7 inspirational stories from Shanghai's live storytelling series Unravel

Residents share real-life stories of love, laughter, hope and hurt

Alejandro Scott

We love Shanghai, but living here can be a soul-sucking experience – it’s ghastly expensive, the traffic’s horrific and (with a population of over 24 million) it has a sea of people so vast you could almost drown. District Beer Bar founder Clara Davis is injecting a little bit of humanity back into the city one tale at a time with her passion project Unravel.


A Shanghai-born-and-bred, roving storytelling series, each month Unravel invites Shanghai residents to the stage to share their real-life stories on the evening’s theme, which have ranged from ‘Home’ to ‘Wild’.


Get a taste of what it’s all about as former Unravellers share their stories.

Elly Porter


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What brought you to Shanghai?
I'm half Chinese and there's always been a part of me that's been eager to connect with my heritage. I moved from London to live in Hong Kong but when I visited a friend here I had an epiphany (which, to be totally precise, took place in Shelter). There are so many things I derive joy from here on a daily basis and it's a privilege to feel like Shanghai is home.

How would you describe Unravel?
Unravel for me is a moment of stillness, a platform where for all the talking and the hearing you do everyday, you suddenly are forced to really listen to someone else actually saying something, whether it's an emotional epic or a funny quip. It reminds me of the CS Lewis quote, 'We read to know we are not alone.' Human experience is always relatable – sometimes more so than you'd like it to be. 

What did you think of the experience of sharing a story at one of the live shows? 
Truly remarkable. It's not often in life as a grown up that you throw yourself into doing something you've never tried before in front of 150 people. My assumption is that it's even rarer to then discover that you then didn't totally suck at it. 

Tell me a story...


When Labour lost the UK general election in 2015, Ed Miliband had to stand down after one of the most unsuccessful leadership stints of all time. I cried. Then I broke up with my boyfriend.


I was working at a PR agency in Central London’s Somerset House at the time, and a group of my colleagues and I would go to this terrible gym on Embankment near Charring Cross Station after work, which basically equated to walking uphill on the treadmill for a bit and then checking Instagram every five stomach crunches or so. I usually tried to do some time on the treadmill, but I remember that this day I was feeling really low. Labour had lost the election and I was single. I decided that I couldn’t face holding my body upright, so, for the first time in my life, ever, I decided to use the gym bikes, which were in the cellar, facing the street. 


I remember I couldn’t get my phone to work properly so it was stuck on a country and western playlist that was already uploaded. About 20 minutes in, Tammy Wynette’s ‘Stand By Your Man’ – a guilty pleasure of mine as an ardent feminist – came on and I continued peddling. As the chorus started, a man walked past the window in front of me. I did a double take. It was Ed Miliband. He was walking past my gym. If you haven’t grasped the full extent of my obsession by now then let me explain it to you – it’s probably the way more normal, better-adjusted teenage girls feel about Harry Styles. When I saw him, it was like how I imagine it would feel if someone ripped out my stomach. 

Elly Porter pull quote

I tried to carry on peddling, but something inside me just switched, and I dived off the bike, falling to the floor and quickly grabbing my stuff. I had a sweat towel round my neck and a Material Girl-style headband on. I looked across the gym. It was full. There were men everywhere making gross noises and picking up heavy things. At the top of my voice I started shoving my way through the crowd, screaming, ‘I’m so sorry… Excuse me… Out of my way!’ Big, burly men fell by the wayside. My colleague called out after me but I’d already disappeared onto the street. 


I got up to Embankment. It had taken me a couple of minutes to get out of the gym and I looked both ways, struggling to identify him. I was desperately trying to see over the heads of tourists, and just as I was about to give up, I saw what I thought was him just about to turn a corner, walking in the direction of Covent Garden, i.e. in the distance. 


I ran after him at my fastest speed. As I approached him, I started shouting, ‘Ed! Ed!!!’. It was then he turned around, looking frankly terrified of this girl in threadbare activewear chasing him down the street, waving her sweat towel to try and get his attention. ‘Erm, yes that’s me,’ he said as I stopped and promptly collapsed to gasp for air. ‘Ed. Miliband,’ I said. ‘I just want you to know that even though everyone said those things, you were still my favourite leader of all time.’

Earle Figuracion


Earle RGB

What brought you to Shanghai?
My sense of adventure and desire to take a decisive step closer to my goals brought me here. I have never been to China, so I saw this as an opportunity to experience a new culture and expand my horizons.

