The Psychology of Learning by Robert Borger and A.E.M. Seaborne, first published in 1966, defines learning as ‘any more or less permanent change of behaviour which is the result of experience’.
‘It’s too sweet and gentle,’ I say of the pink. ‘I want it to pop. I want what you’re wearing.’
I turn from the mirror. ‘It’s a bit watermelon candy,’ the salesgirl agrees. She returns with another tube of lipstick, its surface sanitised. I wipe my lips clean and try the fourth shade, a dark don’t-fuck-with-me crimson. I smile, then laugh at my reflection. My first Dior lipstick.
I wear it to lunch with one of my favourite authors. We chat about writing, travelling, beginnings and endings. ‘I’m learning to write about happiness,’ I say.
Years earlier, during my second year in Canberra, I start a list of ‘Things I’ve achieved so far in my short life’. The following year I list ‘Things I’m scared of’ on the back of a Floriade postcard and, in my diary, publications I dream of being published in. I wrote to feel less alone and later, to answer specific personal questions. I wondered if a stranger would one day email to say they liked my work.
I ask my ex if I could write about him. He asks what I’m writing, if I’m writing a composite character. When I say memoir, he replies, ‘But you’re not famous.’ I start writing that afternoon.
I open with a note I wrote in high school, followed by my move to Canberra and my parents’ migration to Australia. Subsequent chapters covered exchange in Lund, Sweden, first relationships and break-ups, a trip to New York City, and my growing disillusionment with adulthood. When I’m asked how many words I expect the manuscript to be and where it will end, I reply, ‘I’m not sure. When I leave Canberra, I guess.’ They award the fellowship to a friend whose project is more developed instead.
In hindsight, the memoir was an attempt to understand how I got to where I was, a stringing together of life-changing decisions, my parents’ and mine. At that time I was obsessed with fate, coincidence and turning points. I abandon the draft ten months later, just past 33,000 words. Time stands still in the document titled ‘07-07-15 working draft’: the world as I saw it in 2015, the writer I was.
• • •
Chapter 2 opens with a friend asking what I would miss most about exchange. ‘The ability to re-create myself,’ I reply without hesitating. As I wrote in my manuscript, ‘Lund taught me how to live, with as few regrets as possible.’
Four years on, Trish and I reminisce in Canberra. ‘We could never repeat something like that,’ she says. I can only agree. Life is too short not to go skinny-dipping in icy lakes at midnight. It was like gently teasing bobby pins, one by one, from a chignon. You can’t let everything go at once.
Away from home and everyone I know, I feel seen, truly seen, for the first time. People liked me for me, not because they wanted to borrow my maths notes. In Oslo I met another young Chinese-Australian woman also travelling alone but on exchange in Amsterdam. Visiting Jen several months later, I nudge a splash of rosé on the table into a pale pink heart and take a photo. Reflections ripple in the canal below us. In Lapland, Kelsey and I make a beeline for ice-cream each time the bus stops. I teach her Aussie slang and she posts on her friend’s Facebook wall, ‘You’re a budgie smuggler.’ He is not amused.
4 November 2011
My social life has bloomed like an orchid in a hothouse. I’ve been out every single night for a whole week! For a homebody like me, this is a true achievement!
I remember cycling home at night, flying downhill against the wind. I remember waiting at the lights one afternoon as autumn leaves flutter-rain, shimmer across the sky. Avicii’s ‘Fade into Darkness’ and Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love in a Hopeless Place’ played at every party, every club.
This was a far cry from high school, where I would show the new kids around only to be abandoned the next day. I would tune out from lunch chatter, look up at the blue sky and dream of another life.
Sara invites me to a New Year’s Eve party at hers. We watch the fireworks outside Lund Cathedral. I’m separated from my friends, so I count down with three random Swedish guys. We return to the party. Sara, her friends and I chat in her room. She persuades me to stay for just a bit longer. I wander downstairs to find one of the guys alone in the dining room.
‘Where’s Magnus?’ I ask, wishing I had talked to him more.
‘He had to leave early,’ his friend F replies. ‘He’s working tomorrow.’
We make small talk. ‘What does that say?’ I point to the tattoo on his forearm, sounding out the phonetic spelling. ‘Einstein.’ F is a physics major. I learn that he lives in Delphi, a student dorm on the other side of town.
‘All the good-looking guys live in Delphi,’ I laugh. ‘The first guy I kissed lives there.’ I tell F that before Sweden, I had never been kissed. ‘I’m twenty. That’s late, isn’t it? I thought I was weird.’
‘That’s not weird,’ he replies. We keep talking, then a pause.
‘What are you thinking?’ I ask.
