On expat life: Home is where your mind is.

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I’ve been in China for 3 years now. Do I miss home? You mean France? No, I don’t miss living in France (the cheese, of course, one never gets over that…). Is Shanghai my home now? I thought so at one point, but the thing is: as an expat, what do you call home?

Last June I went back to France to visit friends and family. Clearly, my love was still there, but my heart was not anymore. It remained beating back in Shanghai. I thought then, home is not home anymore. Home now is Shanghai.

Shanghai, the city that saw me grow and fed me during some of my most formative years. This city took my life by storm, like a hurricane that swooped me from 24 to 27. Before I even had time to kick back and examine the cards life has dealt me I realize that I have already used a few.

Here I’ve met some of the most eclectic, eccentric, smart and ambitious of people, some whom have hugely contributed to who I am now and the values I have chosen to live by. These are all people like me, who see excitement in every horizon, who live off adrenaline and “suck out all the marrow of life”. They see in every person a story, an inspiration, a mentor or a genius, and a person they would happily take out for coffee if they were ever to meet again in their hometown. They are all like family.

We arrived to a foreign place to find that within it there was one big expat community. One where everybody celebrates Thanksgiving even though half don’t know its origin, where people extend Christmas dinner invitations to people they have never met and where people are eager to help each other out sharing tips and life hacks. It is city where people get more easily attached, though their relationship is often shorter-lived. Home was now Shanghai, but I realised that if I were to move tomorrow to Buenos Aires, I would just as quickly say that home WAS Shanghai without batting an eyelid.

Change is ubiquitous here. From the storefronts in the street to the people sharing your flat. People come and go and everybody knows that it is so. Therefore they learn to detach themselves just as easily as they become attached. And after all, this fast-paced lifestyle hardly leaves you any time to breathe, let alone miss a person who’s company is so quickly replaced by three others’. A friend today might be gone tomorrow and a home today may change the next day.

In this world where you speak once a month (through a crappy Skype connection) to your loved ones who are seven time zones away, write a group email to your longtime friends from home once every four months, and live with a set group of friends in which two are swapped out every six months, you are really living mostly with yourself. Those photo frames on the mantel piece and the suitcase full of childhood treasures? They don’t mean shit compared to the home you’ve made in your mind for your memories you revisit at any given moment and time.

And your mind is your fort. Being an expat is a life full of people, events and parties, but it is at the same time one of solitude. You learn to know yourself, curve yourself towards other’s expectations, live with your own mistakes and get back on your feet on your own. You learn to adapt to every situation and become more independent than ever. Your mind becomes strong, souple and resilient. You cope with loss, loneliness, stupidity, everything, more easily and productively. You’ve shaped it to resist all and to protect you.

So for me, home is where my mind is. I’ve built it up, given it character and it is where I keep my life and spend my time. Home is where my mind has been and where it plans to go as well as the memories it keeps. Home is all my experiences along with the emotional imprints that they have left. It’s knowledge and perception of the world around me. It’s my love for my loved-ones.

They say that home is where the heart is, but my heart has been everywhere, and nowhere. It beats in memory of the past and in excitement for the future and along the way it has and will call many places “home”.

No, I think home is where the mind is. And when it dies, then like the body, it returns into the world.

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Hole-y shit!

Have you heard of (or seen) China’s crotchless trousers worn by many of the offspring here? You can get somewhat of an eyeful here.

It can be difficult to sympathize with this supposedly hygiene-friendly attire when it comes bobbing past you during your morning commute, its owner munching on sunflower seeds whose shells he spits out at regular intervals on (near) your shoes…

He puts his dirty hands on the germ-ridden metal pole and weighs himself against it, swinging himself around in circles down to the ground, all the while flaunting his butt-crack through his winter-trousers.

He then reaches into a plastic bag lying on the floor filled with packs of snacks and other purchases and draws out a corn cob with his bare hands which he starts munching on.

Last of all, he clambers onto the seat and turns his back to you, reaching his grubby hand out to caress his ugly reflection in the window. And ta-da! Your breakfast suddenly doesn’t sit the same anymore.

Baby bottom

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The elation of the ‘click’ – old post

Some people go through life without once doubting where they are headed. Glitches don’t deter them; it’s just what they gotta do.

There is a reason Bill Gates dropped out of school. He knew, felt something much deeper guide his gut instinct, something so powerful and strong that although he might not have been aware of it, he was just doing what he had to do.

