The Last Bits of Shanghai

It’s nearly time to head out of Shanghai, and on to the next adventure.

Although in reality, Shanghai hasn’t felt much like adventure a lot of the time. It’s important to make money for reasons like student debt and computers that get sweated to death by the house itself in this city, but it sure has felt like I spent most of the last year working and very little of it travelling.

My husband is currently reading Vagabonding by Rolf Potts, which I believe I’d heard of a few times before but never read myself (yet). He talks about ‘anti-sabbaticals,’ where you work crappy shifts for long hours to save money for the next trip.

In many ways, that’s been Shanghai.

I’m sitting here in our now-too-sterile-feeling apartment, which seems a little like being in a hotel that also happened to be your home for a year (somehow not a contradiction in my mind at the moment). It’s now exactly one year since we woke up at 5AM in Colorado and began the journey to China.

A lot has changed in that time, and a lot hasn’t.

Things that haven’t changed 

  1. My eyes are still blue, and still slightly scary to small children over in this hemisphere.
  2. My husband and I are still in love and even closer than before!
  3. My hair colour, despite really, really wanting to dye a blue streak into it to make up for my classroom-friendly filtering of my usual language.
  4. My school, which may seem like a contradiction given the high staff turnover since I arrived. I have a theory that secretly the school is conscious and runs itself. Similar problems as always, yet somehow it keeps going.
  5. Shanghai’s air quality, unfortunately.
  6. The stubborn scar left by shingles, which will never go away, over my left eye. Shanghai’s early mark, I suppose.

I’m not sure what words best qualify the year spent here. My own journals put forth a repetitive mantra, ‘So tired. So tired. So tired.’ And then this, from 1 December:

“Here’s hoping Shanghai gets better before we leave. There is a lot of good here, but so much annoyance. Not even badness, just annoyance. I actually think it has to do with Shanghai attracting migrants from all over China and all over the world. It’s as if it’s no one’s city.

The history paved over with concrete and LEDs, and desperately attempted to be forgotten except in hackneyed ‘mobster’ photo booths.

It felt very old Shanghai when I met some folks at Bistro Burger on Sunday. Fog. Quiet. Walking old lanes at night with colonial houses on them. A Xi Jinping poster at a dubious street sushi place, kittens clumsily playing below it.

Despite that glimpse, it’s clear that Shanghai is long gone. And this Shanghai may be underwater by 2080. It’s not a home, but it will do for now.”

Unfortunately, that feeling did not change. In fact, it may have merely intensified.

Things that Have Changed 

  1. My weight. I’ve lost about 35 pounds. Wheeeeeeeeeeee! (Don’t I look well in this picture?).


    Tonsillitis makes my natural pallor shine

  2. I have ticked off or will tick off everything except yoga 4x per week on my list of things to do in China that I wrote over the Pacific on the plane over. Highlights include saving money, writing Beer in Situ in Shanghai, and learning 300 characters.
  3. My immune system. It’s utterly shot. I kid you not, I have been sick every single week since October 1st. My runny nose and cough have simply never cleared. I was fine during the summer, and as soon as it got cold and damp it was all over. 


    Couldn’t quite capture the yellowy colour of the clouds

  4. I took the HSK 2 test last Saturday. If I pass, that means I now have certifiably less-than-completely-shitty Mandarin Chinese skills.
  5. I have more teaching experience now, and way more tricks up my sleeve for all levels and ages.
  6. I have had the pleasure of managing coworkers and a fair bit of on-the-job training for how to run an English School.
  7. Donald Trump is a serious candidate for the November Election. I ignored him all summer, but it is beyond ignoring now.
  8. My perception of China. In many ways it is portrayed negatively or highly positively in Western media, and I will need a lot more writing to parse out what exactly has changed about my idea of China. But I know it has changed.
  9. I am now a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu white belt!

In many ways, I’m not too sure what I was hoping would come from Shanghai. I wanted a way to work and save money while living in the same country as my husband. It fulfilled all those requirements, but somehow is so much less than fulfilling in itself.

It’s not the intensity of China or of Shanghai that has gotten to me. In reality, there isn’t much intensity to speak of. It’s the lower, longer, grinding stuff that has made it difficult to live here and that makes me excited to leave.

We fly out on Sunday to see a few more bits of China, and then we fly from Shanghai on May 6th in opposite directions (London and Denver) to meet again on the other side of the world in Iceland for the summer.

Thanks for what you gave us, Shanghai. Still not a home like other places, but something less than a strange and foreign land, too.


Our apartment is way over to the left in the low brown building

I Can’t Come Home

The skies are uncharacteristically grey for Colorado outside. The soft and unintelligible conversations of the kitchen are floating outward. Somehow they sound stressed. Normal for a kitchen.

I’m sitting in a cafe in downtown Louisville, the city of my childhood that has changed so much since I was a a child. Funnily enough, when I put the period on that particular sentence a song from early high school came on with unbelievable timing. Nickelback. Someday. Bizarre in the way that I perfectly remember the music video from the first few times I was actually allowed to watch MTV. When MTV actually played music videos. In the afternoon.

The tables in the cafe are artfully distressed, and there are large burlap coffee bags lining the bench on the other side of the room. There is local art on the walls. Two slightly out of place, matching chandeliers on the ceiling. I have no real recollection of what this building was when I was growing up. Practically everything has changed except the barbershop across the street. Louisville is a trendy, cool place to be.

What the hell?

