Looking back at my 35 year old self – #11

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.

25 december

I’m obstinate. Tonight, I wanted to watch the first episode of Glee, season 4. The internet was horrible, I had to restart and reconnect dozens of time – but I did it, and I watched it. Today, I decided I would explore the centre of Changsha – and I did. One time, I lost half of a novel I had written. I wrote it again. I have this quality in me, this tenacity, that I will just go and redo as many times as needs to when I have decided something. I think it’s what has led me so far. I may not always decide to do something – I reserve my energy and my decisions for what’s important. But when it’s decided, I do not let go. I decided that I would stand up to X and I did. As I did to Y. I decided I would bounce back after not defending my PhD, and I did.

I have this extreme focused pugnacity. I should know to rely on this more, and take that as a reassurance: if I want it, I will do everything I can for it to happen. But the question is, do I really want it?

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #10

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.

24 december

I have always experienced Christmas as an only child, last in a lineage, youngest in the family. I’m not sure I’ve outgrown this sense of being the young one among the adults.

I complained about being with 20 year olds a lot during this scholarship – yet I’ve increasingly found myself surrounded by younger people since I moved to Australia. Is it that migration has made me ‘restart from scratch’, or is it that, as I focused on new challenges, I developed natural affinities with younger generations who saw the world as I did?

I’m halfway through my life, and will probably never have a child. This lineage ends with me. But I have mentored others, younger ones, interns, younger friends. This has been my way of becoming an ancestor.

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #9

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.

23 december

When did my life branch off? What decision had the biggest impact on my life? Most likely, that was in 1999, when I chose to go to Dublin for my honour’s year away.

This was the first time in my life I made a proper individual choice. Until then, I had gone through the centre of the funnel: study hard, and pass the most difficult exams. Now, I had freedom, and I exercised it. My ‘Parisian set’ of fellow normaliens all headed to Cambridge and Oxford: self-evidently superior choices for them. For me, they weren’t.

My dream had been to live by the sea: Dublin even had palm trees. And it was what I wanted. In the year I spent there, I took regular trips down the coast to Killiney, and was revived every time. I even swan in the Irish sea, on a crazy January day. Eventually, this led me to move to Melbourne – by the sea, with palm trees and lemon – and again revive every time I go down to the beach. Fulfil an old childhood dream.

When I moved to Dublin, I learned I could be ‘different’. I tried integrating with anglos and didn’t succeed, but I had Mexican, French and Italian friends. I soon accepted that I didn’t have to go to the pub, or pretend to like it. My choices were limited – a few places serving espressos and tuna melts or banoffee cakes – but I could go there, not drink myself to death, and spend time with literate Latin friends. Later, this helped me ‘find my tribe’ and ‘find my space’ – in China, in Australia. There was no need to be mainstream.

In Dublin, I could decide what to buy. I rented my own house for the first time, bought CDs, paid for trips, with my own money. Before I got into Ecole Normale, I had been supported by my parents, and my first year, I was weirdly shy to spend my scholarship. In Dublin, I traded money for experience, and became more adult in that regard.

I came out in Dublin, with a cascade of consequences. I then became president of the LGBT group at Ecole Normale, made gay friends, engaged in politics, edited a gay collection of stories, published a first novel – later, was invited to Writers Festival, gained the confidence to shoot a short film, and met my first crowd in Australia. Not to mention, because I came out in Dublin, in a supportive and healthy context, I’m now living a remarkably balanced and happy life with a wonderful man.

There were a few decisions, earlier, that had an impact. Study Greek, and change high schools to pursue an ‘arts’ stream: both made it possible for me to go to Ecole Normale, and be where I am now. There was the decision to move out at 17 – and never return – protecting myself from my step-father’s violence, and refusing the bizarre double bind I was in. Later, decisions to leave partners, and leave France for Australia. Decisions to leave certain jobs, and go on an uncharted career path.

