Your new columnist: the tightrope of being an attention-seeking prat
I hate introducing myself. Particularly those moments we’re forced to mingle on professional training courses or at networking events. Insecurity means I don’t cope well with feeling the need to sell myself. Akin to a naff lap dance: I’m twirling my nipple tassels and gazing persuasively into your eyes, but look closely and you’ll see I’m deeply uncomfortable. And the reigning champion of cringe? When your new boss asks you to introduce yourself to everyone.
So by way of introduction — and that’s what this is — let me resort to what most of us do when asked to talk about ourselves: I’ll tell you about my job.
Columnists are a strange breed. Less a writer, a columnist is an observer. We people watch in parks and eavesdrop on conversations in coffee shops. We take note of every mishap we make and every indecency we encounter. In truth, we’re annoying to be around. In a constant state of catching thoughts, a columnist can’t help but reduce every experience to one simple question: Would this make a column? Be it our take on cancel culture or a rant about a run-in with a Didi driver, columns reveal who we are and the values we hold. At best, a personal column is a candid heart-to-heart or shared thrill. At worst, a narcissistic monologue.
So why would anyone open themselves up to misunderstanding or judgment? Does anyone want to risk being labeled a voyeur or self-indulged, attention-seeking prat? Not me.
Columnists don’t disclose themselves because they crave attention. We do it because it’s our job. Different to reporters, it’s the sensitive antennae we’re tasked with. Our purpose is to make sense of things. To understand people and figure out what they’re doing, thinking and feeling.
“Can’t you make it up,” people ask when I’m coming up short. Sure, details can be tweaked — to save friendships or avoid being sued — but the system can’t be cheated. Readers know when they’re being duped. Meaning the work takes truth, and a willingness to speak ours openly.
That scares me. Because there’s only one guarantee: some of you won’t like me. Or at least, you won’t like me all the time. And who doesn’t want to be liked?
Over the years, I’ve written on everything from an embarrassing encounter with Darth Vader to my ongoing battle with bulimia. What I’ve learned is that sincere self-revelation isn’t about the writer. It does its job when the reader relates. Masked as personal stories of triumph or turmoil, columns are a way of asking: “And what about you?” To ask an honest question is to seek an honest answer, and that requires being open to disagreement. So it’s OK to have ours.
We all struggle. We each have best and worst versions of ourselves. What’s continuously surprising is how often those moments of light and dark connect us. When we share even the smallest part of our story, people reflect back with their own. In doing so, our likeness becomes clear. One reflection at a time.
We’re a community, Shanghai. A myriad of parents, teachers, doctors and tassel-twirling columnists. No matter where we’ve come from, we have more in common than most. Be it living outside our native homes, fusing with a new culture, or the sad fact we’re all wedded to our ayi’s.
And while I can’t promise to please you every week, I do pledge to know you, to connect with you and earn your trust. To respectfully hold a mirror to life in our shared home-from-home. And though you might not always recognize the reflection as your own, that you do on occasion, reflect back.
Tassels on. See you next week.
I’m new to Shanghai and would love to hear from you. Whether it’s your take on Shanghai life, a favorite spot in the city, or just to say hello. Drop me an e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.