What made you want to participate in Unravel?
I have always been fond of storytelling and have sought to find as many avenues for it ever since I made it part of my skill-set a few years ago. Unravel itself is a unique concept; a perfect chance to share stories and to connect with the community.

What’s the value of a platform like Unravel in Shanghai?
Sharing stories has always been an activity by a community. Here in Shanghai, a platform like Unravel provides everyone who participates in it with the opportunity to satisfy the need to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit and see how our various experiences, pleasant or not, are sources of strength and inspiration. It is also a unique way to get to know and to connect with new people, and if you are someone who would want to tell a story, Unravel is definitely one of the safest venues to start out. 

Tell me a story...


That afternoon, all my pent up frustration through years of repression was unleashed when my mother berated my decision to live in Japan. A darkness consumed me. My entire body shook, my breath came in furious bursts, and my eyes stung with tears. Words I have fought to hold back from saying to her spilled from my lips like wildfire: ‘You are so narrow-minded.’ 


She drew back her hand, and as with countless times I knew she was preparing to strike me with it. I knew how much it would hurt, she was strong and had martial arts training, my mother; a slap from her would send me reeling. But unlike before, I felt no fear, my mind did not dictate my body to recoil and protect itself from the incoming hit. It instead drew out a voice deep within me, and made my mouth move: ‘Go ahead, why don’t you! Hurting me is what you’ve always been good at!’ I challenged her, amidst my angry sobs. Then nothing. 

"Earle Pull quote"

There was only silence between the two of us. I saw an expression in my mother’s face, something she has never directed at me before: disbelief and resignation. 


I do not remember what happened after that encounter. We did not talk after that. She took me to the airport a few days later, to see me off my flight to Japan. As I was preparing to go inside, she broke the silence and asked me, ‘Will you be ok?’ ‘Yeah, I’ll be all right,’ I replied. And really I was. In that moment it was as if a long, ongoing storm that had been raging around the two of us had suddenly ceased. We were in the clear, or at least I felt I was. 


I never went home after the year I spent in Japan; it is true that one’s appetite for independence becomes insatiable once it has been fed. My relationship with my mother is complicated – to put it mildly. Lines were drawn and crossed that day, and I feel it was all for the best.

Gabby Gabriel


Gabby

What brought you to Shanghai?
I moved to Shanghai in 2012 without knowing much about China, I frequently joke that I didn’t even read the Wikipedia page. Due to the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act (the policy that defined marriage as strictly between a man and a woman) in the United States, I moved to China with my former fiancé to build a life together while waiting for the policy to change in the United States. Although the love I initially moved here for didn’t last, I fell in love with Shanghai.

What do you do in Shanghai?
I’m heavily involved with all things Shanghai, not just because I love it, but because I’ve started several businesses here. I’m an entrepreneur. LesQueers, a lesbian community/app, Hai Properties, which specialises in short term rental properties, an Education Consultancy, and Shanghai Love Notes which tells stories of Shanghai and stories of the heart. 

What made you want to participate in Unravel?
Stories make the world go round, they are a large part of the human experience. Storytelling events like Unravel, are so great because they bring people together and connect people in such an impactful way.

What did you think of the experience of sharing a story at one of the live shows? 
I loved watching and hearing all the other stories, and listening to the other storytellers made me more comfortable about sharing my own. There is a bit of vulnerability that  a storyteller gives to the audience, and being in the environment where someone else is sharing a piece of themselves, I felt like I too, could share a piece of me. It was an exhilarating experience because I could see the reaction of the audience as I was telling my story, and it felt good to be able to really connect with an audience while telling a story that is quite personal to me. 

Tell me a story...


The year was 2005, and I was a closeted lesbian at an all girls prep school in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Back then, it wasn’t as acceptable to be gay in America: it was the days before gay marriage, and the only popular lesbian in the media was Ellen Degeneres. My school was so progressive, so liberal, so accepting I thought… 

One day at the end of my sophomore year, I was 16 years old and there was a day of diversity acceptance. For the day the entire student body spent time learning and understanding about what it meant to be different. I felt amazing. I knew I was different, and here we were as a student body discussing why it’s ok to embrace other people’s differences. I felt like I really was in a special school that could accept me. 