All those decisions that shaped my life in the future were led by instinct. As was the decision to go to Dublin: radically irrational – be by the sea. So, that’s also what I learned: life branches off based on irrational choices – following a deep desire.

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #8

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.

22 december

I have just spent a long time on Facebook, over an hour maybe. Instead of reading a Chinese book and learning new characters, I followed the progress and recent posts of old friends or classmates.

Have I just lost an hour of my time? Many people talk about Facebook in that way – time drain, waste of time. I’ve never really thought of time as something you could ‘waste’ – maybe there’s something wrong with me? I enjoy memories. I enjoy looking back at the past, remembering what happened, recollecting. I have looked at the photos of H, and it brought back my life in Dublin, in their penthouse, with M, and C and A, and D.. I looked of pictures of A.M. and C. H. which brought me back to the lycee Kleber and my teenage years in Strasbourg. And a video with X., his video installations.

Doing this, I can trace trajectories from my own long past: X., not a top student, but personable and anarchic, has become an architect of ephemeral light structures in Paris, for concerts and night-clubs – hype, uncertain substance? Y. married – stunningly beautiful as before, her husband looks friendly, both look wealthy, and that seems to matter to them.  Z. lost hair, grew a beard, and stands in a photograph with his Turkish boyfriend. J. is now working with a feminist band. W. is now HR manager for Hewlett Packard in Vienna, looking prim and efficient.

I have been listening to ‘Tonight we are young’, over and over – seizing the last strands of my own youth, empathizing with young people. Am I refusing to grow,  still a student in my mid-thirties, desperately retaining youth, or acting like a responsible adult in a complex, fast-evolving world? I have, in certain areas, acted very responsibly. I own a house, I am in a stable and happy relationship. I founded an organization. I have recognized diplomas. I don’t have debt. I work in an area that I enjoy – though I hardly make money yet. People that I respect are encouraging me.

After Facebook, I looked at other websites: the Shanghaiist and their sensationalist news from China. ‘Tattoos you regret’. The appeal of the gruesome, the grotesque, the terrifying, the freakish, is old news: Plato wrote about it. A man with a hand grafted on his ankle. The woman whose husband gouged our her eye with his hand, or the woman who snapped off her husband’s penis with a pair of scissors. Who doesn’t want to see this?

In part, I take this as research. For some reason, possibly the way my father brought me up, I have grown to believe that ‘the best way to resist a temptation is yield to it’. I have played video games, sometimes to addictive levels, as a teenager – yet, I read extensively, passed exams, achieved things. Maybe not as much as if I hadn’t, maybe more. Who knows what bizarre unbalance might have come from me not playing Civ-Evo during my Wheeler Centre residency, or minesweeper when I was working from the Hub, or watched fewer random Facebook posts during my time in Nanjing.

So dwelling in the delights of remembering, and looking at gruesome news on the internet – is this a privilege I will later regret, time available by not having children and not trying to make money, time wasted now I will regret in my old age? Or is it my way of letting off some steam, in the culture and society that I live in, a way of not getting more deeply addicted to whatever I could get addicted to?  For I have not had a television since I was 18, and how many hours have I saved by not watching stupid shows on TV?

 

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #7

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.

21 december

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.

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #6

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.

20 decembee

I’m just back from a party. I hadn’t stayed out partying till after midnight for a very long time – and even if I didn’t follow on to the ‘1912’ district, to drink and dance more, I still had a great time. It was good: mixed ethnically, gay-friendly, smart: I felt comfortable. Still, at times, I had to say – this party needs more Latin gay men.

So, if I liked it so much, why do I party so little? Why have I adopted this puritanical attitude to bars, alcohol, loud environments? Have I always been like that?

Looking back, I have enjoyed partying. I did go to clubs in high school – rarely, but I did – and then danced, and had fun – possibly more than others. It all stopped when I moved to Paris at 18.

