Fiction-guilt – in defence of TV shows

‘Glee is my guilty pleasure’. A dear friend of mine recently wrote this on a racing facebook comment trail about a new website called ‘help me write’. And I side-tracked into a line of thought I’d like to share here.

I’ve heard the feeling often: watching TV series is associated with feelings of guilt – whether it’s Glee, Gossip Girl, True Blood, Dexter, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, or ealier Friends, Buffy, 90210… watching the lives of imaginary characters and their complex evolutions is experienced as guilt. As if this was a worthless use of our time, as if there was ‘better to do’ than engage with fiction. Or maybe we should read, hey?

Then I realised, this is not new rhetoric – except it once applied to novels. Jane Austen denounces it in Northanger Abbey – others do too. Novels should be taken seriously: they’re a school for emotional intelligence, and they make us happy. So do TV series: they explore moral dilemmas, take us to imaginary worlds, relieve boredom, and make us think. What is there not to like? Sure, they might take us away from ‘productive pursuits’ – but then should our lives be devoted entirely to productive pursuits?

I would like, more precisely, to think about the role of fiction – imaginary worlds and crafted imaginary situations where imaginary characters make ethical decisions. I think in a future post, that’s what I’ll do – for the moment, I shall leave this reflection here.

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go.”


Since mid-November, the Golden Century Mall was blaring out a Christmas mix on repeat.

I first walked into the Golden Century Mall at the end of August, a few days after arriving in Nanjing. Although I would have probably gone there anyway, sooner or later, that first time was really just in order to find shelter from the rain. But retrospectively, that became a meaningfully symbolic first encounter, since the Golden Century Mall – or ‘the Golden’ as I call it – quickly became my safe place in Nanjing. I go there in the daytime to sit at the little Costa Coffee tucked away on level five and read a book or study; and I go there in the late evenings for a quiet stroll along empty luxury stores and Western restaurants. In this chaotic city, with road-works, honking scooters and people shouting everywhere, walking along the clean, quiet floors of ‘the Golden’ is like visiting a spa.

Needless to say, that Christmas mix has had a major impact on my mood.

Mind you, it’s not that I hate Christmas – I used to rather like it actually. Back home in Australia, Christmas was holidays and beach time – fish and chips on the sand, barbecues in friends’ backyards, volley-ball. Then during my time In Berlin, I always took a plane south for Christmas – Spain, Italy, Morrocco, Senegal – so that I could get some heat back inside me, and these were always happy times. Even last year, my contract in Tianjin ended right on Christmas Eve, and I flew directly to Yunnan for much nicer air and livable temperatures. But this year, Nanjing sucked out all my energy, and I haven’t even been able to plan a trip away. Not that I would know where to go: my dreams of exotic travels are gone. I don’t even crave home anymore: I’ve been away too long for it to make any sense.

– I think China’s just affecting my mental health.

– …

– I’m finding it really hard to relax.

– …

– It’s just the air, and the weather, and the people – everything’s just really weird and aggressive.

– …

– Well, I try to get a massage every week, that helps a bit.

– …

– I guess, I haven’t really made friends. I don’t know, the expats are just… the ones I met have been actually pretty vile.

– …

– Oh, just men drooling over Chinese girls, and the women, I don’t know, they’re just air-heads, the ones I spoke to.

– …

– Thanks, I might try to do that – have a good night!

– …

– Kisses!

I don’t want to develop a facebook addiction, but it’s the only thing that gets me out of here. That and streaming movies. Except when my VPN isn’t working, or my internet is down, and then I get even more depressed. All I want for Christmas is just – to have myself a merry little Christmas. It’s not asking for much, it’s just what the soundtrack is telling me to do. But I don’t have any faithful friends here, to gather near to me once more.

And on top of that, now my safe place is making me crazy. When I sit at the Costa Coffee trying to read, all I can think about is Christmas, Christmas everywhere. They’ve done this weird thing too: they’ve hung a full set of stuffed reindeers upside down over their indoor ice-rink. Well yes, there’s an indoor ice-rink inside the Golden, on level four, you can see it from the Costa and that’s pretty weird already. But the reindeers are just, really bizarre. I mean, what next? indoor snowflakes? A live-in Santa? Make-your-own-snowman workshops for the kids? So yes, now I decided every time I come to the Golden, I’m just going to lie down on the floor for a minute, and look up at the reindeers, dreaming of a white Christmas. It sounds crazy, but it’s working for me.

