Readers of my novel Shanghai Blue often ask, “Is it autobiographical?”   

Close friends and family know it is not. I have loving parents and had a happy enough childhood whereas the novel is about a woman in search of her biological parents who discovers the horrible truth of their identity. 

The theme is no coincidence, however.

As a Chinese living in The Netherlands for many years, I am torn between relationship-oriented me and self-oriented me. On the one hand, I cannot ignore how people regard me, especially those I love. On the other, I want to be my true self, even at the cost of distressing some of those I hold dear.

At first I thought my personal conflict was a “clash of civilizations” between China and the West—it is not easy for someone raised in a familistic culture to cope with an individualistic one. But over the years I gradually realized that the conflict was not so much between cultures as it was within me. 

Thinking back, I realize I had a dual identity even as a child. My parents are from Shanghai and Beijing—two distant and equally arrogant urban cultures. Growing up in Shanghai, I felt like an outcast because my accent was not pure and my skin was not fair—yes, a real Shanghai girl should look like a porcelain doll with delicate features. But when visiting Beijing (my real home I then felt) I was treated like an exotic guest and asked all kinds of odd questions.

There my sense of estrangement began, and it never went away. By my early teens, the problem was inability to identify with my family. I recall lying in bed one night and thinking to myself about the kind of life I wished to live in the future. Only one thing was certain—I did not want my parents’ life. They were both engineers working for a state-run enterprise—an excellent job by the standards of the time. But seeing how secure, routine, and boring their life was, I swore off a career in large organizations. 

I kept my promise to myself and defied my parents by studying literature at university instead of finance like my cousins. I defied them again by turning down a high-paying job as a director’s assistant at a bank for a low-paying job as an editor at a publisher. I defied them yet again by going abroad instead of making a career and starting a family at home. But the war came when I announced I would marry an American who did not speak Chinese. They threatened to disown me, and my father even feigned a heart attack. Though consumed with guilt, I refused to give in.

The American shared my estrangement. Having lived in Europe most of his adult life, he felt neither Europe nor the US was his home; he had long sworn off ever working in big business like his parents; and, like me, he scorned bourgeois conventions. The two aliens got married wearing blue jeans and white shirts. It was a civil ceremony that took 10 minutes: no music, no champagne, no flowers, no photos, no banquet—horrific in Chinese eyes but liberating for us both. Four years later a child arrived. He is growing up fluent in three languages and began asking “Who am I?” at age three. We expect he will become as alienated as we are. 

But is that misfortune or good fortune? I’m not sure anymore.

I used to resent living on the periphery, never knowing how it felt to be in the mainstream. That bothered me a lot—how much I wanted to live like others and belong. I tried moving from place to place, from group to group; but wherever I went the feeling of estrangement stayed with me. Then I realized it had nothing to do with my social environment—it was me: I belong nowhere and everywhere, this is just who I am. 

Innate alienation affects my passion for literature. In my teens, the books I liked were about life far away in space or time. I was keen on Sanmao, a bohemian Taiwanese who wrote about her Sahara sojourn; I lost myself in Dream of the Red Chamber and lived in a trance the summer of 1991 until compulsory high-school paramilitary training sobered me up; I adored Lu Xun (1881-1936) who exposed human folly with acid irony; I enjoyed foreign literature and felt giddy visiting a mental world impenetrable to my parents. 

I remember one day my last year at university when I opened a textbook anthology and saw an essay entitled “On the Morning After the Sixties” by Joan Didion, whose name I did not know. Her rhythm, imagery, and sentence flow were mesmerizing. 

Later she became my heroine—fragile, shy, petite yet with tremendous intelligence, fortitude, and linguistic command; unlike many female writers, wholly unsentimental; above all, a brilliant stylist combining intense engagement and cool detachment—qualities precious in a writer.   

I always wrote but never thought to write anything longer than essays and short stories because I felt I had not accumulated enough life experience: I needed to live more, and more intensely with more variation, to become a writer. I also thought writing was thorough engagement in something—I was still trying to identify, to belong. 

It was only when I went abroad that I realized writing also entails disengagement, observation, empathy, and reflection—writing needs distance. In September 2000, I landed at Schiphol Airport in a gray drizzle. I remember the disappointment of traveling by train to Amsterdam—the view outside the window was drab: I had not come all the way here to see this and, worse, at the cost of “betraying” my parents; I had come to Europe in search of excitement, inspiration—something different. 

But life elsewhere is not so different when you are no longer a tourist. The main difference between Amsterdam and Shanghai is that Amsterdam is slower, calmer, duller. To kill time after work at a boring dead-end administrative job in a university, I wrote articles—encouraged by my husband, who insisted writing was my true vocation. Through writing I came to realize that the advantage of living far away from home is not the excitement but the distance. Distance provides the opportunity to digest experience, organize thoughts, and apply imagination. 

I spend time in Shanghai each year doing fieldwork and come back to Amsterdam to think and write. I have found a balance between my home and host countries—visiting China is a stimulus; living in Holland allows reflection, concentration, application. 

I need both.

Writing also lets me understand myself and my culture better. Wherever I go, I am thoroughly Chinese; the farther I go and the longer I stay away, the more Chinese I feel. I revert to Chinese literature while I soak my mind in Western literature, and cherish the secret joy of diving into a far-away world. 

Is estrangement really so bad? The film director Ang Lee, who has the manners of a perfect Confucian gentleman, says in his memoirs that he is an outsider wherever he goes but the farther away from home he gets, the more creative he becomes. Perhaps estrangement is not such a bad thing—a gift few people can enjoy but one that nurtures sensitivity, sobriety, strength, and acuity.