Those were the worst two years of my life. Not coming out, working too much in preparatory class, and miserable at home. So, once I got into Ecole Normale at 20, I was afraid that, if I was to start going out, I would lose what I fought so much to win. Puritanical attachment to whatever relief I had gotten through work. And so, I couldn’t let go of that stress I had accumulated.

Also, clubs and bars are sexualized environments, and I’d been in a couple since I was 17. I didn’t want to go to clubs and bars, so that I could ‘stay faithful’ – and didn’t feel the need to go to get sex. This remained true later: I had the pleasure of life in a couple – bars and clubs may be more suited to single people?

I did sometimes go gay- clubbing, in Dublin I did; in Paris I did. Even in Melbourne, rarely. Sometimes, I would come back depressed; others, with a deep sense of relaxation – any tension had been pushed off through dance, sweat, alcohol. I had released something deep, purged. And I could start again.

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #5

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. [This text was originally written for myself only, and some of the sections therefore referred to personal interactions. I have given myself permission to leave them out – and so jump directly from December 17 to December 19] 

19 December

The need to consume is a strange thing. I spent over 100 yuan today, when I could have spent half that. 10 for a first coffee, 18 for a second, 30 for a third. 16 for a cake-treat. 11 for food. And 18 again for my evening milk tea. Yet these expenses were social. The second coffee – 18 – was to chat with Tristan – and had a positive result: he’s offered to join Marco Polo Project and do work for the Festival. The third coffee – 30 – was fruitful: I chatted to Zhang Jiajia’s assistant, and had in-principle agreement for him to join our festival. The tea was good spending: I watched a movie for cheaper than the cost of my 3G stick at home, and I actually relaxed. I had to pay for food anyway. The cake was the special treat. But hey – I did good and I deserved it

Could I have done things differently? I could have chosen better. I got coffee because I was lazy – I had too much, four cups in total, and might find it difficult to sleep. Intoxicating myself for the sake of ‘my work’, like people drinking at business dinners. Paying for my own intoxication. I remember at Hub when Jules had ‘peppermint’, not ‘coffee to be cool’. And how the café down from Hub closes at 3pm, because you shouldn’t have coffee later than that.

When I go back to Melbourne, I will have to watch my spending again. In the last month and a half – or since I came back from Beijing – I started spending more. ‘Lubrication spending’ I call it Not really counting when I have coffee. Eating out. Inviting people. Cinema. Books. Trips. I should slowly start cutting down on some of those things after the new year – to get back into the habit when I reach Melbourne. But then again – I’m in China, I’m learning, and networking, and running three projects – and I’m trying to cope.

Strange though, how ‘trying to cope’ – or finding balance – goes through spending.

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #4

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. [I wrote this section in French – and translated it afterwards]. 

17 december

ll y trois ans, revenant de Chine, je pleurais après un dîner de collègues, épouvanté par la paresse et la bêtise. Je ne devrais donc pas me sentir triste de ne plus y travailler. Sans doute est-il injuste que, travaillant et faisant plus, je sois payé tellement moins qu’avant – mais le bonheur que j’y trouve remplace bien celui que je trouvais à ma paye.

Je pensais sur le chemin de retour du cinéma, que je n’ai jamais vraiment cherché à m’enrichir matériellement – mais que je souhaite offrir à ma famille la gloire qui vient du devoir rendu, du souci social, ou de la réussite culturelle. Lisant les Frères Karamazov, j’étais fasciné par le personnage d’Aliocha – que j’ai lu par la suite décrit comme un idiot. J’aspire depuis longtemps à une certaine naïveté – ironie, peut-on aspirer à la naïveté ? En me disant que l’argent viendra bien.

Peut-être d’ailleurs par l’amour : mon père, ou Philip me soutiendront si les choses vont mal. Et quand je serai vieux, m’aimera-t-on toujours ? Bah, peut-être, et si non, eh bien je serai toujours heureux alors de repenser aux belles choses que j’ai faites.

