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A Self-Portrait

Writing a self-portrait is a new experience for me, and I am very grateful that I have this opportunity to take a comprehensive look at myself for the first time, exploring who I really am, what I want in life and ultimately what I look to in the future.

In my childhood I remember myself very much disliking any sort of change in the environment I lived in, nervous about being in the attention of unfamiliar people, and often hiding behind the warmth and security and my grandparents. I could vividly remember my first day in my nursery school, wishing that the day would end more quickly and they would pick me up as soon as possible. However, even the trauma of the first day in my schooling career could not prepare me for the biggest change in my life that was to come. I was born in China, and with my parents emigrating to Britain when I was three years old, I spent the majority of my childhood years in the care of my grandparents, until the age of 9. As I grew up, my grandparents became more physically frail with their increasing age. It was apparent that they could no longer look after me, and it was decided that I must also move to Britain to join my parents. At the tender age of 9, I could not truly grasp the consequences of international migration on my life, and I just did not know what to expect of the new world.

London is arguably the most multi-cultural society in Britain, and when I arrived, I was at first startled to meet people from so many parts of the world, but I did become comfortable with living in London very quickly. With many people from an immigrant background, they understood the difficulties of settling down in a new country, hence some opened their arms to help me to integrate with the new people and adjust to the new life. In the new school, I quickly made many friends, since the children and teachers were all helpful and friendly. The first few years of my new life, when I had to learn English from zero, were quite difficult, because no matter how friendly the people were, I always felt isolated not being able to communicate fully with others. However, I did have the benefit of being a child, who generally picks things up very quickly, and as time progressed the language barrier became less of a problem.

Although the language trouble was not easy to deal with, the biggest problem in those years of my life was the emotional trauma from leaving my grandparents. My grandparents had been in my life since I was born, caring for and looking after me in the absence of my parents, so naturally there were many well-built bonds between us. In effect they were the parent figures in my childhood years, and I still feel this way today. Being the only child in the family, I was born into China’s “little emperor” generation, which meant that they tried to do everything for me, as a way to express their love and affection for me, and I became deeply dependent on them. However, this kind of easy lifestyle was sharply contrasted to that I lived with my parents, who tried to make me more independent by doing things myself. I found it very difficult to accept and adjust to this sudden change in attitude, which I thought at the time was harsh and unfair. Compounded to this feeling of distress was that of isolation, since my parents were strangers to me at the time, to whom I could not open up at first. Of course, it meant that I missed my grandparents very much.

Looking back at my childhood years, however, I begin to comprehend the reasons in saying that I have been partly spoilt by my grandparents. Of course, they loved me greatly, with the best of intentions in trying to make my life as comfortable as possible, and I do appreciate and reciprocate their love. However, they tried to shield me away from the complexities of everyday life, with the result being that I become over-reliant on them. Moreover, I was lulled into a sense of delusion that everything I need in life will be handed to me, without the need to work for it.

Looking at my upbringing, I firmly believe that children will develop in the right way only if they are exposed to the hardship of the outside world, when they can learn from their experiences of solving problems and dealing with difficulties. For me, the experience of moving to a new country, although difficult and problematic at first, has made me stronger in many ways which I did not realise for a long time. The emotional pain of living with seeming strangers, and of missing the people I always regarded as my parent figures, did toughen me up mentally, which prepared me for dealing with the many more traumatic experiences I would face. That period just after leaving my grandparents was the lowest point in my life, but I have come through it, and that gave me the determination and resolve to pick myself up from any problem I encountered since and will encounter in the future, because after all, nothing else has been as bad. Through living with my parents, I have also become much more self-reliant and developed a greater sense of duty and responsibility, because doing myself the things I can do has made me realise that, like everyone else, I also have a role to play, be it in the family, at school or in the wider society. Finally, this big change in my life has also transformed my perceptions on the theme of change. I am no longer afraid of it, because I have confidence in myself to adapt to any changing situation, like human beings do best. In fact, I now embrace change, seeing it as a source of new opportunities, which in turn gives me new hopes and aspirations. After all, where would be the excitement in living the whole life in the same way without change?

