The City Remembers, The City Forgets

 2016-09-28

Two and a half years after I first arrived in Beijing, I set off with the sun, heading far from the city that has become home. Its vastness stretches out farther than I can see, a dirty window I can hardly see out of fails to diminish the lights that can make your heart skip the slightest beat: The big city. The big smog. The Jing. Whatever you want to call it; the biggest and best cities go by many names.

How strange and how foreign, I first thought when I entered the capital with its strangely shaped skyscrapers and pushy people. That sense that you could be anyone you wanted. You wanted to know everyone but no one knew you; the perfect equation for the empowered anonymity that a city brings. You could change your name and no one would ask twice. Years later some people I see all the time still don’t know my first name. Introduce yourself by a nickname and no one has reason to ask more.

I fell in love with Beijing’s chaos immediately. Its noise was overwhelming, its impatience exciting, its stubbornness rousing, and demanding of a reaction. Beijing makes you angrier than you knew you could be, louder than you thought you knew how. It had a way of knocking you off your feet and just when you were ready to surrender, one of its quirks would cajole you enough to suggest that surely, Beijing was just teasing, and of course you should stay. You feel a bit silly for getting all upset – you were meant to be here.

Quite soon you’re adding as many Beijingren bragging rights as you can, boasting of how you don’t care if the toilet has doors or not, and just look how unfazed you are by the mess and mayhem that constantly surrounds you. You’re part of the city now. It has changed you, it has consumed you, and you are part of the chaos that makes it so wonderful.

It’s only when you leave that you realise Beijing, still shining away from your increasing distance, will continue to exist, to breathe, to charm and to infuriate just fine without you.

All you can really hope for is that of all the stories the changing streets and its people remember, retell, and have already started to forget – perhaps one of them might be yours.

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Activism When It’s Not Your Battle To Fight

I was recently at a women’s networking event in Beijing which included a talk followed by a dinner. The first event I’d attend by a network I’ve admired and respected for some time, I was keen to see what a roomful of empowered and inspiring women (many of whom I would get a chance to connect with that evening) would have to share and to discuss.

Enter a young man who pushes past me and a friend as we made our way to our seats. “Gotta make sure I get myself a seat ahead of you all!” he joked. Except he wasn’t, and proceeded to settle himself in a seat right in front of the speaker.

Over the course of the evening, the young man would go on to respond to many of the questions asked with questions, comments, jokes and the occasional wisecrack. It eventually came to a stage where the speaker would look to him for an opinion first— understandably, since he was increasingly vocal and not many of the rest of us were.

But, the resentment of male presence in a community event meant for women is surely contradictory to my strong beliefs of equality. In issues surrounding gender discrimination, men are our biggest allies and potentially powerful spokespeople, in the same way white people’s voices are needed in the quest for racial equality and straight voices are loud in standing up for the LGBT community.

This in turn led me to think about why exactly this young man got under my skin so quickly. Surely I should have been pleased at his enthusiasm and questions, supporting his participation in a women’s community?

And I would have been, except for one underlying fact: Way too often when men (or just the one man) are talking the loudest, women clam up. We’re so used to being talked over, or unheard, or underheard, that many of us slip into “perhaps this isn’t my time to talk” mode. As someone who’s quite capable of talking a lot, I know I do this too, and at an event meant to connect women, it made me even angrier than it usually does. This was supposed to be our space.   

Now, this leads me to more discussions that have come up recently. An article I recently read in the New Yorker discusses the exclusivity of activism, among many other things. You wouldn’t understand because you’re not an East Asian immigrant. Unless you’re a woman of colour, this isn’t your battle to fight. Try being a gay black male and then we’ll talk. The list goes on; we’re protective of everything that we are, including how we are discriminated against.

A recent conversation I had on Facebook saw me (an ethnic minority) arguing against the idea that other ethnic minorities had no place in movements like #BlackLivesMatter, only to be put down by other ethnic minorities for suggesting that my voice was valid. I always begin any suggestion of solidarity with the assurance that  I don’t know what it’s like to be a black man who has been pulled over for no reason too many times (which is once and above), but I sure do know what it’s like to be treated with scorn, disgust, or hate because of my ethnicity. Surely in this shared discrimination — with the vast difference of their scale in mind, always — we can find solace in each other as fellow recipients and opponents of injustice.

