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A Lifelong Learner’s Contemplation on Life


This is a story about time, learning and regrets.

The Shenyang Palace Museum is always full of visitors on weekends. This week there is an exhibition of Qing dynasty utensils, inviting all who enter to journey back in time. Hundreds of visitors passed by the well-known gallary, giving a hurried and cursory glance at the artifacts on display and taking a photo to prove their arrival. 

But this elegant lady was different from others. She wore an ordinary yellow vest and carried a simple blue cloth bag, standing in front of a glass-encased cracked porcelain vase with profound curiosity. Through narrow black-framed glasses, her focused eyes carefully observed the vase through each ripple. It seems that she was walking in her own gentle stream of time, hushing the air around her into a timeless bubble. This 70-year-old history lover is Xiaoce Jiang, who can also be called a life-long learner.

“There are limited things you can experience in your lifetime, but reading other people’s words broaden a lot of your own horizon.”Xiaocen called herself a curious senior amazed by the beauty of time and trying to explore the trace of history. She enjoys practicing calligraphy and reading books during her space time. But her interest in history came after she retired. She said that only after she has certain life experiences can she resonates with the history tales she read. History brought back a lot of her memories, some are regrettable and some are relieving. 

“I didn’t get a chance to learn about literacy and history when I was young.” Xiaocen said with slight sadness in her voice. The Cultural Revolution began after she finished elementary school, making it impossible for her to continue her school. At the age of 16, she started working at the medicine-making factory. She got promoted and transferred up to the office as an accountant due to her excellent perfermance. As the reform and opening-up policy brought an end to the planned economy, state-owned enterprises were displaced by private sectors. She lost her job in 2000 and applied for an early retirement. This was how she ended her career. “But was too busy to shuttle down to learn something. And I irreversibly lost the time.” This seems to be a common theme of sadness for people of that era. But she was determined to step out of that regretful past and write a new one story.

Life used to seem all confused and bleak, before she got the inspiration to learn history at the age of 60. As she read history books, she realized the importance of learning history systematically. So she applied to a senior university to learn literature, finally going back to school after retirement. It's a two-hour round-trip bike ride from her house to school. But that didn't dampen her enthusiasm and desire to go to college.  She deeply appreciates the treasure that history brought to her, which are a new mindset and reflection on life. 

A lifelong learner constantly gains new inspiration from new kowledge. Ancient tales of love made Xiaocen reflect on her own failed marriage. “If I had started learning history earlier, my marriage might not have ended like this”, she said. She used to be kind of simple-minded, never thought about the deeper reasons lying under the surface. So she didn't recognize the problems in her marriage in time. She mentioned that if she read more real stories from others, she would have noticed earlier that her being ignoring her family due to work. If she had known how to observe and think deeper, she would have noticed that her husband hinted a divorce many times. He deliberately showed lots of discontent before initiating divorce, like complaining about her dishes to annoy her and start a quarrel. In court, where her now ex-husband ultimately insisted on divorcing her, her heart was scarred. But the healing of this scar was also credited to reading. One day she came across an ancient Chinese phrase “一别两宽”( it's a relief for both sides to be apart). She was struck by the words, relieved and enlightened. Yes, maybe a farewell can also be a good way to end a story. She was cured by reading history.

Xiaocen shows the learning passion that never fades with the ups and downs of life, but keeps shining. Just like the antient pottery standing in the exhibition case. Time has given it a weathered, yet enduring beauty and power. 


Ke (Cheska) Dong

Cheska Dong is an economics major student at NYU Shanghai. She is interested in discovering new things, stories and perspectives. In her spare time, she likes playing music, exploring nature, and doing sports.

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