My affair with a city

November 20, 2017

October 2017 marks the 7 year anniversary of returning to Australia after almost a decade travelling the world. Like many travellers I had adventures, met interesting people, had my heart broken, learnt a whole lot more about humanity and came “home.” That home, I decided was Sydney – the city where I had grown up, the city I had been running away from. Then to my shock, I happened to land a book deal in order to detail the high and low points in  The Good Girl of Chinatown, which took me 5 years to write.

As many of you know, The Good Girl of Chinatown was published this year – and amidst the sheer relief and incredulity and activity of it all – I suddenly felt a terrible sense of emptiness. You see, all that time writing and remembering and reliving had kept me psychologically tethered to that time and place. Sure, my body was no longer there but my soul never left, thanks to the long term task I had taken on of memorialising not just a city, but of the person I was in that city.

I knew I had to go back to recalibrate my contemporary relationship with Shanghai, and the past. It’s one thing to sit at a desk and work it out in your head over a period of time, it’s another thing be immersed immediately in the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures of the thing that you call your muse, the well from which your best stories have sprung.

So last month, I packed my bags and set forth. I have heard many people say that Shanghai is a different city to the one I write about between 2008-2010. Which is to be expected considering that city’s infamously dizzying rate of change. But they say that the city has become more mature and regulated these days. More like a grown-up than a crazy teenager whose anarchic impulses kept the adrenalin junkies in us hanging onto the joyride even as we visibly careened into disaster.

Then again, one’s relationship with a city is just like any other relationship – entirely dependent on what you bring to it, and how history projects itself through perspective. I’m sure I’m not unique in this experience. Have you noticed that different cities bring out different parts of who you are too?

 

Perhaps it’s not the city itself that has kept me beholden to its spell, but the part of me that felt safe to come out. Not the “good girl” I had been conditioned to be, someone that could safely fit into the model minority box. But someone infinitely more complex, wild and susceptible to as dizzying rates of change as the city itself . Someone I had to know, before I could even begin to sit down and contemplate writing the ‘truth’ of who I am, as a memoir demands.
It’s been 7 years. And now I know, I’ll still always have Shanghai.

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