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je suis charlie in China

I recently shared these thoughts with a gay friend, and we agreed that allies are essential, as is knowing that the experiences you bring are not comparable to those you stand in support of. I’m not about to say I know what it’s like to be with a gay partner in a place that’s hostile to your love, or to worry about where I can marry, but my own experiences with discrimination of race and gender, if nothing else, allow me a (shadow of an) understanding of those with a struggle far greater than I could ever face.

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my multiracial love is a walk in the park

At the women’s talk, there was another man. He sat further to the back, and he participated by listening; he was present, but he never took the spotlight. At LGBT rallies and events, I wear my rainbows with pride and I march along as an LGBT ally. But when there’s a time to talk, I spend most of it listening. And sure, I can tweet the hell out of #BlackLivesMatter and have a better understanding of the issue as a brown woman and co-recipient of racial discrimination. But you won’t find me at the front of the line because I don’t believe this is my podium to stand on. You will find me behind you, as an ally — and as an activist.

Before we jump on the latest activism bandwagon — or before we push anyone off it — let’s stop to think about the role we, as individuals, have to play in any cause, in any protest, or in any fight and decide if our place is as a leader, a supporter, or an ally.

Might we then march together, stronger, with the understanding that perhaps not every battle is ours to fight, but every battle is better fought with one more voice behind it?

 

Be a Bit Like Bowie

To Be a Bit Like David Bowie

It’s been almost a week since we found out about the death of David Bowie and like many all around the world, I still can’t quite believe this. On a Sunday morning in bed with Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars making its way though my turntable at full blast, overwhelming sadness is giving way to “surely this can’t be”.

Even for celebrities far younger than David was, there’s sadness and shock, and then there’s gradual acceptance. Maybe we don’t think about it, but I guess we are aware of the mortality of those we admire, of those around us.

Like many around the world, we never really thought of David Bowie as a mere mortal; he was a star, a light, a musical mischief maker, an inventor, an entire galaxy of a brightness than few, if any, can match. We never thought about David Bowie dying because we weren’t aware that he could.

On my rock n roll-themed 21st birthday, I used blue and grey lenses to try and be a little like Bowie. On Halloween a few years later I proudly wore the signature Aladdin Sane lightning bolt on my face (beautifully drawn by mum). Years later I’d move to China to the tunes of China Girl and Changes on a playlist created for me by Noelle and Craig; Bowie was the only artist who made the list twice. Two years later All The Young Dudes would feature in the soundtrack of Martin and myself.

 

David-Bowie

 

Everything changes, but a Bowie song to fit wherever you are in your life remains, and for me, an inner desire to be just a little bit like him has remained.

Being a bit like Bowie means a million different things in thousands of different ways. To shine brighter, to laugh harder, to think you can get away with wearing those pants and to then confidently do so, to change it up throughout the course of your life, to create, to recreate, to keep creating, to love, and to love fiercely.

To be a bit like Bowie means an irreverence for dimmed lights and staying still. To be a bit like Bowie means being unafraid to be magnificent. To be a bit like Bowie means bringing your ideas to life.

The stars do look different today as Starman returns to the stars and the world looks up and keeps our eyes to the skies; our assumptions of his immortality have at last been confirmed.

China Calling: Everything Changes (and it’s scary but it’s cool)

Basically, absolutely nothing has gone according to plan.


So it’s been a while since I’ve even been to my blog, and so much has happened in these past 3 months. It’s now been almost 6 months in China now. In that time, I’ve started a new job, left it, started another new job, been through a breakup, started a new relationship, lived away from family for the first time, left my apartment, found a new one, and the list goes on.

It’s been like Real Life 101, and much of that has been on my own (though more recently I’ve had help. And support. And a lot of it, too.). It hasn’t been easy, but it has been one hell of a ride.

Nothing has gone according to plan. But everything is going, and in quite a wonderful way. I’ve parted ways with the company I originally moved to China for, which was a big blow to me. It took an incredible amount of thought and decisions and I desperately wanted this to work; it didn’t. We wanted different things. And that’s pretty much all there is to it.

What I’m glad for though, besides the great friends I made in the past six months, is that we tried. I’ll never, ever have to look back and wonder, what if? And because of that, I wouldn’t change a thing. 

Fortunately, I quite quickly found a new job, and it’s one that I’m immensely excited about. I recently started work with a leading lifestyle and entertainment English magazine and website in Beijing. As the Web Editor, I get to both live out my mad love for digital while going back to my roots of writing stories.

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My new hipster hutong.

I’ve moved out of my first apartment and deep into one the the famous Beijing hutongs. It’s full of old people and their grandkids, street food, tiny shops, and nooks and crannies. Needless to say, I kind of love it just a little bit.

