If you do not know me yet, here is the long version of the story to help you understand how Zhu is made, why certain decisions were taken, and how I become who I am and do what I do now.
I come from Shenzhen, the southern city of China, and the “Silicon Valley” of the East. The city wasn’t born 30 years ago – officially became a city in 1979 and gained the crown as the “special economic zone”, an open zone with favourable tax incentives, in 1980. I grew up in Shenzhen until I was 17. Pretty much growing up with the city, now the richest Chinese city by GDPPP, I have developed many of the traits of the city as well: spending money like mad, believing in the power of immigrants (Shenzhen is an immigrant city with 83% of the people do not owning Shenzhen permanent residency), start-ups, work ethics, and modernity.
Before I was 17, I also went to Finland and California for exchange. It was before Instagram was born, so pictures have long been lost. I was a girl, I was a bit waif, too much meagre, very pessimistic, cynical like ever. I was very into poems, and everything beautiful. From an early age, I showed inherent knack in writing, reciting poems, and reading. Also I disliked parties, meetings, communal gatherings; for rather a long time, I thought of living a life in some random mountains and spend the rest of my life as a nun. This was how much I disregard “mundanity” and everything materialistic elements attached to it. Like I do all the time, in year 2014, I tried to WWOOF (work in exchange for food and accommodation) in a farm in Denmark. The intensity of the housework to live completely away from humanity shocked me. I stayed in the farm for 4 days, and never returned to a life without hustle-bustle.
Funny enough, I chose a very materialistic major in university. I went for Economics, partially for the intellectual sparkles of the subject, abstract like the stars in the Milky Way, or substantial like the petite fire on the tip of a match – winds swoop by, and the light is off. Anyways, St Andrews was a cool place to start off. It was undeniably “aristocracy”, with Prince William and Princess Kate found the milk to their latte at St Andrews. In addition, the school blossomed too many parties, which are addressed as “balls”.
Despite coming from a well-to-do background of a well-to-do city, I sometimes still felt short of the budget. In one of the balls, I had to stitch my own clothes together. Might be from here, I found ny hidden “artisanal” talents.
The year of universities also meant the time for intense and mad, mad, mad personal development. Mimicking the “burn burn burn like roman candlelight” kind of spirit, I stepped on the road. Prior to those years, I wasn’t any different from you, he, she. The world was something on the newspaper for me: 2D, plain, imaginary, aggressive, headline-boldened, filled with eagers of a girl to explore, to see, to feel, and to live with her soul.
Before year 2013, I already went around the globe to Finland, Cali, Thailand, the UAE, etc., but from year 2013 onwards, I put her soul into those journeys. I tried to spend a long time or do meaningful projects in places, so I could live like a local. Some memorable journeys here will unwrap their stories.
In year 2012, the year I lost my dearest grandpa, who raised me up, I went to Yubeng, a secluded Tibetan village in Shangri-La, Yunnan Province, China. When I grew up, I had constant difficulties with her parents and bigger families as a whole besides her grand-parents. In 2012, I was going through her puberty. I spent all of my money but I wanted so bad for a wild journey. I borrowed money from her roommate and went on a 22km hike in the far west of China. My mother had no idea where I was and scolded her for her “irresponsibility”. I took out her SIM all at once to excommunicate.
With the little money I borrowed, I was planning to stay in Yunnan for a month and read books, living a simple “nun” life. However, the second day I was in Yunnan, I met a random young student over a meal, who described to her the “last lost paradise” in Shangri-La – the 22km hike Yubeng in the deep part of Tibetan region. He said, “I am going there tomorrow with a bunch of friends I met on the road. I am looking for one more person.” This is called “picking up” people, which is a popular way of meeting travel pals along the Sichuan-Tibet line.
I gave it a thought for one night. A moon planted a fire into her heart now. The next morning, I packed everything and went on the journey with the group.
The place was indeed beautiful. It also left a mark of Tibet in her heart. Since then, I was fascinated by Tibetan cultures and stories. I studied many of them afterwards.