I had a friend in high school who would always compile CDs for us and force us to listen to them; he would vehemently reproach us for listening to certain bands and would always be the one to deal with playlists at parties. Surprise surprise, he is today a DJ/music critic/writer and I don’t think he ever stopped once to think “what shall I do?”, he just… did, everything just ‘clicked’.

To have that innate ‘click’ is what I have envied of many for the past few years. To have that invisible guiding hand which silently dictates to you what to do. That gut instinct that makes you fierce in all your endeavours and steady in your next step because you know what you want and even when your road might be barred by small failures, disappointments and rejections, you know you simply have to pursue this until you succeed because this is what you’ve gotta do. Others who can’t see as far down the road put their whole world into question, doubt their capacities and re-evaluate themselves at every turn.

I was sitting in Taksim square two years ago and had my most memorable conversation with my two travel friends. We had been walking all day in Istanbul under the golden sun, seen some beautiful sights and been down some dark alleyways before finding the perfect spot to sit and have mint tea. I remember life was all around us; people were yapping happily and throwing themselves backwards laughing and slapping their knees.

At the time, we had just finished our studies: one of us in the arts, another in philosophy, and myself in literature. We hardly had an idea of what we wanted to do with our lives, sitting there in the afternoon shade. The French have a phrase for what we were doing: “refaire le monde” which literally translates as “redoing the world”. None of us knew exactly what we wanted to do although we all knew we had a drive. We felt excited about the life in front of us though unsure of what it would be. We all knew we lived in a world of possibilities yet there was a paradox of choice. We talked about our worries and shared our ideas; we opened up all the possibilities and discussed their limitations; we marched out of our own bodies and looked at our lives in all their meaningfulness.

Here is the conclusion we reached: “On est riche quand même, hélas!” which means “We are rich anyways, alas!” and we ended our thoughts on the note that whatever we do, whatever we become, the three of us are rich inside with emotions, thoughts, intellect and everything that made this conversation be. We have had more luck in our lives than billions of others just from our place of birth and access to meaningful thinking. We are grateful. We are rich. We wrote it down and signed on it.

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Today I still look back on that conversation with great emotion because it was such a moment of sharing and understanding. It was a click and it was elating. It was realizing how much we were living life as much as we were projecting it, how much we had going for us amidst all the existential doubt. Always believe in what you have to give.

I have recently experienced another click. Having decided on a radical change in career, I sent out dozens of cover letters and résumés to different companies earlier this week and received a beautifully written email from an editor for a major travel company.

In my cover letter, I speak of my “joie de vivre” and this man began his reply with this line: “Your joie de vivre has piqued my interest!”. His reply, the personality that poured through it and the ensuing conversation altogether profoundly marked me for many reasons.

One was that I admired the formulation of his sentences greatly; they were beautifully worded and made me hungry for his professional company. People see work of famous artists or businessmen and take them up as their idols. Funnily enough, for me it is this unknown editor who has struck a chord in me. The personality pushing through the text simply appealed to me and made me crave him as a mentor. “Teach me, make me you!” was the thought that crossed my mind!

Furthermore, I was simply shown that taking this kind of initiative pays off. The common knowledge that if you sell yourself at the opportune moment you may just be lucky has been proven to me.

This encounter has simply opened my eyes and made me more focused on my direction. For the stated reasons and some other trigger I can’t explain, I just felt happy and want to meet him and talk to him: I want to be an editor.

For some therefore, life is a well sign-posted road. For others, it is the random alleyways that appear abruptly along the way that take you forward. But it is all about the ‘clicks’ that help you make sense of your life and how you are linked with the world. For some they may be self-triggered but for others they appear in the form of people but for all, the elation that ensues – as one feels when seeing the elephant in the room – is priceless.

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The 26-year itch.

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The raving 20s. Not that wild decade where Paris was the literati center of the world and Shanghai that of expatriate decadence—no, I’m talking about that stage of life that is like no other in terms of how different the mindset you have entering it is from that which you attain before moving into your thirties.

For many, marriage happens, babies happen, taking out a loan and moving into a house happens as well as settling into a comfortable job. And then, hopefully, you live the rest of your life happily ever after trying to avoid divorce and late payments.

When I was younger, I remember being told after a bad break up “Don’t worry, if he’s the right one, your paths will meet again. If you don’t, it just wasn’t meant to be”. Destiny, what a nice concept. We’re made to believe that bricks just fall into place along that path of life that we follow, but they don’t. Consciously or unconsciously, we pick every one.

