China: Empty & Full


Random Chinese people walking down the street gathered in the front courtyard of our hotel to watch my classmates and I as we danced to a rendition of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love.” Considering that we were in the relatively rural county of Jidong – home to Fenghuangshan (Phoenix mountain) – I wouldn’t be surprised if this was one of the first times the residents had encountered foreigners.

The long-weekend in Fenghuangshan was a nice break from schoolwork and the rush of Harbin’s 10 million inhabitants. The trip also marked the halfway point of our summer semester, which honestly makes me feel relieved – this program has been one of the most energy-draining things I’ve ever done in my life and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to going home.

It’s funny how life throws surprises at you – last summer older students warned me the Shanghai program was really difficult, so before I left the U.S. I mentally prepared to study hard, but my classes turned out being easier than I expected and I had a lot of free time to explore, make friends and have fun. So, when people told me that Harbin would be also be challenging, I just shrugged their comments off and figured I would still find a way to work hard, play hard, but that is definitely not the case.

My struggles in this program are my own fault – I decided to take Classical Chinese, which is the second highest level class offered, and foolishly expected to breeze by. I also didn’t dedicate enough time to studying Chinese last year in Mississippi, so my proficiency isn’t as great as it could be. The first couple weeks here were definitely a rude awakening, but I’m finally starting to adapt to the intensive study life, and I actually feel like a genuine Chinese student.

Even though it’s summertime and my roommate’s not taking classes, she still tutors high school students over the internet every single day and frequently goes to the library to study – she’s a graduate student studying Marxism (which believe it or not is the most popular major in the country).

The students that my roommate tutors are studying for the Chinese College Entrance Exam, called the 高考 (gāokǎo), which not only determines whether or not one can attend university, but also regulates which schools and majors students can choose. In addition, the failure to pass the exam brings great shame to one’s family. The gaokao is undoubtedly the most influential period of a young person’s life and in the three years leading up to the exam many students spend 12 or more hours cramming per day. Teen suicide rates also tend to increase as the gaokao approaches.

As I’m writing this post, it’s Saturday night at 9:15pm and my roommate is tutoring over webcam. One Friday night she studied English. Once she accidently thought it was Thursday when it was actually Saturday. Meanwhile, us American students are doing happy dances on Friday because we’re so excited to have a break from our studies – doing homework on a Saturday night feels like a moral sin to us.

To be honest, at first, I thought my roommate’s life seemed boring and stressful but now I admire her work ethic and attitude. Although I think 24/7 cramming is unhealthy, we also shouldn’t only live for the weekends because life is so much more than constant fun – life is also about finding fulfillment through hard work and personal achievements.

Diligence is deeply engrained in Chinese culture, whereas laziness is heavily criticized – the idiom 三天打鱼,两天晒网 (sān tiān dǎ yú, liǎng tiān shài wǎng) – which literally translates to three days of fishing, two days of drying nets – means that one’s work ethic is sporadic and lacks commitment and perseverance. 一曝十寒 (yī pù shí hán) also has the same meaning – literally translating to one day in the sun, ten days in the cold.

In Classical Chinese we also studied some of the ancient philosophies of 老子 (Lǎozi – literally means “Old Master”), who was the founder of philosophical Taoism, a school of thought that emphasizes living in harmony with the naturally occurring opposing forces of the world. I wrote a poem about the two Laozi texts we read — hope you enjoy:

benefit & use

how can you pour tea into a pot

that has no hollow center?

how can you live in a bedroom

that has no windows or doors?

how can a wheel spin if the spokes

don’t all meet in the navel?

stimulus empties

silence fills

enigmatic exists

concrete vanishes

深不可测 shēn bù kě cè (a depth that cannot be fathomed) solidifies life

So, to sum it up, everything and everyone emerged from a place of nothingness that humans do not understand, therefore existence consists of full and empty parts – fullness brings benefit, whereas emptiness exposes utility. Emptiness can transform into fullness and vice versa – the two coexist and depend on one another.

My brain is constantly packed with new Chinese words and grammar, which will have beneficial influences on my proficiency, but in order for any of what I’m learning to be useful, I also need to take time to relax, refresh and clear my mind. I used to cram nearly every moment that I wasn’t sleeping but now I’ve really been embracing this mentality and it’s making me feel a lot better. After the stimulation of home work, I’ll take twenty minutes to mediate/nap and let everything I learned sink in. And I’m finding that my brain works much better when it’s not crammed and exhausted.

I’ve come to cherish my “empty” quiet moments of tranquility – such as brushing my teeth in the morning, watching butterflies dash across flowers during my lunch break and going jogging after class. The hiking trip in the mountains was also full of emptiness (ha, like that irony?), I had so much time to destress and drain out all of the negativity that was weighing me down.

And even though there have been many days during this program in which my heart feels empty due to all the stress and lack of free time, I’ve come to realize that this feeling is only temporary and can actually be useful — the second character in the Chinese word for ‘humble’ — 谦虚 (qiānxū) — literally means emptiness/void because the idea is that if your soul/mind is empty, it can be filled with critique that will only improve you. For the last few weeks I’m trying to imagine the stress that a Chinese student would feel preparing for the gaokao to help me realize that I’ve got it easy.






Our hotel

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