Although my grandfather was my carer, he also had a much more profound influence on me, though it was something which I did not realise until after his death. Our actions and way of thinking share many similarities, and I can see that he had a notable impact in passing down some of his beliefs to me, in effect making me a mirror image of his former self in some instances. He was brought up in China at a time when Confucian philosophy still formed part of contemporary Chinese thinking, and the moral values of these Confucian ideas were deeply enshrined in him. Ultimately, that gave him benevolent, tolerant and empathetic qualities, the importance of all of which he emphasised to me at a very young age. Although his physical presence was easily noticeable, he never used aggression and violence as a means to solve a problem, but instead was seen by friends and colleagues as a soft-spoken, yet fair and principled man, and that earned him the deepest respect from all those that knew him well.

Since his death, I reminisced the time we spent together, and I began to adopt some of his ideas and desirable qualities. Some used to say I was a judgemental person, who rashly forms views without the full understanding of the person or situation. However, I am now much better at listening to others and to respect differences in opinion, and often it is these different views which have helped me to understand more comprehensively the issue in discussion. Although an atheist, some of the Confucian ideas within me mean that I strongly believe in those moral values, such as tolerance, equality, respect and righteousness, just like the people of all religions and cultures. These common values act as gel which bond me to the people from all backgrounds in the multicultural society of London, and are one of the reasons to why I am accepted by most. Another way of conduct of my grandfather, which I considered very philosophical and hence took on for myself, was to take a step back, through mutual understanding, if things become heated, and let things go if possible. I certainly don’t have a defeatist attitude, and will never surrender in the pursuit of a cause I strongly believe in, but taking the first step back can be a brave decision that may start off the process of reconciliation and soothe the dispute. Furthermore, I try to forgive when I am wronged by others, because life is simply too short and precious for holding grudges, with vengeance bringing only more misery in the future. Again, with this mindset it means that I can generally get on with most people, without really detesting anyone or being detested, and so I do not have any enemies as such.

On the issue of my identity, once more I have to start with the effects my grandfather had on me. From an early age, he started telling me Chinese historical stories, some of which were highly romanticised works of literature. I was absolutely fascinated by the exciting, adventurous yet mythical way of life of those heroic historical figures, which were markedly different to anything I experienced in real life. Either due to the great storytelling ability of my grandfather or the masterful literary skills of the authors, or both, in effect, a fantasy world was created inside my head. This is when my love for history, particularly Chinese history, started, and I have always read around on this subject when I had spare time. As I grew up, I became aware of the great contributions the Chinese civilization has made towards humanity, which in turn have made me immensely proud of my Chinese heritage. Over the last two centuries, however, the country has experienced a series of disastrous events that tainted its glorious history, firstly domination by imperialists, then foreign occupation and finally disunity and civil war. The misery suffered by the people was unprecedented. The sense of urgency within me to play my part in rebuilding the country to its former heights, so that the people can forever live in peace and prosperity, further reinforces my Chinese identity.

For a long time, I held the view that I am a Chinese simply residing in a foreign country, but recently this view was somewhat transformed. Having spent my teenage years in Britain, I received a British education, and will continue to in my university years, and so it is true to say that I have matured and developed in this country. Naturally, I was influenced by the British way of life and its way of thinking, which has probably made me different to the modern Chinese in some instances. Although I uphold Confucian moral ideas, I think and act differently to most Chinese in some situations. Moreover, my Chinese language skills are fairly limited, and certainly I can communicate much better in English. Hence, I now feel that my true identity is a combination of both Chinese and British, and I am also very proud that I have experiences of both cultures. Now looking to the future, I hope I can fully utilise my position, where I understand both societies, to bridge the gap between the two; I hope to introduce new ideas and technology to continue to modernise China, while at the same time to enrich the British culture with some Chinese values and wisdoms.

