Sunday 20 September 2015

Experience and reading

Looking back, I realise that this year I've done lots of things for the 1st time: getting a smartphone, buying things on Amazon, writing about VN and getting published again after some time of silence, working at a restaurant, having a friend live in the house, wearing make-up, going to a wedding as an adult, having a girls' night out, going to a bar with friends (and leaving it at 3am), getting drunk, asking a person out in person instead of texting, accepting, being accepted, dating, rejecting, being rejected, encountering creeps, getting a marriage proposal, being followed... In addition, a few weeks ago a sickness I had, perhaps food poisoning, was so bad at some point that my vision was blurry, my ears had a loud buzzing sound, my back and legs were sweaty, I felt very unsteady and on the verge of collapsing and had to fight against it as I had earlier resisted falling asleep whilst sitting alone among a bunch of drunken strangers in a bar. I almost called an ambulance, and at the time felt really horrified- I'd never experienced that before. It was about 5.30am.
Last year, 2014, there were also many 1st times like that: visiting an aquarium, participating in a reading challenge, reaching out to other bloggers, wearing high heels, challenging myself not to use mobile phone for a while, getting to know my dad's current wife and my half-siblings, travelling alone to another country to meet a friend I'd never met before, being suspected of an affair with a girl's boyfriend and getting emails from her- twice, confronting some university staff over a cultural issue, being insulted by and yelling back at a person working in a bank (being told "Go back to your country!"), seeing an article of mine in a book (which I hate), etc.
It's all fascinating. The most unpleasant incidents, seen from enough distance, too becoming fascinating. A few things I come to know later than average people do, but I've also experienced things not known to average people: growing up in a communist country, living in dictatorship and then living in a democracy, being a political refugee, being bullied, being told by a boy I liked that I was ugly (I was 10), having my mouth taped shut by teachers in kindergarten, being forced to stand in the 12 o'clock sun (Saigon weather) as punishment, being made to kneel in class because I didn't take a nap, being a member of Ho Chi Minh Young Pioneer Organization (still know how to wear the red scarf), going to a high school for the gifted, taking English A1 Higher Level in the IB despite not being a native speaker of English, being a foreigner in a country not used to immigrants, having an identity crisis, facing the grief of leaving about 1000 books behind, getting 15 minutes of fame among Viet netizens for writing some articles about freedom and human rights when I was 16, being in a committee and planning a march, eating some Vietnamese dishes that people generally don't dare to eat (not dogs, I don't eat dogs), and so on and so forth. My understanding of human nature may be limited but the types of people I've known are diverse enough: flatterers, hypocrites, pathological liars, cowards, people who get along with everybody and stand up for nobody, egoists, gossipers, gigolos, misers, racists, xenophobes, sexists, wife beaters, people who tell tales about anyone they've slept with, people who see their relationships as manifestations of their fabulousness, alcoholics, shopaholics, sex addicts, religious fanatics, political extremists, supporters of dictatorships, defenders of the communist regime, conspiracy theorists, immigrants, émigrés, refugees, undocumented migrants, people of labour export programmes (I prefer to call them victims of human trafficking), loan sharks, prisoners, creeps, desperate people, unstable people, people who are seen as losers, controlling and irrationally jealous girlfriends...
You may say that as one gets older, there are fewer things to try for the 1st time. But I don't think I'll ever cease to be fascinated by life and experience and human complexity.
Perhaps I should write about my experience at the restaurant. Over the past month, I feel that I've grown as a person, and learnt many things that wouldn't have been possible without experience. For instance, living in a country where people are said and believed to be honest, trustful and law-abiding and trains have some carriages without conductors (i.e. without anybody asking for tickets) and métro stations don't have doors, how could I know that there were lots of people going to a restaurant, eating and walking out without paying? It is common where I work, and all the cases I know of have been white. All of them. 
So these days I've been pondering about experience and growth. It helps me see more clearly, and appreciate better, George Eliot's point about growth through experience. It works differently for different people, Rosamond Vincy of course forever remains Rosamond, selfish, self-absorbed, narrow, but some characters like Gwendolen Harleth and Dorothea Brooke learn and mature and see life better and become less narrow through experience and suffering. Without it, they wouldn't. They have to see for themselves. A person reading Middlemarch for the 1st time at the age of, say, 40, wouldn't feel the way I feel. When you're in your early 20s and you read classic novels about people around your age living, making mistakes, facing the consequences and growing through hardship and misery, the books affect you in strange ways. At the same time you appreciate them as works of art, you feel it personal- you walk with the characters as they learn about life and the world and themselves, and reflect on yourself. Even if it suggests some dull didacticism, which isn't necessarily the case, these novels can be warnings. Reading cannot be a substitute for experience, people say, and indeed we cannot think we can learn all about life from books (Isabel Archer is a reader), but great novels like Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Madame Bovary... might make us think carefully and avoid taking the wrong paths- the characters have to make wrong decisions, and suffer, in order to see, we don't necessarily have to, the costs may be too high, we have seen examples. 
Art for art's sake is a silly concept in literature (even Nabokov isn't), and we can never be too objective as readers. 
And now I'm going to see another character, a young woman, make a wrong decision and suffer from it. 


  1. Very interesting post! I think that's part of why I found Middlemarch so uncomfortable when I was 22- it might be easier to get through now.

    1. Tell me more. Why did you find it uncomfortable?

  2. You may like this article:

    1. I'm not surprised by that. Though there are 2 things:
      - Such a study gives me the impression that reading has to be defended and literature has to be defended.
      - Sometimes people don't realise that it's the literary fiction, the great, serious books, that would have that effect. They think reading in general is good, and from that jump to the conclusion "As long as they're reading, that's good" when some others are reading bad, pointless books such as Twilight.

  3. I have never presumed to ask your age, but I think it's safe to guess that you're much younger than I am (I am 55). Yet you seem to have packed more into your life than I have in my 55 years. I remain dubious about the distinction between "learning from experience" and "learning from books": reading books is, after all, an aspect of one's experience.

    1. I was actually surprised to learn that Isabel Archer's a reader. And at the beginning she keeps asking others if life in Europe is as described in books.
      Also Warburton, when proposing to Isabel, talks about being in love at 1st sight, and says "as in novels".
      I think there's something there. Henry James wants to make a point.


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