“You should integrate into mainstream British society ASAP!”

My mum is far back in China, but at the moment, she’s on a video call with me.

“This is your only way out!”

She is nearly roaring, and because of anxiousness, her face is a little twisted.

Okay, so I got to integrate into the mainstream. But what is this bloody “mainstream” anyway? Marrying a British white man and having a mixed-blood baby? Finding a job in the banking industry and attending posh upper-class parties? I really don’t know. I guess every foreigner in this country is trying hard to worm his way in, but there’s nobody who can tell me the precise definition of this so called “mainstream.”

But I’ve always wanted to write something in English, though. Before coming to the UK, I’d published one novel, one poetry collection, and two book translations in China. Someone called me an “emerging writer.” I’d also worked in a famous publishing house for a while. Before coming to the U.K., writing was my God in my heart. But here? I’ve never tried. I guess I just don’t have the courage. I have to admit that I got nothing to show off with my English.


On this morning, I have not yet integrated into the mainstream. So I put on my makeup, pack my handbag, and head on my way to London’s Chinatown. I work for the Sino-U.K. Magazine here. It is a free Chinese-language magazine focusing on the U.K. Chinese community. Every morning, I depart from my home in East London, take the Underground for about 40 minutes, transfer once at Waterloo, and then I’m at the place.

I recognize Chinatown the minute I get there; I never get it wrong.

I know the smell here, the smell of food mixed with the smell of sweat; the air is foul, different from anywhere else in London. I know the streets here: the bumpy, zigzag roads are made of big and small stones, with dirty water everywhere in the gaps. I know the Chinese supermarkets here: if you are unlucky, you could easily buy something that has already passed the expiry date. I know the people here: they are young students or tourists from Europe, cheating with their makeup, acting wacky, stopping at the arch to take photos.

I try to avoid the crowd and be deft, turning into the byway. At the very same moment, a yellow-skinned, middle-aged man suddenly appears in my face. There is a mysterious black bag in his hand.

“Sister, Di-Wee-Di! Di-Wee-Di!” He is using a very low voice and saying something. Afterwards, I realized what he was saying was “DVD”; smuggled, illegal DVDs.

This is where I work.

I know my readers, too. They are workers or consumers of Chinese restaurants, Chinese supermarkets, Chinese solicitor offices (sometimes helping the illegal Chinese workers to stay longer in this country), and traditional Chinese medicine clinics (many of which are starting to sell tea leaves and chinaware instead, because of bad capital circulation). All of these people have one thing in common: they don’t understand English. Of course, sometimes the officials from the Chinese embassy read our magazine, too; they need to supervise the overseas Chinese media channels. Some activists in the U.K. Chinese community also read our magazine; they are born actors and need to always make sure they’re getting frequent media coverage.


As I arrive at Chinatown and walk into my office, Chief Editor Lin’s voice comes into my ears.

“Chu, go to the opening ceremony of a Chinese foot massage centre this afternoon and write a piece about it.”

No, you didn’t get it wrong: it is “a Chinese foot massage centre” indeed. I know Lin doesn’t like me, because she often sends me to shitty events (while she goes to the mayor’s office, Chinese embassy, and so on), but I didn’t know she hated me to such a degree. The reason was simple: we were both competing for a work permit. I also heard that Lin has slept with the boss once, so now she thinks she is the hostess of the magazine and can give whatever orders she likes. Who knows?

Anyway, going to a foot massage centre isn’t the worst assignment I’ve had. Last time, I was sent to a “magic” doctor’s “clinic” to interview him. He was known for “able to tell what you are going to die of in the future.” All he needed to do was just to look at your face for 30 seconds.

Well, this so-called “clinic” was located in a residential building near Chinatown. It was actually a one-bedroom flat. He lived there, too. The exterior appearance of the building was old, dirty, and messy. The original yellow bricks were turning black.

After arriving at the magic doctor’s house, he talked excitedly for a while. I quickly took notes on his nonsense. I was totally unprepared and he suddenly roared at me: “Stand up! Turn around!”

I had no clue what he was doing, but I did what he said.

“Ah-ya!” The magic doctor pounded the table and stood up. “You, lady, will die from heart disease in the future, ah! Unless you buy some of the medicines I made…”

In the end, I wrote the article, as Lin asked me to. But I insisted that she not put my name on it.

And today, I’m going to this foot massage centre’s opening ceremony. What a job!

The boss of this foot massage centre is called Brother Nan. He has some fame in Chinatown. According to hearsay, Brother Nan slipped across the border of the U.K. years ago, then secretly started a business in smuggling and money laundering. After he had got his “first pot of gold,” he returned to his old hometown in full glory. As soon as he got to his village, he sent out word that he was going to marry the most beautiful woman in the village. Later, he began to invest in the restaurant industry in the U.K. and quit his old businesses.

Right now, the most beautiful woman in the village is standing right in front of me, with a standard smile on her face, welcoming every guest coming to this ceremony. To be fair, the front gate of this foot massage centre is tiny and in poor condition. You could miss it easily if you are not paying attention. Despite this, it costs people a large sum of money to have their feet washed and massaged here, the reason being “some very expensive herbal medicine is added in the water.”

The opening ceremony itself was simple; as soon as they cut the ribbon at the front gate, that was the end of the story. But don’t get it wrong; the drinking and eating afterwards were the real business.

