His words, speaking for me and us

My friend Dylan, about whom I recently wrote, is just one of my friends, and just one of my astonishingly intelligent, thoughtful, interesting, and inspiring friends. (Those words are used frequently, but I mean them literally and with all their original power. Read them again and stop on each to see how highly I think of my friends.) The people I met in middle school and high school–people who are slowly becoming adults and building on their youthful energy and passion with mature perspective–could be the people who most motivate the life I live, drive me strongest to use my time and skills maximally. Dylan’s just one of them. So I single him out here (again) because he provides the proof, because he writes. In his writing, he overwhelms me (again) with his intellect and his insight. (And, as I’ve said before, I have another high school friend who I think is an even better writer.) I’m usually satisfied with my writing, and my communication skills across media. Now I feel I’m putting shit into my computer and onto the internet with each word I type, having just read this blog post Dylan wrote to summarize (if that is possible) his final thoughts on his semester in China.

Because I’m pretty sure neither Blogger nor Dylan will sue me, and because he has deleted the blog he kept years ago (the first blog a friend of mine ever maintained), I’m copying his post in full below. I don’t know that this will last forever if I don’t preserve it, and it needs to, because Dylan has written something amazing here. Though he writes about China (where I have never been) and himself (from whom I am wildly different), he hits on feelings I believe have to be universal to people who travel abroad, who spend any extended period of time in a new culture, away from familiar people, places, and customs. Without any more quaint and pedestrian reiteration, let me direct you to read what Dylan wrote, here on his blog or below the jump.

Monday, July 6, 2009

7/6/2009, Final Thoughts

I’ve resisted, if you haven’t noticed, posting my final thoughts on China. I said I’d do it a week after I came back, and then I figured I’d do it once I was done posting my photos. So that was my plan, but in reality, I think it was a stalling tactic. Because even though I have now been in America for more than a month, I don’t quite know what to make of my experience in China, and even now, as I write this, I am fully aware that it will take a while for me to make sense of it all and determine what really did or did not happen to me in China. But something I read today made me reflect on the whole experience and what it meant to me, and I figure that I will write that reflection as my final thoughts.

So people ask me three questions. They ask me, first and foremost, how China was, or what China’s like, or some variation on that question. And my response has been repeated so many times I have it memorized and ready to pull out at a moment’s notice. China’s a big country, I say, which is mundane, but probably the truest observation I have of China as a whole, and something that people who have never been can’t really understand, I think. The key fact is that it is a country the size of America with four times the population, and that doesn’t sink in until you go. Outside of that, it’s hard to say what China’s “like”. Which part? When? For who? So I neglect to go any further than saying, China’s a big country. My response can either be that, or the entirety of this blog; nothing in between would be quite accurate.

Then they’ll ask me if I miss China, and that one’s hard for me to answer. No, not exactly. Parts of it I certainly don’t miss. And even the parts I have fond memories of, well, I’m just not really the missing type. Life moves on. But more to the point, I have a hard time integrating the memory of that time with the rest of my life. China was so different, and feels so distant – and is so distant, in so many ways – from the rest of my life that it sometimes doesn’t feel like it actually happened. I feel like I went to another planet for a couple of months and then came back. So no, I don’t quite miss it, when I’m sometimes not even sure it actually happened.

And then the hardest question, which is rare, but I still get: did China change you? Now that’s the hardest one to answer. No, on one hand. I still feel like me, just with a slight disruption. I have the same flaws, and the same problems. I don’t feel like I really changed. I’m still as stubborn and convinced of myself as I’ve ever been, and still very skeptical – perhaps more so now than ever – that that kind of experience can really change people.

But then, I also feel like it was a big experience. I feel like I saw things differently, at least for a time, that I got some glimpses of a different way of being. It affected me, I am sure. When I talk about how China was rough sometimes, people often counter, but you were in a pretty comfortable position, being a Westerner, with access to Western things and hell, even the internet. But that’s not what was hard to me about China. There is a distinct, unbelievable isolation that comes with being a stranger in a strange land, cut off from your language, your culture, your family and friends. And no matter how many comforts you may have, you are still cut off, you are still not at home. It really is the sensation of the Freudian unheimlich (not coincidentally literally translating as “not at home”), uncomfortable even though nothing is all that different. I don’t know if that’s any lessened by having this experience in a culture closer to one’s own, since I haven’t had that experience. I just know it was intense as all hell in China. When I was lonely in China, I was lonelier than I’ve ever been.

Do I feel like I have a better understanding of China? On one hand, on a superficial level, obviously; I mean, I’ve been there. But then, I think about it, and my observations and thoughts based on my limited experiences in China, interacting with the Chinese, are only slightly less superficial than my thoughts before hand. So I spoke to some Chinese. So I visited some places. I still can’t tell you what China is, or what it will be. I doubt that’s even an option for the Chinese. So what can I say? I don’t know what I got out of the experience or learned from it, either about myself or about China or the Chinese. Yet I feel so sure I got something out of it…

Today, in my reading, I came across a quote written by Ovid when he was in exile that finally encapsulated how I feel about China, at least in the immediate aftermath. Ovid writes, barbarus hic ego sum, quia non intelligor illis, translating as, “I am here a barbarian, because I am not understood by them.” On one hand, it is the nightmare of exile, and it was the nightmare of being in China. It was the feeling of “what the hell am I babbling about, anyway?” Not just when I was trying to make myself understood in Mandarin or in English, but when I was trying to convey my feelings, what was important to me, and trying to explain why it mattered to me and why it should matter to them, trying to explain the touchstones of my culture. What the hell was I talking about and why? I looked like an idiot. I felt like an idiot. Because, in that context, I was an idiot.

But with that nightmare also comes a sort of lucidity and an opportunity that you can’t have in America: the opportunity to understand oneself. With Ovid’s nightmare comes a certain identity: he is the barbarian. I came to realize that all that stuff that I was babbling about, all those needs and basic desires I suddenly realized I had, all the stupid pop culture things that suddenly became so vital to me when I left home, well, they were me. They were what I was. The thing about the unheimlich that is so uncomfortable, after all, is the fact that you are looking at yourself, as nakedly as possible. So I do think that I received a better understanding of myself from China. Not that it’s something that’s actionable; understanding yourself and being able to change are two different things. And it may be something that I no longer possess. Ovid wisely uses the qualifier “here”; when he returns home, he’s Ovid again – whatever that means. So it might not mean anything, and it might no longer exist, but while I was in China, I got a better sense of who I was. And that is why this blog, despite my desperate efforts to document China and not me, ultimately became concerned mostly with my thoughts and feelings. The thing I experienced most wasn’t China, after all – it was myself.

With that observation, even though it likely isn’t my last thoughts on this whole weird semester, I conclude the writing on this blog. I’ll continue to post photos until they’re all up there. It just takes me forever.

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2 thoughts on “His words, speaking for me and us

    1. But quite seriously, I’m very flattered, and it also allowed me to pinpoint embarrassing typos that I have now corrected. Thank you, Pete.

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