Looking back at my 35 year old self – #16

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.

31 december

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. 

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.

On relative and absolute love

We can love people absolutely or relatively.

Relative love has preferences. I would rather be with x than y. As a basis for this preference, we list a person’s objective traits – personality, intelligence, fame, beauty – and make a decision who to spend our time with on this basis. There is something repellent about it.

With absolute love, the person appears  in complete independence. The relationship is unique, neither better nor worse than any other, but a world of its own. That love is not tied to characteristics which, were they to change, would lead you to drop in the rankings. Absolute love therefore, whether from God or a fellow human, is always a gift of absolute freedom.

 

On dailiness

Since the beginning of this year, I have made a shift in my writing practice. I used to believe that I should block off moments to execute a piece – short story, novel, essay. Ideas would bubble up under pressure, a form emerge, and the writing come together. External deadlines would help, and I should set up a calendar based on competitions and calls for stories.

Now, I write a page every day, and publish it myself. I have no further goal. This is not ‘a project’. Projects involve a tension, an anxiety. I imagine a future state where the piece is complete. I sense the future piece. I draft it in my head. I make a plan. I know where I’m going before I even start. In this new daily practice, I am not tensing towards a future. I am present.

Projects entail scarcity. I set a goal. Reaching it requires something I miss. I establish what that is, and I labour to get it. Daily practice engenders abundance. From hollow spaces in my day, I breed new thoughts, new sentences, new writing. Over time, they grow, fall, mingle, form a rich humus, where new flowers bloom, fast, rare, beautiful.

This requires trust. Trust in the process. Something will come. Not if I simply stand still and wait. I have to move, even without a clear end point. I listen to my internal rhythm, I follow my inner compass. Then I look back, and I understand.

This requires flexibility. Halfway through journey, I can change, take a turn, step aside, or jump. It is acceptable. Over time, through this daily repetition, I change.