The Chinese portrait game

One day, during French class, we played the Chinese Portrait game (you know, the one where you say “If I was a …, I would be a …”). As the intention was to learn vocabulary, we were doing it with all kinds of things. If I was a flower, if I was a color, if I was an actress / actor, if I was a movie…

Then came the question: If I was an animal, I would be…

My first instinct was to continue the phrase with “a horse,” since this is my favorite domestic animal of all. But the word got stuck on my lips before it could be pronounced because I started thinking that I have a really restless nature – one that more often than not leads me to act impulsively (and not be so obedient as a horse). Besides, the idea of tameness that is implied in the figure of a horse bothered me.

So I took a few extra seconds to search in my mnemonic catalogue an animal that would fit more neatly into the definition of who I would like -want- to be. Tiger came immediately to mind. Yes, that’s an image that makes me proud: the brave, courageous tiger, so beautiful and strong.

After I told them what animal I would be, I waited excitedly to hear what the other people from my group would say. A lion? An eagle? A, I don’t know, crocodile?

“A sloth.” One answered. “A panda.” The other one said. I stared at them for a full minute, waiting for them to get serious. When I realized they already were, my perplexed face expressed the question before I asked it: “Why a sloth, and why a panda?”

They answered that both these animals are calm and have simple, uneventful lives.

I don’t have the words to express my horror. I used all my social skills to pretend their answer was just another between hundreds, but I couldn’t stop thinking: who in this world could possibly aspire to have a quiet, uneventful life?

Then a dialogue from a book I read a really long time ago came to me; I don’t remember the name, but I know it was from one of my favorite writers, Nora Roberts. I copied the dialogue in a notebook, and that’s the only reason for why I am able to reproduce it now. It went like this:

“What do you want?”

“All of it.” She laughed, but there was something brittle in the sound that broke his heart. “I’m selfish and greedy and want all. I want everything I can snatch up and hold, then I want to go back and get more. Why can’t I want the simple and the ordinary and the quiet, Aiden? Why can’t I be content with easy dreams?”

“You’re so hard on yourself, mavourneen. Harder than anyone else can be. Some people want the simple and the ordinary and the quiet. It doesn’t make those who want the complicated and extraordinary and the exciting greedy or selfish. Wanting’s wanting, whatever the dream.”

Struck, she stared at him. “What a thought,” she managed at last. “I never looked at it that way.” 

This passage in the book had a huge impact on me when I read it, because it was the first time that I had two simultaneous epiphanies.

The first one was that some people want the simple and easy – this is all they will ever want, all they will ever aspire towards. The quiet, the peaceful. The stability. And that’s ok; that’s as vital in the world as the unquiet, restless, rocky life of the ones who want the complicated. It’s as precious as the most daring dreams.

The second one was that it was not wrong for me to want the big, the loud, the crazy. Like the female character, I had until then felt terribly guilty for wanting the things that I wanted. I mean, why do I have to strive for the complicated? Why do I have to want the hard? Why can’t the simple and easy be enough?

Maybe a small pause to define what I consider the hard and complicated is fit for the moment. You see, it’s not like I want to be famous, or billionaire, or party every night in a different city. I don’t even want the prince charming thing. I have ambitions, though – ambitions that have always sounded complicated; more, they always seemed too much for the people around me.

I want to travel the whole world. Like, all the countries, all the cities, all the islands. Even Antarctica is in my plans. I want to meet my idols. Writers, actors and actresses, directors, singers, activists, journalists, bloggers (contrary to the traveling, though, I don’t really expect to meet them all, just a large part of them). I want to write a book. Ok, several. Hundreds, if possible. I want to work in more than one professional area. I want to be successful in what I do – enough so that I feel challenged and inspired every day. I want to meet thousands, millions, billions of people and show them parts of my personality as they show me theirs. I want to learn – Gosh, I can’t even quantify what or how much I want to learn. Can I say, like, everything? I want to have fun – I want the buzz of the city, the quiet of nature, the loudness of endless parties, the comfort of warm, stay-at-home-with-ugly-pajamas nights.

I want so much, so, so much. But not all. I don’t want to own a company. I don’t want to create the next big app or the new revolutionary technology. I don’t aspire towards any kind of fame. I don’t even have the ambition of winning awards of any sort.

I know, though, that I would never be happy being a sloth. Or a panda. Or, I don’t know, a fish. I was born a horse; I am on my way to becoming a tiger – and a tiger, by God, I’ll be before the end of this life.

At the end of the class, the girls came to talk to me again about this animal thing. I was cool by then. The passage of the book had sunk in, the acceptance that everyone has the right to want whatever they want had settled in my heart. I smiled at them and felt suddenly content. The important thing, after all, is not whether you want to be a sloth or a tiger.

It’s feeling that whoever or whatever you are, it’s enough to make you happy.

2 thoughts on “The Chinese portrait game

  1. Your post makes me want to hear more of your stories – thoughts – ideas. You woke up my spirit making me want to live more – dream more – see more. I love the fire you have inside you – don’t ever let it burn out.


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