Gabby pull quote

At the end of the day, there was a ‘step into the circle’ activity, led by the Head of School. The entire high school student body was gathered in a circle in the gym. 'Step into the circle if you identify as a woman,' I remember the first invitation was one that was easy – most of us stepped in. And as the invitations to step into the circle became more and more specific, I felt my heart racing. Would I have the courage to step into the circle as a lesbian? 'Step into the circle if you identify as heterosexual.' Almost all 500 people stepped into the circle. I’ll never forget the looks on my friends’ faces when they saw that I hadn’t stepped in. They looked at me wondering what I was doing… 'Step into the circle if you identify as a lesbian.' I stepped in, alongside with two of the gym teachers. 

Although it was a tiny step inside a gymnasium in Northeast Ohio, it was one of the biggest steps of my life, and since then, I have never been the same. 

Hanting


Hanting RGB

What brought you to Shanghai? 
I'm a native Beijinger who was lured to Shanghai a year ago by the bright lights and the copious amount of cool bars.
 
What did you think of the experience of sharing a story at one of the live shows? 
I was actually super nervous before the event. I was asking my colleague to help me edit the story, pacing back and forth in my living room, mumbling away to myself on the subway rehearsing. But once the event started, I calmed down. It was a welcoming and supporting environment. I could feel audience get curious, frustrated, amused and sad together with me. A story that used to be deeply personal suddenly began to live on in other people’s lives. 
 
How would you describe Unravel?
I think through such amazing connection and interaction, Unravel provides an opportunities for the storytellers to take the audience on a journey, and for the audience to live vicariously through the diverse lives in Shanghai. But more importantly, Unravel provides a venue, both literally and metaphorically, for many great voices and stories to be heard. In the always noisy city of shanghai (and world), there's an intellectual and emotional oasis that people and pause, sit down, listen, think and feel.

Tell me a story...


My mum has two wealthy, successful brothers who live in the US, and when they used to visit Beijing (where I was born and raised) it always felt like Christmas to me. As a child, they’d tell me stories of their lives and their riches that made me want to experience life in the US. 


In high school I finally had a chance to realise my dream. I studied hard, leaving myself no time for fun, but I sucked it up. I had a bigger dream. And in my senior year, it paid off: I was accepted to NYU. But because of exorbitant tuition fees, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to go – thankfully, my uncles offered to pay. 


Living in Manhattan was my first time being on my own and, after I settled in, I loved it. I got blackout drunk on suspicious punch in the basement of a frat house and I gorged on fat sandwiches with fries inside. But most importantly, I was getting the liberal arts education I’d always wanted and I had a promising career path planned working as an analyst in my uncle’s firm after graduation. Everything was going perfectly until, in my excitement, I forgot to clear the porn I’d been watching on the laptop I borrowed from one of my uncles. But I had a nice talk with him over dinner, and he was very understanding and supportive (of me, not the porn). And he promised to not tell my family. 


For my first winter break I didn’t want to leave, but my uncles urged me to visit my family. While I found their insistence odd, I reluctantly agreed. And then after landing in Beijing, I was blindsided by the news that my uncles had gone bankrupt and could no longer support my education. I couldn’t believe it. But, to my surprise, despite the cost, my family offered to support me through the rest of my studies – I had never felt more loved or supported than in that moment. 


Hanting PQ


Two days later, my family came to me with a look of disappointment and sadness that I’ve never seen before. ‘You’re not going back to the US,’ they said. My heart dropped. ‘Why?’ ‘Your uncles told us about you. How you like guys, and that homosexuals in the US will either die from AIDS or hate crimes.’ I felt confused, angry, sad and betrayed – like all my strength had been knocked out of me. 


The next morning, I went to a hospital specialising in mental health. I requested a personality assessment that could supposedly tell if I’m straight or gay. The questions weren’t very sophisticated: ‘Are you romantically attracted to individuals with the same sex?’ I checked ‘No.’ I went home with an assessment stating that I’m straight and pleaded for my family’s support to continue my education. Although not convinced, they reluctantly agreed. 


A few days later, in a last ditch attempt to mend my relationship with my uncles, I sent them an email expressing my sadness about what happened and how I hoped we could keep in touch. They replied shortly after: ‘How dare you take the retirement fund from your family? You are a murderer. You don’t deserve to talk to us.’ When I got back to NYC, my uncles refused to even let me go to their house, and I had to collect my things from the post office in a box. I discovered they never went bankrupt; they just didn’t want to anything to do with me because of my sexuality. 


Things slowly returned to normal after that. I began working and started my own life, meeting all kinds of fascinating people. Sometimes I would tell my story during alcohol-fuelled ‘do your parents know?’ conversations. I would get questions like, ‘Don’t you want them to be happy for you?’ or ‘What happens if you get married?’ I would say, well, I value their happiness more than my own. But that’s the simple truth. My family is willing to lie to themselves and overlook all the things they detest about homosexuality because they love me and want the best for me. 


