Last week was a defining moment for me in my Chinese learning…and in my mindset about what it means to fail.
I was just speaking to my resident director, 李老师，last week about continuing to find something that connects me to China. I’d bought Case Closed comic books, have clicked through Chinese television channels, would go out near my campus to interact with Chinese people…but everything felt really forced. I was feeling as though I were desperately grasping for something that would make me feel like China could one day be home, that I could adjust here, that I would make some progress in my abilities to speak and listen to Chinese.
…that I could finally finish more than just less than half of my homework after 10 hours of working on it per day and get some damn sleep. My mood was taking a hit. I’d fallen out of habits that I knew kept me focused. As I have been known to say, “I am too through with this nonsense!”
One of the constructive criticisms that 李老师was giving me consistently is that I was expecting perfection. I could definitely agree with him on that. I was thinking, “well…shouldn’t I be aiming to do well in my classes? I have not been able to finish more than half of my homework the whole first two weeks I’ve been here!”
Over time, my mindset had become, “Why shouldn’t I expect perfection. I should aim to perform perfectly…anything else is unacceptable.” My mom raised me to believe that there are people who do well and then there are people who do well. I still believe that…but the mindset that I was raised with in how to reach that latter level wasn’t going to help me in China.
The end and period.
He also asked me if I was one of the top students at my school. Yup. He asked me what did I like about Chinese culture. I joked that I would say something other than, “I really like the food.” Everyone and their mother says that when asked about a culture. I told him that when I was younger, my Father and I used to watch a lot of kung fu movies in black and white on VHS tapes. At the time, I was much too young to understand what I was looking at. It just looked cool – how else do interests start for children? Haha…
I told him that as I got older, I continued to watch these Chinese films…I began to venture into traditional themes and ones about gangs as I really admired the spirit and perseverance of the fighter. The themes of family, loyalty, and brotherhood were emphasized so heavily in those films. I thought the cultural aspect of how these themes were emphasized was very admirable. Of course, even at that time, I never thought I would want to actually LEARN Chinese language…I just never thought about it. I saw those squiggly lines and never even entertained the idea that I would be sitting abroad writing those squiggly lines out to form sentences. Haha!
I told him that I had first learned about China’s role in the world during my sophomore year of college in my East Asia in World Affairs class. I told him that I had learned about the China-Africa relationship and about my surprise that there was actually a power forcing us into a multipolar world (arguably bi-polar) and away from a unipolar one. I told him about the introduction to the movies A Better Tomorrow and The Killer in my Chinese History in Film class! Chow Yun-fat became my husband in my mind, at that point. I told him that I have always thought the characters, in particular, are beautiful and that reading and writing characters are my strong points because of my long background in art.
No. I certainly didn’t tell 李老师about Chow Yun-fat becoming my husband! Definitely left that part out! I couldn’t take the embarrassment if that slipped out… -_-
ALL that to feed to my main point… “Fail at a higher level.”
I was sitting at a café with my friend and 预拌, struggling once again through Chinese homework. Another day of starting the day out thinking, “I’m going to finish this homework today,” and of the inevitable sinking feeling that I probably wasn’t…but it would be a cold day in Hell before I wouldn’t keep trying to somehow get better in this language. Those were my thoughts every day and they were E.X.H.A.U.S.T.I.N.G.!!!
I had been waiting for something to click and it just wasn’t clicking – matter how mindful I thought I was being.
I expressed to my friend that I sometimes felt that I couldn’t do any of this but knew that I would keep trying…but felt that I was trying blindly. I was doing my job…asking for insight from my teachers and listening to advice from students who seemed to be managing the work better. Some of my classmates would tell me, “you’re not supposed to be able to finish the work.” Admittedly, my thought in response to that was, “What kind of nonsense is that…the classes are solely based on our preparation. I’ve been roasted enough times – in front of everyone - for not being prepared.”
I continued to be unsure why my mindset was not changing in my attempts to apply the tips that I felt, at the time, would be useful to me. I didn’t understand.
“Fail at a higher level.”
Then my friend said this to me…and explained the logic when my eyebrow began to rise. He said that I should be failing, but I have to be mindful of what I am failing at and work to know why I have failed at that thing once I’ve failed it.
