I spent nearly 7 years of my life living in China and I wasn’t prepared for the isolation. The disconnection I felt from America, from New York, from Brooklyn left me feeling disoriented. My tether to a culture was broken and I retreated into books in a way that I had never engaged before. I found that I was relearning everything. It was like being told that Santa Claus, while fictional, wasn’t a beloved cultural figure that emerged from a confluence of religion and the sentimentality of family. But a complete fabrication invited for the sole purpose of selling sugar water. I wasn’t woke, but I was getting there. The books I started reading did more than influence me, they were shaping me, and they helped me navigate the new space of Shanghai and understand the old one back in New York. They were a compass guiding me toward my aspirations.
While in my new adapted home I jumped right in with a book by Liliane Willens, Stateless in Shanghai. I love history and this was a story that filled in the blanks surrounding the expat community in Shanghai. I had a real connection with her story and I could constantly draw parallels between her shanghai and mine. I loved eating youtiao (油条) as she did. A fried bread similar to a fritter. I retraced her steps. I visited the apartment building she lived as a young girl and I searched for the location of her school. I constructed an architectural tour based on the events of her. Stateless in Shanghai got me through the melancholy of being an expat and showed me I could really make Shanghai my new home if I let it in.
As a kid I read ‘A wrinkle in time’, ‘Charlie and the chocolate factory’ and the ‘Hobbit’. Each was required reading. But the one mandatory book I read and re-read was ‘The Catcher in the Rye’. I never saw myself in Holden Caulfield, I knew a thousand Holdens. What I enjoyed was the books structure as a hero’s journey. Holden was looking for something and over the years what I thought his search was has changed. Once I sent an entire day following his steps in a NYT article hoping a cartographic representation along with the text would shed more light on his quest. It did. It showed me that as a kid I didn’t see myself in the story mainly because of race. I’m Black, he’s white. But as an adult when I looked at Holden and myself, two boys from a similar social, educational and economic backgrounds then I see we weren’t so different and I realized I knew a thousand and one Holdens.