A Totally Impractical Expat Interview #1: Nancy Lewis of Wandering Solo

 

photo by Nancy Lewis

Welcome to the first interview in a series that has not yet had its parameters defined.

I’ve loosely determined that I want to talk to as many people as possible (or at least until I start annoying people and cease-and-desist comments begin to outnumber spam) about a topic that has been banging around quite loudly and persistently in my head for a while now.

In this time of Let’s sell everything and travel around the world 4eva! exuberance on the internet (with an equal amount of Move/retire overseas and everything will be awesome! blogs and articles thrown in for good measure) I was starting to wonder if I was the only one out there who had very conflicted feelings about my life of travel and expattery, no certainty about my choices, a frustrating sense of restlessness coupled with uncomfortable rootlessness, and a very mixed relationship with the city I’ve been calling home for two years.

I sent out a call for submissions last week, and the call is still open. This will be an ongoing series, so please feel free to contact me if you want to join the party.  From the response I’ve received so far, I think I’ve touched a nerve. Which is awesome. I love nerves.

The interviews are entirely in the words of the contributors. I’m going back to my half-forgotten undergrad Oral History 101 course methodology here. I gave out a million questions under four headings and told them to write their own narratives, using the questions as guideposts only. This isn’t my story here. I’m gingerly stepping away from the controls now.

I’d like to introduce you to my first narrative, which was sent by the lovely Nancy Lewis of Wandering Solo. Although she lives in Shanghai, we’ve only met through our blogs. Our experiences, although quite different, seem to share a similar undercurrent of restlessness.

Please give her a warm welcome and feel free to leave comments. I’d like to get a dialogue going as it seems to be something a lot of us out here are craving.

photo by Nancy Lewis

Leaving

I’ve always dreamed of traveling long term. For whatever reason I never actually went through with it. But then the economy in the US tanked, I lost my business & my house. I had no attachments – no husband or children – so I figured it was finally time to hit the road.

I wound up in Vietnam first – I knew someone who knew someone. I didn’t thrive there though, so I started looking for another job. I came to Shanghai when I got a job teaching English here. I’d never been to China before, so I said what the hey.

Motivation? Economics, adventure, a need to be unsettled for a while. I had lived in Phoenix for 13 years & was bored with the sameness of daily life. I wanted to shake things up a bit.

I grew up moving around – my dad was in the military & we moved every two or three years when I was growing up. As a kid I lived in Germany & Thailand, as well as several states in the US. When I was 25 years old, I was living in Ohio. My life wasn’t going in the direction I wanted it to, & the only way I knew to change it was to move – so I packed up a uhaul & moved to Arizona, where I didn’t know a soul, to start over.

Even though I traveled out of the country a lot as an adult, I had never lived in another country before going to Vietnam. In spite of my experience living abroad as a child & my frequent international vacations, I was totally ambushed by culture shock in Vietnam. Why does everything close at 9:00? Why won’t they paint my toenails the color I asked for instead of the color they think looks good? Why is Vietnamese so hard to learn?

Life is so different there from life in the US & I wasn’t prepared for that at all. I experienced lots of little joys though – riding my bicycle everywhere, crossing the street through a sea of motorbikes, taking trips to the city on the train, eating yummy Vietnamese food, attending a death anniversary celebration with a Vietnamese friend & traveling.

Before I left Vietnam, I took six weeks to travel around the country, & I discovered that I much prefer traveling through a place than living in it. I don’t want to integrate into the local culture – I have my own culture already. I’m not trying to be Vietnamese or Chinese or whatever. I’m not looking for a place to settle down. But I do want to see the beauty of the world & experience its culture & traditions – as many as I can.

photo by Nancy Lewis

Staying

I’ve been in Shanghai for a little over a year & already I’m feeling the need to move on. I’ve seen all the tourist sights & gotten a feel for what it’s like to live here, so I feel like my time here is done.

On the other hand, I have a really good job & a lifestyle I could never afford at home, so I’m torn between being responsible & being me. When I read travel stories, I sometimes tear up because of my longing for the road – but who’s going to finance this vagabond life if it ain’t me? I’m endlessly coming up with ways I might work & travel at the same time. None of them have been successful yet, but I’m not giving up hope.

Depression, loneliness – I’m not like the locals nor am I like most of the laowais. Most people seem to want to settle, even if they moved to China to do it. They don’t understand my nomadic cravings – nor do I really, but there you have it.

I spend a lot of time alone, which bothered me at first because I have an extensive network of friends back in the US & I really miss my social life. I couldn’t understand why I was having such a difficult time making friends, especially since all these foreigners were supposed to be like me – travelers, right? But they aren’t travelers.

The other day I met a man from Canada who told me had lived in six Canadian cities, plus Taiwan & Hong Kong before coming to Shanghai. Oh, I said, so you’re a nomad too. He vehemently denied it. No, he likes to live in one place. It’s interesting the perceptions people have of themselves. He wants to be settled, so even though he’s not, he tells himself that he is. I want to be a traveler, so even though I’m not, I tell myself that I am.

I’ve now accepted that I’m taking this journey alone.

 

photo by Nancy Lewis

Maintaining Stability

I just turned 40 – time to be a grown-up. but I’ve always sought out change. Even though I lived in Phoenix for 13 years, I lived in six different houses/apartments. My relationships last a year or two & that’s it. Settling down is the last thing I want to do. I’m restless. Not sure why, but I’m not trying to figure that out any more – or change it. I’m starting to understand that I should just go with it – who else has the opportunities that I do? It would be a shame to waste it on settling.

What have I gained from my life abroad? Understanding – mostly of myself. I have a long way to go to enlightenment, but the challenges of navigating a different culture & country have taught me a lot about my own idiosyncrasies. It’s been good. no regrets.

 

photo by Nancy Lewis

The Future

I don’t know. I’m torn between keeping the job so that I can save more money & maybe be able to take a whole year off to travel, or just chucking it all & leaving anyway. I’m not in love with Shanghai, though it’s not a difficult city to live in. can I stick it out? Do I have the guts to stay? I’m not sure.

Next? Not home. There’s no job for me there – unless I get this working remotely thing off the ground. But I want to see the rest of the world. I’ve only seen a tiny bit of it & I don’t have a lot of time left. I’m already 40, for god’s sake! So where next? Anywhere I haven’t been.

 

photo by Nancy Lewis


 

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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.