Encore faut-il les réussir. Je réfléchissais aujourd’hui à l’ambition – je le suis sûrement – et à ce qu’on appelle le succès. ‘What did you achieve’, pourrait-on demander, mais la réponse, comme l’enseignait Alain, dépend du point de vue. Pour certains que j’ai connus ici, sauter une brochette de chinoises sexy, sans doute, représente un ‘achievement’. Pour moi, c’est plutôt d’approfondir l’amour conjugal. L’un n’est pas nécessairement plus noble ou meilleur que l’autre. De même, linguistiquement, je n’ai pas ‘réussi’ à passer un examen – mais les dés étaient faussés d’emblée, dans la mesure où je devais moi même, en partie, déterminer mon niveau.

C’est la difficulté où je me trouve, mais aussi la liberté que je me suis donnée : j’opère dans un monde où je détermine moi même les critères du succès. Et je crois depuis que j’ai réussi le concours de l’Ecole Normale – puis de l’agrégation. Ayant réussi les concours les plus difficiles du pays où j’ai grandi – mais ensuite, un peu vague et perdu quant à ce que je veux faire – et finalement, décidant de migrer, de me convertir, et de lancer une initiative entièrement nouvelle. Est-ce que je réussis, où est-ce que, depuis ma thèse non soutenue, je suis en fuite d’un échec universitaire ?

Une chose est claire en tous cas, dont je me souviens très nettement : que j’enviais, parfois, Alexis, d’oser la carrière qu’il a choisie ; et que j’enviais Alain de vivre de ses scénarios, plus que je n’ai envié quiconque à la Sorbonne, enseignant à Henri IV, ou directeur de département à l’ENS. La liberté créatrice, c’est à cela que j’aspire depuis très longtemps. Et je ne devrais pas, donc, compter comme un échec d’y toucher ces temps-ci, bien au contraire.

Evidemment, c’est difficile. Il y a la difficulté d’être payé peu, et la frustration qui l’accompagne. Il y a la difficulté d’avoir peu d’argent pour payer tous ceux dont j’ai besoin pour m’aider. Il y a l’incertitude complète quant à l’avenir. Et puis il y a, plus radicalement, la difficulté de la liberté, cette peur de ne pas être dans la bonne route, car il n’y a pas de route, car il n’y a que des chemins possibles sur l’océan, des îles nouvelles à découvrir.

ll y trois ans, revenant de Chine, je pleurais après un dîner de collègues, épouvanté par la paresse et la bêtise. Je ne devrais donc pas me sentir triste de ne plus y travailler. Sans doute est-il injuste que, travaillant et faisant plus, je sois payé tellement moins qu’avant – mais le bonheur que j’y trouve remplace bien celui que je trouvais à ma paye.

Je pensais sur le chemin de retour du cinéma, que je n’ai jamais vraiment cherché à m’enrichir matériellement – mais que je souhaite offrir à ma famille la gloire qui vient du devoir rendu, du souci social, ou de la réussite culturelle. Lisant les Frères Karamazov, j’étais fasciné par le personnage d’Aliocha – que j’ai lu par la suite décrit comme un idiot. J’aspire depuis longtemps à une certaine naïveté – ironie, peut-on aspirer à la naïveté ? En me disant que l’argent viendra bien.

Peut-être d’ailleurs par l’amour : mon père, ou Philip me soutiendront si les choses vont mal. Et quand je serai vieux, m’aimera-t-on toujours ? Bah, peut-être, et si non, eh bien je serai toujours heureux alors de repenser aux belles choses que j’ai faites.

Encore faut-il les réussir. Je réfléchissais aujourd’hui à l’ambition – je le suis sûrement – et à ce qu’on appelle le succès. ‘What did you achieve’, pourrait-on demander, mais la réponse, comme l’enseignait Alain, dépend du point de vue. Pour certains que j’ai connus ici, sauter une brochette de chinoises sexy, sans doute, représente un ‘achievement’. Pour moi, c’est plutôt d’approfondir l’amour conjugal. L’un n’est pas nécessairement plus noble ou meilleur que l’autre. De même, linguistiquement, je n’ai pas ‘réussi’ à passer un examen – mais les dés étaient faussés d’emblée, dans la mesure où je devais moi même, en partie, déterminer mon niveau.

