I’ll See Myself Out: Notes on Stuff, Self, Place and Ridiculously Sudden Life Transitions

This wasn’t a good day in Bali

 

I moved most unexpectedly a few months ago, just after my life imploded in Bali.

It’s taken me over two months to get all of my things from the old flat.

Bit by bit, bag by bag, by taxi and by metro, I’ve hauled my life from the cozy, familiar inner sanctum of the leafy, laowai-heavy former French Concession, where I’d spent the past 4 years of my life, down to the wilds of outer Xuhui, down past the Ikea (practically at the South Railway Station, even), down to where there are wider streets and canals criss-crossing, down to where you can’t buy cheese or unsweetened bread in the supermarkets, down to where there are fewer taxis and where laowai are thin on the ground.

Before I moved here, I’d never even set foot in this end of Shanghai. Now, until June when I leave China, it’s where I live. My feet are learning the streets, my brain circuits are getting accustomed to the physical and emotional geography.

It’s slowly becoming home.

Once every fortnight or so since I came back from Bali in mid-February, usually on a Tuesday (though I don’t know why), I’d assemble a suitcase or a backpack or both, and shove in a few big cloth grocery bags, brace myself and make my way up into what used to be familiar territory but which now seems strangely remote.

It’s funny how quickly home can become not home.

My old stomping grounds now feel weirdly alien and I can’t quite believe they were once mine: the lanes, the veggie sellers, the chicken executioners, the beer shops, the mops. I knew every corner of it and had extensively documented what I’d seen.

 

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These were the people in my neighbourhood

 

I feel a bit unnerved, a bit ill, a bit emotionally detached when I’m there now. I worry about running into people I know, worry about having to explain why I’m carrying a significant percentage of my life on my back and in my arms. I don’t really want to talk about it. It’s too much to process, too much to explain.

And then there is my stuff. The stuff in those suitcases and carry bags.

Even though I’d tried quite hard to keep casual acquisition to a minimum, I’ve somehow acquired quite a lot of stuff over the past 4 or so years: books, shoes, clothes, kitchen doo-dads, pretty things from a half dozen countries. More than you can comfortably carry on your own in one go. Hell, more than I was able to carry in 3 or 4 goes on my own.

The books alone required several trips.

My current abode is in the Shanghai version of a garret, a tiny little studio tucked away up on the top floor of an old 5 storey walk-up at the end of a lane. There are ginko trees outside and birdsong in the mornings.

On one of the expeditions to get another load of stuff, I tried to haul my big old battered suitcase full of books up those 5 flights, stair by stair, bump bump bump, and ended up not only breaking the suitcase but also pulling arm and shoulder muscles in such a way that I ached for days afterward.

My bags are all scratched and scuffed and ripped and caked in plaster dust, cement dust, dust dust from being awkwardly hauled up those gritty stairs, over and over and over, filled to bursting with things that weighed a lot more than I’d anticipated.

I suddenly had far more than I’d realized.

After each round, I was tempted to leave everything else behind. I didn’t miss it; I didn’t want it; I didn’t need it. I wanted to just walk away.

Like I did in Istanbul. Clean slate, clean suitcase.

The idea of leaving China with fewer bags than I’d started with was immensely tempting. I’d emerge with only the most important things, shedding the detritus.

What could I live without? What really mattered?

Mental checklists and spreadsheets buzzed through my head for weeks on end, with columns of Want, Don’t Want, Give Away, Abandon flashing up, with everything I owned being shuffled around, evaluated, debated. I lay awake at night, stressed and sleepless, remembering forgotten items, assigning them to a column, debating my assessment and previous assessments. Common objects took on disproportionate values at 3am.

After the first round of salvaging back in February, emerging quite gutted and drained, I felt ready to just leave China with what I had at that point: my electronics, my Burmese marionnettes and painted wooden lunch pail, my calm little Buddha statue, my jewelry box, the shoes on my feet, the summer clothes still packed in my luggage from Bali, and my 5 silk tunics.

Although it was February and freezing, I wasn’t sure I had the energy to go back and get my winter coat.

Each subsequent round has produced items of incrementally less importance. On Tuesday I went for my final clear out, the one where I left my key on the table and closed the door for the last time. It had taken me nearly a month to go back for that one.

This time I was ruthless. I put a lot of things out into the stairwell outside the flat, hoping that someone would take them and give them a good home or sell them or recycle them. Shoes, clothes, odds and ends went out there, a bundle at a time. By the time the next bundle was brought out, the previous one was already gone. The rag pickers were having a good day.

Things that were not wanted: my old, cracked sandals, my trousers with shredded cuffs, Gerald the Bear.

Yes, Gerald. The Christmas gift from my old Tongji students two or three years ago. Gerald who had served as Christmas tree, erudite Twitter conversationalist, ongoing third character in the household dialogue/mythology.

 

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Gerald the Bear and Kevin the Panda, honorary Christmas tree

 

I simply couldn’t carry him back- he’s enormous and ungainly and wouldn’t fit in any of my bags. I hoped that one of the rag pickers had a child who might love him.

And he’s technically just an inexpensive, giant stuffed toy from the back of a flatbed tricycle.

And this is something I have to constantly remind myself as I sort through my stuff.

It’s all just stuff.

Stuff with strong associations, stuff that binds me to previous versions of my life, stuff that only carries emotional weight if I allow it to.

The stuff I left behind in Istanbul haunted my first few years in Shanghai: my Art Deco armoires, my funky old wooden chest, my abandoned books and book cabinet, my grandmother’s coat, my knee-high fake Doc Martens from the cobbler in Kadikoy, my Moroccan lamp, my CDs, my lovely Indian rug, my rocking chair.

I had been ruthless when leaving Istanbul. I was ready to leave with the most barest of essentials: my cat, my tapestries, my jewelry, my handmade funky dresses, a few key books. I wanted to be weightless and untethered.

 

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I’m still working on this one.

 

When Shanghai proved to be a harder transition than I’d expected, when making friends and fitting in and finding work that didn’t make me cry ended up taking years rather than months, my abandoned things took on a ridiculously disproportionate importance.

I mourned the things I associated with a version of my life that I unexpectedly yearned for, that I proceeded to romanticize and mythologize. I’d made a huge mistake, I reasoned, on several different levels: geographical, material, emotional.

I’m worried about doing that again, about letting my ruthlessness take over. I don’t want to throw everything away but I don’t want to keep it all either. I want to keep key things from the past several years but I don’t want to be haunted and weighted down by their presence. It’s a fine balance and the mental spreadsheet is still being updated and changed and reshuffled.

I have to resist the urge to go the bare minimalist route. I spent my 20s living out of a 25 litre backpack and now that I’m old and cranky and tired, I want to surround myself with things that comfort me and bring me a sense of continuity and familiarity as I uproot myself yet again.

I also have to resist the slash and burn approach to personal geography, where I abandon old familiar places because of their emotional associations. Just as my stuff is technically just stuff (both ephemera and detritus, as it were), so are places just places. I mustn’t jettison huge chunks of Shanghai just because they make me ache.

I need to give my life and time in Shanghai the respect it deserves and to approach the end of it with a lot more foresight, insight and care than I gave to Istanbul.

 

How do you leave places that have deeply tangled roots in your emotions and associations? What do you take? What do you leave behind?

 

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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.