It’s MAO’s Annual Self Criticism Time, Shanghai Style

Mao meets Mao, coming through the rye


I missed the new year deadline for resolutions by a few days but I was too busy drinking litres of  tea in bed and eating Doug’s Christmas gift of German chocolate covered gingerbread and posting endless photo spam of frozen mops and singing students. Sometimes one just has to tread lightly upon the blog before dropping the anvil of thinky thoughts onto unsuspecting readers.

I’ve had a rather difficult time trying to articulate this post in my head.

Should it be a retrospective of the year? Should it be about what I’ve learned or what I’ve seen and done? Should it be about what I hope do see or do in the coming year? Should I at least pretend that I have resolutions? Should it be a list? Will I lose all dignity if I write a list of things I’ve done?  What if there are exactly ten things on that list? Is that too gimmicky? Have I done enough to even merit a list? Should I even bother?

Unfortunately for my students doing speaking exams this morning, I spent most of the time only half listening to them attempt to speak. My mind kept formulating sentence starters and catchy titles and I found myself distracted by my numb fingers and toes and by my complete lack of witty yet thoughtful ideas.

And so what is this undefined mess I am reading, you may ask.

Well, thank you for asking. I’m not so certain myself what this is or what it will turn out to be. I’ve decided that rather than actually planning out what to write, I’m going to do as I did with the novel back in November and just fling things at you as they occur. Hopefully it will all work out in the end, with lovely caves full of wish granting goats and a nice espresso maker.

First of all, 2010 sucked considerably less than 2009 did. 2009  consisted mainly of a series of rugs being pulled out from under me: flats, jobs, friends, cities, appliances and coping mechanisms all repeatedly lost or broken or rearranged in displeasing ways.  2009 had found me moving to China after 6 years in Turkey and then within months regretting it profoundly. 2010 found me sucking it up and just dealing with the fact that I was indeed living in China and would likely be doing so for a while to come.

Here are a few themes that emerged last year, in no particular order. Pour yourself a drink, put your feet up- this is going to be a long one.


On Macs bought and on Macs killed


Unrelated photo: We went to Yangshuo in May


I killed two Macs this year within the space of a week; one by espresso and one by a baffling mystery. One was quite new, a beautiful MacBook Pro, barely a few months old, and the other had been chugging and whirring and wheezing along since 2006.  The battery on the old, white plastic one had already exploded and it was hanging on by a heavily cat-chewed power cord that was duct taped together. I may or may not have lost photos, writing, emails, music. I back my stuff up, but irregularly and infrequently. I have no methodical system for backup, other than to occasionally move things over to one of my portables when I remember that it is something I ought to do.

The double death hit me hard when it happened. Not only did I have to fork over nearly a month’s salary to replace something I’d just bought and moronically killed with a splash of coffee, but I had also potentially lost most of my history from the past several years. I use Thunderbird for my emails, so all correspondence, both personal and professional and pin-code-ish, was held in the loving folds of the newer Mac’s hard disc drive. All my photos I’d taken since last February were on it as well, probably not backed up.  My ability to call home was compromised by no longer having access to Skype. I couldn’t easily blog. I couldn’t access Facebook or Twitter. I felt quite cut off, both from the world and from my own documented past.

The whole stupid thing reminded me of when I left Istanbul in late 2008, slightly heartbroken but not fully realizing the long term implications of my leaving.  I worked nearly up until the day I left and packing was a nightmare. KLM had shrunk my luggage allowance severely between the time when I’d bought my ticket and the date of departure. I now had 20kg less to play around with. I had to leave behind beloved things I’d carried with me for years: my grandmother’s coat with the Zulu love bead pin fastened inside that had been a gift I’d carried with me everywhere as a comforting constant; a handmade Moroccan lantern that I’d dragged from flat to flat all over Istanbul; treasured books and funky boots; perfumes and pretty plates; gifts from students; artwork from friends; a million pirated DVDs. I left a ton of stuff behind.

