China: The Finale

Final exams are finished. We officially completed the CET program. Our language pledge is over. The two months of intensive classes are finally done. I’m en route to Pensacola, FL for vacation with my family.

But this ending is much less climactic than what I had always imagined. On the days I spent cooped in my dorm memorizing Chinese idioms, I always fantasized about being released from the clutches of homework – I thought that after our graduation I would be unable to control my happiness, I’d bounce off the walls and overflow with euphoria, but honestly, I’m just tired.

At our final ceremony, I was chosen by all of the teachers as the most hardworking student, which initially made me smile with pride, but now I’m wondering if all the hours spent alone studying were worth it or not? Okay, so I got some recognition and won a nice box of tea. Okay, so I got good grades and won’t ruin my GPA. Okay, so I improved my Chinese reading and writing abilities. But at what cost?

The night after we finished testing, some classmates and I had dinner with a few of our teachers and took turns going around the table sharing our favorite memories in Harbin. While others shared anecdotes from a trip to the hot springs – bursting out in laughs at inside jokes – I sat there wracking my brain for something to say, until my turn came around and I said that my independent study class was my favorite part of the program because it was interesting and will be extremely useful for my thesis.

Don’t get me wrong, I had some good times in Harbin with my classmates, but overall, I feel like the spunky, adventurous, risk-taking part of me was overshadowed by the meticulous, work-a-holic side of me. I became a robot-like student, using all of my energy to pump out speeches, characters and essays, instead of exploring, having fun and seeking out new experiences.

In nearly all of my classes, sacrifice emerged as a common theme – in ancient Chinese, we studied a text by philosopher 孟子 (Mèngzǐ), who wrote, “Life is something I want. Justice is also something I want. The two cannot be achieved at the same time…” Many idioms originated from this text – 义不容辞 (yìbùróngcí) describes a moral responsibility that one simply cannot deny, and  舍生取义 (shěshēngqǔyì), means to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of justice.

My professor then asked us if we thought that love and wisdom were mutually exclusive, to which we all said no, despite her raised eyebrows.

In our speaking drill, we memorized a dialouge about the aging population issue in China, which included two idioms emphasizing the moral responsibility to take care of the elderly: 百善孝为先 (bǎi shànxiào wèi xiān) means “of all the virtues, filial piety is the first priority” (filial piety is the Confucian tenet to respect one’s elders) and 养儿防老 (yǎng er fánglǎo) means “to bring up children in order to be looked after in old age.”

In literature, we read a short story by the famous author, 鲁迅 (Lǔxùn), which revolved around the misfortunate and greif-stricken life of 祥林嫂 (Xiáng lín sǎo), a poor widow forced into marriage, who was taunted and condemned by townspeople after her son – the only joy in her life – was eaten by a wolf. 祥林嫂 ultimately looses her mental sanity, becomes a beggar and dies of grief and starvation. The last line of the story reads, “天地圣众歆享了牺牲,” which translates to, “the heavens and saints enjoy a sacrifice.”

In ancient Chinese we also learned about philosopher 庄子 (Zhuāngzi), who was well-known for his fables during the Warring States period in 4th century BC. The King once sent his messenger to Zhuāngzi to offer him a high-status, high-paying job as a chancellor. Zhuāngzi laughed and told the messenger to prepare a piglet for sacrifice – feed it the finest foods, dress it in the most expensive silks and bring it to the grandest temple – and watch how, despite such luxuries, the pig will still run toward freedom and away from the slaughter knife. “I would rather play in a dirty gutter and make myself happy, then be hindered by the restraints of governmental power,” Zhuāngzi told the messenger.

So, who’s right? Should we live according to Mèngzǐ’s philosophy, and sacrifice the pleasures of life in the name of justice? Or should we listen to Zhuāngzi and avoid all restrictions and responsibility in order to follow our hearts and passions?

Is it possible that sometimes, in order to chase our dreams, we still have to make sacrifices? And is it possible to find a balance between life and justice, responsibility and freedom?

All I know is that I don’t want to regret anything. Well I might have not had as many wild adventures in Harbin as I have done traveling in the past, I strengthened my work ethic, gained a deeper understanding of the ancient foundations of Chinese culture and developed my sense of independence.

Plus, next spring I’m going to the beautiful countryside surrounding Lugu Lake in Yunnan, China to research the Mosuo ethnic minority group, and will certainly have plenty of time to run around like the piglet from Zhuāngzi’s story!

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Forgot to mention I went to an Italian opera performed by Chinese people in an old synagogue (I guess I have some pretty cool stories after all!)
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Harbin welcome thousands of Jews after WWI, the 1917 Russian Revolutions and the Russian Civil War. Jews contributed greatly to the development of the city.
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The final graduation ceremony!

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My roommate and I on my last night
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The owner of the massage parlor I went to almost every week and her family took us all out for dinner one evening!

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