A Totally Impractical Expat Interview #15: Miranda Ward of A Literal Girl

This one has been a long time coming. Today I bring you the lovely and talented Miranda Ward of A Literal Girl.

Poor Miranda’s interview and photo folder lay dormant while I was off galavanting in the wilds of Sri Lanka last month, neglecting most of my (perceived and actual) internet responsibilities. It’s awkward to blog on a tiny iPod touchscreen with intermittent wifi, so I didn’t even try to somehow move her words from the Pages document to WordPress. Miranda is worth the full 13″ of my laptop screen and all the bells and whistles that go with it.  I’ll tell you more about her in just a moment.

Tea time in hill country, Sri Lanka

I’ve been back in Shanghai for just over one full day. It’s hideously hot and humid in a way that makes Sri Lanka seem quite temperate (and really, Nuwara Eliya in hill country was downright chilly most of the time).

The cicadas up the the plane trees are deafening. Men are walking around in cotton shorts that I’m sure were meant to be worn under trousers, with their singlets pushed up over their smooth, hairless bellies. Women are wearing sandals with tight beige anklet nylons. People walk around carrying paper fans, folded out like a peacock’s tail. Just walking seems exhausting.

And walking, we did.

We got back to Shanghai stupidly late Friday night after a really, really long journey from Colombo. I may write about that later- or not. We’ll see. We got back to a hot, starless night, whiffy polluted air, a humid flat, an empty fridge, empty potable water bottles, a moldy coffee maker that I’d forgotten to rinse before we left a month ago, and a bathroom sink with a nest of perky baby spiders running around on it. Oh, and our internet connection had been, well, disconnected.

We spent most of Saturday running around Shanghai in the heat, trying to get everything sorted out, trying to avoid being run over by cars and scooters, trying not to pass out.

I thought to myself, oh crap, what have I gotten myself into (again)?

In Galle

Now let me tell you something about Miranda. We first met, as it were, through the MatadorU writing course. At one point we were both featured on Matador Pulse  because we were crazy enough to be doing the NaNoWriMo novel writing challenge. I’ve followed her path as a writer on both Twitter and on her blog as she quit her day job and started to work as an honest to goodness freelancer.

Which brings me back, in a roundabout way, to our return to Shanghai and to what went on in Sri Lanka.

You may recall from a post waaaaaaay back in springtime that my job disappeared. My day job, that is. My full time teaching job at that university simply dissolved one day in late April without warning, the program dropped suddenly, taking me (the lone staff member) with it. I was, rather disorientingly, a free agent. I have a residence permit to keep me here legally until next summer and a pretty easy part time job that pays the bills. Who needs a day job when you have this kind of enviable set up?

I will write, I told myself. I’ll finish that blasted novel! I’ll be a prolific blogger! I’ll transform like a nerdy chrysalis from haggard teacher to radiant, witty Writer! Capital ‘W’ Writer! The kind of writer that actually gets paid (kind of) to write stuff!

And in Sri Lanka I wrote exactly five blog posts, one of which suddenly and unexpectedly went viral (well- viral by my standards).  I was deluged with comments, emails, notes on Facebook, mentions on Twitter, mentions in other blogs (like here and here).  Almost entirely from Sri Lankans. It was like being big in Japan, except better. After a year and a half of blogging obscurity in China, I was stunned. They liked me! They really liked me! Someone even compared me (favourably) to P.G. Wodehouse. They said I was witty and interesting and talented. Several suggested I really ought to stay in Sri Lanka and become a full time writer. Some offered to help me get started. One even pointed me to a small publishing house that was located right around the corner from our guesthouse in Galle.  His book (published through that house) could be found in the cafe where we paused for lime juice most days.  Yes, being a writer in Sri Lanka was a definite possibility. If I stayed.

However, I’m back in Shanghai for now and I have, potentially, a lot of time on my hands. How I make use of this time is still up in the air. If I get my act together and write with, say, some semblance of discipline, this might actually be an interesting year.

Which brings us back to the lovely Miranda and her new writing life. Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to a literal girl…

And this would be Miranda

Leaving

East Oxford

I’m in Oxford (England, not Mississippi or elsewhere). There are two ways of explaining how I got here. The first one is fairly straightforward: I studied politics at university, and during my last summer before graduation I went to Oxford to do a six week course in International Relations. My first night there I met a man in a pub. And here we are, four years later. Seriously. My life is really that ridiculous.

The second way of explaining how I got here is this: when I was a little girl I liked to read. A lot. I grew up on a cattle ranch in California, about 45 minutes away from the nearest town, an only child. I had very poor social skills, but a good imagination and an extensive library, so I would read books. A lot of them, it turned out, where set in England. I started out with Agatha Christie; later I read things like Brideshead Revisited and Zuleika Dobson and developed a particular and irrational affinity with Oxford. I don’t know why. I’m very intrigued by this; I spend a lot of time trying to trace this obsession, to turn it into something logical. But I do distinctly remember writing in my journal when I was about 14 or 15 that I would live in England someday. I wasn’t really even a fully-fledged Anglophile, I wasn’t much concerned with history or tradition, I just thought it was the sort of place I would like to live.

My obsession was centered on literature and this sense of nostalgia I had for a place I’d only been once (for two weeks, with my parents, when I was 12, and we hadn’t even made it to Oxford). But as I got older and went to college this idea that I would live there became increasingly abstract. I totally forgot about it, in fact.

I got distracted by wanting a career in politics and going to keg parties and falling in love with Boston. But one day I woke up and remembered that I had really wanted to study abroad. I had just gotten out of a serious relationship and I was only a semester away from graduating and I just thought: I have to get to Oxford before it’s too late. So maybe that really was the plan all along.

