Fear in the community: A terrifying tale of The Oyster Pail girl

Emma Leaning
We're back from a seasonal break, and while privileged to be here, I'm also in a tricky position. Failure frightens me. What about you?
Emma Leaning
Fear in the community: A terrifying tale of The Oyster Pail girl
Hu Jun / SHINE

The Oyster Pail girl!" An enthusiastic call across a crowded cafe. "You're from the newspaper! I read your column." So, that's who I am – The Oyster Pail girl. And believe me, I'm very grateful to be her. Because aside from Meryl Streep, all I've ever wanted to be is a writer. Or truer still, a columnist. And being yours isn't something I take lightly. When the universe grants you an opportunity, you're simultaneously thrown in two directions. One is bright and shiny – you're a huge success – and the other is a black hole – the gravitas of your shortcomings are so great, nothing can withstand them. A process, if we're sticking with the space theme, called spaghettification. And who wants their aspirations spaghettified?

Let me back up. Season I of The Oyster Pail was a big break for me. To kick things off, I explained the job of a columnist. My purpose is to make sense of things. To understand people and figure out what they're doing, thinking and feeling. The work takes truth and a willingness to speak mine. But sincere disclosure isn't about the writer. Columns are a way of asking, "What about you?" Over 32 weeks, we talked everything from ageism to cancel culture – all to the backdrop of our unique city. You got in touch to share how you related, had something to add, or simply to let me know I was talking trash. Every comment, email, or tweet brought meaning to the work, and a fever for it.

We're back from a seasonal break, and while privileged to be here, I'm also in a tricky position. I've known well in advance that anyone who liked this column before might be disappointed now. And anyone who didn't, would be disappointed I'm still employed. I've had quite some time to wrestle with this narrative. Enough to question whether I should quit while I'm behind and spare myself a battering. But to do that means giving up everything I've ever wanted. In search of courage, I went back to the start: the purpose of this column and the question I'm here to ask. So here goes: I'm scared of not cutting it as your columnist. Failure frightens me. What about you?

"The whole married with children and a white picket fence thing? I came to China to escape all that." Dee has lived in Shanghai for five years, we swapped fears over a nightcap. "It's cliche, but commitment scares me. Now I'm starting to compare myself with people back home – the cars, kids, partners, promotions – and I'm coming up short." Amanda is a new mom, she responded on WeChat between meetings. "Are you kidding?!" I'm full of fear about working motherhood. We're told we can do it all, but what if I can't? I fail everyone if I'm not that woman." Rees has been teaching for nine years, "I was so worried about being liked," he confesses as we stroll along Anfu Road, "I never stopped to question what students were learning. That's changed, but I'll never walk into a classroom overly confident. We don't get past fear; we move forward with it."

The tough stuff – what we're scared to ask, do or say – is often the very thing that's needed. We fear it because it matters. What I love most is connection. I'm that oddball who turns their back on the main stage at concerts to watch the crowd. I've been a snotty mess at more gigs than I care to mention. There's something profoundly powerful about people coming together. Or put differently, about community. And that's us; a crowd of people from all walks of life, looking for answers in Shanghai. We have our own beliefs, cultures, needs, values and our own fears. But despite those differences, here we are. I don't subscribe to the school of positive thinking; being a community doesn't mean we always agree. Just look at your family. But when we share even the smallest part of our experience, people extend their own. In doing so, our togetherness becomes clear: one connection at a time.

I love what I do more than I hate failing at it. I don't know where that sweet spot is for you, but there is one. Somewhere to direct your energies with such zeal that the outcome is inconsequential. Best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert says the trick to finding our way back from fear is to identify what we love more than ourselves in this world. It might be adventure, creativity, faith or family. We then build a home on top of it and refuse to budge. When we're kicked out – through failure, success or change in circumstance – our job is to fight our way back the only way we can, with reverence and respect for whatever calls us.

For me, that's you. See you next time.

P.S. It's good to be back.

Shanghai Daily is taking a break for National Day. "Emma Leaning is MENTAL" will be with you the first Monday of the new month and "The Oyster Pail" continues October 16th. See you soon! Missed Season I of The Oyster Pail? Catch up here: https://www.shine.cn/The-Oyster-Pail/

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