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Wednesday, March 9, 2011


The Shanghai Dolls Book Club is reading two selections represented at the Shanghai Literary Festival for April (Emma Donoghue's Room) & May (Chris Tsiolkas's The Slap). This week, we went together to listen to see Emma Donoghue speak.

Donoghue's latest novel Room is about a woman who is kidnapped & held prisoner in a backyard shed for seven years. The story is told from the perspective of her five-year-old son, born of the continuous rapes that she endures while she is imprisoned. It sounds frightfully heavy, but because the story is told through the eyes of a naive child, it is actually quite digestible.

The author started her talk at the Literary Festival by reading a short passage from her book & then took questions from the audience. She was warm & engaging with a great sense of humor. It made me want to start reading the book right away, so after the talk, I downloaded the e-book on my Kindle (zap!). Once I got home I spent the rest of the evening engrossed in the story.

The boy who narrates the  novel describes everything that's inside the Room as real, & everything that's outside the Room as TV, fantasy. As I flipped the pages (clicked?), I started thinking about my life here in China. I often feel like life here is not altogether real, like I'm watching it happen through a lense. I live in a kind of bubble - or room - of my own, moving through Outside but still separated from it.

When I'm at home, I'm alone in my 10-foot by 10-foot bedroom, reading or studying or chatting with friends on Skype. When I'm at work, I'm surrounded by Westerners - people like me. (Since we're writing English language learning materials, we're all native speakers of English.)

My contact with Chinese life is short & intermittent - the morning commute on the subway, a 10-second conversation with a shop keeper, giving directions to the taxi driver. Often I feel I'm invisible - life happens around me & I'm only an unseen observer. Other times I feel I'm on display as people stare & point & snap photos of me, the foreigner - for many Chinese people, I'm not entirely real. But either way I'm mentally separated from it all.

Every once in a while, I have to remind myself that I live in China. China! CHINA?! How did that happen? It's not an altogether real part of my life. My job is real, my room is real, my Western friends are real. But China? China is just TV. Fantasy.


Scott said...

Like! :-)

Displaced said...

Hi, Nancy. ML Awanohara here, on behalf of The Displaced Nation, a new expat Web site that was launched yesterday, April 1 (no fooling).

When we were populating the site in the weeks before the launch, I chose to contribute a short article about this post of yours, with a link to the full version. I really liked the way you related the atmosphere within Emma Donoghue's novel to your own expat life in Shanghai. The analogy really worked for me as a way of expressing the "displacement" so many of us have when attempting to live and work in cultures other than our own.

Our TDN tagline says, "Welcome to the curious, unreal world occupied by international travelers." Now I'm thinking we should add: "Just TV, Fantasy."

So I thank you for this post, and I hope my little article about it will drives more traffic to your blog. You deserve it!

Nancy Lewis said...

Thank you so much for the mention. Your site looks like a great resource for us floundering expats. I'll be reading - perhaps I can learn something :)