Tina Sang has always had a craving for change.
Growing up in a tiny city in northern Michigan, she was surrounded by people who had lived in the same place for generations. Her neighbours were content with the Podunk corner of the Podunk city they had been born in—indeed, most lived out their entire lives without ever even leaving the neighbourhood. At school, her friends didn’t dream of travelling to exotic countries; they dreamed of going to college somewhere close by and then sensibly settling down.
“It was the middle-of-nowhere town,” she says. “And they were going to be stuck there for their entire lives.”
Like any child, she began to long for what she lacked most—excitement. At age three, sent on a dreary family vacation to Montessori, she grabbed a pair of scissors and sliced the carpet to shreds. “I also cut up my hair,” she adds with a touch of embarrassment. “And my friend’s hair. It was very Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” In third grade, she “discovered the magic of swearwords” and amused herself by composing notes so long and profane that she was sent to the principal’s office with a warning. Later, she began play-acting as other people, acting out strange and exciting lives conjured up in her incessant imagination. “I used to pretend I was a royal lady whenever I wore the colour purple,” she confides. “Life was boring. I think I just needed to be someone else for a while.”
These small acts of rebellion, however, began to bore her. She began to seek escape in another way—through her writing. Her first pieces include a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk, a fable about a time-travelling explorer, a science fiction about element-bending siblings from another planet—fanciful stories as far-fetched and radically different from her own life as she could possibly make them. “It was hardly New York Times bestselling material,” she comments sardonically. “But, you know, I liked to imagine myself as my characters. I wanted to be someone who had actually experienced something.”
Then, when she was eleven, she moved from Michigan to Beijing.
It was the escape she had been envisioning for years. The speed at which her life had turned upside down left her almost whiplashed—for the first time, she was in a major city, attending an international school, living shoulder to shoulder with people from a blend of drastically different cultures. The strange new city (more than ten times the size of her hometown) was a source of endless fascination for her. Even the parts that most expats turned up their nose at (public bathrooms, smog, constant crushing crowds) made her excited and intrigued. When I ask her what her first impression of Beijing were, she raves.
“The opportunities! The energy! The feeling like you could achieve anything! It’s the best of two worlds, both modern and progressive, both past and future.”
“So you adjusted quickly?”
“Absolutely! My Chinese skills improved, and hey, I made friends. I was basically a chameleon.”
Her life had undergone a total paradigm shift. Her passion for writing, though, had stayed constant—in fact, the next few years were the most creatively productive of her life. She has identified one particular piece as being among her best works: a short novella about a teenage girl who escapes from life in a small town and embarks on a journey of self-discovery across the globe. Although the small town in question is situated in Inner Mongolia, not Michigan, it’s not hard to find pieces of autobiography scattered across her stories. “I still tend to picture myself as my characters,” she confesses. “I think I’ll always do that.”
“So you’ll still be writing in the future?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to settle down, I want to be one of those people who switches countries around every two months. I want to be happy…”
“But you don’t want to settle down?”
“Well.” She smiles. “You can’t be happy in the same place forever.”