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. 

Values cards project – power

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: When I think about power, the first thing that comes to mind is, I’ve wondered about the word empowerment. It’s not a word that exists in French. But I’m interested in this idea, this word, that the question of power has to do with, it’s not only who has it, but how it might be given to someone. The word, empowerment, it’s often used in the context of racial difference or disability. And the idea here is that some people have less power, for whatever reason, and they should be given that power somehow.

B: So, that’s interesting, because it’s more about equality. While when I think of power, I tend to think of it as being conceptually related to liberty.

A: Well, if you look at the sustainable development goals, it’s about building a society where nobody’s left behind. And if you think of it in relation to power, it’s not just about you deciding for yourself, but that everyone has access to conditions where they can make use of their power. Maybe there’s something there. That ideological void we’re facing now, left and right, particularly on the left. We’re heading out of Marxism, so what on the horizon for left-wing thinking? We need to find new concepts, and maybe that will be power, empowerment, governance.

B: So you’re saying, we need reflections on power, how it is distributed, what conditions we need so that we can exercise it?

A: Maybe. Also, power is more difficult in a world that’s full of complex systems, and all our daily lives depend on those systems. This complexity stands in the way of political initiative, because you can’t really take initiative, everything is part of a system.

B: Well, one of the big problems today, when you talk about governance, it’s the void of power – not just ideology, but power. Do you know Moses Naim? He was a Minister in Venezuela, and he wrote a book called ‘The end of power’. He writes about something he calls the Gulliver Effect. That it’s harder today to get anything done, because all sorts of little groups are able to block you. Nobody’s got enough power to get anything done, only to veto you. And so, nothing changes.

A: What that makes me think about is the structures of the EU, and other international institutions. We’ve attempted to develop this globalized economy, as a way to support peace. The idea is that once we’re interdependent, there will not be war. But then, those visions are just a big system, that’s not really working well. And so you’re torn between two visions: the machine exerting power, or then a nationalist vision that defends choice, liberty. That’s Marine Le Pen, and nationalist ideology.

B: Maybe, we need to consider the limits of democracy. It only works up to a certain level. It’s very good for local, but not when you look at the bigger issues.

A: I wonder. Are there any global issues that could be properly handled at the national levels? I think there isn’t anyone, not environment, not immigration.

B: I don’t think there is, but we wish there was. And that’s what’s behind this nationalist ideology.

A: Another direction I’d like to take is, our relationship to power has a lot of influence on the way that authority works in the family. In France, we have this vertical relationship to power, and it’s the same in the family. I see that with my kids: when there’s a bit of tension, I just use that kind of vertical authority.

B:  Well, it feels to me like, in Southern European societies, it’s more about a family network, and a more matriarchal type of power. There’s formal power, sure, but also there is informal power, norms to follow, and the women are mediating that.

A: Well, in Japan, women are not allowed to work, but the husband gives his salary to his wife at the beginning of the month, and she makes all the decisions for the house. The husband just receives some pocket money, but he makes no decision on children’s education, or how to manage the household finances.

B: It’s something I’ve always wondered. Whether there is some ‘hidden power’ given to women in those circumstances, or not. My grand-mother used to repeat ‘I am a slave, I am a slave to your grandfather’. But meanwhile, my impression was that she ruled the house. And I always wonder, whether that litany she repeated was a way to hide her real power – like you do things to avoid the evil eye – or whether that was her actual perception.

A: Well, if you look at Confucius, he says everyone must play their role. It’s not about individual freedom, and it applies to everyone, the husband and the wife, the children and the parents. It’s not like one has power and the other doesn’t. Rather, power happens someone in the form of their relationship, if they play their role properly.

B: And in the same way, without a network of norms, and without a common language, there is no power anymore. There is no way for anyone to manifest their freedom.

A: So maybe power is about convincing people that what you want, or what the collective wants, is also what they want?

B: There’s two questions we might look at here. First, we can look at who’s got power in the group? And then, does the group itself have power, and is it able to transform the world in depth, and in the long-term?

A: If we go back to the question of family then, what’s the purpose of family? In traditional family forms, women have a structuring role, like a glue, and their role is to make sure that the members to hold together. While the men bring in the resources so the family can continue to exist as an organization. At least that’s how it is in my model.

B: Well, that’s not how I see it. I have this image of the family which is not primarily nuclear, but extended, like a network. And the goal here is to maintain a comparative advantage for the members of the group. What that requires is a form of stability, and sharing resources among the members, so that they can do better than other families, or people who have no family.

A: A thing there is that power always depends on size. China, Google or the Catholic church are more powerful than Switzerland or a small hedge fund, even if they’re very well run, more effective, faster, or more profitable. They may be more profitable, but they won’t be more powerful, until they grow big.

B: What about we think of power as about continuity over time? Maybe that’s what a family is about: its goal is just its own continuity over time?

A: That would apply if you look at successful families, like Hermes. The brand was started by protestant upper bourgeoisie, and it’s still in their hands. So here’s a successful family, they succeeded financially, and as a family.

B: Could we say that in a small business, there is more freedom? And there’s a sort of continuity between nuclear family and small business. While a larger structure requires more effort to maintain itself and coordinate, understand how things work. But it’s also more solid, and more welcoming to diversity. While a small business or a nuclear family works very well if people are benevolent and intelligent, but it’s catastrophic otherwise.