I was lying on the floor like that when the face of a young woman with too much make up on bent over me. “Excuse me, are you from America?” She needed more flesh on her bones, but at least she was polite. “I’m from Australia”, I replied, standing up. I almost hoped she was from the mall and would ask me to leave, but no: there was a full TV crew behind her. Maybe they were shooting this new program showing foreigners in embarrassing positions, and I’d just been caught?

“Would you like to do an interview with us? Share about Christmas in your country?”

I don’t know what came into me, but that’s when I thought, you know what, I’m just gonna make shit up. “Sure,” I said, “can we do it now?” I don’t know, it was the setting, the Christmas music, the ice-rink: I stood up, facing the cameras, and I started my riff.

“In Australia, we’ve got a summer Christmas, it’s not cold like here. So there’s a few strange customs. Everyone wears a swimsuit for lunch, because we’re all on the beach, but the women wear gloves and the men a jacket and tie, so it’s a bit formal. Also, some families do the Christmas race: the kids all dress up as reindeers, and they must run to the place where all the presents are: it’s a lot of fun. And then, all December, we play ‘spot Santa’ – that’s what I was doing here – you lie down on your back, and look up in the sky, trying to spot the flying sleigh. There’s people spotting him every year, and you see pictures in the paper – I wonder if I’m gonna spot him this year.”

The skinny woman with too much make-up on nodded all the way, then she politely said “thank you”, and handed a name-card: I should send her an email to find out when the program was on. I’m not sure if they’re gonna show the footage, but it would be fun if they did. I mean, it sounds outrageous, but I’m sure there’s been guys on drugs to lie down on the ground and play Spot Santa somewhere in Australia.

The TV crew left, and I lay down again. The rein-deers had a mysterious kind of sparkle, maybe their fur was made of shiny material, or maybe that was just an effect of the Golden Century Mall spotlights reflected on the flat surface of ice below. Jingle bells were jingling through the air, mingling with the wafts of coffee from Costa. Wave after wave of new families descended from the nearby escalators, alternating girls in yellow boots and oddly quiet little boys. Then for a second, the music stopped, and the shrill voice of a child echoed around, shouting ‘I’m coming, I’m coming’.

Then the music started again, “Silent Night” – and for the first time in a very long while, I felt happy, calm and peaceful.

NOTE: This story is the third in a planned series of #52, recomposing my memories of a term in China through fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This story was written with the help of DraftQuest. Image and story are copyright @julienleyre.

What changed in 2013?

It has become common, as the new year comes, to publish a list of one’s recent ‘achievements’ – discrete items completed over the last year cycle, that – may – go down in our personal history like a string of baroque pearls. In parallel some will publish a list of goals or resolutions for the year to come – which, when the time come, will become new pearls on a new year-string. I do not much like the productive metaphor that underlies this yearly ritual – but would rather reflect in a more holistic way on how my situation transforms from year to year, and what new changes I expect from the coming cycle. Let’s call it, present consequences of last year’s achievements.

So, this is what changed for me since last year, in no particular order.

My linguistic competence changed, and with it my capacity to talk and engage with people. Last year, I was not confident enough to join in a semi-professional Mandarin discussion. I struggled to read, and could not write a short message or email without an electronic translator and dictionary at hand. I am now able to do all of this – still not with perfect confidence or fluency, but well enough. This means I now think of Chinese people as potential conversation partners, and can start imagining direct interactions with them, face to face, through social media or email.

My relationship to China changed. After spending four months in Nanjing as a resident, after visiting five provinces and twelve different cities, I have a much more intuitive and personal understanding of the size, diversity, and historical depth of this country. By living here, I have developed friendships and trusting relationships with a number of Chinese people from different places and background, and can now confidently contact them for advice or help. Both at the emotional, imaginary, and practical level, I am now more able to project myself into China, and make sense of events or situations involving Chinese people from a range of local perspectives. 