Maybe I will always have to hide a part of who I am, how I live and who I love, but not because I am ashamed. On the contrary, it’s because I am so proud to have a family like mine. No matter what others think. 

Beryl Chung 


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What brought you to Shanghai?
I initially came to China to learn Chinese, not having ever spoken it growing up as a third-generation Chinese American. After a year-long scholarship in Nanjing, I felt there was more I wanted to accomplish in China and decided to move to Shanghai. Every year I keep saying 'one more year', and now it's been five years total.

What made you want to participate in Unravel?
Every month Unravel presents an opportunity to consider the story theme within your own life, whether you're an audience member or a speaker. In crafting my stories, I've been able to revisit and reassess relevant memories I hadn't thought of in years.

How would you describe Unravel?
I tell people that Unravel is like a curated open mic. You're never sure what you'll get from the storytellers, but you know that [the founder] Clara [Davis] has vetted everyone to make sure there's a flow and a balance to the evening.


Tell me a story...


I’m Chinese American. Living in Shanghai, people's first impressions of me are usually that I am from here, but I receive a variety of reactions from Chinese people when they hear me speak imperfect Chinese. It ranges from a mild disappointment – the kind I used to get from my Chinese immigrant grandparents – to raw, sometimes painful questions like 'Why didn't your parents teach you?' or 'What's wrong with your parents that they didn't raise you properly?'

I was thinking about this when eating at a restaurant, I saw a Caucasian man applauded by his Chinese colleagues for using chopsticks.

Standards are different for me and for him because he has a foreign face – what I refer to as the 'foreign passport.' He carries it around with him all the time. We were probably both raised in Western households, but based on first impressions, he routinely receives more sympathy than me. He could have a full interaction in English and top it off with 'xie xie', and many Chinese people would be impressed with him.

The first time I came to China in 2008, I came alone and I didn't speak Chinese at all. My dad asked me how I felt finally being in the land of my forebears, and I told him I felt more foreign than ever. 
Beryl PQ
There were some really difficult moments living here – all foreigners have probably had 'Why China?' moments – but when it was hardest, I’d always end up thinking of my grandparents. They came to America alone, not knowing anybody. They didn’t speak the language. I’m sure they had moments that they felt ostracised or alone where they just wanted to check out and go home, and it wasn’t possible for them the way that it’s easy for me to just call on Skype or book a plane ticket home. They stayed and they built a life for their family in America. As a kid in New York, that’s something I took for granted but here in China, I think I get it.

It used to really bother me that foreigners would say 'xie xie' when they didn't speak any other Chinese at all. But that guy just wants to connect; he feels foreign too and that is his way of reaching out. 

Having lived in Shanghai for five years, I feel really lucky to have two cultures; I understand now I can be informed by both instead of having to choose just one. During that time I’ve made Chinese friends and friends from all over the world, I’ve worked at very local and very international companies here. At this point I've picked up enough Chinese to have conversations with people and to adjust people's perceptions of me. In the process, I think I figured out how to adjust my perception of me, too.

Kent D Kedl


Kent

What brought you to Shanghai?
I came to Shanghai in the early '90s after being in the China since the late '80s.  I got a job running a software company in Shanghai

What made you want to participate in Unravel?
I love stories, both telling them and listening to them. I write a blog called the Talking Monkey that is just stories… This was a natural extension of that.

What’s the value of Unravel in a city like Shanghai?
I guess I see it as an environment where we can all explore what it means to be human. Many of us are 'not from here' which makes those stories even more compelling. We don’t always sit back and reflect on what makes us universally human, tending to focus more on what makes us different. During an evening at Unravel, you can listen to a 25-year-old Chinese woman and a middle-aged white guy share their stories and find out, despite differences, there is a lot that makes us the same.

Tell me a story...


I’ve been working and living in China since the 1980s and people always ask, 'Why did you come here and why have you stayed so long?' 

I came here because I dropped out of college, went to the Philippines to do non-profit work and, while there, picked up a book about Chinese history. At the end of my assignment I went to China to look around (this was the early '80s) and had one of those out-of-body experiences, saying to myself, 'I don’t know what I want to do, but I want to do it here!' I went back to university, quickly finished my degree and then came back to China to teach (isn’t that how all foreigners start here?).  

