The story appears on

Page A3

August 26, 2023

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Opinion

Turning 50: connection, community and the conversations that matter

Pop the champaign and pour me a glass of fizz, we’re celebrating! Here marks the 50th in “The Oyster Pail” column. And as milestones do, this article got me thinking about life and stuff. What is the essence of age? Is it the number of years lived or the lived experiences within them?

When asked how old she was, novelist and activist Ann Lamott said: “I’m every age I’ve ever been.”

If I stop to think of “The Oyster Pail,” which I neurotically do — like a new parent checking on their sleeping baby — I know I’m every article I’ve ever written. Because every article has taught me something. Not because of me, because of you.

You might be new to this space, so I’ll quickly explain what I and it are about. Columnists are strange creatures. We’re observers. We people watch in parks and eavesdrop on conversations in coffee shops. We’re in a constant state of catching thoughts. Whether it’s our take on cancel culture or a rant about Starbucks, columns reveal who we are and the values we hold. Good columnists don’t write because they crave attention. We do it because it’s our job. Different to reporters, it’s thinking tentacles we’re tasked with. Our purpose is to make sense of things; the work takes truth and a willingness to speak mine.

But real disclosure isn’t about the writer, and “The Oyster Pail” is my way of asking: “What about you?” It’s a beautiful thing to share your story and have people share theirs in return. As you have.

“You’re putting everything I’ve felt into words beautifully.” (Sarina)

“It’s a snapshot of Shanghai from a perspective similar to my own.” (Elin)

“Reading your story made me think again how we judge what we’re getting presented in the media ... After reading, I just felt the need to reach out.” (Matt)

Our interactions have been so constant and varied that knowing what to include here was tricky. I had to find a theme to figure it out. One didn’t take long to surface.

“Emma, thank you for your openness.” (@drchuks_)

“Thanks for being so honest Emma. It takes a lot of courage.” (@DanGuerrard)

“Keep writing as you do, Emma — heartfelt and honest.” (@JustATinyWindo1)

“I admire your courage and openness Emma.” (@CameronWEF)

“I’m always in awe of your strength to be vulnerable so openly.” (@Li_Huajing)

Tucked amongst these comments were lessons in connection. When we appreciate someone’s willingness to be open, we signal our own value for openness. By expressing gratitude for honesty, we actively seek truth. These gestures are the building blocks of progressive conversation, nurturing an environment where understanding and growth can flourish.

But it’s not always sunny on the receiving side of feedback and I’ve had my fair share of criticism. A couple of comments stand out amongst the first to hurt.

In response to “Seriously, shut up about your first world issues,” Daniel wrote: “An article nobody asked to be written. Keep your opinion to yourself.” That stung.

Not as much as Dustin, who said: “This article made me cringe in every sentence ... 0 out of 10 stars.” That stung like a paper cut dipped in lemon juice. The Monday after the article’s release I went to the office and cried.

A peer casually suggested I grow a thicker skin. But I don’t want to. Connection is at the heart of my work, and you can’t connect without being vulnerable. Vulnerability derives from the Latin, vulnerare, and describes the capacity to be physically or psychologically wounded. Courage isn’t about having thick skin; it’s about baring ours amidst the mob, as Daniel and Dustin taught me.

This concept of courage in communication aligns with the philosophy of German thinker Jürgen Habermas. He formed the “ideal speech situation,” arguing that genuine communication requires specific conditions. When these are present, it leads to what Habermas called, the “unforced force of the better argument.” Essentially, when people listen with respect and rationality, the best ideas rise to the surface. It’s about collective learning and social progress.

Hop on social media and you’ll see the world would benefit from less strong-arming and more ideal speech. But respect and rationality are less sexy on X (Twitter). Meaning those who shout the loudest dominate discussions and dwarf liberality. Society is increasingly polarized and there’s a lot of misunderstanding, mistrust and even hatred between people.

How can we shift the conversation from volume to value?

As we age, those of us capable of introspection, learn that any significant part of life is gray. It’s gray because anything meaningful is complicated. But gray has become the danger zone because contemporary culture rewards simplification. Black-and-white mentality matters, certain things — genocide, racism, rape — are wrong. But gray is where we live, where we love, and where we learn. If you’re afraid of gray or unwilling to go there, you’ll never really know anything. You’ll never be mystified or surprised, and you’ll never truly love anyone. Because how could you?

Being open doesn’t mean we’ll always agree, that would be boring. But we can disagree better.

Recently I read that bearded dragons wave their front legs at one another to peaceably indicate their want for social harmony. That’s nice. I can’t promise you’ll harmonize with every article I write, but I will keep waving. “The Oyster Pail” is more than a number over a series of time, it’s a space we’re building that’s filled with shared experiences. And while you might not always agree or identify, I do hope you’ll sometimes wave back.

See you soon.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend