s a term we bandy about without much thought. It doesn’t carry a lot of weight or significance here. Perhaps it doesn’t anywhere.

Wack. Loopy. Different. Pissed off. Wild. Drunk. Mentally ill. Whatever.


I suppose a case could be made that I’m certifiable. But then, who isn’t? What caught me about Coelho’s story within a story is that it acknowledged that everyone living within the routine, within the framework of a culture – they’re just as nuts as those of us without. Those of us who think on different levels, who value different things, who straddle continents like lovers and throw ourselves into the chasms between – we’re just different crazy.

I did think of that a little when I lived in China. After the blue craving for acceptance finally succumbed to the fact that I was never going to get there (and it only took a year), after bitterness and betrayal and soul-deep disillusionment, there it was. I could speak English or Putonghua or in tongues. I could eat everything placed in my bowl (were they honouring me or trying to see what they could get me to eat? [I know it’s the former, but my self-depriciating humour suggests the latter.]) or nothing but mashed potato soup. I could go to the market in my teaching suit or in my flannel pajamas. (And toward the end I did both.) Nothing would ever make me less crazy. I never found the well that would have turned my thick yellow hair to a long fall of black silk. Looking back, I’m grateful for that. And knowing that, understanding that I was stuck as a crazy woman no matter how much evidence I presented otherwise – it allowed me to throw my inhibitions to the wind. Sure, I still wanted to be crazy in the right way most of the time. But then there were those rare delicious tastes of the freedom that was hanging in limbo.

It was a bit of a nasty joke, though not utterly unexpected, that I’d be crazy in the wrong way when I came home too. Seagulls in my eyes and what not.

But there isn’t really a wrong way.

So why worry so much about saving face before anyone who doesn’t greet you in the mirror each morning?


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. renlingshuiyue
    Jun 12, 2009 @ 20:40:25

    Awesome blog. I just spent half an hour going through your posts about China. It’s quite beautiful. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do, but I could never find the time or the eloquence of words to do this place justice. As such, I’ve only managed a small and straight forward advice blog.

    I am going to assume that you are in Shanghai from this post. I am in Beijing. Both are the worst place to get acceptance from the real “locals” since they have been here forever.

    And you are right, every time I come home, I never feel quite right anymore. Maybe it’s something that really stays with you until the end, who knows.

    Anyway, great blog, keep up the good work. I’ll reading. πŸ™‚


    • dragonstar728
      Jun 15, 2009 @ 00:21:35

      Thanks for stopping by. I’m really glad I’ve written things to which you can relate. I’d love to see your blog, by the way. Would you mind sending me a link?

      As it is, I think anyone functioning in a foreign culture can use all the authentic advice they can get. Staggering, isn’t it, to realise that we could live in a place for a hundred years and still never fully grasp the intricacies of culture.

      I’ve only spent four days in Beijing … I should give it another chance sometime.



      • renlingshuiyue
        Jun 16, 2009 @ 08:18:45

        Oops, I am really sorry about that. Here:

        It’s definitely not as well written as your posts, but I usually try to get out good/reliable information as far as I have been able to find out. It’s sometimes scary to think that I’ve been here for 6+ years, and I am still hitting my head on the Chinese wall from time to time. Even if I do speak fluent dialects, my background vastly differs from most people I know/meet, so I often feel I am still missing a beat. LOL, look at me yammering on like this.., maybe people like us should all write a book some day like all the sinophiles. And get all of it out of our chest.

        Nice to meet you, and I’ll look forward to your posts. πŸ˜‰

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