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Uchechi

U: Tell me about how you started writing.

T: I think it’s because I read a lot of books as a child, and became so immersed in these stories. Then came the day when I thought, “hey, why can’t I write my own?”

U: So, what do you feel was on your mind when you wrote this story?

T: Seeing things from a different perspective. Because you don’t normally see stealing as a positive thing, but because my character is a pickpocket, he thinks what he’s doing is right, and he’s the happiest person in the story.

U: Right! I love that line in the story where he’s trying to sell newspapers, then he puts it back “where it belongs”, then pulls out the tickets he stole.

T: (laughs) That was really fun for me to write, because I was imagining those epic scenes in the movies…

U: It’s always quite sinister!

T: Yeah, exactly, but this character, he doesn’t realize what he’s doing is causing anyone harm. He’s very young, innocent, and playful, so he doesn’t realize the negative impact of what he’s doing. He just pillages things for his own amusement.

AN Elementary School Teacher

Interviewer: Do you think stealing plays a big role in this child’s life?

T: Definitely, I would even say it’s a really important character trait of the child, because it’s what sets him apart from everyone else in the story.

I: I have a similar phenomenon: I once stole a pair of earrings from a store, and I told my mom very proudly, so I was confused when she yelled at me. Today, from my point of view, stealing isn’t a bad thing, but for parents, it’s a bigger deal.

T: Yeah, I feel like for parents it’s their responsibility to educate us to not do bad things. There’s a social taboo associated with stealing, but this child doesn’t realize, because he doesn’t realize the value of the things he’s stealing; it’s just for his amusement and survival. Even when the man in the pawnshop warns him against it, he doesn’t listen and even steals from him. Really makes you see things in a different light.

 

Jane, 11th Grader at Western Academy of Beijing

J: So, are you interested in pickpocketing?

T: (laughs) I wouldn’t say I’m a professional stealer, but I don’t view it as such a bad thing, compared to the rest of society. I once I stole a clothes hanger from American Eagle just because it was funny.

J: What do you think about people like Robin Hood?

T: Even though he steals, he’s painted as the hero, because the author choses to justify the reasons for his crimes as something for the greater good. I bet in the rich people’s eyes, he’s painted as a thief and a barbarian. Robin Hood has a greater purpose for his stealing, though. My character, on the other hand, just steals for his own amusement because he never grew up.

J: So your boy, he’s kind of like a modern day Peter Pan?

T: Yeah, I guess so, that’s a really interesting take!

J: Especially for your personal phase of life, Neverland may seem pretty nice.

T: True! The whole teenage, coming-of-age part of your life is where you suddenly never want to grow up, so the piece is kind of nostalgic in a way, because as I near adulthood, I want to hold onto that child piece of me.

Mia – 9th Grader at Hope International School

M: Do you have any feedback for people interested in writing?

T: I would suggest, whenever you feel strongly about anything, whether it’s a social issue, or a memory, or a feeling, or an idea, just write it down! Inspiration stems from our own uniqueness.

M: I want to start writing in Chinese, but I’m not that good at the language. Any tips?

T: That’s so great! I haven’t done a lot of creative pieces in Chinese before either, but it’s definitely a beautiful language that lends itself especially to descriptive writing. Chinese has many key phrases that are used to describe certain landscapes, so try to learn a few of these by reading Chinese prose. If it’s difficult at first, you can also try writing the story first in English, then translating it to Chinese.

 
 

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.”
 

 
 

This is Zoe Zhu, Zhu Mingxuan. I chose my English name myself because the meaning of “Zoe” is life. Just like my name, I am an exuberant girl who is passionate about everything. I love Chinese traditional culture, sports, and reading. Traveling around the world is my dream, because my father always tells me that life is to experience.

 
 
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When I was little, I wanted to be like my father when I grew up.

My dad is a traveler, an adventurer. He is always quiet and calm in appearance, wearing a pair of thick glasses and devoting his attention to electronic devices. Yet no one knows his next destination. The plans he devises for traveling are always full of risk: once he drove the car twelve hours in one day in order to get to his next stop; he slept in the car when he got lost in a forest where there were wild wolves and bears; he climbed up to the Everest Base Camp alone and stayed overnight in the freezing cold. He devises each plan and carries out the expedition all by himself. I always want to join him, but the answer is always, “You are too young, and it is too dangerous.”

He is the kind of person who is cold in appearance, but has a fire deep in his heart. There is always a fire inside of him—for passion, for life.

In trying to trace his steps, I don’t know where I lost track of him and deviated from the path. Where has that brave, positive, exuberant girl gone? Maybe it was the pain of growing up. I found of myself becoming the kind of person I least wanted to be. I hate Holden in the Catcher in the Rye for his cynical nature, complaining about everything, avoiding difficulties, and escaping from routine life. However, I became him on my 17th birthday. I escaped.

I devised a plan for my escape for a whole month. Starting from my first childhood memory, I drew dots on a map: from my kindergarten, the place I picked up guzheng, my instrument, for the first time, my primary school, the place I learned Kunqu Opera…

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When I stopped by my old kindergarten, listening to the laughter of the kids, I found a lot of parents just standing there outside the gate. They did nothing, just stood there and listened. I wondered if my grandparents had done the same, even though they could not see any kids. I was the trouble-maker who never cried but got into trouble. I sat there laughing, thinking of the strong-willed and naughty little Zoe.

Next I rode my bike to the place where I picked up the guzheng for the first time. Starting at the age of four, and until now, I can’t remember how many times I cried, how many times I drove my parents mad. My first practice book was torn up into pieces by my father for wasting time in order not to play it, but the second book was broken by turning the pages so many times, practicing so hard. It was the instrument that helped me overcome my stage-fright, giving me courage and pride.

By the time I stood in front of the old building where I learned Kunqu Opera, seeing the faded color of the walls and the broken windows, my memories all came back to me—of practicing in the freezing cold, weeping as my teacher punished me. But if my teacher never did that, I would never have performed on big stages, smiling proudly and realizing that passion is the reason I insist.

The last stop was my grandparents’ gravestones. The moment I knelt down at the tomb, I burst into tears. I told them all the misfortunes that fell upon me. I know they were there with me as if I could hear their comfort, see their smiles, feel their support for me. That was the best gift I got on that birthday. I never lost them. I am always beloved.

When I was sitting at the dinner table back home, I was 17, and the brave, positive, exuberant girl was back. Those places, like dots in my life, shaped me. I still have courage, passion, and love. I began to understand Holden. We are curious about things when we grow up, but we are still young. We want to keep our childish curiosity, but we grow up. Maybe that is the reason why my father became an independent traveler. Cold outside, but I know he is building his own fairy tale in his mind.

My mom said, I am becoming the younger version of my father. I am back.