Carving a New Self Abroad
On my Present Day
Being in Beijing, I often get praised by people back in Spain for being able to live alone so far away from home. They can imagine China as a place for brief adventure, but not as a place to stay for so long. It’s too foreign. They see it as uprooting, and so they think I am brave. The truth is that I am but one of many foreigners, Spaniards and otherwise, living by themselves in a city home to well over 21 million people. Listening to the stories of those around me, I am reminded of how lucky I am to live in Beijing. I still belong proudly to my own roots, but the diversity that I find here is simultaneously inspiring and humbling. It helps me learn to perceive my own narrative as still valid but no longer dominant.
Most importantly, though, returning to Beijing for work has been a chance to reconnect with creative aspirations that have long been a key part of myself but had become a dead weight. In the last two years, I have resumed my writing and discovered new possibilities in the form of drawing and photography. I am definitely not the early genius I once dreamt of being. However, I am exploring my potential as a creator, having fun at it and using the process to reflect on myself under a different lens.
On Being Able to Engage with Culture (and Losing Touch with It)
As a child, I discarded plenty of outlandish career interests, but the idea of becoming a writer stuck with me. In my mind, it meant producing what I loved most –books. Likewise, the photographs of my favourite authors on the back covers appealed to what was then a vague, imprecise wish of not wanting to go through life unnoticed.
My love of literature was indeed encouraged by my family. They ensured I had plenty of books within reach, trusting my reading choices with minimal supervision and honouring my curiosity whenever I picked titles that were not aimed towards children. When I started writing my first pages, they kept them like the precious souvenirs of a precocious child. They told me I could become whatever I set my mind to –even a writer.
Reality, of course, would turn out to be more complicated. My expectations of becoming a wunderkind of the written word were certainly too large for real life. My gift for writing lasted me through a couple of contests and then, suddenly, seemed to disappear almost entirely. It would be hard to pinpoint why. Maybe because by then I was a teenager –forcibly pushed out of childhood, and awkwardly navigating changes in every aspect of my life. Whatever the reason was, my efforts to write during those years were fruitless. I would be too ambitious, or I would mistake wordiness for good prose, or I would fail to keep enough distance from what I wrote. I hardly finished anything, and I got increasingly frustrated.
Likewise, growing older also meant being gradually imbued with the typical ‘realism at all costs’ mindset destined to turn children into cogs of the system’s wheel. In our societies, there is often very little room for a compromise between reality and dreams. The message I got as I approached my final year of high-school and throughout my university years was clear –writing, if I ever resumed it, was a nice hobby, but it was not a realistic career path, and that was my priority. Life grew busier and more complicated by the minute and its challenges exacerbated my competitiveness and perfectionism. Writing-wise, I gradually went out of shape as each day passed by. The problem was also that I didn’t really know any kindred souls in my hometown. I never found any sort of writing communities there, and I did not have the self-confidence and leading spirit necessary to found my very own, nor were there many opportunities to do so. From the weird, outcast kid at school to the awkward, equally unpopular teenage girl, and even as a college student, I never had the chance to belong to a group of people who wrote.
Upon graduation, I worked briefly in the United Kingdom –a year of which a large period was defined by a fairly intense solitude that I mitigated by reading but in which I had no mental energy left to write. In fact, I focused on leaving for China as soon as I had the chance, which finally happened in 2013. From then until 2015, I immersed myself in Beijing and studied Mandarin intensively. I was happy, but at that point I was writing less than ever– in fact, I barely had time to read. As it happens for the majority of adults, culture had become to me something that I consumed and enjoyed in my free time in a variety of forms, but not something I produced or that I was an active part of.
In 2015, I finished my study stay in Beijing and tried to find a job so that I could stay but failed. I had to return to Spain, straight into unemployment. Without a fixed plan, I was worried sick that I would find myself stuck in my own country, at a moment where we were still undergoing a severe economic crisis, when I felt it was not the time to go back just yet. I did quite a few things that year, all of them out of resilience and some being real, solid outlets for me. I applied to lots of places, including my current job. I kept studying Chinese. I took Japanese lessons, a dream that I had never been able to afford to pursue. I started volunteering for Our Shared Shelf, a feminist book club that marked the beginning of my awakening to gender and social justice issues, topics that have ultimately helped me face my self-esteem issues and challenge the world I live in. I started writing articles on a miscellanea of cultural topics for a Spanish magazine called Le Miau Noir –the only one that gave me, a nobody, the chance to publish when other magazines had not even bothered to answer my emails. Even then, I did not write a word of fiction. I seemed to be quietly yet permanently locked out of something that felt very precious to me nonetheless.
Creativity works differently for everybody. In my case, as it turned out, it seems to be grounded in my own wellness, as well as to a sense of belonging to a community. When I returned to Beijing for a job that would prove to be highly rewarding and fulfilling, I regained my sense of worth and purpose, a world away from home. Working in the field of cultural management from an institutional point of view gave me access to a side of Beijing that I had never seen. However, there is even more culture hidden at the underground level, nestled in the hutong, flying relatively under the radar at speakeasies, cafes, and bars. Because of the stability I was enjoying again, I was able to seek it. Because I was familiar to Beijing, I was able to find it.
