a personal essay by Cathay Lau
Familiar sounds of men shouting across the streets in the abrupt and abrasive dialect of Cantonese fade in and out of my ears. A drop of rainwater lands on my nose. I jolt and look up to see that it has been dripping from the unstable bamboo scaffolding that I'm walking under. My mother tugs on my arm as we near a bustling road, pinning me in place before a taxi driver whizzes by, shouting profanities at me for nearly allowing him to run me over. She lets me go, and I still can’t move; instead, I’m surrounded by herds of people, decked out in their designer clothes and pretentious trainers. Apparently, I’m a trend-following sheep too, because I’ve been dragged into some obnoxiously loud, EDM- booming beauty store. Leeches are everywhere when you walk into those places; a worker immediately latches themself on to my right arm with a busload of skin whitening products…
-ah yes, the reminder of my culture's colourism.
When they finally come to the realisation that simply naming products won’t work, they start to play dirty: they start to target insecurities. This is the part where you have to nod and allow them to dig into you. This “beauty assistant” is assisting me in realising that my pores are too large, and my skin is too oily. Although I agree, I’m seething in opposition. Yes, my pores may be craters and my skin the equivalent of a frying pan, but what happened to personality-gaining points?
“Never” is the answer in this superficial, materialist hell.
So you find yourself pathetically grasping five boxes of ‘serum’ (whatever that is) and waiting in a thirty-minute line with other insecure people. A midlife crisis is on the edge of imploding by the time you reach the fifteen-minute flag. You check your phone, and no one is texting you. Why is no one texting you? You start calming down with the idea that all of your problems will be solved with these tiny, consumerist bottles that you’re holding.
You’re in too deep now, gal.
The city has swallowed you up and it’s going to spit you out.
It’s raining. They said this would happen. Over the course of the week, I’ve noticed that time seems to move more slowly here. My life is staring out of windows now, dead flies glazed over glass, that all too familiar feeling of a bubbling in my throat. That warm place is where I long to be--not a world with grey filtered skies and the memory of stomach ache goodbyes. I find it hard to believe that some of the world's most famous poets and writers lived here. My father drags me into a musty bookstore and I think about what Alex would have done if she were here: probably role play Hugh Grant in Notting Hill and push me into the character of Julia Roberts. I wouldn’t mind. I’m staring out of the window (again) at a lurid leaf that’s trapped on a wet grate, Lady Chatterley's Lover is in my right hand and a collection of Katherine Mansfield stories are wedged beneath my left armpit. I could romanticise this but there’s something awfully lonely about fantasising with a modernist piece of borderline erotica in my hands in a city where everyone avoids you. I’m growing tired of the inactive eye contact and aggressive shoulder bumps from fast-paced workers. The grass is the colour of God’s snot, and the clouds serve as shadows on the already soaked pavements of Piccadilly. Maybe if I buy this book, I’ll feel happier. I don’t know. Every now and again, I’ll go round in circles like some optimistic dog and pass the all too familiar buskers who fill my world with artificial sound until it eventually grows into haunting reverbs behind me. I look back, I always look back. We’re in Chinatown now, red lanterns line from building to building and the smell of sweet pineapple buns are wafting through the air.
This is the heart of London.
The concrete beneath me is cobbled though and I still struggle to speak my own language to the workers. Everything is blurring into a monotonous cloud and I feel the air beneath my boots, my arms limp, and the burden heavy.