Trust and time: an interview with Ying Ying Li

For Decent Company August: loyalty, Ying Ying Li is writing and performing a piece about a loved one with seemingly arbitrary loyalties. Ying sat down with Decent Company producing director Josh Boerman to talk about the impact of loyalty in both personal and political life.

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JOSH BOERMAN: Welcome aboard! Glad to have you on this month.

YING YING LI: Thanks.

JB: This is the first thing that you’re doin’ with us, and it’s a very deeply personal story about somebody who means a lot to you, and the things that mean a lot to him. Tell me a little bit about it.

YYL: So it’s about my dad and how he’s really loyal to our family doctor. And kind of like how when someone in your family makes a mistake, then it creates more anxiety than somebody who you don’t know does. And it’s almost irritating, because now you’ve got to go and try to fix it, you know?

So it’s something that forces you to engage with it, because you can see it happening and then you wanna stop it. And it affects you if something bad comes out of it. So when you said that the theme was loyalty, then that idea just slipped in. Even when I was telling you, “Oh, I’m going to think about it,” it was slipping itself in there.

JB: Right. Well, what is it about this doctor that’s so extraordinary?

YYL: He’s not. He just has my brother’s same name. (LAUGHS) Like, first name. Not full name. Not first name and middle name. Just first name.

JB: And for you it’s a problem that your dad is so loyal to him because he’s not a great doctor, right? (LAUGHS)

YYL: No, he’s not. And I would not evaluate somebody’s ability to be a doctor, but he’s actually not into it, which is something that I can evaluate, right? And he’s just jaded and disenfranchised. He’s like an unhappy teenager in some ways.

JB: In a grown man’s body?

YYL: In a grown, like late 40s man’s body, I would assume.

JB: Well, I feel like, yeah, if I were looking for a medical practitioner, the last thing I would want would be a sullen teenager in a grown man’s body. That’s not—

YYL: Right. Right. Someone who thinks everything’s rigged against you, you know? (LAUGHS) Like, when I talk to him about movies or whatever, it’s always like, “Oh, can you believe what’s being made?” “Yeah, it’s all the studios.” “Yeah, I have a friend who tells me it’s all, like—” which is, like, fine. But that’s his attitude all the time, you know. About practice of medicine as well. About pharmaceuticals. It’s all, like, super jaded.

JB: Sure. Well, and I mean obviously, I think a lot of people have loyalties to people out of maybe a sense of obligation or years and years of relationships. Why to you is this story important? Why does it matter to you?

YYL: I think it matters to me because on the one hand, it’s funny. Like, the reason is funny for the attachment. But what’s at stake is so large because it’s about health of not just my dad but him and my mom.

And it’s also about— I think of loyalty as, like, trust, but throughout time there’s a timeline to loyalty, right? Like, loyalty doesn’t mean anything if it’s just trust that lasts one day. Loyalty’s about, the longer it can last, that feeling, then the more worthwhile it is and the deeper it is.

So, like, at the same time, the loyalty, my dad’s loyalty, is getting elongated by time. Like, they’re also getting older, so what’s at stake is higher because the older you get— you know, you need a better doctor the older you get.

JB: But one thing that you talk about in the piece as well is that your dad, you feel, has a tendency to just sort of latch onto things and latch onto people regardless of how much he’s really getting back, right?

YYL: Right. So yeah, I guess that’s what gets me too, is that it’s blind trust and it’s not economically sound, you know? Like, you’re not getting anything from it. And he has this tendency to do that. I almost think like because he’s not getting anything from it, it feels like a higher order of loyalty.

JB: Oh, that’s interesting.

YYL: You know? It’s like, it feels better the more irrational—

JB: No, of course. Because it’s like, “Everybody else has left you, but I’ll still be there.”

YYL: Right. Right. That’s true. That’s true. (LAUGH) And I’ve seen him demonstrate that for other institution-backed things, like his work. Like, whoever his employer is, right? And also sometimes for companies, randomly.

It starts off as trust, but then if you have a relationship with this thing, like his work or his doctor, then it becomes loyalty, right? Because it means that you have opportunities to opt out of it, and then you keep signing up and subscribing to it.

JB: One thing that I found interesting in the pitch that you originally submitted for this was that you were asking the question, “What do you actually get out of being a loyal person?”

YYL: Right.

JB: Do you feel like you’ve found any sort of an answer to that question?

YYL: I think loyalty is its own reward for people who are being loyal. Like, being loyal is the reward. That’s what you get.

JB: And you just get the comfort of feeling, like, “I am a loyal person,” and that’s it?

YYL: Yeah. I think so. And it’s almost like getting anything external dilutes that, because then it makes sense. It’s almost like if it doesn’t make sense, then it must be, like, stronger. The ties are stronger.

JB: Sure. Well, because a lot of times, there’s definitely an ideological component to loyalty, where— I mean, we can see that in American political society today, where the Republicans have nominated a candidate who has alienated broad swaths of the base by saying a bunch of really, really heinous shit.

YYL: Right.

JB: And yet in spite of everything, his poll numbers seem to have a very firm floor to them. There are people who are so intensely loyal to the idea of the Republican party that they’re still willing to vote for this guy, even if what he says utterly repulses them. And then you’ve got the true believers, which is a whole other question. Like, what does that mean?