A: Maybe we can look at this, that in American companies, there is great apparent freedom, but de facto autonomy is very limited, because there is so much process involved. While in a Japanese organization, there’s a lot of formalities, but much more real freedom than appears on the surface. And so what this is about is that without trust, you just can’t execute, or operate. That the purpose of rituals that are about forgiveness, they have to do with maintaining trust. And without that trust, there is no way for power to work.

B: That’s exactly what I say about Italian style apologies. You apologize not because you feel guilty, but to show that you respect the established order, and that you broke it. You assert that you want to continue existing in the same world. And that’s another condition for power – that people belong to the same world.

Mapping Europe over Asia

There is an idea that cultural resemblance operates by proximity. That, therefore, there may very well be differences between the French and the Germans or Italians, but those pale in comparison to differences between ‘Europeans’ and ‘Asians’.

Now I remember a guy once telling me that he’d been on a trip to Vietnam, and was amazed at how close the two cultures were. This is how he made his assessment: he went to see a French comedy, and people were laughing at all the right places. This would make sense: when the French established colonies in South East Asia, they chose the Vietnamese to rule over others – hence ongoing problems in Cambodia today.

We might make other comparisons. England and Japan: an obsession with rules, people moving away so they won’t come too close to you, high levels of personal repression, except on booze-fuelled evenings to release the tension. Punk teenagers and suited businessmen. Or Northern China may be like southern Italy: Harbin is the closest thing to Naples I’ve seen. People shouting out from their balcony to the street, addressing you spontaneously as you pass. A massive yearning after social contact.

So, rather than Europeans vs Asians, there may be just patterns of internal differences that we can trace on both continents, in an effort to better understand each culture’s own centre of gravity.

Three types of intelligence

I will distinguish three types of intelligence:

  • Operational intelligence asks: how can I find the best way to perform a certain action?
  • Managerial intelligence askes: how can I achieve my goals in a complex environment and change strategies as the situation evolves?
  • Cultural intelligence asles: what are the most relevant categories to apply in order to understand my environment, and influence the rules of the game being played?

The latter also corresponds to what others describe as ‘mental models’.

Culture and barbarians

We think of knowledge as an abstract entity. Yet it plays a direct influence on our behaviour and relationships. Here is a little story about that.

On New Year’s Eve, my partner and I hosted a big ‘open-door’ party: friends of friends were welcome, whoever came was the right guest. Towards the end of the evening, at about 1h30am, a dear French friend came with his wife. He was quite drunk, tottered around the house, but kept his composure as he drunk glass after glass of rosé. Then, he lifted his head and noticed our alcohol collection on the tall shelf above the kitchen cupboards. ‘What do you have up there?’ he said. Gin, whisky, Rum, and white fruit eau-de-vie from Alsace – strong fruit schnaps from my home region, imported directly from a previous trip.

‘Would you share a glass with me,’ said the friend. I nodded – grabbed a chair, and took down a small bottle of raspberry schnaps, then poured us two little glasses. He sniffed, closed his eyes, and started analysing the nose – rich, floral – then took a sip, and reflected more. He was appreciating, smiled, spoke. We bonded over the sensual experience. People were gathering, asking about our drink. He shared his glass, offered a sniff or taste – ‘it’s strong’ – and recoiled.

But one of our guests had a different attitude. Australian, female, thirties, wild. ‘What are you drinking,’ she asked. He turned, handed the glass: ‘try it, guess what it is,’ hopeful. She grabbed the delicate little glass, and swiftly drunk the whole content, pushing her head back, and said ‘Tequila’, with a lilt, then handed back the glass, and headed over to the table. My friend and I smiled. One of us muttered the word ‘barbarian’ . Then I shared my glass with him, and we continued on our sensual exploration of Framboise d’Alsace.

On pop music

Yesterday, when I got back home after a long walk through Fitzroy and Carlton, the crepe place outside my building was playing an 80s French song. I hummed along as I walked into the elevator: ‘Partenaire particulier recherche partenaire particulière’. I was home.

One of the surprising difficulties of migration is that people in the new place don’t share your mental music library. Bars and cafes never play the songs of your childhood. There is no retro dance night where you can belt out the words of a familiar 1984 hit.

I have a precise memory of intense cultural alienation. It is 6pm on a Friday, and I’m at Papa Goose bar on Flinders Lane with colleagues. I had been living in Australia for two years and a half, and was working for the government, in a strategy team. We’d just finished a big conference, and went out to celebrate.

These moments also serve team bonding. The conversation soon drifted to pop-rock favourites. Titles and band names flew around, creating a sense of joint belonging beyond hierarchical divisions. Except, none of the names rung any bell for me. Some of those might have played on French radio, but I could not identify them.

I felt isolated, a bit stupid, very self-conscious, and angry. Didn’t they realise that the conversation alienated me? Couldn’t they be polite enough to find a more consensual topic – or, failing that, turn the focus on reflecting about pop-rock trends in France and Australia?

It wouldn’t happen. Lots of superficial office banter only serves to reassert pre-existing social connection. For that, people are expected to share the same web of references, pop music, pop cultures, values, models on how the world works. Migrants myst catch up, or shut up.

To their credit, it is difficult to conceive that somebody close to you never boogied to the sounds of a favourite songs. Surely, they must know. I can’t really believe my partner never danced to ‘Partenaire Particulier’.