Notes on Not Running Away Again: Dealing Sensibly With a Shanghai Winter

It was some time midway through my London years that I found myself huddled in a phone box outside the Lords Cricket Grounds, surrounded on three sides by layers of postcards of hot, horny, available women who wanted to do dirty things to me. It was December, or maybe January. It was freezing outside my naughty little BT phone box.

I was working as a wandering home care helper for the elderly and infirm: essentially, tenderly flipping bed-ridden grannies, doling out mountains of pills, shaving tired old men, collecting meagre pensions, buying groceries that consisted of boil-in-bag mackerel and tins of corned beef, and having long, fragmented conversations with people who had seen too much.

Every morning I was given a photocopied map of a region of London, marked with little red dots where my 7 or 8 clients lived. How I got to them, how I long I spent with them, and when I finished for the day didn’t matter as long as I did what they needed. Working for social services was fabulous that way: I got paid for an 8 hour day, even when I was done at noon. I worked on a semi-casual basis- I could work every day, if I needed the money, or I could bugger off for a month if the mood struck.

And it did. A lot. In the three years I had that job, I ran away constantly: Ghana, Paris, South Africa, road trip across the US, Prague, home. I incrementally covered most of western and central Europe. I lived out of a backpack and lived in backpacker hostels for three years. I was fabulously unstable, but my gut cried out constantly for a hint of unattainable stability– or if not that then at least a room of my own and more than one pair of shoes. That would come a decade later.

So on that freezing day around 1997 or 1998, having spent nearly my full 8 paid hours running around the Abbey Road end of Westminster trying to track down my elderly clients who weren’t answering their doorbells, and shelled out a fortune’s worth of my own coins on calls back to the office to follow up on their suspicious silence (after all, they could have had a stroke or died), I decided I needed to go to Ireland. Now.

I called Pieter, my boyfriend at the time, and told him we were catching the night boat to Dublin and would be going to Galway for a fortnight. And then called my office to tell them I wouldn’t be coming in for the rest of the week, or the next. And then went to the National Express booking office and bought two bus and ferry tickets to Ireland, via Holyhead. And then we spent a fortnight in Galway, drinking pints by the fireplace in Neachtain’s on Quay Street and walking out to Salthill along the freezing, windy strand.


So, yeah, this picture was actually taken in a fake Irish pub in a casino in Macau, but it’s as good as I’ve got here.


I felt much better after that. I resumed flipping grannies with extra vigor and tenderness.

This week, I’m feeling the need to do something similar, to just pack up and go, to call Doug at work and say, hey, Doug, pack your bags because we’re going to Kashgar for the next fortnight. I’ve got us a Kyrgyz tent out in the desert and I hear the night sky is lovely at this time of year. Do you like camels?

But that’s not going to happen because I’m booked solid for work until past the middle of the month, and even then things only reduce down to a normal workload. For the next three weekends, I’m away for work: Jinan, Nanjing, Nanjing. During the week, I’m marking the usual nonsense, reminding myself that every ridiculous essay I grade is worth at least one decent cocktail in Bali. I’m also tending to my day job, which is still such a work in progress that sometimes it feels intangible. It takes up a huge percentage of my daily headspace but very few actual hours of physical work.

It’s weird having a job that’s mostly in your head, where you don’t necessarily have to go in to the office but you have to be around and you have to think about it constantly. It makes me feel physically disengaged but mentally overwhelmed.


I deal with it by drinking my bodyweight in tea. Note the cat mug. I have 2: one red, one blue. That helps.


And I’ve been having such strong day dreams of going away. I’ve been researching random, remote places around China for, ostensibly, educational tourism for expat families in Shanghai for an article I was asked to write for a local magazine.

This has led to me having long, dreamy, back and forth email conversations with random tour operators in, say, Kashgar or Urumqi, chatting me up as only good tour operators can, telling me all about their desert hikes and sleeping under the stars and camel rides and informal Uyghur language lessons and cooking demonstrations in local women’s kitchens.

At night, I’m insomniac, thinking about all the places I’d rather be than stuck in Shanghai, earning money and doing normal life things.

Not that Shanghai is bad, no. It’s still Shanghai. Same same. But it’s grey these days. And it’s so toxic most days that I wonder whether we are nuts for staying. And it’s getting colder but buildings aren’t being heated, as usual. And today our water was turned off so they could flush out the pipes, so I can’t do the dishes or have a hot shower or use the loo. I feel defeated, deflated, exhausted.


Of course, the Laser Cats offered to help.


It’s one of those weeks, one of those seasons. It happens every year around this time. I should be ready for it by now, after nearly 4 winters here.

This is a city that requires specific reasons for you to be here, otherwise you’ll too easily slip into a dark funk, wondering why you’re still here. Maybe you’re here to save money or get laid (if you’re a guy) or to learn the language (though Shanghai is a terrible place to learn Mandarin since they don’t really actually speak it here) or study tai chi or to take photos of mops or whatever.  You need a reason, a goal, a purpose.

It’s not pretty or easy or emotionally forthcoming here. It’s not somewhere where you can just chill out and , like, be. That’s why we’re going to Bali for 3 weeks come Spring Festival. But for now, we both need to figure out why we are here, what is our purpose and what is going to get us through this cold, grey, polluted season without going slightly nuts. Again.


You can just feel the love and care and neighbourliness ooozing from this scene of my sidewalk being 100% blocked by illegally parked ass-hats.


The question du jour is: how do you keep yourself motivated when you are, geographically, not where you really want to be? We have great jobs (finally) and a lovely flat and a very comfortable life. But the fit isn’t always right.

How do you make it fit, at least until your contract is up?


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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.