In last year’s March edition of my newsletter I mentioned I would explain at a later date why I read subtitles in Spanish but not in Mandarin when watching TV shows in languages that I don’t speak. As Chinese New Year is upon us I thought it would be a good time to share. It is also the anniversary of when I first started learning Chinese, and this new year I will be celebrating 14 years. I will also be lamenting a little as I’m often reminded of how after all these years of speaking Chinese my reading still hasn’t progressed beyond kindergarten level. That is, if a kindergarten kid can read and send text messages. Anyway, at this rate I feel I’m going to be learning Chinese forever!
I moved to Beijing, China in 2007 with the main purpose of learning Mandarin, and I enrolled on a language program at Beijing Language and Cultural University (BLCU). It was an intensive program of four hours of class daily, five days per week. On top of that, our main teacher (we had three) gave us three hours of homework every day because she said that was how much she had when she was studying English. I had no knowledge of Mandarin when I arrived but I was confident that I could easily learn it. After all, I was brought up bilingual and I had successfully learnt Spanish a decade earlier when I lived in Madrid.
I wrote in my last newsletter that I learnt what listening is from Tara Brach’s podcast on the sacred art of listening. It was a good lesson on listening to others but I think learning to be a good listener to oneself must come first. Why do I believe this? I believe we are far more similar to each other than we are different. The scientist Riccardo Sabatini, in a 2016 TED presentation showed that a human genome printed will consist of 3 billion DNA letters and will fill up 262,000 pages; Only 500 out of these pages makes each individual different from another, other than that we are identical. Thus, if I can listen to myself, I can listen to others. But how does one sort through all of the noise in one’s mind in order to really listen? We know that the mind is not easily amenable hence why so many of us go through life somewhat strangers to ourselves.
My early 30s was a very tough period of my life. I moved to China and was trying to navigate through what was then a very foreign society. At the same time I had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life since I had abandoned my old life (gave up my job, partner, and home) in search of a new one. The uncertainties were overwhelming and I needed help. I sought the counsel and support of friends, I went to therapy, and I took up meditation. All these helped to some extent but didn’t give me the answers and solutions I craved. My therapist recommended I write down my thoughts in between our sessions to record how I was feeling. I thought it was a terrible idea, it was painful enough that I had to voice my feelings and thoughts out loud to her. Now she was suggesting I record them on paper or screen. I would have to see the mess going on in my mind immortalized in words that I could easily refer back to.
Usually when I’m walking to the park, a.k.a the gym, I’m accompanied by voices playing on my headphones. One day last month, I had the company of the renowned meditation teacher and psychologist Tara Brach. On this particular podcast episode she was talking about the sacred art of listening. The first exercise she asked listeners to do involved playing her favorite Tibetan bell and prompting “to follow the sound with interest, watch where it goes. You might discover deeply what you really are.” I’ve always wanted to know that so I carried out the exercise. Within seconds of when the sound of the bell stopped, I had an epiphany! I was none the wiser who I was, but for the first time in my life I knew what listening was.
Like most people I’m aware of the power of being a good listener therefore I strive to be one. To this end I’m always on the lookout for tools and tips to help get me there hence why I picked out the podcast. Prior to listening to that podcast, I thought listening was simply paying attention, remembering what was said, and responding appropriately and thoughtfully.
I’ve always thought the decent thing to do to minimize my negative impact on the environment is to recycle, avoid plastics as much as possible, buy green products, eat organic food, wear sweaters more instead of turning on the heating, buy fewer and higher quality items,… you know the typical. But I’ve been having some doubts that are causing me to seriously reassess some of these conventional practices.
It all started about a year and half a ago when a friend stayed at my place while I was away. She bought some conventional dishwasher tablets and left them behind. I was a bit upset that she would pollute my kitchen with non-eco-friendly products, but I used them reluctantly as it would be wasteful to throw them out. The first time I used one of her tablets, to my surprise every single item in the very full dishwasher came out completely clean. You see, it was normal for some of the items to need re-washing by hand or in another cycle. I had initially thought it was odd that I had to do this, but I accepted this as normal after the dishwasher’s manufacturer sent an engineer who couldn’t find anything wrong with the machine and just recommended that I clean the filters regularly. I did so to no avail. I considered replacing the dishwasher but thought that would be wasteful. Anyway, I thought the first time I used my friend’s dishwasher tablets was a fluke, so I waited till the next time to make a judgment. This time round, I added my stainless steel pots that I normally would have hand washed to get them properly cleaned. All the dishes once again came out clean including the pots. Every time, I used the tablets I got the same results and the filters didn’t need cleaning as often.
