Privilege and possibility

What children he must have thought us, though he was far too polite - and appeared to be having much too good a time - to give any indication of it. Our guest answered all our questions with a ready grace, though I'm sure that many of them were impolite, and, more to the point, that their general tenor must have revealed a way of thinking he could only find strange. We had assembled a small group of young artists and writers to meet the visitor, a distinguished Chinese artist, and over dinner and into the night we all talked, throwing ideas and questions into the air, challenging and wondering aloud at answers, and in the process revealing more of ourselves than we realized.

We wanted to know how art could exist in a society where individuality, choice, and freedom seem so severely limited. We tried to imagine how any of us could live - let alone create - in the China we had read and heard of. We could not imagine it, in fact, though he was generous in answering our questions. The assumptions we brought to the meeting, our very questions themselves, showed how far apart we stood.

''Are you allowed to paint what you want?'' ''What if you want to live in one city and you are sent to another?'' ''Why can't a couple have as many children as they want?'' ''What happens if you are given a job you don't like?''

All our questions betrayed our fundamental disbelief in the possibility of anyone's ever seriously thwarting our desires, and an inborn intolerance for frustration. We asserted, again and again, our belief in the primary importance of the individual impulse. Some of the questions showed serious concerns; others simply projected a general sense of pique at the idea of not having our way. The idea that a person might be responsible to his family, his community, even his country, for what we consider to be purely personal decisions goes against the grain - battling both the American idea of striking out for oneself and older, European, notions of the artist's romantic separation from society.

There was a general, though muted, sense of outrage at the idea that any outside force might control our actions, and a projection of that force as alien , hostile, and punitive. That is why I say we must have seemed like children.

Our guest, though, answered our notions of ''privilege'' with considerations of the ''possible.'' What is taken for granted in a prosperous nation may be simply impossible for a poor one, or will pertain only to a very few. He spoke of his country's poverty, of one billion people to feed, of crowded towns and cities, chronic shortages, recovery from war and natural disasters. He said that the Cultural Revolution had set China's economic growth back at least 15 years, and told how freedoms increase with increased prosperity.

We asked about the couple who wanted several children. He spoke, patiently, and with good humor, of those billion people, and the future for all of them if numbers continue to increase.

We thought of our own decisions to become artists and writers, of the personal necessity that fired our belief in ourselves and our work. He spoke of art schools with 2,000 applicants and places for 40 students. He said that if 60 people want to become artists and no one wants to be a street cleaner, or to learn to repair tractors, then someone will not get his first choice. We might feel this as tyranny, but there is a tyranny, too, of necessity, a necessity that most of the world knows better than we can imagine.

America's wealth is so taken for granted it is almost invisible to us. We all felt crowded in the small living-dining room, with eight guests around the round wooden table, and the serving dishes crowding the plates, and everyone having to stand up and shift places if one person wanted to leave the room. We filled the three-room apartment with people and objects and noise, uncomfortably tight - an apartment that would house a large family in China, and a privileged one at that.

Our guest seemed unoffended by our incredulity at his few quiet facts. We returned constantly to what was ''allowed,'' unwilling to face the harder questions of what was possible. This is why we must have seemed like children, believing that permission makes all things possible, that only an outside tyranny may deprive us of choice.

Yes, he said, Americans do seem to be true individualists, and to hold that virtue high. In China, he understated, it is not quite so. I am still thinking, beginning to understand how it is not just a virtue, but a privilege we barely realize, that makes us unaware of such tight limits on what is possible.

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