Meet the Reader
is a series where readers in Shanghai talk about their passion for words and books.
Émile was born in Lanzhou, Gansu province and spent most of his life in Paris before returning to China. He recently stopped working as a civil engineer and now works as a French teacher in Shanghai. He plans to start writing more and eventually transition to freelance writing.
What’s your earliest memory of reading?
I recall reading French kids’ magazines at about five-years-old (that is when Imoved from China to France). I didn’t really like reading until I was about 18-20. I wasn’t really mature and curious until then: I found reading boring compared to the interactions I could have in the actual world.
Why do you enjoy reading so much?
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” – George R.R. Martin.
Reading enables you to experience things… lives, adventures, places, times…you couldn’t otherwise. I believe there are two ways to learn, through experience and via books, movies, art, etc. You need a balance. You definitely should get out and experience things yourself, but reading’s one of the best alternatives to tap into this big world. I enjoy movies as well, but books allow you to get deeper into characters and concepts.
As a first generation immigrant, I was raised in a rather typical Chinese family, with a strong emphasis on hard work and academic success. My parents, their education, society… had prepared all the answers for me. This then backfired as I started to question things in my 20s. I turned to books for answers.
During this period of questioning, I began to see the value in books to explore how others have approached such big questions and found answers. I would regularly be amazed at how books would echo my personal questioning and experience. I realized that”the most personal / intimate problems are also the most universal ones”, as said the psychiatrist Carl Rogers.
I would regularly be amazed at how books would echo my personal questioning and experience. I realized that “the most personal / intimate problems are also the most universal ones”, as said the psychiatrist Carl Rogers.
If someone wrote a book about your life, what would it be called?
It would be called Existential Wanderings of a French-Chinese Boy (or Inner Adventures of a French-Chinese Citizen).
As a “double-culture kid”, I have the chance to see things from different perspectives. I believe there is no right and wrong in our differences; the reality is the same, we just have different subjective interpretations of it. As a teenager, I struggled with identity issues that even manifested into physical symptoms. However, eventually that challenge turned into an opportunity, and I became fully aware of my privilege. I developed a strong interest in discovering other cultures and getting to know people from different backgrounds. I also became interested in rediscovering my roots.
When I returned to my hometown in my 20s it was a mystical experience in my journey to discover who I am. Every day was an exploration of an unknown part of my Self. With every new discovery of the local customs, culture, and characteristics, it felt like I was confronted with identity aspects hidden in my subconsciousness. These seeds rooted inside me where somehow waiting for a trigger, a splash of water so that they could come to life and emerge in my real consciousness. It was truly mystical and fantastic.
What’s your favorite genre? Why?
Most of my reading focuses on human sciences… sociology, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality. I turned to books when I began exploring existential questions such as: What’s the purpose of (my) life, what is true happiness, is there a meaning to suffering, did I consciously make my choices or did others choose for me. They’ve to lead me to get deeply interested in books that explore those questions. Books definitely helped me build my own perspectives, especially when the stories and concepts I read echoed my own story.
Which book has impacted you the most?
Is Capitalism Moral? (Le Capitalisme est-il Moral?) by the French philosopher André Comte-Sponville. I was interning at a Chinese mergers and acquisitions company. There was a strong hierarchy, in which every worker had a rank and was treated quite differently. Growing up in France where equality was a strong ideal, I felt uncomfortable and hypocritical. I had many concerns about the ill effects of early-stage, non-regulated capitalism when seeing this rampant inequality. This book gave me a lot of insights because all I could see at the time was the bad side of our economic system. The book discusses capitalism as economic machinery that cares about creating value, not about equal distribution. It is the material order versus a system for moral order. To quote a sentence from the book: “Capitalism is part of the techno-economic order, fully distinct from any moral order.”
What are you currently reading?
Le Courage (Courage: The Joy of Living Dangerously in English) by Osho, an Indian spiritual master. The book is highly thought-provoking and anti-establishment. It talks about seeking answers inside and questioning authority and everything around us.
I’m also reading The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh, who founded a Zen monastery in France. Buddhism is so relevant to our modern problems, which is why it’s seeing an increased interest in the West. During my self-discovery, I began learning more about Buddhism and have done several meditation retreats. Thich Nhat Hanh explains deep teachings in a simple way. That is the know-how of great masters and why it’s so worthwhile to read them.
I would also recommend his book How to Love, one of the most beautiful books I have read so far. We think we know how to love but it’s often not in a way that nurtures and respects our loved ones. To love is selfless; we have to let go of fear and attachment. The ones we love should feel free.
How to Love, [is] one of the most beautiful books I have read so far. We think we know how to love but it’s often not in a way that nurtures and respects our loved ones. To love is selfless; we have to let go of fear and attachment. The ones we love should feel free.
Which book did you find challenging to read?
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’ve tried it a couple of times and just can’t get through it. I don’t understand the point of the technical parts about motorcycles and mechanics. However, I’d like to try it again in the future as the concept seems interesting.
What’s your favorite place to read in Shanghai? Why?
I love going to Starbucks in Lujiazui on the river facing the Bund. I can sit there all day reading and looking at the river and people walking along the Bund.
Shanghai is a hectic city, when and how do you find the time to read?
It is difficult in Shanghai where things are so fast-paced and the emphasis is on being busy earning money. I like to read while taking public transportation and before going to sleep at night. People look at you strangely when reading a book on the metro. I’ve even had older people come up to me and comment on it. They were surprised and seemingly delighted to see someone reading a real book.
What is more, despite undeniable huge improvements in people’s quality of life, contemporary Chinese society can seem a bit superficial at times. You feel like an odd fish, reading and reflecting upon intangible things most people don’t care much about. From a capitalistic mindset, you are spending your time and energy on futile activities: it doesn’t produce any (material) value! When I am unable to connect on a deeper level I can feel some sort of existential solitude, which is not something nefarious in my opinion.
Are you working on any interesting projects you’d like to share with us?
Yes, I am interviewing people from different backgrounds with a common set of questions (existential questions such as what happiness means to them, what is the purpose of their lives, etc.). I hope to put this together into articles or maybe a book. I think it will highlight the richness of humanity. I love traveling around and meeting people from all backgrounds and seeing how the answers differ. That diversity is what I wanted to highlight through this project: there are many ways of being happy or living a purposeful life. I’m looking forward to traveling a bit and getting answers from people with radically different stories!
Get in touch!
You can get in touch with Émile if you’d like to participate in this project or to simply connect. Interesting reflections guaranteed!
Do you want to share your passion for books and words by answering some bookish questions? Would you like to be featured so that fellow book lovers can contact you? Do you have a bookish project you’d like to share with Shanghai? Contact us by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) to get featured in this series.
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