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.
New Year’s Eve is a celebration to welcome the New Year – the coming change. You make resolutions: ‘this is what I am going to change’. But I will take New Year’s Eve differently, as a symbol of mindful change – that is, a time to consider the past, remember Because the future is not the sheer rejection of the past, but its full understanding and accomplishment. A bright future requires a solid understanding of history.
I spent the last day of the year exploring museums – with a short stop alongside a lake. Most precisely, the Hubei provincial museum, with collections of paleontology, and bronze age artifacts. A key message was – that the land of Chu was a centre of high culture more than 2000 years ago – as was manifest from the beauty and wealth of the objects on display.
More important, for my own understanding, the museum had a visiting exhibition of Etruscan civilization – these mysterious forefathers of Italy, Rome, and later my own tradition. Including canope vases, and the earliest ex voto – hands, eyes, a finger, even intestines made of clay, given as presents to the deity – and so very similar to the practice of Neapolitan (or even Parisian) Catholicism.
Equally ancient and respectable civilisations – the kingdom of Chu, the Etruscans. In another room were displays of the early hominids, with an allusion to Cro Magnon, in France’s South West. Both stressed the continuity between Chinese and European achievements.
Looking at history on that scale – our ancestors, 2500 years ago – is not common in Australia: aboriginal people have a 40,000 year old traditional lifestyle – other Australians have imported theirs from England 2 centuries ago. But I am a man of old culture, migrated to this land that seems to miss its middle-band of history.
I reflected on lakes as well: a lake is a depression in the floor where water accumulates, not as a flowing linear stream, but a round shaped body, with no very clear movement or current. I travelled form the East lake of Wuhan to the West lake of Hangzhou. Both are seen as ultimate symbols of beauty – such as the Geneva Lake in Switzerland. Lakes are enjoyable to look at. They signify the possibility of lasting life – their accumulated water guarantees the possibility of agriculture, fish, plants, and drinking water. Where there is a lake, life is possible, ongoingly. Rivers may dry up – their source is far away – or suddenly rise. Lakes are stable and calm. Hence the joy that emanates from them.
For a long time, my main concern has been to understand what group I was a part of – because I had no clear ‘us’, but found myself in-between. And I interpreted it in the wider context of changes in my country – France becoming a part of Europe. So, I deliberately decided I would become European, and build on my French-German-Italian origin, British studies and time in Ireland, to fully embody and understand Europe. Then I could rely on pop culture and my own teenage passions to embody America – become a ‘North-Atlanticker’ – and my mother’s move to the Dominican Republic to become Latin. Slowly, I also expanded my Mediterranean self to North Africa and the Middle East – and embraced my father’s early Russian friendships to integrate the Slavic world.
Later, I moved to Australia, and did so through a journey across Asia – where I learnt about, and tried to ‘embody’ the countries of South East Asia – at the least, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore. And I systematically studied Chinese to ‘become Chinese’. Then I started, through readings, and hanging out with N. and J., to explore ‘Africa’ as an added space.
By moving to Australia, I have decided that my ‘we’, my community, would be not just Europe, but the whole world, and that I should gather waters from everywhere in me, become a vast repository of world cultures. Then I will weave together stories, voices and narratives from across multiple countries. This is what I enjoy. Connecting C.’s afro-American self in Shanghai to J.’s story of migration as a refugee from Uganda. Connecting R. and I., China and Algeria.
I will do that in multiple ways, next year – through Marco Polo Project, through novels, through stories, maybe through training I will develop. I am not sure how exactly, but this is what I want to do: create the possibility for a cross-cultural consciousness, and a cross-national sense of history.
As I post this, Wuhan is now globally known as COVID-19 ground zero. If I was to return, this would invite further reflection on cross-cultural consciousness. Could this be the gift of the virus, that by spreading so fast around the world, affecting all bodies equally, irrespective of citizenship, it reveals our common belonging and might – just might – prompt us to collaborate in time to prevent the worst environmental catastrophes? So that the lakes can remain full, abundance preserved, and the 21st century not become the moment of radical collapse for humanity. What sort of cross-cultural consciousness, what sense of history would we need, for this to be the case? This is a question my 42 year old self now likes to reflect on.