Instead of always thinking “How did I get here?” think “How can I get away from here?” or “Why should I stay here?” You’d be surprised how you answer. Your method for “getting away” can be mundane or adventurous; your reason for staying could be revelatory or affirming. We are often lectured on the importance of reflection, the importance of looking back upon past achievements and mistakes and thinking about how they brought us to where we are. But sometimes, “if I look back I am lost.” Instead, it is easier, nay, necessary even, to look forward, to plan and scheme and dream. Your past is never truly forgotten, but if you don’t have a vision for the future, how can you do the impossible? We spend most of our lives trying to recreate perfect experiences from our past, I read once. Well, that might help you get somewhere better and different, but if you cannot imagine your future, you will only ever achieve the possible, the expected, the safe.
I am not saying that it is necessary to drop your life, uproot yourself and move to Tibet to achieve satisfaction in life. But I believe that satisfaction cannot be derived solely from reflecting on one’s past, but rather that that it is necessary to set goals, sometimes easily achievable, like cooking dinner from scratch tonight instead of getting takeway, sometimes seemingly impossible, like learning a foreign language in order to read and analyse a great literary work in its native tongue. This is how we keep our brains active and continually look at the world, in the words of Proust, with “new eyes.”
I’m still in transit, waiting in Helsinki for my connecting flight to Chongqing. My stay in Manchester was a bit of a disaster, but to the very last it was typical of my life there. When I arrived my big suitcase had failed to make the connecting flight from Dublin. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it meant I didn’t have to lug the damned thing all the way into town and back again the next day. As it was, after a warm greeting at the airport from one of my favourite people, I arrived at the flat of the friend whom I was staying with only to discover that my key didn’t work. My favourite person had accompanied me, and graciously offered his shower and a full English breakfast on the way. A string of mishaps mixed with relaxed, fun, and enjoyable activities, that was my Manchester in a nutshell. In the evening a group of ten friends joined me for dinner at a Sichuan restaurant followed by drinks. I ordered in Chinese, in part to show off, and in part to get myself in the right mindset! The next day I collected my bag at the airport, and spent the afternoon with the friend whose flat I’d stayed at who also works in Terminal 1. Leaving Manchester I inevitably felt sad, but also could hardly contain my excitement at being China-bound once more.
In the hotel, I watched the TED Talk “Where is Home?” by Pico Iyer. As one with nearly as many “origins” as Mr Iyer, I found his talk affirming and enlightening. As a visual person, I loved his phrase “stained glass home,” a metaphor which could easily have been a patchwork quilt, jar of marbles, shadowbox of souvenirs, or photo album. But none of these infer the warmth and light of a stained glass window. Perhaps I am biased because I have a secret passion for beautiful stained glass, but I can easily imagine what my window would look like. Michigan, Manchester, China, and all of my family and dearest friends each have a piece coloured like their souls. While the process of piecing together bits of “home” is a much more organic process than stained glass window production, the metaphor carries with it an almost spiritual connotation.
I have my work cut out for me this year. I have the potential to achieve a lot, but I have to be strong. I cannot be as weak as I was in Shanghai. I must keep it together. I must keep my brain switched on, for there is still much to learn, indeed what I learn this year will probably be the most important lessons of my life. I have to be talkative, alert, questioning, capable, focused, forgiving of others and things that might cause me to lose patience. I must make Chinese friends, and deepen my knowledge and heighten my understanding of both Chinese and English language, culture, history, and politics. Graduating my degree is not the end, but rather the beginning. I have a whole future ahead, and I can do great things if I set my mind to it. It will not be easy. So I cannot lay back and rest on my laurels. I cannot become complacent. I cannot be scared. I need to quickly establish a routine for my health to discipline my mind. Then I will be free to explore.