C’est la difficulté où je me trouve, mais aussi la liberté que je me suis donnée : j’opère dans un monde où je détermine moi même les critères du succès. Et je crois depuis que j’ai réussi le concours de l’Ecole Normale – puis de l’agrégation. Ayant réussi les concours les plus difficiles du pays où j’ai grandi – mais ensuite, un peu vague et perdu quant à ce que je veux faire – et finalement, décidant de migrer, de me convertir, et de lancer une initiative entièrement nouvelle. Est-ce que je réussis, où est-ce que, depuis ma thèse non soutenue, je suis en fuite d’un échec universitaire ?

Une chose est claire en tous cas, dont je me souviens très nettement : que j’enviais, parfois, Alexis, d’oser la carrière qu’il a choisie ; et que j’enviais Alain de vivre de ses scénarios, plus que je n’ai envié quiconque à la Sorbonne, enseignant à Henri IV, ou directeur de département à l’ENS. La liberté créatrice, c’est à cela que j’aspire depuis très longtemps. Et je ne devrais pas, donc, compter comme un échec d’y toucher ces temps-ci, bien au contraire.

Evidemment, c’est difficile. Il y a la difficulté d’être payé peu, et la frustration qui l’accompagne. Il y a la difficulté d’avoir peu d’argent pour payer tous ceux dont j’ai besoin pour m’aider. Il y a l’incertitude complète quant à l’avenir. Et puis il y a, plus radicalement, la difficulté de la liberté, cette peur de ne pas être dans la bonne route, car il n’y a pas de route, car il n’y a que des chemins possibles sur l’océan, des îles nouvelles à découvrir.

***

Three years ago, after coming back from China, I found myself crying after a dinner with colleagues, terrified by their laziness and dumbness. So, I shouldn’t feel sad not to work there anymore. It is probably unjust that, as I work and do more, I am paid so much less than I used to be – but the happiness I’m finding replaces what I used to derived from a salary. 

I was thinking, on the way back from the cinema, that I never really looked to get materially richer – but wished to offer my family the glory that comes from fulfilling your duty, social concerns, or cultural success. As I read the Brothers Karamazov, I was fascinated by the character of Aliocha – whom I later heard being described as an idiot. I have aspired, for a long time, to a certain naivety – irony, can one aspire to naivety? Telling myself that money would come somehow. 

And that may be through love: my father, or Philip, will support me if things go badly. And when I’m old, will people still love me then? Bah, maybe, and if not, well, I can still derive happiness from looking back at the beautiful things I did. 

But then, the hard part is succeeding in those. I was thinking today about ambition – and I am ambitious, for sure – and what people call success. ‘What did you achieve’, someone could ask, but the answer, as Alain used to teach, depends on perspective. For some I have known here, shagging sexy Chinese women counts as an ‘achievement’. For me, it’s  about deepening married love. One is not necessarily more noble or better than the other. In the same way, linguistically, I have not succeeded in ‘passing’ an exam – but the dice were skewed from the start, since I was responsible for assessing my own level. 

That’s the difficulty where I find myself, but also the freedom I gave myself: I operate in a world where I define the criteria for success. And I believe that, since I passed the competitive exam for Ecole Normale, then agregation – having succeeed at the most difficult competitive exams of the country where I grew up – but then, becoming a bit vague and lost as to what I wanted to do – and finally, deciding to migrate, convert, start a completely new initiative. Am I succeeding, or is it that, since I did not defend my PhD, I am fleeing away from academic failure? 

