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.”

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Does the future excite you?

JJ Lim doesn’t remember her home country.

She moved to Beijing when she was six months old, she explains, and the few memories she has of her hometown of Kuala Lumpur are blurry at best. She suffers the kind of fractured national identity that plagues most third culture children—She’s Malaysian, but doesn’t really feel like it. She doesn’t sound like it either, speaking instead in a fluent mishmash of foreign accents she picked up from the international school where she attends as a senior. Talking to me about how different Beijing is from Malaysia, how distanced she feels from her past, and how inauthentic she sometimes fears her heritage is, she almost sounds apologetic.

“It’s a crisis,” she says. “Sometimes when I go back to Malaysia I feel culture shocked, like they’re two different worlds.”

She goes on to observe that this loss of identity is common among children of expats. Most of them live almost nomadically, travelling across countries or even continents, accustomed to constantly reassembling their lives in new places. For them, having their home uprooted is a habit. When I ask her whether she thinks this is an advantage, she hesitates for a long time.

“We move around a lot,” she replies finally. “Our general outlook on the world is more open, but at the same time, third culture is something that really shapes you as a person.”

It’s no surprise, therefore, that JJ’s sense of personal identity isn’t based on her nationality. She isn't anchored by a country or a passport, but instead by the comfort and familiarity of her writing.

Growing up, she had a sister who illustrated, aunts who wrote children’s books, a family in which art was handed down from generation to generation. When she speaks about memories which to another child might seem goofy—starting a band with her sisters, singing songs while her dad accompanied on guitar—she sounds solemn and reverent.

“That happiest memory I have of my childhood,” she says, “is sitting around the dinner table drawing in my sketchpad with my sisters.”

She shows me her collection of amateur art. Among it is a sketch of the Little Mermaid, an elaborate blueprint of her dream house (containing Disneyland in the basement), and, much to her mortification, her magnum opus—a huge and lovingly crafted portrait of Shrek.

“I spent hours getting the proportions right,” she laughs. “But now I really cringe when I look at that stuff.”

Her writing is more precocious. JJ has always been an avid author—she writes whenever inspiration strikes, dashing down ideas in hurried voice memos or in the margins of notebooks. She estimates her work to be “in the hundreds”. Her first formal collection of poems was compiled in middle school, a series of Dr. Seuss-inspired limericks that she recalls spending dozens of hours painstakingly picking out illustrations for.

“My art’s going to be what I want it to be,” she pronounces solemnly. “You’re putting in a little piece of yourself into it. It’s very intimate. When you write, you’re slowing down and capturing the moment.”

She pauses, profoundly. Then she bursts out laughing.

“Oh my god, I’m sorry! That sounded really cheesy, didn’t it?”

The truth is, she isn’t very concerned with capturing the moment. Instead, her thoughts mostly revolve around the future—her first short stories were mostly left unfinished, due to her habit of abandoning them halfway through to pursue a newer, better idea. “I was always thinking about all the things I’d rather be doing,” she recalls. “I still do that. Whether those things will be accomplished is, I guess, up to me.”

“Does the future excite you?”

“Oh, definitely. At the moment, I’ve got all these deadlines and an overload of academics. I feel like my life is stagnating. But when I graduate, I think, I’ll have more time for writing, and for music. I have this concept of what everything will be like…”

She trails off. “Well, it’s just a concept,” she repeats. “Not a plan. I remember my sister said, who thought it was a good idea to let a seventeen-year-old decide their whole lives? I didn’t use to understand, but I do now.”

“Are you scared?”

She laughs.


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