We are basically the sum of our choices and whatever that sum is before 26, there is still loads of time to change the variables. Actually, life is probably amazing during that time because it seems to do the math for you. When you’re in college or stepping into your first job, the cards never seem to be completely in your hands. 26 seems to be around the time you realize that they are: you are dealing them and the way you do will determine whether you win or lose. You must start thinking strategy and worse, predicting  and accommodating the future.

I have always followed a mixture of gut feeling and pragmatism, with the former often taking over unless the latter came up with a damn good reason not to. Trying new things, flying to new places, hooking up with people because why not, everything is an experience. If you fail at something, that’s the way you learn. The now is my playground and I enjoy my non future-proof life.

But 26 seems to be the turning point for that attitude. Of course we continue to learn from our mistakes until the end of our lives, but we cannot fly into choices anymore with the same amount of thought we gave them when we were 20. Everything from our retirement plan to our wrinkles need to be calculated.

I suck at weighing choices, it cripples me. My gut feeling has always been my guiding hand and although spontaneity is often associated with a sort of foolhardiness and recklessness, it is what makes me feel most alive and I believe we are able to mix in a sufficient dose of rationality and know where the line is. As I come to terms with the fact that I must begin to shoulder more responsibility at the expense of my carefree spirit, I already feel nostalgic for the spontaneity thats results from a short-lived meandering between possibilities.

26 seems to inject you with a heavy dose of maturity. Everybody around you seems to be keeping you in check with what you should be worried about. But I don’t want to have to think about my life in 5 years time in order to make decisions for its course today. I don’t want to stick to a job because it means something to employers to have over 2 years experience with a same company. I don’t want to start thinking about the money I should put aside every month so that I don’t find myself miserable and poor in my old age. I don’t want to start slapping creams on my face because if I don’t it will fall off in ten years. And I don’t want to enter my romantic relationships thinking of how well we will grow old together and what life we can give our (argh!) offsprings before I even know his last name.

I get it, we need to become more pragmatic because our choices will affect our future more strongly. Everything must start moving in a straight line and upwards because if at 30-35 you’re still an unsettled jack-of-all-trades, you’ll probably go onto a list of undesirables on the job market (and let’s not even talk about that other list of undesirables you’re afraid of landing on when you’ve crossed the 30 mark.)

What is the solution then if you simply want the adventure to continue and not let this maturity requisition hit you like a warp? I don’t want to have to settle on a trade yet. I like what I do but it’s not about what I do, it’s about what I don’t do. It’s about the grass is always greener somewhere else and wanting to jump the fence even if you know you might jump straight back. But I’ll never be basking in the sun in this backyard if I haven’t seen for myself that there are no better backyards elsewhere to bask in!

I do like security, but only of a steady income. Yet I now need to consider whether my 35-year old self will be happy with my 26-year old decisions.

There is no “meant to be” and the path I walk down is a path I lay for myself. Somehow the full meaning of this hits home only now. The irreversibility maybe?

One way or another, life is telling me I must learn to weigh my options with more consideration for the future and I will do so, whilst making sure to leave the door open for the impromptu.

There you have it, my 26-year itch. The realization that another life is starting: the one where the future is always present and not as a mere inherent existence, but rather as a looming consequence. Bloody Blake’s Innocence turning to Experience.

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Education is everything.

It's never too early!

It’s never too early!

Outside a busy metro station.

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Reason 1 for growing out your pinky nail (CLICK on his pinky).

Man ear-picking with long pinky nail on metro. Yummy,

Man ear-picking with long pinky nail on metro. Yummy,

So I’m learning how to make GIFs!

Click on the Chinese man.

I’m trying to add text and match the frames but knowing me and how good I am at this stuff, it’s going to take time! Patience! I still think this still illustrates the point though.

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(Not quite) Embracing Chinese culture.

I met a person the other day who posed me an interesting question. Upon learning that I spoke Chinese, he asked me if I’d ever had a Chinese boyfriend whilst I was here. When I said no, he asked me why and when I responded that I simply wasn’t interested in Chinese men I was further pushed to justify, so I said it was mainly because Chinese men were culturally too different from me. He then asked me, but how is it you feel so removed from this culture yet you are half Chinese and speak the language?

This got me thinking. It is true that I have all the tools to embrace this culture, yet after nearly two years living here and though I appreciate the culture, respect it and to a certain extent understand it, I still feel incapable of connecting with it.

To the person I was talking to, speaking the language seemed key to embracing the culture and breaking down the cultural barrier. This is undeniable, but the two are not inherent.

