The French Sinophile

Guizhou Province, China – 2008

I fell upon Laurent in Xijiang, a beautiful Miao village between Guiyang and Guilin. Just as I was entering the village and searching for a place to stay, he approached me and offered to be “my translator.”

“Let me help you find a place to stay! I’ve been studying Chinese for two years now, and it will be an excellent opportunity to test my language skills,” explained Laurent.

“Wow,” I said, “that sounds great!”

Laurent, a fifty-year-old Frenchman, was traveling with his eighty-year-old mother whom he had just left at the lodge in order to explore the village on his own. While we were strolling around Xijiang interacting with the locals, Laurent did not miss any opportunity to test his newly acquired language skills in the real world. It was so cute and funny to see a Frenchman experimenting with different versions and pronunciations of a Chinese word or sentence in order to make himself understood. Every now and then he would lose the thread of his thoughts and throw a French or English word into his struggling Chinese. More often, though, he would become desperate at being misunderstood after not pronouncing the words correctly, in which case he would start using his arms and hands and facial expressions to describe an object or a request. A number of Chinese would occasionally gather around us to help in deciphering his weird sounds and expressions, while I also began assisting him by adding my even more expressive facial expressions. A Frenchman speaking Chinese in a French accent in one of the remotest regions of China accompanied by an equally strange Cypriot traveler making all sorts of grimaces – this is what I call a truly odd couple, behaving oddly, in an odd place!

We soon discovered that despite our different backgrounds and paths in life, we actually shared many interests about a range of things. After an hour or so of getting lost in the narrow streets of the village and interacting with the locals, we were conversing about everything under the sun – from the Chinese language and the traditions of the Miao people to our favorite travel destinations and our mutual admiration for the French pianist Helene Grimaud!

Laurent was the first person I’ve met who had “retired” at a younger age than me! After his father’s death and the acquisition of a significant inheritance, he had stopped working at the age of twenty-nine. A few years later, his younger brother unexpectedly died, bequeathing to Laurent even more wealth. As such, Laurent’s financial situation was set for life by these unfortunate events.

After his “retirement,” he decided to live with his mother in their family cottage in the middle of a small private forest outside a small hamlet, a two-hour drive west from Paris. For the last twenty years, he had been tending his garden, his vegetables, his  forest, and as it seemed, his aging mother. He had never married nor had any children, although he still seemed open to the possibility. He led a simple life in nature, with very few friends, and almost zero social life. His daily preoccupations were not basically different from those of a hermit. When he traveled, it was usually abroad with his mother. In the past few years, they had both become obsessed with China – its culture, history, peoples, attractions, language, food. This was their third visit in the country in three consecutive years!

After he helped me find a hotel, we walked around Xijiang, took many photos, conversed (or failed to converse) with the Miao locals and other Chinese tourists, and finally ended in the central plaza of the village. Well, actually a Chinese “village” is not exactly a small entity, and Xijiang, the largest of the Miao villages, had the nickname “village of a thousand houses.” In Europe it would be classified as a small town. The central plaza was quite grand and impressive, with multi-storeyed traditional stone and wooden buildings surrounding it. We were very lucky because that night we fell upon a special festival that included local dances and other activities. While we sat observing the festivities from the balcony of a café with a view of the grand plaza, our conversation, for some weird reason I cannot now recall, suddenly turned philosophical.

Without much prodding, Laurent eloquently shared his views on the meaning of life, his thoughts about God, ethical conduct, and much more. As it soon turned out, his views were rather about the meaninglessness and purposelessness of life and his strong doubts that there was a God or any objective ethical criteria. He said that although he understood his mother’s attraction to Buddhism and Vipassana meditation – “there is probably something there” – he thought that in the end “there cannot be any meaning in having entered this world of ignorance and suffering only to ascend some ladder to some nirvana.”

“So Laurent, do you think there is nothing beyond this life? This is all there is?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he replied. “One day we will all die, and whether there is another life or not, the fact remains that this life of ours, right here and now, just is as it is and does not seem to point anywhere,” he replied, emphasizing the last word.

