As today is my last day in China, it seems fitting to try and summarise some of the last month, which has itself been a microcosm of the previous five.
When I first arrived in Jinan, I brought a plant. Something to cheer up a room with peeling paint, and bare walls. I brought it because the plastic pot looked cheerful. My roommate later identified it as a nasturtium. Strange, I thought, I used to have a set of Flower Fairies books when I was younger, and N, the first letter of my name, was N for nasturtium. I never really had much fondness for that weird orange plant in the picture. I wanted to be a rose or something. No one knew me by that name here anyway, here I had been given another, literal flower name – 海薇。
For the first few weeks the plant did nothing. Then it started to grow. I was reminded of one of my favourite apps, Memorise, a language learning programme which tracks user’s progress in a certain course with illustrations of a flower developing.
Actually, soon the plant began to thrive, and grew so rapidly that the branches were crowding each other for space and sunlight.
It should be moved into another pot, a bigger pot, my roommate advised. Separate the shoots at the base and give them space to grow in their own individual pots. We can make pots from plastic bottles, and use some soil from outside, she said.
I was resistant to that idea. Sounded risky. The plant might die. Better to have one small plant, than no plant at all. I consulted the girl who lived next door to us, another British student on the same scholarship scheme as us. She too had brought a similar, but not identical plant. What had she done when it had grown too big for it’s pot?
Oh that? I threw it out, she said. It didn’t look anything like it did on the packaging, she added. I felt oddly sad about the whole situation, so I returned to my own room and agreed to re-pot the plant.
Three months later and the plant had grown to such extremes that half of the window sill was dedicated to it. Everyone who visited the room was struck by it. Without flowers or blossom, it curled itself into shapes that were oddly captivating.
It bloomed just once, and it was spectacular.
I could use a hundred other metaphors to describe my personal growth in China, but I feel as though the photos of my plant provide the best demonstration.I was so worried about having to get the soil from the rose beds outside, but when the guard saw what we were doing, he just laughed.
In case you’re wondering what happened to the girl next-door, she left as soon as her exams were over. I collected her certificate and her results for her at graduation. She did not seem unhappy to leave Jinan.
As I packed up my (side of the) room, I arranged for my plants to move into a new home, with a friend who is staying in that building for some years to come. My roommate requested that the plant be left with her the first few days after I left, until she herself left, so that she wouldn’t feel alone. So it remains there still, for now.
For me, studying in China was never just about 写汉字 and 学习语法。Though that was integral to learning Chinese, learning Chinese would have proven impossible if it were not for letting go of certain things, and resuming others. For the first time in years, with no academic goal, I started 画画儿 again.
This time I drew from nature, not fantasy, and took time to notice the little things. Another similar achievement was wearing chipped nail varnish to my exams. Usually I refuse to wear nail varnish, or I cheat, and wear clear polish, so that I can’t see the imperfections and chips, when they appear, or else it starts to aggravate me, and I need to take it all off. But I don’t let that bother me anymore.
This old guide to China, which I had found by chance in Maan Coffee, had been written or published in the year that I was born. I was struck by a strange sense of having found something meant for me, but at the same time, of having found something that existed completely unrelated to my existence. This book would continue to sit on that shelf, long after I had left Jinan, growing steadily more obsolete, the longer it existed. Meanwhile, my increasing interaction with Mandarin/ 普通话 was slowly fixing a blurry outline of myself amongst a sea of ninety four million Shandong residents, or as they are known to each other, 山东人。
Now to finish with the greatest mountain, the most eastern of the 五岳。Taishan.
I originally thought that “Taishan” might be composed of the characters “太” (Tai) and obviously 山 (shan). 不是。Taishan is not represented by the character meaning “excessive”, or the equivalent of the English word “too”, rather it is written 泰山，as the Chinese might say, 是泰国的泰。After all, everything in Chinese is described and distinguished by comparison to something else. This is to do with the intense repetition of limited sounds, ad compared to an almost limitless number of characters. Names in particular must be clarified.
For example, my name is “the Hai of “Shanghai”, and the Wei of “Weixin”. 上海的海，微信的微，艹是头。Though I must add that the grass radical needs to be put over the 微 character, to turn it into a flower, like so 薇。With that sentence, almost anyone in China can write my name, and sense its meaning.
I’m glad that 爬泰山看日出🌅 was the last of the significant things that I did in Shandong. It was on Taishan that Confucius declared the world to be small (many people think that he meant geographically, and perhaps he did think so, but I think that he saw in or on Taishan, a metaphor for every aspect of life, in the same way that I think Socrates stated that there were “no new ideas under the sun”). Every Chinese emperor has climbed Taishan to make sacrifices, and Chairman Mao (毛泽东), on watching the sunrise, famously announced “The East is Red”.
Taishan has a place in Chinese thought and literature that I can only begin to appreciate now, at the end of my stay. Here are some of my favourite sayings concerning 泰山, from Pleco, my Chinese dictionary app;
Tàishān yā luǎn
like Mount Tai bearing down on an egg – with overwhelmingly superior force
as weighty as Mt Tai, as light as a feather (refers to death)
Mount Tai and the North Star (a respectful epithet for a person of distinction)
yǒu yǎn bù shí Tàishān
have eyes but not see Mount Tai; to entertain an angel unawares
Some claim that climbing Taishan guarantees that you will live to be one hundred. Others state that if the great Confucius could not live to this age, despite climbing Taishan, then this must be false.
One thing is agreed upon by everyone though. If the wish that you made when you reached the summit of Taishan is granted, then you must return and give thanks. Though the language us changing, and “goodbye” is becoming increasingly popular, the traditional Chinese phrase on parting is 再见，zai jian. Without specifying time or place it is a promise which means “to see again”.