In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion.
Learning is change. I just wrote on a page of my new ‘Julien Leyre’ blog. As I did, I realizsd I learned a lot in the last five years – and as I learned, I changed.
I learned, at a very basic level, to operate entirely in English. I’m writing this piece in English now, and I’ve become more comfortable writing and thinking in English than French – although sometimes I miss the extreme clarity with which I wrote and understood French. I have changed, as a writer – but more fundamentally as a person – from being ‘Julien, francais’ to ‘Julien French-Australian’. The very pronunciation of my name changed, as I became ‘djoulian’.
Can people really change? It is a common philosophical question. Is character a given, determined through the mix of genetics and early childhood influences? Or are we plastic beings, engaged in a constant process of change and renewal? Based on my experience, in my case, the second seems to be true – my brain is now different, I have capacities I didn’t have – and I believe some fundamental assumptions about the world are no longer what they were ten years ago.
I changed language and nationalities, at the same time as I changed ‘profession’ and ‘cross-cultural identities’. I went from being a French linguist and writer to a French-Australian sinophile.
Asia – particularly China – entered my life at the same time as I moved to Australia. This change was, partly, the deliberate expansion of my own personal geography to integrate China – and of my linguistic understanding of the world to include Chinese. Then – or at the same time – came Spanish, through the reconnection with my mother, and a short trip to the Caribbean. And a growing interest for Africa, prompted partly through meetings in Australia. From a North-Atlantic mindset, I shifted to a global mindset. This was a change, too, in implicit perspective.
A large part of this change was the result of a deliberate attempt. I pushed myself to change – or pulled myself. I systematically walked through the streets of Melbourne. I spoke English and thought English. I looked at maps, exercised my worldview like you shift your eye focus at an optometrist’s. I wanted to become a ‘Pacific’ citizen. I wanted to become a sinophile Australian. I wanted to become a Melbourne writer. And I believe it’s happened. I have changed.
This change took a large amount of effort, energy, and time. Whether that was a waste, or the best decision I ever made, it’s too early to know. What I know is that, as a writer, I have developed maturity from this change. What I know is that, as a person, this change has also made me more mature.
What I tend to forget though, is that not everyone has undergone such a massive experience of deliberate change in the middle of their lives. We generally grow up, and change as we do, but then start taking a shape in our early twenties, and don’t vary too much from it. I have had a very long period of growth, experimentation, and taking shape. Or maybe, I have just retained high plasticity, because I enjoy it.
There is something deeply exhilarating about the possibility to change as I have. To be now in Nanjing, under a red quilt, enjoying the warm-ish air blown from my aircon, having come back from a day-trip to Shanghai – on Australian government money – when ten years ago, I didn’t know the first thing about Australia, Nanjing or Shanghai: that’s a bit of a change, and a happy one. I achieved a lot in these last five years – an exhibition, a film, a language, an apartment, a charity, three blogs, a new public profile, many friends, happy memories. I did things in my early thirties, even as I changed.
Soon another major change will take place: I will officially speak, understand, read and write Chinese. Not very well, maybe, but enough that I can take a book off the shelf, and follow it – or write an email to someone, and convey the information I need – or engage in a conversation pretty much anywhere. Europeans call that a B2 level. Fluency threshold. I am no longer a real ‘Chinese learner’. I no longer need vocabulary books, vocabulary lists, or grammar books. I have one more exam to pass, next year in September, maybe – HSK 6 – to seal it off. But I can basically start reading my own books, blogs, or conversation threads. Study days are over for Chinese. I’m now enjoying it. This big part of my life has become a proper source of joy – even as I keep progressing. And that’s so much more energy for the rest. Just as happened when English became no longer a drain, but something I was 100% confident operating in. Things are getting easier. And I’ve done so much, while I learned, and changed. I can just rely on some of that impetus in the coming years – and see what I can bring to life, if I’m changing less.