‘Nothing.’ There is a long silence. ‘Actually, I’m thinking about kissing you.’
‘Where? Here?’ I glance at the small group dancing in the next room.
‘That’s not very romantic.’
The kitchen is empty. I tip-toe to reach his lips, but eventually slide back to perch on the bench. He plays with the edge of my dark teal H&M sweater, rolling it up ever so slightly, then smoothing it back over my hips. He does this over and over, never touching my skin.
After a while, he breaks away. ‘I’m tired. Do you want to get some fresh air?’
‘Don’t you smoke?’ He looks confused, so I clarify, ‘How is that fresh air?’
‘I meant, do you want to go back to my place?’
F ties his shoelaces at the door and we leave together. Out on the cobbled street, in the brittle winter air, he wheels his bike out and lights up. I taste the smoke on his lips as we kiss goodbye.
• • •
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter is filled with transformations, reversible and irreversible. Characters shed skins and layers, returning to, revealing, growing into their true form: girl to woman, beast to man, woman to tiger, vampire to human, and man to wolf and vice versa. The shifts are deliberate and accidental, triggered by true love or the passage of time.
The protagonist of ‘The Lady of the House of Love’, a reluctant vampire queen, wishes to escape her destiny. She draws the same three tarot cards—La Papesse, La Mort, La Tour Abolie—until one day she draws Les Amoureux, The Lovers. Rather than feast on the young man who arrives soon after, she dies.
‘Can a bird sing only the song it knows or can it learn a new song?’
Tang Wei as Wong Chia Chi in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007)
In Sweden I went from never having been kissed to kissing two guys within a week. I wrote in my diary:
17 October 2011
I was stupid and on the verge of self-destruction, forgetting who and what I stood for and why I’m here in Sweden. I almost lost myself for a moment. Writing this I feel the jigsaw pieces of my heart falling back into place.
I was someone who read books on ‘how to survive high school’ and ‘how to survive uni’, who didn’t drink for fear of losing control, of becoming someone I wasn’t. I wasn’t someone who kissed random men, until I was. I was in Lund for new experiences, to boost my chances at finding a job post-BA, to get the grades that would set me up for a parliamentary internship.
I return to Melbourne, finish my final year of university and secure a graduate position in Canberra. The future seemed bright, and anything possible. I threw myself into making friends, work and setting up a new life. For a while, I was happy.
It is here that I struggle to describe the disillusionment and despair that soon enveloped me. For years I had dreamed of working for the public service. The dream came true, but I had no intention of climbing the APS ladder. ‘If I wake up, go to work, send a few emails, what will I have achieved at the end of the day?’ I wrote in my diary. ‘Will I have made a difference in anyone’s life?’
I lost myself on the dancefloor, and in sex. I wanted to be crushed against sofas. I wanted to be destroyed, ruined, obliterated, to lose control, to forget. I was tired of thinking of the past and of the future. I wanted to be free.
‘Curiosity killed the cat,’ my mother used to say, a message echoed in Carter’s Bluebeard-inspired story. I remember sobbing in my then-boyfriend’s arms after the first time we tried to have sex.
‘It feels like I’ve crossed another threshold.’
‘You haven’t been a girl in a while,’ he replied, holding me close.
• • •
On my last Saturday in Lund, my corridor-mates and I go dancing. D and I return home separately. I lie on the IKEA sofa in the common area, ankles propped over the armrest. I cover myself with a blanket for modesty. When our housemate leaves to sleep, D places a hand on my calf. It feels nice. I shift my legs slightly as he slides his hand up my thigh. We kiss. I only agree to go to his room because I don’t want our housemates walking in on us. We’re both drunk. We make out more. I’m tired and want to sleep.
‘Let me show you one last thing,’ he says, ripping my stockings and underwear off in one movement. He goes down on me. It is my first time. I curl my fingers in his hair, but I don’t feel anything.
The next morning, I thank him for letting me stay the night. ‘That’s not what you’re supposed to say,’ he gently corrects. ‘You’re supposed to say, “Thanks, I had a good time.”’ (I have much to learn.)
I feel his fingers clawing, digging deep within me as I cycle to the supermarket.
I could leave this out—I want to—but to do so would be disingenuous. I can’t write about Lund without thinking of how for years afterwards, I tallied the number of men I wanted to kiss or sleep with: ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘Maybe’. What good does it do to repeat this story?
12 July 2015
The restlessness, disillusionment, (false) identity, running away, chasing an elusive dream. Like Holly [Golightly], I don’t know what it is that I’m chasing (home? a sense of belonging?) but we’re shedding, discarding fragments of ourselves with each transformation. I’ve always thought I was very true to myself but lately I’m not sure.