His voice was of someone who had resigned from trying to figure out why and for what he exists. “Placid resignation” was the phrase that came to me to best describe his overall stance. Yet somehow I felt that his resignation was not complete. He always seemed to leave a door slightly ajar through which he would allow a glimmer of hope to enter – a hope that he might be wrong and that his life – all Life – might, in the end, turn out to mean something. But for now, Laurent, who not only claimed to be living but seemed to truly be living a meaningless life, was convinced that there is nothing more to life than living one’s days without too many worries until death arrives.

I tried to suggest that there are occasions during which meaning enters life. That there are many “cracks” from which one can see things that lie beyond this life. And that even if there is no soul or afterlife or any other type of “beyond,” nevertheless one could always derive meaning from within this life, from within one’s work and loving relationships and more, without recourse to metaphysics.

“Waiting for death,” I said, “cannot be all there is. If this were all, then there would be no reason to wait for death in the first place. Committing suicide is an equally valid, ever-present alternative. Why bother traveling in China? Why don’t you finish your life here and now?” I challenged him playfully.

“Because I want to see the fireworks!” he responded in kind, just as the fireworks, concluding the evening celebrations, began to light up the sky.

“…and because you love your mother, and enjoy traveling with her around China – no? Isn’t this love meaningful, just as traveling and discovering is?” I said.

“Yes, but everything will end soon, like these fireworks,” he replied.

At that moment, a kind Chinese lady brought us a few local culinary delicacies to try. Nothing in China, not even impressive fireworks, can be truly enjoyed unless one has his mouth full!

We were both delighted to be enjoying the wonderful atmosphere and all the new experiences in this isolated place. Laurent’s Heraclitean emphasis on the transience of everything could not have been more timely. Here we were, enjoying so many things that mysteriously converged on our life’s path: our serendipitous encounter, the surprise festival, the music, the dances, the philosophical discussion, the fireworks, the great local delicacies gratuitously offered to us. At one point, I thought that maybe he was right after all: There is nothing more to life than simply enjoying each moment as it comes; there is nothing more to do, complete, or achieve. This is all there is: events coming and going, and us witnessing or experiencing whatever crosses our life’s path.

Laurent was a good listener, and although he followed all the intricate arguments I was presenting, he did not change his attitude or main position: Life is meaningless and there is nothing more to it. Yet, in spite of our philosophical disagreements, my new friend happened to be a most loveable person – open, generous, warm-hearted, kind, and helpful. He was even quite impulsive, and in this respect he was nearer to the Chinese mentality and character than to the French. His pleasant and interesting personality made it difficult for me to accept that he lived a life empty of meaning and empty of aims and purpose. Well, maybe it wasn’t truly empty: he was helping his old mother, tending his vegetable garden and forest, reading books and listening to classical music, while harming nobody and asking for nothing from anybody. He lived, I dare say, the ultimate neutral life. A life devoid of crests and valleys, too much excitement and too much pain. A life effortlessly traversing the fine line between the utter despair of the thinker and the meaninglessness of the mindless doer.

For days after we parted, I was still thinking about our encounter. My conversations with Laurent made me question my deepest truths: What if he was right and I am living in my own self-enclosed myth of believing that life has meaning? What if whatever meaning I give to my life is arbitrary and absolutely contingent – in the sense that any meaning I give to or discover in my life, or in Life as a whole, is as good as any other, which would include Laurent’s meaninglessness? Maybe just Being, and simply enjoying one’s aliveness, without philosophizing, with no sophisticated ideas, no systems of thought is the way to go. What if what I saw as “emptiness in his meaninglessness” was another type of fullness – his fullness? After all, maybe his real or even his imaginary sense of fullness was truer than my search for fullness or meaning. Or more radically: maybe the search for meaning is more empty of meaning than accepting meaninglessness!

Despite my self-doubts and the transformations they entailed, still in my mind Laurent gradually became the symbol of a life that simply lives without searching for anything, aiming at anything, or doing anything for anything. A life that accepts itself for what it is and stoically awaits its end – a death that is neither sought after nor avoided. The only thing that I still could not answer was whether Laurent was truly content with the life he had chosen.

© 2024 Nicos Hadjicostis