When I first arrived in Germany, I immediately noticed the overwhelming number of flower shops. Around the corner, on a quiet sideway, or even in a train station, I always could find stores full of colorful and vibrant blossoms. And locals loved to decorate their homes with various flowers — especially on their balconies, which greatly beautified the street view. Those little terrace gardens seemed integrated into the traditional style of homes not only in Germany but also in other European countries, such as France and Switzerland. Tourists love to take pictures of themselves standing in front of those traditional houses with little flower boxes by the windows.
Once I had lived there longer and observed my host mother spend a great amount of time working in her mini garden on the balcony, I realized that flowers are not just decorations but an integral part of the life of local residents. After all, gardening takes a lot of time and energy: those fragile plants cannot survive without constant attention. But there is another difficulty that I considered to be more troubling: No matter how much effort you put into prolonging the life of flowers, they still die pretty quickly. The sorrow of this inevitable loss, this sense of powerlessness when watching their transient lives end, had prevented me from using any flower to decorate my own home back in Shanghai. I used only greenery to fill the open spaces of my apartment, which, although still perishable, can at least last longer than evanescent flowers.
But then, while I was in Germany, I constantly came across florists on the street, and I found it hard to move my eyes away from the pure beauty and liveliness of these blooming flowers. I finally conceded and decided to buy a few to put in my dorm room. I chose some pink roses and white daisies at first, and I felt my room immediately brighten. Every time I opened the door, the sight of my flowers brought me joy. This was the beginning of a transition in my attitude toward not only flower decoration but also something beyond that.
Later on, I added some yellow carnations, and when tulips were in season, I brought in their various colors once in a while, and even decorated the Smith Center at the university with colorful tulips. Still, I did feel sad when the flowers began to fade and finally wither away, and I pondered the meaning of blooming—“If only they knew their tragic ending from the very beginning!” I said to myself. How can they embrace their destiny and still express joy so wholly and genuinely?
I couldn’t help but reflect about myself. I realized I had the tendency to not even start something if I thought I could not do it perfectly well. This may be an extreme version of my motto as a “pessimistic optimist,” but I did adopt this perfectionist-leaning belief, which often held me back from unpredictable novel attempts. When applied to language learning, my perfectionist mindset disturbs me, as I have to admit the fact that I may never reach the same fluency as the native speakers. No matter how hard I have tried, I will always speak with a certain deficiency. I will never reach “perfection.”
Studying in Germany and using a third language was yet another endeavor to force myself to step further out of my comfort zone and “destabilize” my life. I have always believed in the meaning of destabilizing one’s regular life, and this time, it proved worthwhile as I learned to embrace the eternal imperfection of life. That is, I was forced to express myself even in a broken way. Before being in Germany, I had always faltered when it came to speaking German, since I had less time to prepare and I feared making mistakes. “I’m not ready.” I always told myself, and failed to realize that I could never be ready unless I took the first step and started speaking more freely. In Germany I began to communicate with all kinds of people and to learn how to bear the embarrassment of making mistakes and the fear of exposing my weaknesses. I thought about the courage of my fragile yet stubborn flowers and entered the uncharted wilderness of a language that is foreign to me. Once, I was afraid that when I spoke up, people would think me rather dull if I could not convey my ideas clearly or made stupid grammatical mistakes. But if I waited until I got every gender and adjective ending in German perfectly correct before starting to speak, I would never be able to voice even one single sentence. Desire to communicate won out: I learned to cast aside my worries about others’ opinions of me and clumsily began to build my German one phrase after another.
I used to ask myself, why should I start something if I could never reach perfection? By the end of my stay in Germany, I finally realized that the premise of this introspective question was wrong — and my wilted flowers knew better than I did. The purpose was never to be perfect but to start, to bloom, to step into the turbulence of life, and to give the best that one can with the gift of life.
Tianhua Zhu ’18 is currently a Senior, majoring in both Government and Linguistics. Looking at the intersection between the two majors, she is interested in the politics of language and seeks to understand the language of politics. She participated in the Smith Program in Hamburg in Spring 2017 and took advantage of the great opportunity to travel around several countries in Europe. Originally coming from Shanghai, China, she would like to accumulate more international experiences and bring together distinct perspectives echoing through the East and the West.by