For years I wrote from pain, guilt, shame and confusion. I discovered that writing stopped certain things rattling around my head. Setting it down on the page, private or public, was a form of taming, ordering, wrangling. Each story I published no longer belonged to me.
In 2016 I start an essay tracing every past sexual interaction I’ve had. It lives on my laptop. Titled ‘Men’, it is 15,827 words in length. I’m not sure I’ll ever finish it. I keep telling myself, this will be the last essay on sex/pain/men/trauma. I used to believe that bad things happened only to bad people.
I can write from the other side of Lund, from the other side of Canberra, but I cannot write from the other side of trauma. Now it seems naive that I thought the solution was to pour everything into an essay, that it would somehow lock the past away. In 2015, I wrote ‘Biting my tongue’, on consent and self-forgiveness. The two men referenced in the piece resurface in my life years later.
When I bump into J at Old Parliament House drinks, I tell him that sex with him had really hurt and was the worst in my life. My friends asked if it felt cathartic. ‘No, it just felt inevitable,’ I reply. Canberra is a small city and he too worked in the public service.
When H messages out of the blue asking if I’d like to get dinner, I block him and feel so sick that I take the next day off work. (I am lucky. Not all employers are so understanding. I don’t tell my manager the true reason for my illness but wonder how many colleagues nurse similar secrets.) I spend the weekend reading Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. In ‘Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU’, a short story in the form of episode synopses, Machado reimagines Olivia Benson being haunted by the ghosts of murdered women, girls-with-bells-for-eyes.
‘Does he know?’ our mutual friend asks. ‘You should send him the piece. Maybe he doesn’t know what he did was wrong.’
‘No,’ I say. ‘I don’t want to engage with him.’
When female authors I greatly admire say of Zinzi Clemmons’ allegation against Junot Diaz, ‘It wasn’t as bad as Weinstein’ and ‘It’s just a kiss, big deal’, I freeze again. I feel cold. I think of the ‘friend’ who said: ‘You danced with him. You weren’t passive. Things didn’t just happen to you.’
• • •
When you’re still young, even three or four years, maybe five, can seem an entire lifetime.
—Half a Lifelong Romance, Eileen Chang
To celebrate my twenty-sixth birthday, I invite five of my closest friends over for drinks and nibbles. (I don’t know this yet, but it will be my last birthday in Canberra.) When we reach the front of the line to Knightsbridge, the bouncer wishes me ‘happy birthday’, 40 minutes late. I hook up with a boy-next-door-type.
‘I’ve never gone home with a girl on the first night before,’ he says, as we walk back to mine.
‘I’ve had one-night stands,’ I reply wryly.
He asks if I like going to the movies. I say we’ll probably never see each other again. His watch blinks.
‘Is that your friends asking if you went home with the Asian girl?’
‘No!’ he shoots back, tapping defensively at its screen.
The next morning, when I tell him the time, he says, ‘I was thinking of banging you some more.’
‘I’m tired. You can stay for another half an hour.’
‘Do you want me to leave?’ he asks, catching my hint.
‘I need to tidy up and do laundry.’ I think of the wine glasses in the sink.
‘You don’t need to do it now.’
‘Yes I do,’ I insist. ‘I like to do my laundry in the morning.’
Again, I am falling back on sex as a shorthand for growth, adulthood and change, sex as a frame, sex as a lens for making sense of the world and self.
What else might I have written? What sort of writer might I have been? What sort of woman might I have become? Perhaps I’d be in love. I think I’d be happy if another man never laid a hand on me.
A guy at a house party once asked if I felt I was using the men I wrote about. ‘They’re using me too,’ I reply. ‘I’ve never written about someone I’m with, only exes or one-night stands. And I’ve never identified them.’
I’m more concerned about ‘using’, betraying my past self, about what I put her through.
I tell another writer friend, ‘I never thought I’d write about sex.’
‘No-one grows up thinking, I’m gonna write about sex,’ she replies. I laugh, loudly and in relief.
22 July 2015
I was in a dark, dark place two weeks ago. I can’t say I’m happy now but at least the puzzle pieces of my mind have slotted back into their rightful places. For now.
In an early draft of this essay, I attempted to draw a line between my diary entries of 17 October 2011 and 22 July 2015, without going into the details. At that time, I had decided not to write about sex and men any more, not even the slightest reference, not even in the drafts no-one would see.
