Rebuilding: eight life lessons 2022 taught me

Emma Leaning
I’ve got bad news: We all get damaged. You have a 100 percent chance of being broken ... And through it all, you’ll need to do some rebuilding.
Emma Leaning
Rebuilding: eight life lessons 2022 taught me
Hu Jun / SHINE

This week, I had a freak out when The Expatriate Center asked me to speak at their International Women’s Day event. But before my mental gremlins could kick in, I agreed. And thank goodness, because it was a gorgeous affair and a privilege to spend time with our community.

The center’s invitation said: “We wondered if you’d like to talk about rediscovering yourself as a woman.” What struck me about this suggestion was the word “rediscover.” It implied A) I had discovered something. B) At some point, I’d lost it. And C) I either wanted or needed it back. I Googled, and the Internet agreed:

rediscover — discover (something forgotten or ignored) again.

As a writer, I thought long and hard about the word “rediscover.” I tried to make it fit my story, but “rebuild” felt truer:

rebuild — build (something) again after it has been damaged or destroyed.

We all have our version of 2022, but for context, here’s the gist of mine. My husband and I were among the first foreigners in Shanghai to get COVID. In March, we were separated and taken to facilities. We tweeted our experiences, and I went from 300 followers to over 6,000 in a few days. We were asked to speak with everyone from the BBC to CNN and 60 Minutes Australia. But aside from being sick and scared, we were in a whirlwind, so we declined all offers. After three weeks, we went home, and I said yes to one interview. I talked about various hard truths, none of which got used in the edit. The interviewer reduced the range of answers to a sound bite. It went viral, and as a result, I received severe online abuse. At its worst, I got notifications every few seconds that signaled new hate. It was hell; the experience broke me in ways I never imagined.

Rebuilding: eight life lessons 2022 taught me
Courtesy of The Expatriate Center

Rebuild — build (something) again after it has been damaged or destroyed.

I’ve got bad news: We all get damaged. You have a 100 percent chance of being broken. There will be a tough split, a job you don’t get, or a team you are not picked for. Everyone you love will die. And through it all, you’ll need to do some rebuilding.

So in this week’s “The Oyster Pail,” I’m sharing lessons from my speech about what I’ve learned during my own reconstruction.

1. Your story is yours

Women’s narratives are carefully controlled. We’re told how to behave, how to look, and what to do. We’re supposed to put others first, and we’re expected to be perfect. These expectations are not just unrealistic; they’re damaging because they limit our opportunities.

In that interview, I told my story to someone, and they didn’t like it. So, they smashed it into a million pieces and publicly used the parts that fit their narrative. They disregarded my truth and misrepresented who I am.

You don’t owe your story to anyone, and you can’t trust everyone with it. You’re not mandated to have external ideals forced upon you. Your story is yours and yours alone.

Rebuilding: eight life lessons 2022 taught me
Courtesy of The Expatriate Center

Emma on stage during a panel discussion about rediscovery and rebuilding in celebration of International Women’s Day.

2. Gray is the best color

As a liberal-minded columnist for state-affiliated media, I’ve been called a “government mouthpiece” and a “China hater” on the same day. You can’t be both, and I’m neither. I wrote about black or white mentality in an article about my favorite color.

Gray has become a danger zone because simplicity is sexy on Twitter. But to pretend something or someone can’t be multifaceted is ridiculous. Some things are wrong, no matter how you cut them. But gray is where we live, where we love, and where we learn. If you’re afraid of gray, you’ll never know anything. You’ll never be surprised, and you’ll never love anyone. Because how could you?

I like gray, and I really like gray people. Gray people are big thinkers, careful listeners and courageous leaders. They move society forward because they’re not set on being right or afraid to be wrong. I don’t just like gray. I aim for it.

3. It’s not as bad as you think it is

4. It’s maybe as bad as you think it is (but that’s OK)

Kintsugi is a Japanese pottery repair method that uses gold to fill the cracks of broken things. Pieces become more beautiful because of their brokenness and careful restoration.

Rebuilding: eight life lessons 2022 taught me

Kintsugi is a Japanese pottery repair method that uses gold to fill the cracks of broken things.

Brokenness enters every life — broken dishes, broken bones, broken dreams, broken hearts. The cracks we collect might never fade, but they will hurt less. And we are more valuable because of them. Painful as it was, I wouldn’t swap my 2022 experience because I’m wiser today and held together by stronger joins than before.

5. Words kill

Gender-based violence affects one in three women or girls, and technology breeds new forms. Last year, I suffered severe online abuse. Trolling so bad I detached from my body. Words nearly killed me. They did kill a woman during lockdown who died by suicide after being cyberbullied.

As uncomfortable as it is, most of my abuse came from men. I won’t talk about toxic masculinity because I don’t think there’s anything toxic about manhood. It’s our culture that’s toxic.

Our culture treats women like objects and degrades our image for entertainment. That same culture has caused gender-based violence to be the most prevalent human rights violation worldwide.

Words form language, and language shapes behavior. Until we change how we speak about women, we will not stop killing them.

6. Lose a stone

Everyone has a favorite journey. Mine is walking 500 miles across northern Spain. The Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage, and one of its customs is to carry a stone from your hometown to an iron cross.

Some things in life are essential; no matter their weight, we’ll carry them: careers, family and friends. But we’re all packing something we don’t want or need: unrealistic standards, rehashed quarrels or things we can’t do in moderation. That’s the motivation for carrying a stone across the Camino. It symbolizes a burden we need to put down. My stone was about allowing others to dictate my self-worth. It resurfaced in 2022, so I hiked Huangshan Mountain to put it down again.

You don’t need to go on a pilgrimage to learn from sacred teachings. We come across stones every day. Pause before picking them up, and assess your overall load. You’ll get to where you want with everything you need.

7. Screw likability and Tootsie

We’re taught we’re more likeable when we’re flawed, and we’re quick to acknowledge our imperfections to make ourselves more approachable. Slowly I’m learning how important the language we use about ourselves is.

There’s a visual cliché called the Tootsie Shot. You’ll know it because you’ve seen it a thousand times in movies like “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Devil Wears Prada.” It’s just 30 seconds of someone walking down a busy street. Here’s an example from an article I wrote recently.

Shot by Hu Jun. Edited by Hu Jun.

The Tootsie Shot represents opportunity. To Tootsie is to tell yourself you’re strong enough to carry your story and deserving of your success. When we own our success, we empower others to do the same. So next time you’re praised at work or elsewhere, screw being likeable and Tootsie.

8. We’re all MENTAL

One in four people live with a mental health condition. Look around the room and do the math. Think of the people you know and do the math. If it’s not you, it’s someone you’re close to. That makes mental well-being for the four in four.

We live in a city with an incredible mental health community. If you take nothing else from what I’ve said today, please take this: There is no shame in reaching out if you need support. I have regular therapy. Shame needs three things to survive: judgment, secrecy and silence. When we say no to ignoring or judging those with mental health conditions, we create a community where shame cannot exist.

So that’s it — eight lessons from a working progress. In many ways, we’re constantly rebuilding because life picks away at us. But like Kintsugi, the cracks we’re left with can be mended with care and celebrated. That way, experiences can become part of our composition rather than hidden damage.

Whether you’re rediscovering or rebuilding, cheers to all women and the beautiful men that love or support them. Wishing you a golden 2023.

Reach Emma at or follow her on Facebook (EmmaLeaning) and Twitter (@LeaningEmma).

Rebuilding: eight life lessons 2022 taught me

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