Writers from China's diaspora
'I only began to understand China when I left it and came to New York,' says Zhou Weihui, as she surveys the crowd at a cafe not far from her apartment in Manhattan's Soho. 'I only began to appreciate my cultural roots when I got to travel and know the world.'
For three years now, the author of Shanghai Baby - the semi-autobiographical book that became a best-seller after being banned in China - has been shuttling back and forth between Shanghai and New York. When we meet, she's just arrived back in New York from a trip to England and Ireland to promote the sequel, Marrying Buddha, which was published in Chinese last year and appeared in its first English edition in June.
Zhou, casually dressed in a white top over sleek black pants, looks the picture of cool. Although she admits to being a source of controversy on the mainland, the petite figure delicately sipping from a cup of green tea could hardly appear less like a troublemaker. True, she's unblushingly honest - but she's also poised, unpretentious and enthusiastic.
The two novels mark different stages in her life. Shanghai Baby depicts the hedonistic lifestyles of the mainland city's young urbanites. 'When I was living in Shanghai I was obsessed with everything western and I was always busy rebelling, so everything in my books was about westerners, sex and rebellion,' she says.
But Shanghai Baby's publication overseas not only broadened her horizons but made her suddenly aware of her identity as a Chinese. 'Shanghai Baby opened up a lot of new experiences. I travelled to different countries and had the chance to live in New York. It also enabled me to keep writing without having to get a part-time job.'
But Zhou found that living in New York - an experience for which she once yearned - wasn't all that she'd expected. She often felt angry, depressed and sad during her first months in the city. 'I realised how Chinese I was because I was so far away from China. And I couldn't rebel in New York the way I could in China because there was no reason for me to rebel.'
Instead, she began meditating, studying Buddhism and reading Confucius, Lao-Tze and the Tao Te Ching. No surprise that Marrying Buddha (which she started during her first months in New York just after the September 11 attacks) is concerned with a quest for 'spiritual self-fulfillment and how to balance east and west'.
Marrying Buddha wasn't banned on the mainland. 'I was so happy that [the government] had allowed me to return that I deleted some parts of the book myself,' Zhou says. 'I took out some sexual parts and some things about Chinese male authors who get monthly allowances from the government.'
She had planned a mainland book tour, but it was cancelled at the last minute by the government. 'They said, 'We don't want you to be so obvious,' so I said, 'OK' because I was just glad to have the book published in China.'
Although she could easily join the ranks of Chinese writers who have moved to Britain, France or the US, Zhou says she could never live completely outside China and be happy. 'I'm not the kind of writer who can get ideas from research or study. I need to be close to the reality of what I'm writing about. I have to be able to feel and absorb the place I'm writing about - almost like a fish needs to swim in water.'
The dramatic changes in China also draw her home. 'There's so much raw emotion in people's faces because of all the changes they're going through. People will cry, yell, laugh or scream right on the street. Maybe some young kid has gotten rich overnight or someone else has just lost his home to a rich developer.
'In New York, people's lives are so settled. There's so much that's happening in China right now that I want to be there to see it. Also, because Shanghai Baby was published in 1999, just as Shanghai was becoming an international city, I feel Shanghai is a part of me.
'And Shanghai is a much sexier city than New York. Shanghai people have more time to enjoy themselves in cafes and to flirt because they don't have to worry about money all the time. In New York, everything is more expensive and no one has time for anything. How can you be romantic if you're always worried about time and money?'