On Identity and Decontextualization: Notes on Going Home (again)

I’m home again. As a travelling sage once said, if it’s Tuesday, I must be in Belgium. Or in my case, if it’s somewhere near the end of June, I must be in Canada. Vancouver Island, to be precise.

Ahoy, Vancouver Island! I’m-a coming! Well, in the 1 hour and 35 minutes it takes to get to you by ferry, anyway…


I’m in a much better mood coming home this year. I feel more grounded, more stable, less irritable, less exhausted, more sane. I know that’s a wildly sweeping generalization to make (because I wasn’t exactly the opposite last year when I was here), but please bear with me.

Last year when I came home, I was overwhelmed by the alien familiarity of everything, if that makes any sense. Nothing major, no, just details. The big box stores lined with acres of stuff, the painfully invasive ads on TV, in magazines, in newspapers, the tersely worded bylaws on signs that I could read and therefore had to obey. All these things I’d grown up with. All these things that were surprisingly familiar to me, yet which had an added whiff of  confusing culture shock.  They really bugged me.

I grumbled a lot beneath my breath. I missed being able to tune everything out, using my lack of linguistic fluency as an excuse for ignoring all the things that I found restrictive, stupid or banal.

I also ached to stay and make a deeply rooted home here, surrounded by the trees and the sea and the mountains and family.


I mean, really, look!


So, yeah, my relationship with this place isn’t exactly straightforward or easy to define. I’m not someone who feels certain that they were always meant to go home, even after years away. Nor am I someone who is certain they will always need to be away. I take things day by day, year by year.

And day by day, year by year, the person who makes all these hundreds of tiny decisions that evolve into massive choices becomes an entirely different person. The person who lived here in 1992 is not the same one who lived in Galway in 1994 or London in 1997 or South Africa in 2000 or Turkey in 2004 or even Turkey again in 2008. The Shanghai incarnation is someone else entirely. Totally different people, I tell you. I can look back and see each one as a fully delineated entity separate from the others. There’s no connection between them, nothing that links one version to the next.

Which is kind of fucked up, really.

I don’t look back on my life and see a timeline stretching back into childhood. I see, let’s say, a group photo of about twenty or so people, all living their own very distinct lives. They don’t really even talk to each other. I don’t even know if they’d get along with each other. Each belongs to its own time and place, and that time and place was finite.

Bleached blond pixie-cut me with the combat boots belonged to London only. The hippie stayed behind in Ireland. There’s a girl with purple hair still chilling out in dimly lit caves in Central Anatolia. I know these people existed because I have photographic proof.  My own memory sucks, but I am a compulsive documentarian leaving behind an environmentally irresponsible paper trail, stacked up high.

Sometimes when things aren’t going well in my current incarnation, I find myself feeling pangs of envy for one of my previous incarnations, much as I might feel about another person who did amazing things, brave things, remarkable things. I forget that the person I feel that envy for was actually me. Me!  I should be putting these things down in a resume and owning them instead of looking sideways with longing at them!

It’s absurd.


As long as the incarnations are happy, that’s all that matters, really.


The thing is, when you jump around so much, abruptly changing flats, jobs, cities, countries, friends, you remove yourself from the little things that cement your identity. I don’t hear the music of my teen years (or even my 20s or early 30s) casually on the radio; I don’t see people I knew in my previous incarnations because they are spread out across the globe; I don’t revisit places that were of great importance during certain periods of my life because they too are all over the place.

I was sitting in A&W with my parents the other day, on our way back from a lovely day trip out to the wilds of Sooke, and we were treating ourselves to a lunch of Teenburgers and root beer- something they had done on regular occasions since they were kids growing up in the very same city. There was a classic rock station on the radio.

Food, place, music. Reminders of who you had been, cemented with who you are now. A sense of continuity of self, of identity.


Every year when I come back, I take a photo of this driftwood sculpture in the Inner Harbour by my cousins’ place.


When I go home, the connections with my previous existences mess with my head, because they are all over the place. I have gone home about once a year for the past 18 or so years, with the exception of a 4 year gap when I was in Turkey and had neither money nor time off,  and a 2 year stay in the early 2000s when I was finishing my degree and briefly thinking about putting down roots for a change.

My identity here is choppy and sporadic, to say the least. Many of my incarnations have spent summers here. A few Christmases too.  My very pleasant and stable childhood was certainly here, as were my intermittent university years.

When I came home last week,  I re-entered a parallel universe where everything and everyone was pretty much the same as I’d left it last year, though some details had shifted ever so slightly.  It was like a really unimaginative time travel movie, where everything was still pretty much the same as it was one, five, ten, fifteen, twenty years ago-  except now there are wifi hotspots everywhere and everyone has a website (even the used car lots lining the highway) and people are carrying gadgets that didn’t even exist before. You’d think it wasn’t 1992 or 1983 or 1997 or something. My god.


In another version of me, this was an intact building and there was a building next to it.


Shop fronts contain both the reality of the current place and the memory of what was there before-  the thing that is really meant to be there, except it’s been gone 20 years.  I still think I can walk into town and find the Java coffee house on lower Johnson Street (or hell, even Bohematea, on Yates).

And that person who was my 20 year old self will be there, all hippie long hair and herbal teas and whatnot. The one who is squinting myopically at the spines of CDs (or hell, LPs) at A&B Sound (now long out of business). The one who still hasn’t lived anywhere but Vancouver Island. The one who wonders what it would be like to go to Europe some day. The one who thinks she’s probably going to be a nurse. Or a high school social studies teacher. Probably up north. Maybe even the Yukon.


Lola Kedi is my Constant.


There are other slight distortions that mess with my attempt to find a linear connection between my past and present selves.

People here are [older fatter fitter younger weirder more conventional] than I remembered. TV and radio are more invasive than I remembered. Ads can’t be tuned out because they’re in a language I’m fluent in.

The shoes in the shoe stores aren’t in the styles I wanted– then I remember that those styles were available in the 1998 collection.  I’m somehow 37 and not 18 or 21 or 26.

I’m thinner than I thought I was, reaching for all the wrong size racks when restocking my wardrobe. The fact that I don’t need to buy pants  in the XXXXXXL section has neatly separated my Shanghai identity from this current (temporary) one.  In this version, I can safely reach for shirts, skirts and dresses on the M rack.  I am by far not the biggest person around.

My gargantuan feet (size 9 Canadian/39 European) don’t cause shop assistants to shoo me out in horror.

I’m not sure if I know who this person is, really.

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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.