The journey back was not the least dangerous – because the group was late to come out of the mountain, the Tibetan driver had to drive in the evening around the serpentine-like highways. Beside the highway was cliffs of thousands of metres. It was a moon night when werewolves could have been easily turned on. Cliffs were covered by mirror-like ice. The driver said, “No Chinse Han driver dared to drive like this. They don’t dare to drive in the evening.” He also said, “We have to fill the car with 6 people. Otherwise, the car is too light, and the evening wind would blow the car over the cliff.”
The driver murmured some prayers the whole evening as he drove. I sat next to the window. I peeked outside for only one glance: I saw moonlights sliding down like silver knives, cutting off the ground exactly at the brink of the car wheels. Beneath the car wheels, it was a massive blackhole – endless and cold. The blackhole killed off all the moonlight and played against the weight of the car. The car and the canyon were at battles, seeing which one lost its ground first.
In year 2013, I went to a less developed area the first time. Many would have thought China was a “developing” country, but not for its richest area. The end of year 2013, I went to Morocco for the first time to “volunteer” on the cause of women and children. I went without doing enough researches, so I had imagined Morocco, a touristy country to be neat and welcoming.
I already possessed some French skills then, so I was arranged as the French-language teaching assistant for the women and children in Rabat. Drastically different from Casablanca or Marrakesh, which are much more international, Rabat was filled with mostly young straying men on the streets “hunting” for foreign women. Dusty street zigzagged through the candy-coloured souks. I lived in the old town. Every day from my place to the school, I could hear at least 10 guys shouting on me saying “Konichiwa” “Ni Hao”, or coming close to my ear whispering “Marry me”. At the age of 18, I was freakin’ out.
This drew sharp conflicts between me and my co-workers, who disliked on my “princess” behaviours. The first time we navigated a tram, I said, “I’ve never taken a tram (which is true, I had always taken undergrounds at the time).” The co-workers coldly responded, “Are you too rich to take a tram?”
My first-time solo travelling ended abruptly. I was not happy for a single day so I decided to leave Rabat at once, ending my month-long working contract after 3 days. I later transferred to Marrakesh, which was a way more benign journey for me. Marrakesh has a more established international community and has been more accustomed to seeing a single, young, Asian, female, tourist.
Shenzhen and the places I had been living before are all orderly and safe places with less hustle-bustle than what I experienced in Rabat. This journey was soaked with my tears, but I learned quickly that the world was not what I had imagined. Places in the world are not as safe, orderly, or apparent as we had naively thought so. The mess of Rabat did not necessarily mean it was unsafe. On the contrary, the seemingly safe place might cover danger. Some people prefer an unorganised structure, but I preferred tidiness.
After Rabat, I started travelling more. I went to Turkey, probably too many times afterwards. My first time in Turkey came right after Rabat in 2014. I told my mother that I was about to go to Italy, which was true until I changed my plan 2 days before departure. Until the point I was catching a night bus from Istanbul to Pamukkale, my mother was still texting me, “How is Italy?”. In the same bus, I was touched all over my body by a guy sitting behind me. I was dreaming and was thinking it was a dream at first, then I woke up sharply, knowing someone was taking advantage of me in the dark. I stood up, dumbfounded, and rushed to the driver, saying loudly in English to a bus of Turkish, “Some.. one.. touched .. me … all… OOOO… ver….!!!” I crisscrossed my hands all over my bust to demonstrate the point to the driver. The driver comprehended immediately. He parked the bus at the side and scolded the criminal. He then arranged me to sit at the end of the bus, alone.
The Turkish experience is only one of them. In year 2016, I also faced sexual advancement during a lovely journey in Israel, which I will lay out in an Israel chapter. I also have landed in a wrong shared-car in Paris at 5am in the morning, with the male driver completely wasted and drove me to the suburb. I shouted, “Arrêt! Arrêt!” The driver reluctantly threw me off on a random empty side of the highway outside of the 19tharrondisement.
