Looking back at my 35 year old self – #15

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.

30 december

Before the year ends, I want to find my own centre of gravity – and I want to reconnect with my own story. As I looked outside the window, coming up from Guangzhou along the Yangtze basin, I realized I had no unified family story.

My father has a story – born from a modest family in the south, he studies and becomes an engineer in Strasbourg – his first marriage collapses but he loves his son. Successful, he goes up to Paris where he marries up into a Parisian family, and has two more children.

My mother has a story – last girl, unwanted, from a southern family migrated up north, her dream has always been to escape her local destiny and live in a beautiful sun-drenched warm country. For that, she may count on her charm. She marries a southern boy, handsome, successful – but things don’t work out, and she leaves him for someone else. Life is hard for a while, her new husband has money, but the relationship is tense. Where her son leaves for Paris, she opts for freedom, so moves to the West Indies, convincing her husband. He dies, she inherits, and marries again, a friendly local man.

But what is my story? Smart talented gay boy from divorced parents gets into the most prestigious college in France, with an ambition to become an intellectual and literary figure. Intelligent, he has academic success, but it is not his chosen path, and when he meets an Australian blog-artist, he follows him to Melbourne. There, he changes radically, embraces China, becomes a social entrepreneur and online editor? This, somehow, embraces the threads of both my parents.

I’m in Wuhan, the city of my childhood nanny Danhan. The faces here remind me of her. Wuhan was the capital of Chu, the city of the Dao De Jing and Laozi, the place where it was said that you should be like water, flow to your centre of gravity, because that is where your strength lies.

I will spend the last day of the year in Hangzhou, by the West Lake. A place I have always wanted to go, a place Marco Polo – my new role model – said was paradise on earth. I will be by a lake, a large mass of accumulated water, and ultimate expression of beauty.

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.

Just for a short visit

Yangzhou pavillion

“I’m really glad you took us here, thank you.”

“Yes, it’s really pleasant, isn’t it.”

It was my parents’ first visit to China, and after a few days running around the busy streets of Nanjing, I thought a day-trip to Yangzhou would make them happy.

“Is this the same tea we tried yesterday? It tastes a bit different.”

“Yay, yesterday was Osmanthus tea, this one is just green tea, I’m not sure what kind.”

They were enjoying themselves, at least reasonably, but I was exhausted. They didn’t speak a word of Mandarin, and I had to organize everything.

“Get the last cake, mum.”

“No, you have it – I’m finding them a bit heavy, and I need to leave room for tonight.”

The culmination of their journey was coming soon: a big introduction dinner to my future in-laws. Below the gleeful surface, that’s all we were thinking about.

“Should we go?” I suggested, biting into the last gingko-nut cake.

We stood up from the wooden table, and resumed our stroll across the canals of the Slender West Lake area, crossing over arched bridges, wandering through bamboo groves, or gazing through circular moon-gates at the distant pavilions. Then, exhausted from so much beauty, we got a cab to the station, and arrived just on time for the 5h05 train back to Nanjing.

We sat opposite a loud group of country people who kept staring at us for most of the trip, repeating the word ‘laowai, laowai’, and laughing. They reeked of cold tobacco, and spat sunflower shells all over the floor. My mother did a regal job of ignoring them, but I could see my father passive aggressively looking out the window. His goal was probably to shame them into silence, but his behaviour had absolutely no success.

Chen Jie came to pick us up at the station, and escorted us back to Gulou. My parents had 15 minutes to refresh. ‘That should be enough’, said my mother, ‘I’ve already chosen my dress and shoes for tonight’, but I could see that my father was annoyed at having to rush. ‘We’ll be waiting in the lobby’, I said, hoping that would encouarge them to do their business quickly.

‘So will you go to Yangzhou again?’ asked Chen Jie. She was wearing a slim black top with thin straps, revealing her slender round shoulders. Her hair was attached in a ponytail, and her eyes shone their black magic back at me. ‘You know I love it there. Maybe we should go for our honeymoon.’

She gave me a mock-smack on the arm: ‘You said Paris.’

I laughed, and held her in my arms, while she mock-pouted – meanwhile pressing her body close to me mine.

‘Do you think your parents will arrive early?’ I asked.

‘That’s OK, you don’t need to worry.’ She replied. But I knew she didn’t mean it: 7h30 was late for a Chinese dinner, and I didn’t want my family to seem impolite.

The trip to Yangzhou would play in our favour though. Chen Jie’s father was working for the local government there through the nineties, before he got transferred to the regional capital. According to the family mythology, he played a crucial role in protecting historical parts of the city from destruction – which made him a retrospective hero when authentic Ming dynasty temples started to push up the price of nearby commercial real estate.

By 7h10, my parents still hadn’t made their way back to the lobby, and I started feeling murderous instincts. I could picture the Chens alone at a large table, and their impassive smile.

‘Maybe your parents are tired, and they needed some rest’ said Chen Jie.

‘They’re fine,’ I replied, ‘they just don’t have a very good sense of time’.

