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.
Today was the shortest day of the year – the beginning of winter, but also therefore the return of the light. It was wonderfully sunny during the afternoon – though I spent most of the day inside, in the dark.
I am not an outside person. As a teenager, I liked staying in my room, playing video games, reading books or watching movies. And I remained that way later. I was not one for great outside adventures – though I did go for walks, and make friends. I remember one day when my step brother took me out with new friends he’d met in Brumath to ‘do rides on the Solex’ – riding my step-father’s electric motorbikes around town. He seemed to find it particularly thrilling, while I was half scared, half bored, and fully nonplussed.
I have since been able to go past the scare – though not always. Sometimes I experience social anxiety when entering certain spaces. Maybe it’s a gay guy thing: if a space is too male dominated, has too much testosterone, or hostile codes I don’t understand, and I’m not gonna fit, I think it wouldn’t be safe to go, or at least, it would be neither healthy nor enjoyable. Looking back, I guess other people – including possibly my step-brother at the time, must spend a significant amount of time conforming in order to access these spaces?
There is a degree of correlation between conformity and social access. Be too original, and a space may be closed to you. Be more generic, ‘democratic;, and more doors will open – but the downside, you have to conform figure. X. is a good example of that: a crowd-pleaser with a slightly vulgar touch.
But while I went rather rarely to very public places – bars, clubs, places for fast passage and meeting – I spent plenty of times at dinners and dinner parties, with friends and friends of friends, in deep conversations, sharing food – hosting or attending. I can remember by 21st of December over the last three years: a special dinner with Phil’s colleagues making eggnog; dinner with Y. and smart conversations about Asia; dinner with Z. and A. sharing songs at our ‘Eisteddfod’.
Dinners are an inside space, a controlled space – which I enjoy – yet made social by the people around them – friends, varied, not the same inner group or family repeated over and over. Meanwhile, do people who spend much of their leisure time outside have the same warmth in their ‘inner circle’? I wrote a few days ago about the large number of new relationships I had built over these five years, and how amazed I was at it – I think that my avoidance of public, competitive spaces, bars, clubs, is part of it. They suck a lot of energy – getting ready, recovering. And they’re not conducive to deep conversations, long exchanges, but first meetings, the excitement of getting to know, the thrill of the new, the possibility to become a focus of attention. They’re places for acting – superficial change, temporary metamorphosis, showtime – and in that way cathartic. While deep dinners and conversations can lead to deeper change – when you listen, engage, contradict, agree, and may actually change your perspective, shift your focus.
I remember how, for a short period of time, I sang with a guy called B. and his friend, a pianist, at an apartment in the 2nd arrondissement. A guy once came, heard us, and found it radical that we were doing that, rather than going out to bars like all other gay guys he knew. We were not looking for temporary showtime, the thrill of the potential meeting, that new face, that new exchange (but then you hear ‘ same old faces’ too).
Dinners, if you can keep them varied enough, have a way of renewing themselves more than bars: change one person, sit people differently, serve a different wine – and the experience is different. There can be significant change on the inside. And that’s what I appreciate.