Throughout this journey, I became swollen-emboldened. To draw an analogue to an inflated balloon would be a wrong comparison, as such confidence came from actual experiences and seeing a broader world. I get accustomed to the beauty, the wonders, the ugly, the common sense, and the disputes of the world. Confidence grew sharpened, more like a diamond after multiple shavings.
After year 2014, I had to move to the US for 1 or 2 years as a part of my undergrad degree – a joint-diploma between two schools: St Andrews and William & Mary (Virginia). I was very saddened to leave as I had just made some tight friends at St Andrews during my year 1, going through parties and parties. After dating some young boys, I had also made a bigger move into dating a guy that was 10 years elder than me. I found my comfort zone and LOVED it.
I met with a German teacher (I was learning both French and German at the time, with me giving up the latter in 2 years) to pass off my golf clubs. I asked her should I give up on the valuable joint-diploma, like some of the people do. It wasn’t easy to go around in two places like unrooted dandelions. In fact, many people gave up or went into distress because they had to be in constant worries of missing out from the other parts or losing friends that had just made. I do not remember what she said to me in the end, but I had the lingering impression that, God gives you equal strength and blessings while you lose. Maybe this is a door for to discover the new world.
I left for Virginia at the age of 19 before turning 20. Life turned upside again. Both Virginia and St Andrews were in countryside. I escaped to New York and London as much as I could. I only went back to school to take exams. In the urban cafes, bars, hotels, anywhere you could find wifi, they have seen my past writing papers, studying textbooks, doing homework, checking on my stocks, etc. This period gave me the habit of working in the morning and having fun in the afternoon, no matter where I am. As long as there is wifi, I do not go unplugged. I also never stopped my footprints measuring the world – Caribbean, LA, the Middle East, Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, Southern Asia… I also spent too much time in Paris, honing my French, organising crazy wine parties in the cabinets of Parisian apartments in Les Invalides… Prior to studying in Paris, I wasn’t sure to go, as the tuition fee at Science Po Summer School was not the cheapest. I consulted my mother, who was sponsoring my studies at the time. She said, “You can go. We can earn money back, but youth is only once.”
In between, I met many interesting boys and probably had a bit more experiences. I loved someone that did not love me for rather a long time and cried my heart out. When I flew to his place in Europe to see him (all the way from the US), he said, “Well, I want you to come here cos I think it’s best for us to split”. In the blue jazz days, I also just debut a career in Finance, going to J.P. Morgan in the morning smiling and concentrating with my entirety of thoughts. In the evening, I could not sleep without seeing my tears showering my body every day. I was also fortunate to meet a person that loved me so much. The person would call me, then in Asia, abruptly withdrawing from a business trip in Portugal. He said, “Well I want to see you before you leave. So I am buying a ticket tomorrow and fly back to see you.” Also, too many wonders, loving moments, romances, anxieties, emotions, stories.
The journey made me understand that love is about passions. Passions can easily happen in the blink of eyes, but love is something more complex yet more enduring. For the people, places, matters you love, you will always love. For anything other than that, you don’t have to “hate” it, but I mean anything in between of “like” and one level below “love”. Anything that you do not “love” with the entirety of your heart, like your breath will be taken away your life will lose a piece your being will stop possessing a meaning, is not worth of pursuing. They do not fill your heart. The same principle applies to people and relationships – any relationship that is inundated by the teeny-weenie pieces of an ordinary life, I consider it has lost its soul. Any companion that cannot make you feel his or her existence is the perfection sent by God despite of all his or her humanly foils, I consider him or her only a nice pedestrian of phases of life. Notice, I said feel. Love is a feel. I also said soul. Love is not sex; it is about souls.
I actually went back to Morocco in year 2016 to surf in Taghazout. In that year, I also went to Turks and Caicos, danced in Palestine, had clubbing fun in Israel, and interned at Citigroup. I had always loved Economics and Finance, as much as I declare to the world that I hate it. I secretly have my heart melting to make a candy of love to the academics, rigidity, and abstractness of the subject. However, from year 2013 to year 2016, I went to many places to travel, read too many books, saw too many people’s lives in the world that I felt my old understanding about how to “succeed” in life does not hold. Investment Banking, despite of its profitability, is still a relatively conservative if not slow and boring place to reach the goal of life. Most importantly, I find many people in the field to be utterly ignorant of the world outside of the financial bubbles. If snob is a word invented alongside of discrimination by human beings to describe the powerful yet unsoulful, I consider some people in Finance to be so.