The month of August started with me attending a wedding. The most noteworthy point about this isn’t that it was the first wedding I had been to in over a decade, nor was it that it was my first socially distanced and masked wedding. The most interesting thing about it was that I heard the adjective ‘amazing’ used to describe the bride and the groom.
At the wedding while we were waiting for the bride to show up, I got to talking to her best friend. She gushed that she is really happy for her friend as she is marrying an amazing man. She was echoing how the bride had referred to him a couple of days earlier. In the bride’s case I put this down to temporary insanity, otherwise known as falling in love, combined with the excitement of their upcoming nuptials. That time I held my tongue, but I couldn’t help but wonder how can someone who voted for Boris Johnson be ammeezzzin? This time at the wedding, however, I couldn’t help but respond “let’s hope so.” She was insistent that “he is really an amazing guy”. I replied: “we shall see”. She looked horrified that I should express my opinion and doubt her judgment of the groom.
Change has been on my mind a lot more than usual lately. Not surprisingly considering this year has brought drastic changes to how we live. And then there has been an awful lot of talk about how we must change even more in response to the changes that have already occurred. Even though it sounds scary and hard, I tend to think of change as generally a good thing irrespective of whether it is forced on us or we seek it, as it can bring opportunities to learn and grow. However, in June when the protests over the killing of George Floyd broke out in many parts of the world, while many got excited that it would bring about big positive changes in the US justice system and the rest of society, I was highly skeptical.
Recline in bed, pick up a cookery book, read a few pages and viola!, you will sleep like a baby! Really? I kid you not! This has been my go-to sleeping pill this past couple of months. It has been so effective that I can no longer keep it to myself. Judging by the way this year is going I feel I must share it for the benefit of humanity.
I was reminiscing about the “good old” days when I could pop into a museum whenever I wanted. I would pop into the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square, whenever I had a few minutes to spare in between running errands or appointments. I particularly liked portraits. I was always struck by how the people in those paintings, taking away their attire, look just like the people around me today. I would leave the Gallery thinking that we are exactly the same people as we’ve always been, and that our brains haven’t changed in thousands of years (as a friend loves to remind me). I ask myself, how can I expect our behavior to be different? Isn’t this why history always repeats itself? Isn’t this why we should pay more attention to history? We are all inundated with theories about what caused the current pandemic and what the future holds, so to make sense of it all I turn to history.
I find the discussion about how the government will pay for the bail-out and how it would be distributed puzzling. It is generally expected and accepted that the bail-out will be financed by governments borrowing through the issuance of bonds. Why can’t the government just print more money to finance the bail-out? It’s not like it is tied to gold or anything (we abandoned that in 1971). But why is taking on more debt the better solution? The reality is that regardless of whether more money is printed or more debt is taken on, “the key fact is that debt and money are two sides, not of the same coin, but of the same bank note.” And they are both created out of thin air, by bankers and central bankers with a few keyboard strokes. Bearing in mind current global circumstances it seems unfair to me that profits (interest) will be made from money created out of thin air for years to come. There is so much uncertainty–we don’t know when and if there will be a vaccine or when and if things can go back to “normal”. Why add the extra pressure of paying off huge amounts of debt?
After three weeks or so in lockdown, (can’t say for certain how long, I haven’t kept count), I don’t have any big insights into what is going on right now or what the future will bring. Neither have I invented anything that will revolutionize or save the world. I’ve just tried to maintain a ‘normal’ routine as much as possible. I’ve had to swap walking straight into a supermarket and buying whatever I want with queuing up for 30 minutes to get in and then buying whatever is available. Daily drop-in to the pool or gym have been replaced by pilates classes on YouTube and working-out in the park. I pop round to see friends via FaceTime and Signal. Instead of making eye contact with and even striking up conversations with passersby (I’ve met some of my closest friends and favorite people this way), I cross the road to maintain 2m of space. It’s been frustrating but these feelings are dispersed by the beauty I see everywhere. Thank you mother spring!