Notes on Going Home Again

One thing I’ve learned over the past seven years of blogging is to not post when you are sick, exhausted or pissed off. If you are sick or exhausted, it inevitably comes out in a strained, rather incoherent stream. If you are pissed off, the tone is all wrong and you’re likely to offend (even if writing about unicorns and bunny rabbits dusted with glitter and rhinestones, eating cotton candy in sun-kissed meadows).

Thus, my fortnight of silence here.

This post has had a dozen false starts. It has gone through several title changes. I’ve deleted the first paragraph about six times. It started out as an unfocused mish-mash of lamentations on the rain (yup, still Plum Rains, still humid, still grey), then took on the added baggage of my 5-day mutating flu last week. My half-delirious enforced bedrest took place over last weekend’s TBEX travel bloggers’ conference in Vancouver and the subsequent hockey riots, so there were semi-coherent rambling paragraphs about feeling totally out of the loop in the travel bloggy universe and baffled and annoyed by the idiocy of the rioters. On top of all this was the undercurrent of unexpressed sadness I’d been feeling over the end of term, end of my job, end of my intense two years with my students– my lovely, funny, sweet, bizarre students.

I'll miss you most of all, Scarecrow.

I’ve deleted all of those false-starts. Let’s start again. I want to talk about going home.

  • Next Saturday, I’m going home. I haven’t been home since January 2010, which is actually a relatively short absence compared to, say, those four years I spent away in Turkey when I was too broke and too busy to go home.  Going from Istanbul to Vancouver takes about two days, ten time zones, and well over a thousand dollars. I missed two weddings and at least one birth. My parents retired. My eternally 4 year old cousin bought a loft apartment and qualified as a dentist. My childhood cat died of marvellously old age. Trees grew taller and then were spectacularly blown down in some of the biggest winter storms in decades. Life back home (always called home, even though I’ve lived everywhere else since 1994) carried on without me.  I got older. They got older. Stuff happened. I wasn’t there. I was in Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Egypt, UAE, Oman and India but I wasn’t in Canada– or, more specifically, Vancouver Island.
This is where I come from
  • I have made a slightly better effort at going home since that 4-year stint of absence and have spent several happy month-long visits there since 2007, when I broke the long fast. I actually really like where I come from and would happily attempt to make a life there but I have no idea how. My restlessness always kicks in. My preference for being an outsider gets thwarted by familiarity. Jobs there lack the free-form anarchy that I’ve grown to appreciate in Turkey and China. I swear too much and people actually understand it and that isn’t a good thing. The rules and by-laws are clearly printed in words I can read. Home is a wonderful, cozy, remarkably beautiful place but I don’t know how to live there properly without getting all shouty and frustrated.

My Turkish cat has adjusted well to her new life in Canada

  • For those of you who have only known me through my blogs, as an expat or as a traveller, as an urban-dweller in two of the hugest cities in the world (Istanbul, Shanghai), you may have no idea that I started life in the forest, in a house in a valley near a river at the dead-end of an unpaved road, half an hour from the nearest small town, on a sparsely populated island off the west coast of Canada.

Longhouse roof and blue skies

  • As a child, I cleared trails through the thickly underbrushed forests, made forts in the clearings, read books up on thick branches in trees, balanced precariously on unevenly rounded river stones, rode my bike down long, skinny, gravelly logging roads. Our neighbours lived in log houses they’d built themselves. We had a well. We had a wood shed. We had working kitchen gardens and an orchard, ducks, chickens, dog, cats. Our house was heated by a cast iron wood stove in the living room, and in winter I had to hang my nightgown and bedding behind the stove to warm so that come bedtime there would be at least something warm in my unheated bedroom. Out my bedroom windows were trees, trees, tress. And passing neighbour dogs.

This is Long Beach, on Vancouver Island

  • Before I was 19, I’d only ever travelled within North America (to Montreal to see family, to Disneyland once, to Seattle a few times).  I was from Vancouver Island- born in Port Alberni, briefly raised near Sproat Lake on the way to Tofino, then in the woods of Sahtlam in the Cowichan Valley for all of my school years, then in Victoria, intermittently, for my never-ending degree. I had never lived anywhere else– and even now, I don’t think I’d live anywhere else if I moved back to Canada.  It just resonates with me.

