“Nothing is Constant Except Change”: Heraclitus knew it all about China
The first day I stepped in Hangzhou, four months ago, the G20 summit had completely shut down the city. A couple days after my arrival, without previous notice, policemen blocked the streets surrounding the apartment complex where a friend was hosting me. Having left for a run in the afternoon, sweating in my sport clothes, I sat on the pavement with dozens of Chinese people, meditating on the nature of change and uncertainty. Although the night was falling, no policeman could tell us when they would be allowed to re-open the streets.
I ended up walking outside for hours, enjoying a wonderful light show downtown. Eventually, I was allowed to home, long after the sun had already set behind the neighborhood’s glassy skyscrapers. That day, I realized my study abroad trip would not be a piece of cake. In China, anything could apparently happen anytime; I would have to stay flexible and find the pleasant among the unpleasant if I wanted to make the most out of my experience.
(The day of the street blocks, I would have missed the show of light celebrating the end of the G20 summit, had I not been locked out of home.)
A week later, registration started at Zhejiang University and I moved two hours away from my friend’s place, to the other side of my ten-million-inhabitant host city. My understanding of how uncertainty affects Chinese people’s lives was about to deepen.
Upon my arrival to the Yuquan campus where I had previously been asked to register, a polite administration officer explained that my hotel room (where I would stay) was next to Zhejiang campus (where I would take classes), thirty minutes away. Without further explanation, he started helping other students queuing behind me. My hotel room? …I didn’t understand. Later, I got to know that a shortage of dormitory rooms had led 150 foreign students to live in a hotel instead of the dorms. I was one of them.
When I got to Hanting Hotel, I was half amused, half-worried: no washing machine nor kitchen was available to students and the room I shared with a German girl had no storage space. Other students with no Chinese skills had, however, less pleasant living conditions. I considered myself lucky enough to have a kind roommate and a comparatively larger room, so I resolved to help my less fortunate peers by transmitting in Chinese their requests to the hotel staff. After seeing the students’ relief, I felt grateful for the spirit of service I learnt in Iowa, further nurtured by the Honors Program’s values.
(with my Pakistani Friends at Hanting Hotel)
Soon after our arrival, most students residing in the hotel started engaging conversation out of compassion for each other; our little community slowly became renown on campus for its spirit of solidarity. “Unexpected situations have some advantages, they bring people closer,” I thought, far from imagining that my biggest surprise was around the corner.
Class registration time came the following week. In July, the admission letter I received from Zhejiang University told me I was enrolled in public health courses taught both in English and Chinese. Nevertheless, after three days of back-and forth conversations with the medical school admissions, I discovered that those classes were Master’s and PhD classes. It was the first time, they told me, the university had to handle a case like mine; exchange undergraduate students had always taken Chinese language classes designed for foreigners, not regular, major-related classes designed for Chinese students. Without precedent, they had judged appropriate to enroll me in upper-level classes, which had already hosted foreign students in the past. Once again, I received a proof that Chinese people naturally embrace change as a normal component of life.
Defeated in all my typically-Western attempts to join undergraduate courses, there I went to Master’s and PhD courses, for four months, trying to understand topics entirely taught in Chinese: medical ethics, public health economics and management, doctor-patient communication, etc… Despite the discouragement which often creeped in when I was desperately trying to understand my professors’ explanations, I sometimes silently laughed at myself in the middle of class; my whole trip had literally turned into a completely unexpected, slightly hilarious experience. I would spend hours translating a couple pages of Chinese content to English, which was not even my mother tongue. In the midst of difficulties, I however reminded myself that “the lotus grows out of the mud.”
(in Nanjing, in front of a temple bordering the street)
Since then, unexpected changes in plan happened again and uncertainty struck several times, often painfully. Recently, I started thinking about sparing myself a couple additional miseries. Cultural shock was unforgiving, not only to me, but also to other foreign students. Our Western minds were fighting, resisting a little too strongly to the flow of Chinese life. Like others, I thought about going home and I almost did. As I am writing those lines, I am nevertheless still in Hangzhou, decided to remain there for the upcoming seven months. One of my friend posted the following quote in his Wechat moments (equivalent of “Facebook wall” in China): “Happiness is not the absence of problems, it’s the ability to deal with them – Steve Maraboli.” I downloaded the picture to my phone, inspired by the climber on his mount.
(Source: Wechat moments of one of my dear friends.)
Three and a half years have passed since I left French Polynesia and my home, the minuscule island of Tahiti, to go to the USA. Embracing the challenging, goal-driven American pace of life was not easy, but I believe I eventually succeeded at it. Now studying in China, I am once again pulled out of my comfort zone and forced to adapt to an entirely different lifestyle. This time, I am learning to value flexibility over assertiveness, interdependence over independence, and acceptance over dominance. Dealing with constant change furthermore forces me to look deeper within myself for greater resilience skills and offers me opportunities I had never encountered before.
A European citizen by blood, a Pacific Islander by heart, and an American student by contract, I am now letting Asia draw new lines to the story of my 21-year-old existence. For once, I am not completely in control, and it is probably for the best. After all, I promised myself to try seeking the positive, always. “Nothing is constant except change,” said Heraclitus, 2,500 years ago. Learning to let go of rigid expectations regarding life is an important component of happiness. In this regard, China will be, I believe, my best teacher.