I don’t know what’s ahead, but I do know for certain that I can take an arrow to the knee a good few hits, and still keep swimming. I’m excited about the uncertainty. I’m making new friends. I have someone. And the future is looking bright.

The dark days are over, and she’s coming up. 

My new crew chilling in da hood.

My new crew chilling in da hood.

TLDR: New job, new house, new fella, new what-the-hell-is-going-on moments.

China Calling [B-Side]: The Dark Days

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It’s been a rough couple of weeks. The excitement of being in a big new city eventually wears off, and real life kicks in; sometimes it kicks you right in the head.

The bigger the city is, the lonelier it gets. Friendships made are often fleeting or intermittent, and you don’t really want to pour your heart out to people you haven’t known for very long. You want to be the fun party girl who people want around, not the girl who’s doing her best to keep it together. And what do you do when you can’t be that girl?

[Edited to remove whiney paragraph about breakup blahblah sadness blahblah no friends in China yet and so on] 

The city gets lonelier the bigger it gets.

I want to stay in Beijing because we could be best friends if we gave each other a chance, and I haven’t given up on her bright lights yet. I want my job to work because I’m really only just getting started and I had/have such great plans for this. I want to be able to trust new friends enough to let them in. And I desperately want to be happy again.

For now I’m keeping my chin up.
Because somewhere in there, there’s still sunshine in her eyes.

L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.
What you don’t have now will come back again
You’ve got heart and you go in your own way

China Calling: A Month in Beijing

It’s been 1 month since I moved to Beijing, and this strange splash of a city has settled quite comfortably into that friend whom you think you know and love, but can never quite count on.

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Sunset from my window.

It doesn’t always pour when it rains, and dramatic thunder, lightning and howling winds are more often than not a few seconds of rain – unless that’s what you expect.

You learn to accept that in restaurants, you’re always served boiling hot water, and then you learn to love it. #HotWaterFTW

There are people who are viciously rude and pushy, and there are people who spend longer than most of us would trying to help, with directions, with company, with their hospitality.

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A 7-course meal by our friend from the bottle shop.

It’s a strange feeling being somewhere where no one knows you, when you come from a place where you meet people you know around every corner. The biggest cities can be the loneliest, and you’re constantly reminded of the importance of who you surround yourself with (and who not to surround yourself with).

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Crazy kids at MIDI Festival.

You start to envy the people who have it in them to hack out a load of phlegm because, with the air pollution here, sometimes you really wish you could.

It’s a city that’s as potentially easy as it is destructive, as I imagine most big cities are. And thus you master the art of holding on to yourself in this moshpit of madness while not missing out on the fun.

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Real life emoji in the subway.

China Calling: Just Go With It

It’s one of those things where the more you know, the more you realise how little you know. Learning a couple of new words in Chinese makes me painfully aware of how far I am from basic competency in the language. And even with some conversational skills, I can’t read a word. Not one. Well, except for 1, 2, 3, but that doesn’t count. I’m constantly impressed by the many expats here who speak, read and write Mandarin.

After a few clearer days, the pollution is back in the Very Unhealthy range. Somehow it always seeps into the flat. Dust settles so quickly in this city; sweeping is an everyday affair. Thinking about children and the elderly is especially sad. How much I whined about the haze in Singapore is now a bit embarrassing to think about; the worst of it would be a relatively clear day here. #perspective

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AQI, not PSI

One thing that the pollution has taught me is why spitting, nose-picking and other such unfavourable habits are so common here. I mean, your nose is always full of stuff. The dust that lines the floor is likely making itself comfortable in your throat. Obviously these things are still frowned upon in Singapore and many other cities, but I sort of understand it now. People have to breathe and all that. So when someone hacks up a nice load of phlegm, it doesn’t bother me much anymore. Just go away from with it.

So far I’ve managed to successfully order vegetarian meals most times, and tried to haggle with a tout for football tickets at the famed Worker’s Stadium. It ended abruptly when I said Wǔshí kwai (50 yuan, SGD5) and was met with Wǔbǎi kwai (500 yuan, SGD50) and much scorn. At least I made everyone laugh. Just go with it. 

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Statues everywhere in the Worker’s Stadium.

 

And, sex shops. Sex shops everywhere.

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Sexytime Appliances.

 

Meanwhile on the streets, in the music, and in the people, bits of rebellion are just around the corner, springing up like stubborn weeds in the Big Smoke that is Beijing.

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Anarchy in the BJ.