I’ve been living in London for ten years.
This sleepless city saw me first as a wide-eyed little girl at seventeen. Every few years, I introduced to London a new version of me, each one less wide-eyed than the last. London didn’t judge. It didn’t interfere. It let me be. It became home to many bittersweet memories I can still recall — memories I don’t want to erase because they help me preserve the old me’s.
When I go to West London, I can meet the naive teenaged me. When I go to Chinatown, I can meet the restless university-me. When I go to East London, I can meet the hungry and lost corporate me. And when I come back around central London, I can meet the most traumatised, rock-bottom me, the me of two years ago before I went to therapy.
When you uproot your life young but not young enough, you turn into a stranger to both the place you arrive at and the one you leave behind. You’re desperate to belong somewhere but you can’t shake the feeling that you’re just a foreigner. You don’t know who you are. You latch on to shiny people and things to find either a distraction or an anchor but, most of the time, they’re terribly wrong for you. And you end up destroying yourself.
Many places in London held my traumas.
As an international student and later as a young professional with an accent, I had little to my name. I wanted the world but was often bitch-slapped by the crude realization that it’s a White world out there — things aren’t the same for an Asian immigrant woman as what I saw in Western films growing up. I was always the one who held the short end of a stick, the one to pay the price. I was made to feel like I wasn’t good enough for my dreams.
It fucking hurt.
At one point, I was just done with it. No one gives a shit about people like me — I had to do it myself, I thought. It gave me the courage to turn my life around and keep going like my life depended on it. It really does, though.
At 27, I have it together now.
Emotional and financial security. Love. A home. A future. A solid me. Everything I’ve ever wanted.
London looks the same but feels different.
The other day, I booked a reservation in a part of the city that used to give me panic attacks.
I felt okay about it. It didn’t give me flashbacks. I walked through the streets and into the restaurant like a casual. The grossly overpriced menu items didn’t make me nervous; I could comfortably pick whatever I wanted. I didn’t feel the pressure of performing or the need to prove myself. I was indifferent to male validation. I wasn’t worried about bumping into someone (shitty) I used to know — I didn’t care. I was just being me, being there.
That was when I knew the past was behind me and my trauma locked to this place had been healed.
I was free.
About every three years, my brain seems to re-render London.
It’s still the same city, but everything has changed because I have changed; my perspective has changed.
It reminds me of the time when I got on the plane to London for the first time ten years ago. From the overhead bin, a small suitcase fell off and hit my head. It belonged to a stylish Vietnamese-born woman with a British passport, which represented “freedom” to me. The pain left me teary, but I was too in awe of her to complain out loud. Comparing myself to her made me feel both inspired and deeply insecure. I was a nobody with nothing but a big heart and the words on the screen, so I wondered if I could ever become someone like that.
Well, now, I like myself even better.
Ten years is a long time. You can do a lot in ten years.
You can change your life and become the person you’ve always wanted to be. You can rewrite your stories. I’ve done all of those things — some many times over, mostly because I didn’t have any other choices.
I realise that there’s always a way out, and we’re capable of seeing ourselves through. We’re powerful like that. Once we decide to take control over our life — our mind, our body, and our relationships with the world around us — and take action, we will have control over our reality and our future.
I’m still in London after ten years, but this London is like no others. It doesn’t rub my traumas in my face — I’m free to enjoy it. It shows me my past not to hurt me but to remind me that I’ve come a damn long way.