And I got there and I didn’t just fall in love with my partner, I fell in love with the city. So I didn’t go there with an aim to move there, but I think once I’d been there for a few days it became an inevitability. I have no idea if we will settle here permanently or not, but in a way this not-knowing is very appealing to me. I like to feel settled but not settled; I like to feel I have a home but also that I’m not bound to things.

I’d never lived abroad before. In fact the longest I’d ever been out of the US was a month, when I’d gone to Greece at 17 to celebrate my high school graduation.

It was easy emotionally, because I had fallen so completely in love with the place I was moving to and the person I was living with. Logistically, it was not so easy – visas are never easy, and they’re also expensive.

I remember very distinctly having to write a letter to the Border Agency politely explaining that the reason I no longer had the requisite funds in my account was because they had extracted £500 for the application fee.

And when I did my MA here I had a cap on the number of hours I was legally allowed to work, so I sort of staggered along on a measly salary and spent every spare penny on pints of cider and kept having to ask my parents to help pay my credit card bill.

It was a very humbling period of my life. I’m glad I went through it, but I wouldn’t like to live that way – dependent, despondent, clinging on to a love of place and partner but very little else – again.

On expectations. I think the most honest answer to this question is that I hadn’t thought enough about it to have any expectations. Things happened pretty fast (in a six month period I went from planning to move to Washington, D.C. and apply to law school to shipping all of my books across the Atlantic and living with my new boyfriend), but it hadn’t occurred to me that I was doing anything big. I just thought, ‘oh, well, I’m moving.’ I still think that; I still find it hard to see myself as an expat, to feel that I made a big move.

Staying

Walking in Oxfordshire

I’ve been here full-time for about three and a half years.  I have no idea how long I’ll be here – we do plan to live in the US at some point, but then with every year I feel less and less inclined to leave. I think ideally someday we’ll be (relatively) location independent, able to spend part of the year here and part of the year somewhere else, if we choose.

I had always wanted to live in England in a very vague way, but really the reason this became a reality is because of my partner, who’s from Oxford. And until we get married, it’s pretty difficult for him to get a visa to live in the US. Whereas I’ve been able to get visas. It’s luck, really: first I had a temporary visa through an organisation called BUNAC, and then I did a Masters degree so I had a student visa, and now I have a post-study work visa. And we’ve lived together for long enough to be considered unmarried partners, which gives us options here and means nothing in the US. So I guess the reason I decided to stay is both incredibly romantic and incredibly dry and bureaucratic.

I love living here. People often ask me why (especially when they find out that I grew up five minutes away from a southern California beach, as if good weather and proximity to the coast trumps everything else). And I can never answer in very specific terms. I just like it; I feel at home. And at the same time I feel embarrassed; I hate gushing about a place, or feeling predictable, like the little American girl who didn’t fit in at home but found somewhere else. I’m just comfortable, in a sort of messy way, which I guess accounts for why I so often forget that living abroad is any big deal.

For obvious reasons (and all jokes about American/British English aside), I can speak the language. I suspect this has probably contributed to the smoothness of my transition. But there are obviously cultural differences, and in a way the lack of language barrier means I’m even more surprised when I encounter something foreign.

I suffer from anxiety, I always have, and my anxiety definitely hasn’t gone away since I’ve moved abroad. I was on medication for a long time, and a few years ago, feeling quite pleased with myself for having ended up in England and quite happy, I decided to wean myself off of it. I had my first panic attack in years in some hotel room in Dublin, and it was followed by a number of others, of increasing severity, and it took me a few months for me to remember that this was why I’d gone on medication in the first place. So I was very down for a while, very anxious, very out of sorts, and we were broke, blah blah blah. But that’s life, and it can hit you wherever you are, I think. Anyway I’m more or less fine now.

I think my anxiety is location-independent.

I’m much more gregarious online than I am in person, purely out of shyness. But also one of the reasons I think it will be hard for us to leave here is because I feel we’re part of a community, which is a nice feeling.

Maintaining stability

Study View

How do you know if you are ready to settle down long term in one place, whether it be at home or abroad?  You don’t. But you do it anyway. I will say that I think settling down is a state of mind, not an age or a physical location. Take that with a grain of salt; I’m 24.  For me, it’s been fine! It’s been great! But I think it’s pretty arbitrary.

The thing I’ve sacrificed is geographical proximity to my family. Other than that I can’t think of much that I’m missing. But that’s a pretty big thing. And there’s no easy answer to it. Skype is great, but it’s not the same thing as popping over to your parents’ place for dinner, and the time difference means it’s always inconvenient for someone.

This is one of the few choices I’ve made that I have almost no regrets about. I hate being apart from my family and my childhood friends. But it was a choice I made out of the desire to construct something, rather than a choice motivated by fear, and (especially as an anxious person) I find those kinds of choices very difficult and ultimately very gratifying.

I feel at home, yes. Was it due to the location or to how I dealt with being here? I think that if I didn’t have an affinity for the place I wouldn’t feel quite the way I do; but who can say?

The Future

All Souls

Honestly, I don’t know what’s next for me! Which is a good thing. I want to be (I guess I already am) a writer, and I’ve recently decided to go completely freelance, which is a big change that theoretically means more flexibility, less stability. Hopefully, eventually, it will mean a little of both. I have a hard time separating geography from emotion, so I can’t see myself leaving here anytime soon, but equally I can’t see myself ignoring the rest of the world, the place I’m from, the places I have a connection to. I think in a way it’s been important for me here to feel personally rooted but also professionally mobile. I’ve always felt, I still feel, that I want the option to leave – whether that means forever or for a week. As if my sense of settledness is somehow dependent on having that option, whether or not I ever choose it.

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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.