a few nights ago, i had a conversation with two friends, one old and one new about “resignation” and this has led me to rethink possible translations of 懒 (lan usually translated as lazy), especially within educational contexts.
my friends and i had just had drinks with an old married couple, who clearly still cared for each other and this led to a conversation about resigning oneself to unhappiness in a marriage or working towards one’s own happiness, whether or not this meant going through with a divorce at age 70. i mentioned a common mandarin expression, 懒得离婚 (lande lihun) from chen rong’s eponymous novel about a couple who stay married simply because they’re “too lazy divorce”. however, in context, it’s clear that chen rong is talking about laziness as a form of resignation (as in 无奈 wunai) and not as a form of non-cooperation (as in 不合作 bu hezuo).
this conversation prompted me to think about the different cultural valences of “lazy” in english and “懒” in mandarin because i hear chinese parents and teachers frequently complain that their children and students are “lazy”. as a general rule, i have had three interpretions of statements such as “he’s so lazy , he doesn’t love studying and is greedy to play (他很懒，不爱学习贪玩)”. if said by the parent / teacher of a student with high marks, i take the statement as negative boasting or a warning for the student not to become complacent. if spoken by the parent / teacher of spirited underachiever, i have understood the statement to mean the student needs to start studying and stop goofing off. and third, if spoken by a parent / teacher of clearly bored and unhappy student, i have assumed that the student was engaging in some form of let’s-see-if-you-can-make-me-study / get-good-grades passive resistance. i did not, however, associate laziness with resignation, especially when describing students who aren’t studying. indeed, i have tended to empathize with students who don’t study materials that bore them because i often understand laziness to be a form of self-protection.
so insight du jour, thinking of laziness in terms of resignation offers a fourth interpretation about what chinese teachers and parents might mean when they tell me a child / student is lazy. it is possible to think of statements about student laziness in terms of parental / teacher anxieties that a student is resigned to doing badly in school, indifferent to or perhaps unmoved by academic advancement, which in turn easily feeds anxieties about not getting into a good college, which in turn is thought to lead to a bad job (in the best case) or unemployment, which would prevent a happy marriage . . . and so yes, i suddenly see why it might be nerve-wracking to have a “lazy” child / student. i remain skeptical, however, about where the lines between over-achieving, doing one’s best, not trying, and opting out get drawn and more importantly, how parents and teachers recognize these different students responses to school.
p.s. my friend, a teacher has just read this post and commented that as an elementary school teacher in nyc, laziness distresses her as well because through their laziness, students learn that it is okay not to strive.