by Vivian Ding Xiaoyu
“Before Nick and Noel came to the postgraduate office, I was the only guy in this office,” Dongqing told me when I first moved to Room 104, our postgraduate office in the Main Building. This was at the beginning of the second year of my MPhil in the School of English. I have never experienced any “inconvenience” about being a woman postgraduate, and in fact in the School we have an absolute advantage in numbers, which actually strengthens my self-esteem as a female intellectual (-to-be).
At least, we are much happier than Virginia Woolf when she wrote A Room of One’s Own. We can walk on any turf – there will be no angry Beadles rising to intercept us; we can go to any library – no letter of introduction or accompaniment by a male Fellow of the College is required. I have a room of my own in which to write, read and think. However, I still sense something lacking, either when I leave my office or walk out of my private room. A lack that is imposed on me and has gradually become a part of myself.
I graduated with my first degree more than a year ago. This was a time when friends started to find their own direction in life and began to drift apart. Most of my friends found a job and started the regular life of an employee – going to work in the morning, getting off work at night. “I am so jealous of you,” I often hear. “I wish I could go back to college days.” Postgraduate life is indeed much more flexible, but that’s not to say it’s easier. It is a truly “full-time” job, asking for your total devotion, your day and night, your love and hate. For my friends, once they’re off work, they really are off work, but it is difficult for me to put my work down. I need to keep on reading, not only to keep up to date on my research topic, but also to whet my intellectual sensitivity. I need to write whenever an inspiration strikes me (which usually happens late at night). No one is going to assign me any tasks or deadlines; I need to create tasks for myself, and then solve them myself.
My life has steered in a different direction from that of my friends. When they ask me out for a movie I shut myself in my room to read and write. It doesn’t seem a “normal” life for a woman who, at this stage of her life, should be going out and meeting people, and learning the art of living. Family and marriage are a women’s inevitable “telos” — this is the social consensus. Invisible boundaries are constantly at work defining what it means to be a woman in our society. I am pulled to and fro at the borderline: society wants more of me as a woman, physically and mentally, but as a postgraduate, my research demands my “faithful” presence, my thoughts, and my mind.
My postgraduate study allows me to experience the boundaries that society has laid out for a woman and to transgress and challenge them. Gradually it has become an interesting and enjoyable experience for me. From being a confused and ignorant stranger facing conflict at the beginning, I have slowly learned to face them, scrutinize them, and live in harmony with them. The experience of boundaries in turn motivates me to keep a balance between postgraduate research work and “normal life”, not by conforming to the regular life of an employee, but through better self-discipline and time-management. Although I still spend a lot of time by myself reading and writing, I have learnt to talk to my family and friends about my work so they can understand my way of working and living.
When Lady Wilde wrote about her little daughter – “she has fine eyes and promises to have a most acute intellect – these two gifts are enough for any woman”, she certainly didn’t foresee how difficult it would be for a modern woman to unravel the tension between the two. Are all women postgraduates or intellectuals torn by this? I don’t know. But perhaps it is also this tension that helps us develop our mental perseverance, as shown in “the spreading wide of narrow hands / to gather paradise”. We can reveal a most valuable spirit in us, regardless of whether others choose not to see it.