Kent PQ

When people ask me why I’ve stayed I say, 'Because, as a victim of adult ADD, I’ve found this is the perfect place for me – something new is happening every 23 seconds!'  Living outside one’s native culture, not fitting in, can be a thrilling adventure. It can also be a mind-numbing, pride-swallowing, ulcer-inducing experience. Why? Because living cross culturally will, like nothing else, reveal your own foibles, stupid assumptions and unfounded biases as you find yourself daily applying a self-administered dope-slap to the forehead as you ask yourself, 'Now why did I think/believe/feel/act/say/do that again?'

And to me, that’s worth sticking around for…

Amy Lauren Smith


Amy RGB

What brought you to Shanghai?
I came here in 2004 to take a break from teaching and help a family friend open a chain of American restaurants. Now I teach Middle School health at the Shanghai American School

What made you want to participate in Unravel?
I love the idea of storytelling and thought it was something we needed here in Shanghai. Also, even though I feel comfortable in front of my students and presenting in front of large groups of other teachers, it’s a much scarier situation when you’re sharing something personal about yourself. I try and do at least one thing every day that scares me – I saw that on a Lululemon bag once. 

What’s the value of Unravel in a city like Shanghai?
Unravel is a wonderful community event with a fabulous host and an inspiring group of people. Storytelling is such a big part of all cultures, and hearing other’s stories is how we learn about each other and develop empathy. Plus, we need more events in Shanghai that don’t just involve drinking. 

Tell me a story...


I teach middle school health, which means a whole lot of my life revolves around puberty. Talking about it, reading about it, laughing about it. It’s a tricky time for a lot of kids, as the way they grow up might not be so even. Most people tend to forget how it works – or maybe they’ve blocked it out – but some kids grow up first and then they grow out, some kids grow out and then they grow up, but eventually they even out and settle into their adult bodies. 


A few months ago, I described it to my sixth grade class like this: It’s like you’re moving house, from your kid body into your adult body, and at first – just like when you move house – you don’t feel comfortable right away. The house isn’t settled, everything is different, and you just want to go back. But then you do settle in, and you get used to your new house, and it eventually becomes your home. And then I felt bad, because I realised that I was lying to them. I don’t think I’ve ever felt at home in my own body, and I’m not sure that anyone really has 100 percent of the time. Which is strange, because out of all of the places that have felt like I was at home – in different locations, with different people, and at different times – the one constant was me. 


My journey through puberty wasn’t so smooth. I was definitely one of those kids who grew out first, and like most parents would be, mine grew a little concerned. And since it was the late ’80s, mine decided the answer was Jenny Craig, the popular diet of the time that consisted of pre-packaged food and weekly weigh-ins. Surprisingly enough, 12-year-old me wasn’t a super huge fan of freeze-dried stroganoff, so the diet worked rather quickly. Suddenly, everybody was commenting on how great I looked. It’s honestly the first time I can remember my grandmother saying she was proud of me. My body went from being a source of shame to a source of pride, but it still certainly didn’t feel like mine. It remained something for other people to worry about, talk about and fixate on. 


Amy PQ


Well, after I hit my goal weight and started back at school, I was – not surprisingly – very, very hungry. And at school they had all of these wonderful foods (the ones I rail against now as a health teacher) that weren’t available to me on Jenny Craig. So I ate, and ate, and ate. And I snuck more food when I was at home, and because I had jacked up my metabolism after my summer of starvation, the weight all piled back on. And then some. By the time I graduated from high school, I weighed over 135kg. My body went from being just something that people talked about and were concerned about, to the main factor of my identity. I was ‘the fat girl’, and I was living in a body that nobody could see past. I definitely didn’t feel at home in there. 


It wasn’t until I moved away for college, majored in musical theatre, and met a whole slew of wonderful new friends – most of them gay men – who loved me for the other parts of my identity (my humour, my talent, my friendship) that I began to settle in. And sure enough, the weight began to drop off. I’m not saying that it happened overnight, and my 20s and 30s seemed to revolve around the all-encompassing quest to maintain my weight loss through healthy – and at times not-so-healthy – lifestyle adjustments, but I’ve done it. And while I still don’t feel quite as ‘at home’ in here as I’d like, I wouldn’t change the lessons I’ve learned or the experience for anything. 


There is so much more to a home than how it appears on the outside. And not unlike my cosy little apartment in the Former French Concession, it’s not fancy, and it’s not the place everyone would pick, but it’s comfortable, it’s kind of cute, and it’s got a lot of character.

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