I started dreading the coming dinner. Would my father sit brooding all night, or make obnoxious remarks about China? How should I react if he did? Play filial son, and shut up, or politely contradict him, at the risk of us all losing face? Chen Jie was generally my guide through these arcanes of cross-cultural politeness codes, but when it came to my family, I couldn’t dream of asking her directly.

They finally came down at 7h15. ‘It’s my fault’, said my mother, ‘sorry: I had my dress on, and then I made a big stain with my lipstick.’ Chen Jie smiled ‘It’s OK, you can be late in China.’ My father though it was the perfect moment to press his point: ‘See – you’ve been rushing us for nothing.’ I cringed.

We finally made it only ten minutes late. The Chens had insisted on taking my parents to ‘Grandma Xiang’, a new traditional Jiangsu restaurant on the top floor of the Golden Eagle shopping mall. ‘Are we going to some sort of food court then?’ asked my mother, slightly perplexed, when we stepped onto the escalator past a Starbucks, and emerged into aisles of menswear. I explained, again, that the best places in China were often located inside shopping malls: ‘I guess it’s just the way they do it then,’ she said, and on we went along stalls of jade jewellery.

For better or worse, the place was remarkably noisy – hot and loud, as the Chinese say. The waiter escorted us to a window table where the Chens were waiting for us. There were two small cups of green tea on the table, and a small plate of sunflower seeds, untouched. Everyone shook hands, unsure how much physical contact was appropriate on a first meeting. Then we all sat down, foreign parents facing Chinese parents, while Chen Jie and I took both ends of the table, so that we could informally translate through the dinner.

The dinner was painful, but catastrophe was avoided. Conversation rolled over first impressions of China to the canals of Yangzhou, then to modest insights into the Chen family mythology. High-speed and low-speed trains featured – the pace of urbanisation – and heritage conservation. Then the food arrived: salted duck in thin slices, sweet lotus root, stinky tofu. Mrs Chen remarked, impressed, how agile my mother was with her chopsticks, and Mr Chen, cheerful, called for a bottle of Baijiu.

My father fought over the bill, as I instructed him to, but the Chens had already made a deal with the restaurant. We duly thanked them, promised a similar feast when they came visit, and shook hands – this time with slightly less embarrassment – outside the doors of the Golden Eagle shopping mall. Chen Jie walked her parents back home, while I escorted mine in a taxi.

‘Chen Jie’s really lovely’ my mother said when we got back into their room. ‘How long have you known each other now?’

‘It’s been almost a year, but we’ve only been seriously dating for five months.’

‘I can’t believe you’ve been gone for so long’, she commented.

My father walked up to the window, and looked outside.

‘You know,’ I said, ‘there’s many Westerners dating Chinese girls, but I’m lucky with Chen Jie. It means a lot that we’ve just had this dinner. Generally, Chinese families are not too keen on their daughters marrying a Westerner.’

My mother was looking at me, smiling.

‘But I think it went well today.’

‘Did we make you proud at least?’ asked my father, turning around. My mother laughed – ‘oh, don’t tease him.’

‘You did a good job, dad,’ I replied, and he went over to sit in an armchair opposite me.

My mother was boiling water now, and shuffling around the kitchen:

‘So, do you have a date for the wedding?’ she asked?

‘Not yet – but we’re thinking next year in Spring.’

‘Are you doing it here, or coming back home?’

‘Probably here – and then Paris for our honeymoon.’

She nodded: ‘We’re just getting used to it now, but soon we’ll be experts.’

Then my father said: ‘I never thought, when you were little, that you would take us to China.’

I wasn’t an early sinophile: I studied French in high school, and had no particular interest in Asia beside kung-fu movies and pork dumplings. Then I got this scholarship to spend a year in Taiwan, and that’s when it really started.

‘It’s a fascinating country,’ my father was putting on his serious news-analysis face, ’I mean, it came out of nowhere – Japan, yes – but China? And then suddenly, it’s all everyone’s interested in. But you’ve already studied the language, and now you’re introducing us to local aristocracy.’

My mother made a little loving noise, and I smiled back at him.

‘Seriously, I’m wondering – are Chen Jie’s parents actually powerful? I don’t really know what anything means here.’

My mother laughed: ‘Richard, It doesn’t matter. I think they were really nice people.’

But I still thought I should reply something: ‘I think they are – but I’m not too sure. I’m just figuring things out as I go.’

‘You’ve always been adventurous,’ he said. ‘Remember that time we were camping in the mountains, and there was a river nearby: it was so cold, you were the only one mad enough to go swim there – and you kept mocking us for not following you; then one day you got caught in a whirlpool, and I had to jump in and rescue you?’

We gave each other a warm smile of affection, then started exchanging memories of past holidays together.

‘Water’s ready,’ said my mother, ‘What would you like? Lipton teabags from the hotel, or that nice green tea we bought today?’

‘Don’t open the pack mum,’ I replied – ‘I’m happy with just a teabag.’

Then I beckoned my father to the window: ‘Come, I think we can see my apartment from here. I’ll show you.’

NOTE: This story is the fifth in a planned series of #52, recomposing my memories of a term in China through fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This story was written with the help of DraftQuest. Image and story are copyright @julienleyre.