Some of you might remember the lovely Amber Roshay from her interview last year. She was the one whose students had prepared an awesome and very emotional surprise party for her. She’s also a very good friend of mine- one who happened to leave Shanghai and move back home to the US at the beginning of this year.
One of the crappy things about living abroad is that your friends tend to leave. I now have one less person to have coffee with here (sad face!), but this move has done Amber a world of good. She got back into her writing in a serious way: she wrote a book. A whole, freaking book. Which you’re going to read, because she’s an amazing, beautiful writer.
Here’s the deal: I’ll send you a free ebook copy of her book if you promise to write a review for it on Amazon. Free. She has worked her butt off to write something powerful, to polish it into something professional, and to throw it out there bravely into the big world as an author. I think that’s pretty awesome.
If you want a free review copy of the novel, leave a comment below and I’ll email it to you.
Without further ado, here is quite possibly the only guest post I’ve ever published (interviews don’t count): Amber Roshay talking about what it’s like to go home again. Her new blog can be found here and details about her books (yes, she has more than one) are here.
Thoughts from Over Here – The Return
Coincidentally on the plane returning to the United States the passenger next to me was reading Bill Bryson’s nonfiction short story collection, I’m a Stranger Here Myself. I had never read the book but the title resonated with me because I was, like him, returning to my home country after five years away. Every time I left the States, I always exited with the impression that I didn’t belong; or quite possibly never had, otherwise why would I have left in the first place?
My exodus wasn’t planned like I wanted it to be. I wasn’t returning with a treasure trove of money or back to a fabulous job; I was returning because I needed to. A long time ago I read a book about how individuals create footprints that lead back to where they were born. This idea of an invisible line, leading me home, brings reassurance to an altogether hazy future.
Below me, under the seat in a carrier, was my 7 month year old black and white tuxedo cat named Oreo. We adopted her from a non-profit organization that saves abandoned animals. She came to us covered in fleas and not weighing more than a can of soda. I tell friends she’s the only thing I brought home from China. Although, this is not true. I came home as a scared doppelganger. I had no idea who I would be or if I would be able to give up the expat life in favor of a normal existence. Once again I faced a new beginning. As Oreo scratched incessantly against the cotton mesh opening, her cries drowned out by the engine, I decided I needed to make positive changes in my life. The return home meant finally being brave enough to stop hiding. Travel for me had turned into a way to avoid being proactive in my life.
A traveler is concerned with the most basic elements: securing a place to sleep for the night, arranging a bus ticket, finding an Internet café. The experience of a new place is the primary goal. I’m always obsessed with new places. I became fixated with Prague in the early 2000’s, after visiting for a writer’s conference and becoming fascinated with the cobblestone streets and ornate fixtures. Prague became the setting for my first novel and is very much a main character in the story. My second novel is based in Thailand where I lived for a year as a teacher. I write about these places in order to understand them and to give them true meaning.
This changed when I moved to Shanghai. My writing stopped. At first I was scared of being watched by the government. This was paranoia, although there is some truth to this delusion. In China, you learn to avoid the hotspots. Shanghai also overwhelmed me. I went from living in a small village to cohabiting with 22 million strangers. Once the claustrophobia wore off, I convinced myself that I was on perpetual vacation.
In some ways, living abroad stunts your growth. Expats never grow up because no one requires them to evolve. Chinese people allow foreigners in, but don’t necessarily take the time to truly get to know them. So they tend to make friends with other foreigners, who don’t have children and remain frozen. Society does not put pressure on them to conform because they’re not a part of the mainstream culture. Personal connections and family members are thousands of miles away and so are the expectations. Self-improvement, exercising and eating healthily are harder because existence is about enduring day to day, not what the future may bring. Sustaining in this frame of mind can be magical and it can also be dilapidating. It’s easy to forget about whom you truly are when you’re never confronted with who you were supposed to be.
Some days, living in Shanghai was like living in a snow globe or a bell jar. Everyone around me planned their escape. Friendships rarely became long term. The longer you remain, the less willing you are to commit to a new friend, when you know they will be gone soon. For those who do stay indefinitely, they usually marry a Chinese girl or are incapable of assimilating to life back home. These lifers are not travelers, but rather ship wreck survivors on a secret island.
This is not to say that living in Shanghai did not give me more than it took. I spent four years there, navigating the subway, teaching the new generation, and learning to understand and navigate Chinese culture. The experience taught me patience, perseverance and acceptance. In many ways surviving in Shanghai is much easier than making it back home. I could afford the best restaurants, three week holidays twice a year, and a weekly maid. But, in the end these benefits lost their luster. The footprints led me back home.
Perhaps, I followed them too early. I returned to a country with over 10% unemployment, a struggling economy and facing multiple social problems. Only time will tell. I find that I am now fascinated with Shanghai, much like my obsession for Prague years ago. I expect I will need to write about ‘my Shanghai,’ in order to understand my experience and give my readers a true sense of being a part of a Chinese city while being completely separate at the same time.
I will have to give a snapshot of the bell jar.