Regardless, I said, no thank you IBD.
Afterwards, I started doing media work, like shooting videos from ground zero. I don’t know why I felt so strong about it. I wanted something creative, so I bought a camera and began shooting some videos. My virgin piece is about golfing in St Andrews, which I edited using iMovie.
In year 2016, I returned to St Andrews from the US, after all the journeys in between. I changed. Going back to the “bubble”, as St Andrews is often described, I disdained the dandiness of the place. The old “best” friends I had made in my first year mostly stayed in Finance and became close to each other. I couldn’t go into their circle again. I did not feel I needed to fit in anyways. I could equally be happy to dress up in a boutique brand than styling in an Armani.
In year 2017, I also started founding a Mung Bean company in New York. After trying some lucks selling cooked mung bean food on the street, our start-up flew way with the current of time. The same year, I also started with UPenn, which has been a blessing and a curse at the same time.
By year 2017, as I freshened up from graduation, as my family and I toured London and Paris, I started my career from ground zero. Only in the next year, I learned how to use Premiere, how to get my writings to be paid, and how to edit photos, how to take photos. Then, at the end of 2017, I stumbled into the Middle East. Studying in Nice at the time, I decided to travel to a place I had never been and somewhere close that also does not have Christmas (so I can do something meaningful). Iran was the country to be. As I told many people, I was very scared before I went the first time. Like most people, I had no idea about the country and associated it to “bombs” per se.
The actual visit turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable. The country had its 7,000-year of history to offer, some of the sincerest citizens, and a pure landscape and civilisation. As much as headlines make the country sound like the biggest vice to democracy and the evillest enemy to freedom, the country itself is peaceful, nice, safe, and nonchalant. I posted some of the reels I had in Iran online and obtained favourable responses. Then I read more books about the place and started doing more about it. In addition, I made my constant tribute to the land.
Now the label of “Persia” has become one of my most discerning hashtags. People would still get confused of exactly what I do. Am I a behavioural economist? A student? Someone in Finance? A model? A PR? An entrepreneur? A writer? Where am I from? People also see that I organise many parties since day one; privately, I am also known as the “connector”. So am I a socialite?
Maybe all right. Maybe all wrong. People can never be so easily categorised into things. In an era when everyone is trying to find a “label” for him or herself to win in this “vertical” content world, I just do me.
The story will come to an end at this particular point, because the story is still in the process of writing; life is a web with many joints of possibilities, and they all take you to the place you want to be as long as you are in the wheel.
The whole point of this long story is to share with you a slice of my journeys. If those little parsed notes have made you ponder or have inspired you, I have fulfilled my use. In a business, you make it when you can link all the resources and possibilities together. In life, you make it when you can bridge cultures, whether it is the big cultures such as national, or sub-cultures, like regional.
I remembered a point when I was leaving Greece after several days at the age of 19. I saw the sunshine gradually climbing on the top of my train window. The train was about departure. Despite of the arrow-shooting speed of the train, the lukewarm and constant sunshine wraps my face like a silk scarf. My tears ran wildly all over my place. I hated separation – I had such a good time in Greece with my friends and I was about to leave to the US for years. I said, I want to settle down some day. I do not ever want to leave the people and place I love the dearest. The sunshine did not wipe off my tears. It only held my sorrows and desperation in its arm.
I can never forget that moment. Yet ironically, years later, I became so numb and insouciant; I am so accustomed to separations that nothing and nobody matter. I embraced every preaching of the zen, the “neutrality”, the “nothing stays at the end”, “life is zero from the beginning and at the end”, the “je ne sais quoi”.
We all grow up. Nothing matters anymore.
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