But at least I knew that I’d left it behind. It was only when I got back to Canada that I realized that in my haste to pack, I’d forgotten to clear out the stuff under the bed. I had a storage bed that lifted up to reveal a hollow where the box spring might have been. I kept winter coats there, and my fake Christmas tree and lights. And six years’ worth of letters and photos and old expired passports and diaries and that address book that I’d carried since 1997 in London and which documented the meetings and departures of so many important people in my life.  But I don’t know exactly what was under there.  Whose letters did I lose? Should I ache from their loss? And the photos- were they irreplaceable family photos?  Which diaries did I remember to bring home? Which were left behind? How many years’ worth of memories have been compromised?

I was able to salvage the hard drive from the newer Mac but the older one was a write off. I have no idea what I may or may not have lost. That hurts.


On Nanowrimo and self discipline


And in April we went to Harbin (and the river was still frozen)


I’m not at all a self disciplined person.  I have had two gym memberships in my life and both culminated in me going a few times with moderate enthusiasm then avoiding it with carefully calculated nonchalance.  I’m crappy at planning detailed lessons or filling in admin paperwork and I can’t focus well enough to sit down and actually study Chinese properly. My attempts at eating better usually end up in a pile of cheese and crackers and a glass of red wine. My middle finger rises instinctively whenever anything involving imposed discipline arises, even if I was the one who attempted to impose it.

And yet, somehow, I wrote a novel this year. In a month. Actually, it’s more of an unfinished novella, at only 50,237 words. In a month. Did I mention that I wrote it in a month, and that it isn’t at all awful- and in fact it might actually be good? If I ever get around to finishing it and editing the hell out of it, it might even be readable by people other than myself and one discreet friend who has yet to comment, other than suggesting I might do better catering to the children’s literary market rather than to, say, grown ups.

How did I get my act together to focus on something for longer than my usual half hour, max?  Part of it was external pressure: several people on Twitter had insisted I join them in their endeavour (it hadn’t occurred to me before, as I’m not a fiction writer) and Heather at had done a profile on people who were attempting to do the Nano. I was one of them.  After a deceptively easy first week, I started falling behind- work was busy, home was busy, my internal life was busy. Until the last week when I somehow wrote an insane number of words in an equally insanely brief period of time, I was giving up. Every day I gave up. I gave up so frequently that my arms were sore from throwing them up in the air in frustration and resignation.

But I did it. Yay me!

Maybe I can do something else too, now.


On writing in public and on becoming master of my own (intarweb) domain


And we spent a month in Myanmar over the summer


I have been an active writer on the internet for as long as I can remember: I actually had one of those GeoCities accounts back in, um, 1996? 1997? I’ve had many, many blogs over the years, including an occasionally used Blogspot blog that I only really used when everything else was banned (in Dubai, in India) and a long running livejournal that dates back into the pre-history of my years in Central Anatolia in Turkey (um, 2004?). I’ve also got about 3 blogs set up, now dormant. I’m used to throwing myself out there and hoping nobody takes it the wrong way.

However, I was finding that it was hard to keep the overly personal separate from my regular travel narratives. I wanted to talk about what I had seen and done and eaten and heard. And people told me they enjoyed reading about it. And that was pretty awesome. Except, because it was my livejournal, I found myself forgetting about things like private vs. public domains and I started slipping personal things into it– things that I realized soon after should never have been allowed out there. Things that left me just a shade too vulnerable.

I knew I needed to make some defined divisions between my inside voice and my outside voice.

Welcome to my public space. This is the side of my life that I think I can safely share with the mysterious hordes out in the ether.

I still have my LJ but almost everything from the past year or so onwards has been made private or friends-only. Some things need to stay that way.

And as for suddenly going public with my own domain name and host and everything? Well, gosh, it certainly is different.

For one, I’m much more visible. I’m now number one on Google for nearly every search involving whorehouses or brothels in Cairo, Shanghai and Oaxaca. I’m considered an authority on blind massage and on very thorough haircuts. If you want information on fake books in Shanghai, it can be found here and here, according to Google. Those posts have attracted no comments at all but they are among my most read by far.

However, I think I hit a few nerves with these ones, as they suddenly brought in a rush of comments, which surprised me as my blog is not a comment-heavy place : hating crowds, being frustrated by fast travels, and being burnt out from too many years of having to learn too many languages.