Indeed, language is a means of communication, which is the first step to understanding, which in turn leads open minds to acceptance. But when it comes to cultural differences, communication and understanding are separate if we understand “understanding” as “embracing”. I understand and even appreciate (some aspects) of Chinese culture, but I have not embraced it and have trouble thinking I ever will.

Recently, I rekindled my relationship with art, which I had somewhat lost touch with here through disappointments with the art scene and the lack of people to share the experience with.

This recent reconnection with art served as a contrast with the disconnection I felt with Chinese culture in an interesting interplay of connection and disconnection through communication.

Art is expressed through a medium everybody can relate to, but an ensuing connection between the artist and the viewer relies a lot on interpretation, on a pre-established mutual understanding, vision, and mindset. Everybody has access to art, but not everybody feels a connection to it.

When I used to live in Paris, I loved the art scene. I thoroughly enjoyed strolling and immersing myself in the exhibitions at Beaubourg, Orsay or the Grand Palais. They would change my mindset, reconnect my nerves and senses in new ways. Why? Because they spoke to me and I fed off them.

During my last visit to Paris, a retrospective of Dali was on at Beaubourg. I happened to attend it at the same time as many tours were being conducted; university professors and art historians could be overheard explicating defining points about the works and giving many insights that even I, having studied the Surrealists and being familiar with Dali’s work, found truly enlightening.

Amongst other things, I marveled at the way Dali was able to exteriorize his paranoia and perhaps related, not to the paranoia, but simply to the need of exteriorization. However slight, this was a form of connection.

Art is such a personal form of expression that it allows a true connection between the artist and the onlooker through a medium that is a language in its own right after all. Whether the connection is slight or overwhelming, it derives from the sharing of some sort of wavelength.

This sharing is essential when communicating, through language or through art; the sensation that the drift of your message has been caught by your interlocutor without you having managed to word your thoughts exactly is exalting and brings about a closeness. Without this, the interaction is void of connection.

The same way two people from a same culture share many “non-dits” (things that do not need explicating) as part of their shared cultural background, in art, things can resonate with you simply because you recognize and interpret them as something you are familiar with, something you can relate to.

We can interact in the same language but not be aware of the volume of associations that these interactions contain, the same way a painting may have a thousand things to say but not every onlooker will grasp the thousand messages.

With the majority of Chinese I interact with, I feel like the more you try to use language to explain things, the more it complicates things because on top of associative misinterpretations (word choice, tone…) you either realize their beliefs actually go against your own, or that you are not using language in the same way, i.e. they are using language in a roundabout way to sell themselves as something they are not whilst you are trying to extract a personal opinion.

So it’s not about the language, it’s cultural. Of course, knowing the language raises the curtain on something otherwise quite unknown, but what the curtain reveals does not change and ultimately, it’s your cultural background that will decide whether you embrace what you find behind it, not your understanding of the language. Either you discover the message and like it, or you discover it and don’t, but learning a language is not inherent with embracing a culture, it simply opens up the possibility of doing so.

So, in my case the curtain has been raised, and with it a new light has been shed on my perception of Chinese culture, and though I have a far better understanding of it and even an appreciation of it, I have not embraced it.

I understand that because of China’s history and its recent boom, money here is of essence and wealth defines a person; I understand that brands are a means to promote that wealth and are to be sought after for this reason. I also understand that face is of utmost importance and to be saved at all cost and why a woman who drinks and smokes is not quite acceptable. I understand that it’s not a big deal to shove someone in the ribs for a place on the metro or that slamming a door in your face doesn’t require an apology. I understand that hygiene is about exuding what is “unclean” from our body even if that means into or onto somebody else’s. I understand family is family and not always ‘friend’, ethics are often a mirage and tact is but a concept.

I do, I really do understand how all these cultural characteristics came to be and I understand that each culture has its differences. And I’m in no way trying to posit Chinese culture as worse or better than others, I have come to accept it, but I simply cannot embrace these traits. Unlike with art where understanding can lead to embrace, here I just feel no connection.

I do not wish to generalize to a whole population either and I do have the most interesting Chinese friends here whom I adore, but in my eyes, though they are Chinese, they display very ‘foreign’ traits, or they are Taiwanese… so I cannot really say that I have true Chinese friends who have not been extensively exposed to foreign cultures.

As for having a Chinese boyfriend, like I said to begin with, I understand, appreciate and respect the culture, but I’m simply not able to embrace it.

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