YYL: Well, I mean, if you’re talking about the group that’s loyal to the party, but they’re actually repulsed by what he’s saying, then I don’t know if that’s loyalty or if that’s being strategic, you know? Being like, “The end result we want is the Republican party winning the nomination, so I’ll hold my nose and vote for this guy.” Is that loyalty? It’s almost too sensible.

JB: Right. Well, and it comes down on the other side of things too. You’ve got a lotta people who were, like, hardcore Bernie Sanders supporters who really don’t like the idea of Hillary Clinton being president, but they’re gonna vote for her anyway.

YYL: Right. Right. I mean, I guess one thing that you’re asking me, like what do you get out of loyalty, I think also there’s— I don’t know if this is what they get out of it, if this is the pleasure that they’re feeling, the feedback pleasure that makes them keep doing it; but I think a rationalization is like, “If we don’t all feel loyal to institutions and authority figures, then society will break down,” right?

Like, if I pushed my dad on this, and I have, on why is he loyal to his employer or whatever, it would be, “Well, if everyone was just acting in their own self interest and not helping their work, then everything would break down, and everything would go bankrupt.” So we have to kind of be loyal to make society work.

JB: And that’s a very basic concept of a lot of political science, too, is how we form societies and why. But I feel like at some point, personal agency does have to come into play. At some point, you have to say, “This is just a bridge too far,” right?

YYL: Yeah. And I think if you look at my dad’s actions, like, I don’t mean to paint him as just a fool on what really matters the most. Like, the biggest thing that he had to be loyal to was Chairman Mao, and growing up in the Communist Party, you know? And he was born into that, and he believed it. And yet, despite believing in it, if you look at his actions, he took his family out. Like, we left.

JB: Yeah, that’s true.

YYL: You know? And it wasn’t, like, an accident. He left ’cause he applied for an overseas studying thing, and then when we were able to apply for political asylum, then we did.

JB: In Canada.

YYL: Yeah, in Canada.

JB: Which obviously is a country that, like the United States, is very much grounded in principles of classical liberalism, which is the polar opposite of Maoist communism. They’re completely incompatible ideologies.

YYL: Right. So if you look at his actions, you can’t say that he’s just blindly loyal to all these institutions, right? ‘Cause that’s the biggest thing that many people didn’t do, even though they suffered under Mao and everything. But even to this day, he’s not one to go around badmouthing— he doesn’t rant about any of the things that happen.

JB: I mean, maybe part of it is an ability to kind of play the game and to be as loyal as is necessary to get by under certain given circumstances.

YYL: Right. And I guess the easiest way to do that is if you can fool yourself into thinking that you’re not playing the game, right? But then it makes no sense when you apply it to, like, Doctor Edward.

JB: Well, that— (LAUGHS) Yes. Then you’re just taking the path of least resistance, basically.

YYL: Yeah. That’s true.

JB: Because it would take so much more effort in a situation like that to— I mean, finding a doctor is such an absolute pain in the ass kinda thing to do. You gotta go through references and you gotta— you know, it can be a very involved process. And if you feel like what you already have is good enough…

YYL: Yeah. And I think it’s also very scary as a patient to just admit into your mind that a doctor’s diagnosis is just an opinion of one person, and it could be— you could take on the responsibility of investigating these things and comparing different opinions and all of that stuff, and that opens the door to so much work. So much personal administrative work.

JB: That’s definitely a component of loyalty, right? You’re able to just put trust in somebody else to let them take care of the things that you don’t have to worry about.

YYL: Yeah.

JB: Because it’s so much easier to not have to shoulder the responsibilities on your own.

YYL: Right. And even loyalty to a romantic partner. If you have that blind loyalty, then it kind of spares you the idea that the world is open to you, you know? It saves you from thinking about all of that stuff. Yeah, it makes life easier.

JB: Yeah. I mean, there’s definitely a lot of people who take that approach in romantic relationships. You’ll hear people say things like talking about the idea of “the one” and stuff like that. But, you know, given that there’s upwards of 3.5ish to 4 billion options out there, and if you swing both ways, 7 billion plus? That’s a lot of people.

YYL: That’s a lot of people. A lot of work. So maybe, like, loyalty, another function of it, is that it saves you work. The work that it’s saving you is more like the kind of work that we don’t want to do, which is looking for a doctor, or thinking about compatibility. These mental, emotional tasks, as opposed to tilling the fields or whatever, like, Scientologists want you to do to prove your loyalty, right?

The physical stuff, I think, we’re pretty happy with. And people who wanna exploit a sense of loyalty or build it, they keep asking you to do these kind of tasks.

JB: Where do your loyalties lie?

YYL: My loyalties? I’ve thought about that as I’ve worked on this piece. I don’t think that— (LAUGHS) I don’t feel loyal to countries. I feel fondness for countries when I’m watching the Olympics, but it’s never been tested, and I don’t think if someone tested my loyalty to a country that I would demonstrate any kind of loyalty.

I don’t know. The first thought is I’m not loyal to anything or anybody. I think you could look at my behavior and say I’m loyal to my significant other, I’m loyal to my family, but I don’t think of it as loyal. I just think, like, I love them and I treat them well.

So I don’t know what I’m loyal to. I kinda live more by principles, you know? Like I figure out principles that are important to me, and then I suppose I’m loyal to those principles. I guess that’s what it comes down to, and I’m comfortable with that.

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