I liked that. I liked knowing that people actually read what I wrote and had a reaction to it and felt the need to write about it. I often feel like I’m writing into the ether, hitting nothing, making no impact. Maybe if I posted fewer pictures of mops or doomed chickens I might connect better. I don’t know. All I know is that it was a lovely surprise to actually get more than one or two comments. I often feel like a total fringe dweller at the edge of the travel/expat blog universe, poking my head in every so often to say hi but never really setting foot in the club house.


On Harbin, Yangshuo, Chengdu and Myanmar and some travel-related realizations


And then we were in Chengdu for the mid-Autumn Festival


This year was a light travel year, compared to previous years. I went home to Canada during Spring Festival for a month in January and February, then we had long weekends in Yangshuo, Harbin and Chengdu. We spent a month in summer travelling around Myanmar. Other than that, we’ve been at home in Shanghai. Or rather, at homes in Shanghai, as we moved flats in June after our old landlord decided to move back in.  I suppose this disqualifies me from calling myself a travel blogger. I think actual travel only makes up a very small fraction of the posts I’ve written since this blog was born in April.

The funny thing is, I think I’ve stopped seeing myself as a traveller. I’ve been living and travelling abroad almost non stop since I was 19 and I’m all of 36 now so you’d think I might say, hey, I think I might be the travellin’ sort! You’d think that, wouldn’t you. As would I— except I’m not so sure any more.

I spent most of my 20s living in hostel dorms or on people’s floors or sofas or train station benches. I’ve spent more nights sitting upright on long overnight buses than pretty much anyone I know.  I didn’t have my own room for most of that decade, let alone my own flat. I think I bought my first stick of furniture in 2006, when I moved into Dixie’s flat in Tunel in Istanbul and I needed a bed to sleep on. I was 32, I think. I owned about three duffel bags worth of stuff.  In Turkey, I lived in 5 flats in 6 years in two different cities. In Shanghai, I’m up to 3 flats and 2 jobs in just under 2 years. Hardly stable or settled, if you think about it.

In the past two years, Doug and I have been to (in this order) Hangzhou, Beijing, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Macau, Yangshuo, Harbin, Myanmar and Chengdu.  We’ve also gone to Nanjing and Hefei for work with painful regularity. If you want to include the tail end of 2008, we can also throw in Turkey, Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Which sounds kind of travelly when it’s put down in print like this.

However, I feel very uncomfortable with the word ‘traveller’ these days. I’m a big homebody. I like my stuff and I don’t want to have to give it all away, yet again. I don’t want to be location independent. I like my job. I like my kitchen. I like my bed and my blankets and my cupboard full of weird spices and sauces. I like having a stable home for the first time in a really long time. I get the feeling from the bloggy world that to be a real traveller these days you have to be doing it nonstop, financed by your own location independent business, or else you are a slave to the system.

I spent most of my 20s with no home and no possessions, travelling nonstop. I’m tired. I want to go home. Or rather, I want to have a home.

I still like going places. It’s a compulsive need and I find it enthralling even after (egads) 17 years. But I also like going home. A lot.


On my lonely concrete tower and teaching


My occasional crew, Mrs Gu, Penny, Jessie, Mrs Tang


I’ve been teaching full time since 2002, first in Canada, then in Turkey, and now here in Shanghai. Pretty much every year I stop and reassess and decide I’d really rather be a plumber or a fine woodworker or a warehouse box-lifter at Ikea or a horticultural therapist or small town espresso bar owner or anything else but this.

Teaching makes me very very tired.

Teaching makes me wish I could have a cubicle to hide behind sometimes (though I’ve never actually had one so I’m not really sure). However, I actually kind of like it when I’m in the middle of doing it (as opposed to when I get home and feel drained and frustrated) and it does get me all sorts of work permits and residency in all sorts of interesting places that might not otherwise let me linger so long.

I’m grateful for when it goes very well, as it mostly has this year. My current crop of kids has been stunningly amazing for the most part, aside from a few who should never have enrolled in the first place without an extra year or two of basic English classes.