One thing is clear at least, which I remember very clearly: that I used to envy Alexis, at times, for daring the career he chose; and that I envied Alain that he lived off his scripts, more than I ever envied anyone at the Sorbonne, teaching at Henri IV, or directing a department at ENS. Creative freedom, that is what I have aspired too for a long time. And I shouldn’t, therefore, count as a failure that I have been touching to it these days, quite the contrary. 

Of course, it’s difficult. There is the difficulty of being paid little, and the frustration that comes with that. There is the difficulty of having little money to pay anyone I might need for help. There is complete uncertainty towards the future. And then there is, more radically, the difficulty of freedom, this fear not to be on the right road, because there is no road, because there are only the possible paths on the ocean, and new islands to discover. 

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #3

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. 

16 december

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.

Looking back on my 35 year-old self – #2

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. 

15 december

 

Today, I was happy when I thought of this journal – I would be writing tonight. I also felt confident, and balanced, this morning. I made a plan of going to Wuhan and Changsha. I’m having appetite for the future again.

Two years ago, I was in the hot springs at Rye, resting my eyes and body among the hills, in the warm water. Yesterday, other Hamer scholars organized a trip to the local hot springs. I didn’t go. A trip to the hot springs with Hamer scholars would not be the most relaxing experience – busy bus, crowded springs, and – who knows – dumb conversations maybe. Still: why is it that I’m so bad at taking breaks, why is it that I feel guilty taking pleasure, and would rather sit, in work productive or sterile – spending as much, sometimes – for few results, and further burn out.

 

 

How did I relax recently? Yesterday, I spent four hours with Hao Mingliang – wonderful guy – but speaking Chinese all the way. Before, I sat at the cinema café reading about Nanjing – in Chinese – and I paused after seeing him at a Bubble Tea place inside the shopping mall – reading Chinese. These ‘pauses’ are nothing but ways of making me work that much further; not actually pausing.

Even when Philip came, apart from excessive sleep, I didn’t pause much. Only when we went inside the aquarium did I – and it made me cry – watching dolphins and fish. Then I had a moment of pure restfulness.

Writing this text is restful though – but I wouldn’t have thought of it that way necessarily. I have developed a habit of calling all sorts of activities as ‘work’. My step-father once told me ‘you call reading novels work’. To some extent, it was – I was in a literary stream at school – but he had a point. I called it work to protect my study from the dumb requirements of entertainment, that my family was pressing on me. But now that I’m older, I might actually get more ownership of my pleasure, and stop calling so many things work – just insist I have different forms of pleasure.

By calling everything work, I can’t relax. I also can’t work very well, or at least, fit in ‘paid work’. During this stay in Nanjing, I was remarkable at networking and studying, but only made 800 yuan from a TV show, living off my scholarship. I studied and I networked heavily, but did I work?

In the field I’m in, it is remarkably difficult to discern what is work, and what isn’t. After Ecole Normale, I have been used to having a ‘status’, and getting money for what I am, rather than what I do. Maybe that’s acceptable for me – but is whatever I do while I receive this money therefore work? And am I working myself to death for too little a sum, out of status consciousness?

When I prepared for exams, at Ecole Normale and before the aggregation, anything for the exam was work, with a clear result: I would get a lifetime job and salary. When I wrote my PhD and taught classes, both of these things were work. But already, I started writing novels, and reading books to inform them – and that was work as well. Then when I moved to Australia: there was film work, there was exhibition work, writing was work – and so was teaching, and so was my job at the Department of Primary Industries. Now Marco Polo Project is work. Work, in all its forms, has taken over my life, and I can’t relax, have a beer, wind down.

A few things help me get through. TV series do the trick – especially with Philip. But I’ve watched through Dexter and Gossip Girl, True Blood is coming to an end, and there’s only three more seasons of Glee to come. I think I might stop watching after these. But how will I rest then?

I’m planning a short trip down south: that’s a first step. Maybe, I will give myself a ‘relax’ budget every week, that I will spend on things that make me relax. So that I can rest better, sleep better, and be more vigilant when awake.