Sometimes I get the feeling like I’m writing into a void on this thing. Knock, knock, knock. Is anybody there? Is anyone even reading this anymore?
Originally, I wasn’t sure if this blog was going to be for me or for you, the audience. What I’ve found is that in the end, it’s more for you, isn’t it? Yes, I’m recording my time here, and, of course, examining it through these entries, but the fun of it all, the amusement – that’s all for you.
The question of audience, reader-response, fun, these are all issues that I think about when I reflect on my experience here. Sometimes it feels like a burden; I know I’ve done something great or gone somewhere interesting, but sometimes I just want feelings to linger and remain in my memory. The process of describing my experiences and giving them to an audience can be a challenge at times; sometimes I worry that putting something on “paper” takes away from the sanctity of my personal memory and also makes me self-conscious of the event that I am – strangely, I suppose, in light of my previous statement – so eager to share.
What I suppose I’m trying to say is this: the process of blogging – writing down my thoughts and memories for an audience – is a difficult one, as at some point I have to become detached from my experience to write about it and make it interesting. The challenge of writing descriptive language to thoroughly convey emotion or conjure an image requires more than the act of experiencing something; it requires me to create a narrative of a trajectory of sorts.
The fact that I no longer receive comments on this blog isn’t the only thing that has brought my attention to story-telling and narrative creation lately. I’m currently applying to graduate school in order to further my literary studes (in this case, I want to pursue contemporary Chinese literature), and while composing my statement of purpose have become unusually focused on literature’s role in society, the process of creating literature, and what literature means to me.
In an effort to stop speaking to myself for hours on end, I’ve channeled a lot of my thoughts into conversations with friends. Recently, I decided to start up a blog with Sarah, Madeline, and Michelle, among others, in order to begin some sort of dialogue on our post-undergraduate thoughts regarding culture, literature, art, etc., In Beijing, I’ve gone on many an outing with friends such as Isabel, Maria, and Dario, to places such as the Literature Museum (an absolute bore!), 798, and myriad events, such as the ones I’ve previously mentioned.
Moreover, I’ve been trying to meet Chinese friends with whom I can discuss issues of Chinese literature and the future of the art form here. On Cultural Day, I met a student at Jiaoda who is studying English and loves literature. Though he is a wee freshman, his genuine interest in American culture and his ability to converse almost fluently in English made me think that we could potentially be friends and discuss culture and literature from time to time. This idea came to fruition on Saturday, when I took the student, Barry, to Wangfujing’s bookstore, the largest in Beijing. It was kind of cute, because Barry doesn’t really leave the Jiaoda area, and he became this wide-eyed kid when I told him we were going to go to a bookstore for the afternoon. We spent over two hours in the store. Besides showing him all the good classics to read and checking out China’s top ten list – Twilight is number one – we also went to the Chinese literature area, and Barry explained the difference between contemporary literature (dang dai), which is Chinese literature written between 1949 to the present, and modern literature (xian dai), which is categorized as literature written between 1919 and 1949. I ended up buying him Great Expectations, even though he already knew what to expect (I asked him if he wanted to read about England during the Industrial Revolution to see what London was like then. He said, “smelly? dirty?”). I bought five books, two written only in Chinese.
On Monday, I continued Barry’s literary education by explaining some key phrases in one of Donald Trump’s brilliant works, which Barry decided to read after making it through Kite Runner, a task which required an arduous three-day reading spree (not bad, right?). I spent some time explaining terms such as “keeping it in perspective” and “living on the edge.” Barry also came with Twilight, which he plans to read this upcoming weekend. I am not at the level to read high falutin’ Chinese literature yet, so I brought a textbook from the States that I think has much more interesting topics than the ten-year-old books we’ve been given here. Because Barry has five brothers and sisters (talk about the fees!!) I thought it’d be interesting to talk using vocabulary from the chapter, “Birth Control and Human Rights.” Our conversation ended up being quite interesting. Barry pretty much made the point that the book made, which is: with all the kids that China would have without birth control, human rights organizations would be worrying about why the children were so poor and families couldn’t support them. With birth control, people worry that China is violating people’s human rights. There are two sides to the issue; long story short, you won’t lose your job (anymore) if you have more than one child. You just have to pay the fee.
At the end of our converation, Barry told me that he really liked talking about the one child policy, and was eager to talk with me about other policies that China has taken and ideas that are specific to China, especially those which sprout from Confucian thought (he showed me a Confucian saying that says that a man should be independent at thirty, and explained that there’s one for forty, too). In the States, we hear a lot about complacency of the people. We read about convictions of corrupt financiers and of horror stories about corrupt officials. It’s also important that we keep in mind that news is carefully chosen; how often do you read about students’ healthy inquiry into Chinese policy without condemning it? (Also, how often do you read about manufactured snow, which is what we had on Halloween!) In the two times that I have seen Barry, he’s both quoted Obama (”Obama says that the government can’t do everything. You have to leave it in the hands of the people.”) and Confucius. He’s praised policies made by the Chinese government – especially regarding the reform and open up (gai ge kai fang) movement - and talked about the fact that the government has smart people running it, but people have to contribute ideas for things to change.
I look forward to more talks with Barry, though he is a young’n. Speaking with him about literature, about the influence that the works that he’s reading has had on him, makes me think more about the role that literature plays in social environments. It also reminds me of why I enjoy the practice of examining the creation of narratives. What sort of narratives inspire Barry? If he knows about the world mainly through books, which ones are they, and what do they do for him?
One of Barry’s favorite authors is Ernest Hemingway. He recently read his novella The Old Man and the Sea. I had never read it before, so I picked it up in Wangfujing and read it last night. In the story, an old fisherman tells himself, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” This is Barry’s favorite line in the book, perhaps because his mother always told him never to give up, even if he meets challenges. While Barry took the advice of Hemingway, which happened to also be that of his mother, and perhaps Confucian thought (?), I read the novella as a Daoist allegory. In Daoist theory, life is generational, there is no linear history, and man and animal are one. In the one hundred-and-ten page work, the passage that resonated for me was: “The thousand times that he had proved it meant nothing. Now he was proving it again. Each time was a new time and he never thought about the past when he was doing it.”
To me, my existence here cannot be a linear one. Perhaps I will leave as a person who is better at Chinese. But each time I learn something new or meet someone new, I feel like I can know everything, that I am getting closer to understanding the status of contemporary Chinese culture. Yet, my perpetual distancing of myself from this fact, my knowledge that everything I learn can be isolated, shows that I don’t truly condone the act of possessing full knowledge of anything. I hope that when I return from Beijing, I’m still thirsty – no, parched - for experience and for reception of others’ experiences, without feeling like I’ve missed out – only that I know that I want more.