Now the song is Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Green Day, another early high school anthem. Somehow the music streaming service must have sensed that I was going to be writing about how it once was here. This song was released more than ten years ago. At least it’s now 2004 in here, and not 2003 like when Nickelback was playing.

Home is not home anymore, and it probably hasn’t been for a long time.

I knew that travelling would change me. I knew that opening up to more than one home carried the inherent risk that the first one would be diluted. My homes, as my Gravatar profile says, are all over the world. Puerto Natales. Ferrara. Suwon. London. Very very soon, Shanghai. It may have been a decision as crazy as the Gnarls Barkley song that is the next throwback to come over the speakers. Now it’s 2006, the year I moved out of Louisville for the first time.

The couple next to me seem to have confused this cafe with a sit down restaurant. Poor them. I don’t blame, because the whole of Main Street is now full of shops and restaurants and pubs and breweries. Growing up, there were about two. The Blue Parrot, the ever-present and fairly downtrodden Italian and Pasquini’s, it’s slightly cooler and more concrete sister. There are plenty of people who live in Louisville who have no memory of that place. No recollection of its name. All these are good changes. Louisville was a social desert growing up. You had a choice to basically stay home in someone’s basement or hang out at the 7 11 on McCaslin (which is now a credit union).

The next song in the nostalgia rotation is Everlast’s What It’s Like. I suddenly realise that I might well have gone to school with the woman across from my seat. But then, I see people that I know everywhere in the world. In London especially, I would see people everywhere that my brain told me I knew. I know her! That’s your old friend from middle school! That’s your old professor! That’s your sister and her boyfriend, come to surprise you at the bar you work at in Camden. They’re just being quiet and hiding so it’s a better surprise!

My brain was trying desperately to reconcile the fact that I cannot run into anyone I know when I’m living my life abroad. It was trying to bring this first home to me in my fourth. But now, I’ve been in Louisville for two months and I’ve not run into a huge amount of people I knew growing up.

A lot of demographic change has occurred. A lot of people my age can’t possibly afford to live here anymore, since property is up 10% last year and almost every year since I graduated in 2006. Even the 2008 recession couldn’t wipe out the housing growth here. Those are London housing growth percentages. I wouldn’t be surprised if Russian oligarchs start parking their investment money here, too.

The place has changed. I have changed. It’s a very, very nice and comfortable place to visit.

But I can’t come home.

Escaping London

We dragged our bags through the narrow turnstiles and onto the platform at Dagenham Heathway station, a full five minutes later than I had scheduled. The first of three long journeys for 21 January, 2015 loomed ahead of us. Get to Heathrow. On the Tube. In rush hour.

The past week had kept us so busy as to seem like London life would just continue as normal. I worked six days in a row and had my last shifts at the bar. Russell worked a schedule largely opposite to mine. Between that and our leaving pub visits with friends, we didn’t have the time to begin packing our room until the morning we had to leave. The transition out of London, known about ever since I received my visa to move there, seemed utterly abrupt. We woke up in our room in Leyton, and it went from being our room to being a stranger’s in less than two hours.

Stranger's room

Stranger’s room

Of course, the District Line decided to give us the parting gift of ‘Minor Delays,’ which turned out to be a full 25 minutes of standing on the filling platform, contemplating going the exact opposite direction of Heathrow to Upminster and hoping for the faster trains. The train eventually crawled up to us, and the mash was on.

Even as a practiced London commuter with 16 months under my belt, this was torture. The train sauntered down the track at walking speed. Above the crowd, the husband and I exchange worried looks.

“Let’s just get off at West Ham. We’ll take the Jubilee Line.”

A few seconds later, “A notice to customers, there is no step-free access at West Ham due to elevator improvements.”

Of course. We got this.

We EXCUSE ME PLEASE’d our way through the crush, down one set of crowded stairs, up another, and then down one more. The Jubilee Line was crammed, but running as normal. Off to a station we’d never set foot in before on the west side of London. Through seemingly endless halls with changing directions (keep left! No, keep right!). Onto the Piccadilly Line.

I’ve always thought, in part because I took it so much during my unsavoury MA experience, that the Piccadilly Line would be the one Line of the London Underground where the zombie apocalypse would come to the City. It runs directly from the biggest airport into the centre. It’s full of confused tourists with built in obstacles in the form of their huge luggage. Very little ventilation. I’m not a huge fan of the Piccadilly Line.

As we wandered out of the tunnels into the grey day I realised London was fading behind us. In the fray of the ‘Minor Delays’ and the workout of carrying our meagre worldly possessions, I’d forgotten to say goodbye to some of my favourite places. London is odd; the edges of the city seem to wrap around like a parabolic curve and the neighbourhoods in the west look bizarrely similar to those on the fringes of the East that we’d left behind.

We alighted at the nearly-closed Terminal 1, one of five passengers checking in. Our bags were checked easily. We were sniffed by two different bomb finding dogs.

“Strange. They seem to be on some kind of alert.”

My husband pointed out the sniper on the second floor.

“Let’s go through security.”

Just like that, we were through. It was weirdly simple. Weirdly quiet. I got a full pat down and metal-detecting due to a zipper I’d forgotten on my bra. I was officially out of the UK, less than 24 hours before my Tier 4 visa was up. I am not allowed to return without a family/partner visa. I had to say goodbye, not knowing when I might return to the country that had been home for 16 months. We took off and almost immediately disappeared into the low London clouds, and that period of our lives was over.

My time in London is done, for now. That constant inconstancy of transition is back.

On to the next adventure.

Next Time- The Iceland Adventure. A preview: 

Glacial Ice Cave

Glacial Ice Cave