After writing ‘Through the Looking Glass’, an essay on sexual awakenings, desire, pleasure and representations of Asian female sexualities, I struggled to write a follow up. I wanted to write something I could share with my parents and colleagues, something light-hearted. I wanted to prove, to myself and others, that I could write about things other than sex, pain, men, trauma. I wanted to write about living alone and music (à la Durga Chew-Bose) or roses (à la Alexander Chee).
‘Can a bird sing only the song it knows or can it learn a new song?’
I feel as though I am emerging from the crush of warm bodies into the street, the sweet night air, and taking a deep breath. I am adjusting too as a writer, reassessing why and what I want to write. What are my responsibilities, as an artist, as a migrant settler and as someone of relative privilege? Do I even want to keep writing to publish?
In 2018 I interviewed Jenny Zhang and wrote about my relationship with my maternal grandmother Ah Ma, Lorde’s Melodrama and my friend Jen (whom I meet in Melbourne through writing), roses, and the writer Eileen Chang and romantic love. I am learning how to write, again.
• • •
Or: Sometimes in order to build something, you must unbuild it first.
—Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems, Jennifer S. Cheng
• • •
In Force of Circumstance, Simone de Beauvoir muses, ‘One defect of diaries and autobiographies is that usually what “goes without saying” goes without being said, and thus one misses the essential.’
Why was I so desperate to re-create myself in Lund and in Canberra? The note with which I began my manuscript provides some clue. Desperate to prove I was more than that smart Asian girl, I conflated anonymity with freedom and self-expression. The freedom I craved then, I now crave in my writing.
6 June 2008
Is it possible to be surrounded by people and feel so lonely? People are always going to see me as just ‘smart’. I should be proud but I want to be more than just that smart Asian girl, the one with the A’s. People borrow my notes but does anyone ‘borrow’ me for the sake of being with me? Are people my ‘friends’ just because I’m ‘smart’?
In primary school, the teacher picked me to be the witch, never the princess. I cursed my black hair.
The Australian publishing industry still expects memoir on identity, culture, race, intergenerational trauma and conflict, displacement … all of which is fine, if that is what one wants to write.
• • •
On days when I lack pockets, I like to tuck my lipstick between my calf and boot as I stalk down the corridor to the bathroom. Lips half-coloured before the mirror, my heart skips as footsteps approach. A colleague walks in; I fake nonchalance, wishing I could slash the damn lipstick on.
I share my signature shade Revlon Cherries in the Snow with Sylvia Plath. Ah Ma too used Revlon.
Tang Wei as Wong Chia Chi in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007)
In the opening of Ang Lee’s adaptation of Lust, Caution, Wong Chia Chi sips coffee at a Western-style café in 1940s Shanghai. She returns the cup to its saucer with both hands, takes a small bottle from her clutch and dabs perfume behind her ears, then wrists. The rim of the cup is lipstick-stained. Tears slip down my cheeks. Is it because I know what happens next? Or because she represents the Chinese woman I was taught not to be? Elegant and seductive, as opposed to demure. I think of that lipstick mark, bold yet easily washed away. She looks out the window, emotionless, as the film cuts to the past.
In her book Heroines, Kate Zambreno writes, ‘Everything I did I did for EXPERIENCE, in order to someday write about it … I was a waitress waiting around to write something, eventually, once the intensity of life settled down.’
I didn’t sleep with men only so I could write about it, but I put myself in situations where it was a possibility. I was curious. It seemed easier to go through with it. I wanted to be good at sex, to wake up beside a warm body, to write the stories I didn’t yet see. I was bored. I wanted to know what if.
How far have I strayed from my core beliefs, my principles? What if I throw away a critical, irretrievable part of me? Am I still me? Freedom is knowing where to draw the line, how far to push.
After speaking at an event on ‘Giving up the Good Girl’ in Canberra, I receive an email from a stranger thanking me for sharing my voice, my writing. I cry and thank her for her generosity, replying: ‘Writing is a solitary struggle but the people I’ve met and readers such as yourself make it worth it.’ We meet for coffee months later in Melbourne and become friends. She reminds me of myself in my early twenties.
I spent most of last year working out what to write next. Now that I’ve ‘answered’ the questions that made me first want to write, the urgency that drove my writing is gone. My purpose is shifting, drawing energy from new roots, as I seek new obsessions and new ways to express myself.
I envisioned this essay as a condensed version of the memoir I put aside. I thought my diaries would pave the way to truth. In relying on them, however, I didn’t allow myself to remember. A diary, in its singular plane, is not a narrative. Memoir, in any case, is séance rather than resurrection.
The girl I was can only tell me so much.
Shu-Ling Chua is a Melbourne-based writer. She was shortlisted in the 2018 Woollahra Digital Literary Award and is working on an essay collection exploring the intersections between life and art.