After talking about my goals in life, it is now important to reveal some of the things that motivate me. Some people dismiss the significance of money in life with the cliché “money can’t buy you happiness”. Of course, there are many things you cannot buy with money, such as love and friendship, and I used to maintain the view that money is unimportant to me. However, that was when I did not have to worry about money, with my guardians providing for all my material needs. Now, being a student just about to embark on my first year of higher education, I have just come to terms with how financial constraint will affect one’s life. Although being enormously rich is not a big motivation for me, my first priority in life is to achieve financial security, so that my material needs, and that of my future family, can be guaranteed, and only then can I do the things I want to do in life. In our modern capitalistic world, it is difficult to be happy without money. Nonetheless, a much bigger motivation for me is respect. I see a strong link between respect and success, because those who have succeeded, in whichever field, must have a special quality or have achieved something for others to respect them. I hear so many people talking to me about their regrets of missing the opportunity when it came, and as a result they have just passed through their lives. Hearing that just furthers my determination to grab my opportunity when it comes, and really to make something of my life. My search for respect and success are in fact strongly intertwined, because I want to achieve something in life, and I want people to appreciate that achievement. Finally, am I motivated by power? I do have a high regard for people in positions of power, probably because I have never been in them myself, or certainly unconscious of it if I have been. They must have a strong leadership quality in order to get them into power and to exercise it successfully, and this leadership quality is one I greatly admire. They say that power corrupts, but I see power only as a means to impose one’s wishes, and hence it can bring out the true character of a person. That said, I would like to have power one day, just to experience how it feels, and it will probably help me to achieve my goals and aspirations, at the same time teaching me something more about myself.

When I feel lonely and depressed, friendship is something that can motivate me to help get through the day. For me, being alone does not necessarily make me lonely; in fact sometimes I need to spend time alone to reflect and think through the things that happen. This is very important to me. But just like everyone, loneliness creeps on me from time to time, and this is usually when I cannot truly communicate how I feel. Sometimes, the feelings inside me are indescribable by words, feelings that only I can understand. I can never truly articulate how exactly I feel, and when I try, the words often distort my true feelings. Maybe I am just not a good communicator, but without accurately describing these feelings, how can others understand them? Unable to share them, I have to keep them to myself, and this is often how I begin to feel lonely. I can deal with loneliness by simply being alone and trying to figure out what those feelings truly mean, and eventually I will get through it. At other times, I will rely on my friends and family. Although it is difficult to explain to them how exactly I feel, I can talk to them about other matters where there is a common interest. By simply talking I occupy my mind with other things, and before long I would forget those awful feelings or problems. I greatly value my friendships, because my friends are the people with whom I can share my experiences. I try to give everyone a chance to know me when meeting new people, and friendship often forms when there is a common interest or common language to talk about.

Up to now, and for the next four years at least, my main activity has been and will be education, and so I should talk something about my learning interests. When I was a young child, I saw education as something forced upon me by the adults, preferring to play instead, but of course, playing often is the biggest source of learning for a child. As I grew up, however, I was fascinated by a range of subjects across the academic spectrum, from Maths and Science to History and Economics. Although both interesting in their own ways, I regarded the sciences as a key to facts and knowledge, while the arts as a source of inspiration and answers to life in general. I tried to read as wide a range of material as possible in my spare time, and for a long time I remained unclear on what I wanted to study at university. Studying Economics at A-Level was thoroughly enjoyable, which was one of the main reasons in making me seriously contemplate studying it further, but although good enough to get my A, I felt the ability to study an arts degree just was not there. My language skills have never been brilliant, and while I excelled in the science subjects, I found writing a good essay quite challenging. Instead I chose to study Chemistry, a subject interesting in its own way and one I did well in at school. As for my future career, I have some vague ideas, but they are certainly not definite, which is exactly how I like it at the moment. I do not want to make up plans that will tie me down for the rest of my life even before I start university. Chemistry, of course, will open up a range of careers for me in science, but it also provides transferable skills for me to go into other fields should I so choose. Going back to the idea of respect, though, no matter which field I go into, I will try my best and will want to succeed.

People say that the university years are the best in one’s life, and I hope I will feel the same way. I am writing my first self-portrait at a time in expectation of the best time of my life, so obviously, it does contain a great deal of my hopes and aspirations, as well as boyish optimism. Writing it has been unexpectedly enjoyable, and I will definitely revisit the subject as I grow up even more. Having read the self-portraits of others, I am also pleasantly surprised that some have shared the same experiences as well, but more importantly the experience of others have inspired in many ways, as well as teaching me something more about myself. When I write further self-portraits in the future, I just hope some of my ideals and aspirations will have materialised, and equally that I will have faced those experiences of other people, which I have not so far.

November 2004