So we were having this dinner in a nearby Chinese restaurant that is operated by Brother Nan. During the dinner, Brother Nan keeps using his Hokkien dialect to passionately chat with all the reporters: “…to tell you the truth, just like you all, I am a very artistic person…do you know the TV series Princess Pearl [a romantic Chinese costume drama from the late 90s]? I’ve seen it all! I have even seen the second season…”

Brother Nan must have talked too much and felt thirsty; he quickly finished the whole pot of tea in front of him and then disappeared in the restroom. When he came out again, there was suddenly very loud music playing. It is the Korean band Gangnam Style going out loudly to every corner of the restaurant.

As soon as the music ended, about half of the people sitting there were dumbstruck. They suddenly jumped out of their chairs and rush to the empty space in the middle of the floor to dance. I was stunned and speechless, as if I’d been transported to a cheap club located in some combination of city and country.

Right at this moment, Brother Nan jumped into my face, laughing, with his untidy teeth exposed in the air: “Give me a smile, Chu! Show me your passion!”


The very next day, I felt the urgency of “integrating into the mainstream” for the first time. I have never had such a strong feeling. I guess I’d just had enough of my job. I don’t want to continue with it anymore.

But what is the first step of “integrating into the mainstream?” I start to try different things. The first thing I do is to buy a ticket to a so-called “poetry international” event. It was being held at Southbank Centre.

So I go to the event; the hall was packed out. I was wearing my jeans and sweater. Only when I get to the place do I realize I’ve picked the wrong clothes. Everybody there is wearing something real decent: for men, suits or even swallow-tailed coats; for women, full dresses of all kinds, like they are the ones who are going to perform on the stage. (I always wondered why British people don’t feel cold—they wear shorts and dresses even in winter time—eventually I decided that this is probably because of the length of summer here; it is too short, people don’t get enough of it, so they just carry on ‘til winter time.)

The event started; 50 poets from different countries were sitting in one line on the stage. Each of them reads one or two poems of a past famous poet. They read in turns. Every time someone finishes reading, huge applause burst out from the audience. People stand up. People cheer and whistle.

But I soon realize I don’t understand a thing. Poetic language is probably the most subjective language in literature. Even when it is written in Chinese, I sometimes get confused by others’ poems; the flow of emotions, the way people make free associations, and so forth.

Except one female poet’s poem from the stage: I unexpectedly understand it! The poem reads: “…Great humility fills me / great purity fills me / I make love with my dear / as if I made love dying / as if I made love praying / tears pour / over my arms and his arms / I don’t know whether this is joy / or sadness, I don’t understand / what I feel, I’m crying / I’m crying, it’s humility / as if I were dead / gratitude, I thank you, my fate / I’m unworthy, how beautiful / my life.” It was by Polish poet Anna Swir.

So in this poem, the poet cried. And in reality, I’m sitting in this decent, grand hall, looking at all the poets sitting on the stage, feeling that my eyes are becoming wetter and wetter until drops of tears come out.

I can’t tell you why I was crying. Was I touched by this whole solemn atmosphere? (I’d never imagined poetry can be such a solemn thing. In China, we can rarely find a proper free place for holding poetry-reading events nowadays. Even if we do, very few people would come, and they’d usually be personal friends of the poets wearing jeans and sweaters, just like what I was wearing today.) Was it because I finally feel connected with literature in this country the minute I understood the words from the stage? I don’t know. It must be complicated.

All I can tell is that I envied those poets standing on the stage. I envy those poets whose poems are being read. I’d like to be one of them, rather than sitting in my tiny office in Chinatown, writing pieces about a magic doctor or a bloody foot massage centre.

So I go back home with these kind of thoughts, switch on my laptop, open a new Word document, and try to write something in English.

But it is just too difficult. I try to translate my own poems from Chinese to English; I try to translate my novel. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t stop feeling that all the sentences and words I use are not quite right. I get confused by these choices. For example, when you want to describe someone without words, what do you say? Is it “silent,” “wordless,” “reticent,” “mute,” or something else? God…there’re just too many choices in the dictionary. In the end, I am not a native of this language.

I might never become an author in this country.


I might never become an author in this country. So I go to work in Chinatown again, as always.

Now I feel pained, desperate, and lost. If people can see their whole lives unchanging, if people can never realize their dreams, then what is the point of living? My heart has lost direction. I don’t know what can I do to change the situation. For now, I’m just alive, but not living a fulfilled life.

As I am sitting at my desk, trying hard to concentrate, our chief operating officer comes in.

He is originally from Hong Kong, in his early 60’s, and often talks to people using his Cantonese dialect. He has a pet phrase: “I just want my salary for each month and I want my retirement pay in the near future, so don’t give me any trouble.” He says so, and he does so. He never cares about the quality of the magazine, whether you copy articles from someone else, whether the articles attract enough readers…he just doesn’t care, so long as there is a magazine coming out every week. Our boss doesn’t care about it, either. He just wants to use the magazine as free advertisement for his travel business.

The COO seems to be in good mood today. He walks directly towards me, smiling, the old face wrinkled: “Working hard again, huh?” His Cantonese dialect is so annoying at that moment.

“Don’t need to work hard, la! Marry me, la! Save a lot of work for you! I have the British passport!”

“Marry me! Then you become British, too!” He got divorced in his early years.

He continues his wrinkled smile: “You are young, and I like young bodies, as fresh as cream…emmm…think about my suggestions!”

I know that he is half-joking and I know that he always says this kind of stuff to every young lady in our office. I shouldn’t care. And you know what? I actually don’t care.

But I don’t know why this time, I stared at him and smiled. And then I started to pack a few important things of mine, neither too quickly nor too slowly. Afterwards, I took the things I’d packed and walk out of the office, leaving the old man standing there stunned and speechless.

Yes, I have left my office. And this time, I will never go back. I didn’t even hand in a resignation letter.


For all installments of “The Mainstreamer,” click here.