The last two weeks here have been a real period of exploration. I’ve had two realisations that have really shaped my thoughts;
a) it is impossible, due to the constraints of time, place and space, that I can be exactly the same person as I was, even two months ago in the UK.
b) this is ok.
Many times I’ve held myself back from doing something, like taking up an exercise class, or going hiking, trying a strange-looking food or even just replying to people who start a conversation with me on public transport (classic British response!). Why? It was because I’d defined my sense of self so tightly that I didn’t believe any of those actions fitted with other people’s perception of me.
The profound nature of the above realisations only becomes obvious when I consider that, by letting go of some of these assumptions about myself, I’ve been able to try so much and really grow as a person.
Normally, I get so anxious about stuff that might happen, that there’s certain things I don’t want to attempt, fearing the worst (often imaginary) scenario. Here are some examples, with alternative outcomes;
1. Unfamiliar food in a restaurant. I try to order things I know I’ll like, to avoid disappointment, because I consider myself fussy. This means either eating the same few things, or going for the plainnest option. This week I tried wonton soup, with some sort of meat and herbs, which turned out to be delicious. Until my friend persuaded me, I was determined to stick with the standard rice or noodles.
2. Avoidance of exercise, dance, anything involving physical activity in front of an audience. Now I know I’m not co-ordinated. I take longer to do things than most people, because I’m meticulous, and get stuck into the detail of something. I went to Wushu class (a mixed martial art, combining elements of shadow-boxing, kungfu and model swordplay, focusing on self defence）because calligraphy classes got cancelled. I couldn’t recall my Chinese phone number, or write my Chinese name in characters. I looked ridiculous.
I struggled with the starting position (fingers incorrectly arranged into a fist, shoulders too forward…) let alone the seven step routine for that class. Nothing I did flowed, and I kept mixing up which limb went where, my hesitation leaving me a crucial few seconds behind the rest of the class. Naturally, due to my size, I had been pushed to the front of the class. Luckily I had the sense to hide myself at the back when the teacher recorded our routine at the end of class. Reviewing the various GIF-like memes that have since appeared on our group Wechat thread, this was a wise decision.
In retrospect though, I’ve realised that all of the above doesn’t matter. What counts is that I did some exercise, met some new people, and learned to stop taking everything (including myself) so seriously.
3. I hate the fact that I’m not that great at exercise. I’m always one of the last in a group hike. I can walk for miles, but steep walking at a fast pace gets to my chest. Especially at an altitude when my ears start popping, I’ll need to slow down, despite the fact that I’m small and slight. Initially this, and a potentially rainy forecast, put me off going hiking the day before yesterday.
However, I took a chance, brought a 48元 pair of trainers (which everyone doubted) and joined my roomate and some of her Korean friends, on an epic bus trip to 九如山, a mountainside covered with waterfalls. The cloudy weather provided atmospheric mist, and meant that the park was less crowded. The bus ride turned out to be an hour shorter than expected. I even climbed to the top, and it didn’t matter that I wasn’t the fastest, I wasn’t as slow as I anticipated either.
Sometimes when I’ve been living abroad, I’ve felt lost due to the lack of the parametres that previously defined my character. In India, I had to learn to deal with being put on the spot, particularly when it came to school functions and public speaking. Usually, I’m very much a planning person.
Now studying in Jinan, I’ve had to accept that a lot of stuff that defines me at home, like being academic, or having a good memory, just isn’t as applicable here. I study in the lowest class, and stumble through conversations. Homework is actually hard, and the class is pitched slightly above my level. My memory can’t hold characters and stroke order in the same way that it can with words in the Roman alphabet. Nor is my audio memory even a fraction of my visual one.
Yet there are unexpected strands that emerge from a deeper core. Continuities like the fact that I can still make links between things, and abstract ones at that. I can absorb myself in tasks more thoroughly than most of my classmates, and ultimately the discipline of studying for hours is no challenge. Perhaps most importantly, I can still make use of intuition and observation skills to note minute details in my environment; be it a bird call, a signpost, or the orientation of a street.
I didn’t realise how important the latter was, until I realised that most people my age spend so much time looking down, that they fail to pay attention to their surroundings. I can’t read fluent 汉字，but I still attempt to comprehend adverts, and understand shop names. Others don’t. I’m no scientist, but I pointed out to a medical student the other day, that the pocket on the side of her backpack is perfectly shaped to hold the water bottle that she was complaining about carrying.
Regardless of how alien the situation, every far-flung periphery has its own centre. I’ve learnt that if you open your mind even a tiny crack, then like shards of light, the essential things that make you yourself, will start to shine through, even if they cast unfamiliar shadows, and take many shapes.