Marco Polo Project changed. We now run a reasonably respectable website, with an established editorial line and a core group of identified authors. We’ve got full models for events, and are ready to grow partnerships. Our operations are now clear, and we’re ready to increase our productivity. My own professional status changed along with Marco Polo Project. I raised 38,000 dollars for two different China-related project, and for the first time, will pay myself a small salary from this sum next year to run them. My public profile also changed. I am now introduced more often as ‘founder and CEO’, and was invited to speak about related topics at a few public events in Australia and France. I am not a solid authority yet – but slowly, I am being recognised as someone worth listening to when it comes to learning languages online, the multilingual internet, and all things China.

My personal situation changed. My partner completed his degree, and will be teaching English at Ivanhoe Girls Grammar from January, in a role that he loves, and with a comfortable enough salary.This means the end of a very tight financial year for both of us, and the excitement of a new profession starting.

My personal networks changed – I made new friends, and deepened older friendships – each of them opening a new window for me to understand the world, potential for joint projects, or the simple pleasure of conversation and company.

My nationality changed. I became an Australian, which means I no longer have to gather documents or engage with the immigration department; which means I can get a visa to China without much hassle; which means I can work for the Australian public service; which means I can legitimately reply ‘I’m Australian’ when people ask me where I come from.

My own psychological balance changed. Last year, I started with a lot of energy , but little experience and understanding of what lay ahead. I’m starting this year more tired – certainly the result of four intense months in China – but better connected, and with significantly stronger systems in place.

I am not sure yet what changes will happen in 2014, but here are a few directions I will work towards. Cosmopolitan short fiction. Personal productivity. Delegation. Mandarin speed and flexibility. Weaving Australia, France and China. Portfolio career. Regular day-breaks.

And we’ll see next year what actually changed.

Multicultural story-sharing

At an amazing post-festival drink party with the Emerging Writers Festival people, while discussing and Melbourne storytelling projects, I had an idea that could feed into the Marco Polo Project. Why not create a platform where Chinese speakers (and maybe Japanese, Korean, and Spanish speakers too) could share their experience of Melbourne as a place where they lived as international students.

I spoke with a guy there who works at Melbourne Uni, and said ‘these international students, they come here, but they stay together, they don’t really meet the locals, they might as well stay home.” I said,” Not so: they do meet people they would never meet home. People from Beijing meet people from Shanghai, and Chongqing, and Tokyo. How would they meet them, at home? It’s like the Erasmus yer for Europeans, you meet other Europeans, often some from your home country; and it’s extremely formative – even if it’s not a proper encounter with the country you live in.

So, yes, why not provide a platform where these international students could tell the stories of their time in Melbourne – and, maybe, share it with locals (or we could translate them, and spy on them); like Americans tell of their time in Paris. Melbourne as a playground for cosmopolitasians – why not?

User Stories

Yesterday, I’ve been working on drafting ‘user stories’ for the information architecture part of the Marco Polo project. It’s an interesting process: in order to develop the architecture and navigation plan of your website, you imagine a fictional user – giving him or her a name, an age, a profession, as well as a motive for visiting your website; then, you describe, in all details, the interaction between that fictional user and your intended website.

It a a fabulous visualisation technique, and suddenly raises many questions you wouldn’t ask yourself otherwise: she wants to input text but is not logged in – what action triggers an error message? is she redirected to a registration page? She wants to register, is that instant, or does she receive an email with an activation link? Little details and decisions you need to make.

I was reminded of things I read about architects – how the art of architecture is about building daring shapes in space, inspired from dreams or animals. But their art is, also, that of the mason, build something that holds together; and something even more down-to-earth, a kind of simple commonsense, or knowledge of the human – make sure there is a pathway to each room. Build in windows, plumbing, ventilation. Think where your doors will be.

But for a fiction writer, this process is more than just about making a blueprint. Believe it or not, I grew attached to my characters. I started wondering, will their life be changed by this website? Will they, or will they not contact another user? Will something happen then? It was exhilarating, to imagine as fiction something I want to bring to the world. Dangerous also – probably – taking me far from the mundane drafting of a business plan or of a budget, into my own fantasy-world, where volunteers jump in, enthusiasms feed each other, yet everyone does, to a point, exactly as I tell them.