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Zorba the Greek

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“Impermanent are all created things; strive on with awareness.” Forgive me Great Buddha, I was not aware. Contrary to stereotypical belief, being Chinese does not mean that I am a Buddhist. Until I performed a twelve minute oral presentation on Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, I was unenlightened, stumbling in the darkness, wondering how I could break free of the “smart Chinese kid” mold. Zorba the Greek, starting off as merely as a summer reading assignment, became my very own Bodhisattva, a mentor in the Buddhist lessons of moderation. Soon, I embarked on my journey onto the Middle Path, realizing that life demanded a man to be both the spontaneous, indulgent Alexis Zorba and the cloistered, scholarly narrator.


Being a Chinese teenager comes with it certain obligations: attaining straight A’s, “striving” for top scores on national exams (although you know that failure to receive that 1500 on the SAT’s comes with it dire consequences—bubbling tar and duck feathers come to mind), and staying at home, “studying” away on weekend nights (because studies have shown that going out with friends will inevitably jeopardize your grades and educational future). In short, I was raised to be Kazantzakis’ ideal narrator.


This does not mean, however, that I resent learning. On the contrary, I am fascinated by literature, by the way my words and syntax shape meaning; by science, because it seeks to understand the enigmas of the natural world; and by theater, because it allows me to live the lives of many on stage, a place both thrilling and terrifying.

Yet so far I had only lived in one extreme, as the uptight, reserved narrator. In Zorba the Greek, Zorba was the better Buddhist because he understood it intuitively, even if he wasn’t a sworn Buddhist. The narrator, however, only conceived Buddhism academically but never applied it to his own life. By never indulging in his desires, he becomes obsessed with them and suffers. He clings onto his books and his theories in hopes of discovering the existence of an afterlife. Zorba, on the other hand, has severed himself from attachment to his past, to the future, and even to his own body. By indulging himself, he liberates himself from suffering, from the very desires that seek to torment him. Zorba is free.


In the end, the narrator uses his Buddhist manuscript as a form of exorcism, regaining a zest for life akin to Zorba’s. Zorba the Greek was my manuscript, my exorcism of the racial stereotype of a smart, sheltered Chinese kid. This year, I went to my homecoming dance for the first time in high school. Afterwards, I walked on the beach at night, staring up at the stars and listening to the pounding waves on the shore, feeling the sand beneath my bare feet. A year or two ago, I would have never imagined that I could experience such a night, one away from books and my parents’ protectiveness. Like the narrator, I, too, felt lighter and whole.





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