Hiding in the teeth of the Mungo Martin Wawadit'la longhouse in Victoria

  • For a long time, I couldn’t even conceive of what the rest of the world looked like. It was like a big grey area that I tried to fill in with my aunt’s annual gift subscriptions to National Geographic World magazine and a lot of library books about countries and cultures and history. I knew I would eventually leave –I knew even when I was 5 or 6 but I couldn’t articulate how or why.  By the time I was 10, I had accumulated a dozen or more penpals around the world and obsessively quizzed them on the outside world. I needed to know what was out there and how it all worked.
  • My first overseas attempts at solo travel when I was 19 were built around meeting two of those penpals: a month in Germany with one, followed by two months on a sofa in Galway, Ireland with the other.  I had a 5-day Eurail pass to take me safely from Berlin to Cork, via Amsterdam (where I slept on the floor of my German friend’s former classmate’s room in a vegan organic commune on Singel Gracht) and Paris (where I shared a room in a girl’s dormitory with a fussy woman from Edmonton, Alberta, who was 10 years older than me and who said that if I didn’t climb the Eiffel Tower during this visit I would probably never get a chance to do it again. I didn’t climb it that time. But I did return to Paris a dozen more times in the 1990s). I wasn’t a particularly brave adventurer. I was stunningly naive. I was shy. I was tentative. I was very introverted. I wrote a lot in my journal and lived in my sketchbook.

This was as close to China as I got growing up

  • One of the stranger side effects of an adult life spent mostly in transit is that no one ever has a complete picture of who you are. Friends I made in Turkey only know the version of me that I was in Turkey: bright red hair (usually quite short), striped knee socks, the wardrobe of a strange colour-blind 5 year old, the English teacher who changed jobs and flats every year like clockwork, the perpetually single one, the one with the fantastic cat, the one who regularly danced until 4am in African bars in Istanbul, the one who somehow survived two years in Kayseri in deeply conservative Central Anatolia. I wasn’t a blogger then. I wrote, but relatively secretly and anonymously in my LiveJournal. I took pictures, but not many. My memory card was 128mb until I upgraded to 4gig in 2008.
  • Before Turkey, I was a broke backpacker, a perpetual student, a serious and responsible nursing home care-worker, an unreliable flake who broke a lot of promises, a barefoot hippie, a music obsessive who worked her way into the 1994-1995 Irish music scene in a way that seems quite impressive in retrospect, a Doc Marten’d bleached blond buzz-cut angry Londoner who said Fuck a lot, a quiet artist in Connemara steeped in tea and soy milk and floaty long skirts. I have layers and layers of friends who will never know of each other and who each knew a different incarnation of me. I’ve gone by many names, given to me by friends and family and colleagues and only recognized in specific contexts and eras: Mao, Shirl, Emine, Mali, Miriam, Mariam, Marry, Yaramaz. Sometimes I don’t feel like one whole person with a linear life but rather a series of very different people inhabiting a series of unrelated, unconnected vignettes.

Coming home again after 6 years in Turkey (2008)

  • Next Saturday I’ll be flying into YVR, three hours before I leave Shanghai (thanks to the International Date Line). One of my best friends from Turkey will be meeting me at the airport. She and her partner moved there about two years after I left Istanbul. She knew five years’ worth of Turkish me. The one with the striped knee socks and the cat, the one that left Central Anatolia to come live in Istanbul. We will drink west coast microbrews, eat cupcakes and probably talk about our long-standing obsession with finding bacon and cheddar whilst living in a Muslim country.  I’ve tentatively lined up coffees with friends from a half dozen different incarnations- my childhood best friend and I will meet up at the Folk Festival at Jericho Beach before I fly back to Shanghai; my German penpal from my teen years will be passing through with her young son on holiday and we will try to intercept somewhere on her Vancouver Island  itinerary; an artist friend I haven’t seen since 2002 has already pencilled me in for tea next Tuesday at a specific cafe in Victoria. I have tentative arrangements to meet people who only know me through blogging. I have firm arrangements to drink peppermint espressos with my cousin and her babies. Family dinners are certain. For three weeks, almost everyone will call me Mao again.  For three weeks, no one except my parents will really know my current Shanghai incarnation, except for what I decide to write in this blog.  I’ll have a lot of ‘splaining to do.

I spent my late teens and parts of my mid-20s frantically scribbling in journals here

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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.