I am a department of one in an office built for eight, with an admin assistant across the hall who is away doing translation work half the time. There are many darkened, locked doors on my floor. We’re kind of the desperately uncool, forgotten end of Tongji University.  Aside from the kids, a few cleaning ladies and the fierce Mrs Gu and Mrs Tang who come in and check attendance in the morning and after lunch, I don’t really actually see anyone or talk to anyone all day.  It’s kind of lonely up there in that big old office on the nearly deserted 9th floor of a pretty empty building. It feels a little post apocalyptic sometimes.

I’ve always liked having colleagues. I like bouncing ideas around and moaning about crappy classes and picking brains about how to do something. I like water cooler chat. I’d kill to have a coffee maker to stand around and tell stupid jokes. Some mornings when I come in to work, even the hall and bathroom lights haven’t been turned on. I have to unlock my office door in the dark and sit in the big empty room with the window overlooking an elevated highway and a lot of concrete rooftops. It’s kind of disheartening.

I can’t decide if this set up is a good thing or not. The lack of distractions has allowed me to focus a lot of time on my writing, which I might not have otherwise done if I’d had people around to talk to. The lack of other staff means there is no office politics to speak of, and no management really. I’m pretty much running the show. As well, it’s a 100% Chinese environment, so if I really tried, I could probably use it to get my Chinese up to a less embarrassing level.  In addition, I only work 4 days a week, 8 months of the year. Friday is my last day of classes until the end of February. That’s cool.

But it’s lonely. Very lonely. And tiring, mentally and emotionally. And rather absurdly bleak.  I’m trying to figure out if I’m coping or thriving or what. It’s hard to tell.


On acceptance of low level chaos and discomfort


Did I mention the crowds?


Here are some of the things I deal with every day:

  • Cold water taps in the loos at work
  • Unheated classrooms to the point of numbness and pain
  • Pollution that gives me chronic lung infections
  • An eight lane highway that I have to cross 2-4 times a day when I’m at work whose traffic lights often go unheeded
  • Horns blaring
  • Scooters nudging my legs on the sidewalk as they try to drive past me
  • Urgent exam printing requests that aren’t acknowledged or printed until 5 minutes before they are meant to start or textbooks that aren’t printed until the third or fourth week of classes
  • Chickens and ducks being slaughtered in front of me as I walk to work at 6am or as I sit to eat my noodles at lunch with the tortured squawks of the dying coming in through the window of the noodle shop
  • Pools of fish blood and puddles of scales on the road
  • Flayed pigs butterflied like kites and hanging
  • Kids peeing where I am trying to step
  • Cars driving up onto the sidewalk where I’m trying to walk so they can pass another car that’s on the road.

And so on.

And yet it’s pretty much okay on a day to day basis. I think I can cope with more of the same in 2011.


On diving headfirst into Chinese after a delayed, reluctant start


In Mandalay


After a decade and a half of travelling and expattery, I’m rather burnt out on language learning. I’d spent years learning French and Afrikaans and Turkish and, for a while, Spanish, and when we moved to China I was faced with a whole new language that needed to be learned and I was tired.

I made a few half-assed attempts to learn in my first year or so- I had a few books that I’d pull out every so often to stare at with glazed eyes and I elicited some handy vocabulary and phrases from the admin assistant in my first job here.

However, I was almost irrationally annoyed to find myself in a situation where, yet again, I had to bloody well start from scratch. I wrote about that here, so I shan’t repeat the whole thing.  Let’s just say I did make a rather large and focused effort last summer, but it all kind of petered out over autumn. Work and life kind of got in the way.

However, this post is an end of year retrospective so I want to note that I’ve had a vague flicker of motivation flaring up somewhere inside me again and I’ve been listening to Chinese Pod podcasts everyday this year (it’s what, the 5th now?). I’m pleased to say that not everything has been forgotten so I am with great relief listening to the Elementary lessons, rather than the Beginner ones as I had feared.

Tones exhaust me. Being misunderstood (and misunderstanding) constantly is exhausting. I feel like I’m beating myself over the head with something that my brain can’t quite absorb. However, I’m going to try. Again.


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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.