On Being my Own Next to Others
It’s been two years since that journey began. It took a turn of luck –a giveaway that earned me a place at a workshop with Australian poet Zohab Zee Khan in November 2016. I remember very little of what I wrote that day at the workshop, something about consciousness resembling a slippery fish. I do remember Zohab’s honesty and warmth in sharing his own journey as an author and his encouragement that we made space in our lives, if only a tiny window, to actually write. Much to my surprise, other attendees revealed to me that there were, in fact, local writing communities regularly meeting in Beijing –only a Wechat friend request away.
It took a leap of faith. First came the lonely winter evenings after clocking off, stumbling my way through Andingmen to attend the open mic fiction nights that a local collective named Spittoon held at a pub full of kittens in Langjia Hutong. Go, take a seat, smile, listen to the readers’ roster, hope that someone would notice me in the break, stay unnoticed, rush to the subway and back home, rinse and repeat. Eventually I dared to stand on the stage myself, reading flash fiction that I had written directly in English instead of my mother tongue. The round of applause that welcomed me lacked, I believed, the enthusiasm that enveloped some regular readers. Still I persevered, and started to talk to people during the break, and after a while, somebody guided me to the monthly meetings of the Beijing Writers Network at Café Zarah, in Guloudajie.
Soon enough, everything and everyone became connected. I distinguished the open mic nights from the evenings around a big farm table by the different purposes they served –sharing words with an audience versus looking for writing feedback—, and I kept attending both as much as I could. Friends were made. Words started to trickle in. Life went on at all fronts of my daily existence in Beijing.
It’s been two years, and the way I have navigated the community that I was in such a desperate need for throughout this period is interesting to me. A significant part of my personal growth has continued to rely on my job, with my social and personal skills growing parallel to my responsibilities. My efforts to resume my writing have yet to bloom into a consistent production, something that I partially blame myself for, as I tend to gravitate between one too many interests. I have come to know the sting of magazines rejecting my stories, but I am also finally no stranger to the thrill that comes from seeing your name printed on a page.
During all of this, I have been next to others –fellow wishful writers and friends, many of them highly accomplished and having published way more than I, some of them having even gone on to pursue an MFA. They have supported me, praised my work and inspired me to strive for my own best. Standing next to them, however, and most times at no fault of their own, I have sometimes felt less-than, insignificant, irrevocably behind – embarrassingly delayed. People come up with the activities and communities that you merely join, croons a tiny inner voice. Surely they don’t mean what good they say. Surely they will eventually catch on to the fraud you are.
It’s called the imposter syndrome, and I have heard it is a maladie that women can be particularly prone to, although I cannot tell for certain just how much it is tied to my gender in my case. The imposter syndrome feels like wearing an article of clothing that is too big for my frame and that I therefore feel the constant need to adjust, to downsize. The article of clothing is any praise on my accomplishments, the frame is my own self-esteem, far too often diminished by my constant self-doubt. It has taken me my whole life to track its origins and detect its effects on my behaviour. It saddens me to think that it surely played a part in my creativity halt.
It occurs to me that when you are able to dissect negative feelings and talk openly about your issues, you are at least halfway to coming out and over them. Nowadays, I battle my shadows of inadequacy by reminding myself of how much I have accomplished and worked so hard for. I make an effort to opt out of an insecurity that was tinged with mistrust and pride, and try to believe in the kind words of my many friends and acquaintances instead. I try to reassess myself and those who are around me, as well as the structures and systems in which we exist —their good and their bad, their strengths and their shortcomings.
On my Future Self
As I near the end of my twenties, I cannot help but wonder what will become of me in the next few years. Which are the milestones that are expected of me, and which are those that I actually wish to hit? I do not feel a pressing urge to settle down, but I do believe I need to keep a certain balance. The world seems to keep hitting our millennial heads over with an uncomfortable truth –life cannot always be what we want it to, some dreams are bound not to become reality. As I have grown older, I have begrudgingly begun to accept that this is, indeed, a price that we pay for being alive.
However, I refuse more than ever to voluntarily give up on anything that I truly desire. If life is indeed going to come at me, it will find me ready to claim as much as I can, and when it takes something away from me, I will still find myself with plenty left. The places I have yet to reach, the languages that I want to master. My professional career, the body of writing that I want to develop. The photography with which I try to capture moments of a city that stirs a feeling of wonder in me even after four full years. My incipient drawing skills that have enabled me yet another creative outlet –the feeling of discovering something new that I have yet to attach any excessive expectations to.
The words above are a statement of intentions to my future self, a mantra worth abiding to. However, I also want to remind myself that these are all meant to help make me happy. I acknowledge the risks of losing the reason that made you pursue something in the first place to ambition and the trap of productivity and success. I have sought perfection and I couldn’t find it anywhere, not even within myself. Instead, I carry with me the core of who I am and the promise of who I can become. It feels exciting –it feels enough.