Hot Desk Extract: self upon self upon self

As part of the Wheeler Centre's Hot Desk Fellowship programme, Shu-Ling Chua worked on a collection of essays, self upon self upon self, exploring the intersections between life and art and the process of becoming.

The excerpt below forms a part of the collection and is the opening of 'From the Other Side', first published in Meanjin's Autumn 2019 edition.

A splash of rosé spilled onto a table in the shape of a pale pink heart

Photo: Shu-Ling Chua

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 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 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 Two 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.

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 20. 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.

‘Kitchen.’

‘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?’

‘Oh.’

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.

Portrait of Shu-Ling Chua

Shu-Ling Chua was born in Melbourne to Malaysian-Chinese parents. Her writing focuses on sex, culture, feminism/femininity and growing up and has appeared in FeminartsyPeril MagazineMeanjinScum Mag and Triangle House Review, among others. She is working on a collection of essays on coming of age as an Asian-Australian woman and is a 2018 KSP Writers' Centre Fellow and 2018 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow.

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