I shouldn’t say that “everything” clicked, but something began to click. I started to become very thoughtful about what I was being told in that moment and what I had been told by everyone in the last two weeks…then things started to click and settle…especially by the next morning. The perspective about the stress, frustration, and sense of deflation that I had been feeling about this intensive program for the last two weeks began to change.
It is now the end of the week and a lot of my approach and performance in my classes show my choice to adjust my mindset. Heck, the changes started the very next day. I’ve been able to target the specific parts of my work that I need to focus on more than others… and learn to finish those areas, rather than think I have to emphasize a,b,c, d,e…z.
All of the advice that I had been receiving from my teachers and some students began to appropriately fall into place in my mind. I could sense that it was happening that way. Learning this language and succeeding at it will always be one of the GREATEST challenges that I will remember for the rest of my life. I am very sure of this. Of course… I said that about the Fulbright, Boren, and several other things…but the acute difference here is that I am being hit with a WHOLE lot of change all at once and I have long decided to swim, not sink, and now I have to be steadfast in learning how to navigate.
I think this is the first time that I am really accepting that the concept of “failure” is not entirely negative. That should not be confused with thinking that I never knew and understood that failure is a part of a process… I know this, but I am learning to understand this fact in a way that forces me to change an approach to success that I have only made minor adjustments to with each new challenge that I have faced up to this point.
I have had to go through some extreme struggles to become a solid student or to be good at something. Dealing with struggles are never easy. With that said, when you become good at something and conquer more and more challenges successfully…sometimes you have to remind yourself that you will always face some kind of struggle. You have to remind yourself that you might have to change your perspective to something completely different to even have a chance at overcoming the new obstacle that you now face.
Sometimes I apply my determination using the wrong technique and when I have to change tracks, it feels like I am dragging myself over scorching hot coals to make that transition. That’s exactly how it feels in that moment…
But…nothing will compare to THIS situation, I am sure of it. I was raised to believe that one should avoid failure at all cost. So, any time that I have failed, I have worked myself to the bone to turn that failure into a success. I never saw any reason to broadcast that I am failing at something until I have conquered that failure. Hell…even at that point, I called it ‘struggling’. Haha!
From failure, I have learned more than I would have if I hadn’t failed in the first place…. Sometimes I’ve had to work for weeks, months, years to see that success come to fruition. Didn’t always know how, didn’t always know when, but it was going to change and that is what I knew 100%.
…but…the only reason why anything changed was because I was mindful of the process. Failing without being conscious of moving towards improvement is not improvement but a continued inability to progress.
I think in this new context…this “failing at a higher level” thing…failure, as I’ve learned it in my upbringing, can only mean the conscious decision to give up on something that needs to be done – in your mind. For me, I need to learn Chinese…but I also need to apply the concept of failure in terms of learning…not to just an inability to learn…
It’s strange realizing that being fully prepared for my classes is not…possible…but you have to keep failing to actually come out of this program prepared for that future next level challenge in learning Chinese.
That’s definitely different to me. …or maybe not. Maybe I’ve applied this concept to a variety of struggles that I have faced but hadn’t ever consciously realized this?
This will not be my first time learning how to be exceptional at something, but I am learning what it means to be exceptional at something with the use of a very different kind of roadmap that pose both an extreme mental and emotional challenge to me.
I will say this…one of my classmates told me that my professor, 王老师, had told her that she has been very impressed with my work ethic. She said that I am not the best at listening and speaking but she has been extremely impressed by my “diligence and work ethic despite my hardships to learn” and that she is impressed with my abilities to read and write Chinese so well. I mean, YES, that flattered me…greatly and really put the biggest smile on my face.
This blog was particularly difficult to write for a lot of reasons. I am proud of myself for choosing to write it. Sometimes it is ok for people to know you’re struggling with something. Sometimes. Haha! The stories of perseverance should not only be for me to know. It is more important that I know that I am going to keep to my determination. I always keep to it…no matter how deflated I feel. This sort of challenge…learning Chinese…really reminds me of that fact.
In a lot of ways, some bits of familiarity have brought me a lot of balance this past week. :-)
Thank you for reading!