Ch-ch-ch-changes: In Which I Attempt to Talk Coherently About This Past Year


I wrote a paltry 22 posts here in 2013, just under two per month. Some months far quieter than others. Most of them somehow ended up hovering around the thousand word mark, which I’ve been told is way more than people want to process when reading online.

This was, however, a year that refused to be discussed in short bites or pithy lists.

This was a year when I couldn’t even pretend this was a travel blog, even though I did exist on three continents and in four countries during that time. I flew long-haul six times. I took a lot of trains. I moved house four times (5 if you count the house in the forest on Vancouver Island, where I grew up, where I weathered the autumn months waiting for my UK visa), with an exponentially decreasing volume of personal possessions. I lived out of a suitcase for 7 out of the 12 months and spent approximately a mere 20 days in an apartment where I was one of the legal tenants on the lease.  The rest of the year found me in other people’s territory: Balinese cottages, airport waiting lounges, tentative yet hasty shared housing arrangements in a part of Shanghai I’d never even been to before, spare rooms in family homes, friends’ sofas.



I spent much of this autumn revisiting the place where I grew up. Not exactly Shanghai.


Change was constant, but it was often too deeply personal and complicated to write about in a single post with a subject line that summarized it neatly and wittily. There were too many tendrils, too many loose ends, too many non-sequitors, too many things still unfinished or unresolved.

Too many things that were nobody’s business but my own.

Rumour has it that 2013, being the year of the snake, was inevitably going to be a year where change featured predominantly. Snakes shed their skins. New skins grow. You never know what your new skin is going to look like until the old one is dried up and discarded. Sometimes you don’t even realize you are losing your old one until it has happened, and by then the momentum is so strong that all you can do is sit back in a daze and try to define the specs of your new casings. If you’re going to change everything, you might as well attempt to make the colour scheme and density of bling a bit better this time.

Now that it is New Year’s Eve, I feel I ought to attempt to take a look at that new bling I clumsily cultivated after my old skin went up in flames.

2013 began in Shanghai. I had a lovely big flat with massive windows overlooking the former French Concession, shared with someone I’d been with for over five years. I had lived in that neighbourhood and in that flat longer than anywhere else in my whole adult life. The kitchen was awesome. The cupboards were tangerine orange and I had an oven to call my own. I had a job as a director of a failing kids’ school way out in gritty, depressing Minhang, with an hour’s commute each way along the traffic-clogged freeway and a musty smelling office that looked out onto a car park. I had a second job that took me away on shiny fast trains several weekends a month, to cities all over eastern China, to do mind-numbing speaking exams for (mostly) university students hoping to leave the country. I got to stay in fancy 5 star hotels in third tier cities. I also had a cold that never went away. I was exhausted, numbed, and, frankly, miserable to be around.


train selfies

Even taking sneaky pictures of people taking endless selfies lost its lustre.



By the time mid-February rolled around, I had lost all of that (including the cold and the misery), except the exam job which I kept until I left Shanghai in July. I came back from Bali to Shanghai with just my carry on bag full of hot-weather clothes and the basic coat-shoes-jeans that I’d left in, back in January. I had a wallet full of leftover small denomination Indonesian rupiah and a few thousand Korean won from the early morning layover at Incheon. I didn’t even have my Chinese ATM cards, as I’d left them on my dresser in my old flat, the flat I’d lost midway through the month spent in Bali. I would have to go back for that, along with the rest of my stuff. That would take several months, bit by bit. It was weird and it hurt. Most things were left behind or given away.  Discarded bits of metaphorical skin. It was still a bit raw.

Between February and July, when I finally left China, my universe slowly shifted. New neighbourhoods. New friends. New home. New ideas for the future. New neural pathways forged. New perspectives. New possibilities opened up on several different levels. These were all good and necessary things, though the influx of newness also meant a massive purge of the old stuff. Old habits and thought processes fought it out with shiny new ones. Old memories and familiar territories were subsumed by new ones and it ached. I lost friends. I lost a lot of things and they needed to be mourned properly, even though what was being rebuilt was a much better fit for me.

Some of the unexpected changes were so glaringly, obviously better for me that by the time I left Shanghai in July and flew back to Canada, I was happily pregnant and engaged to be married.

If anyone had told me back in January how my life would be six months later, I would not have had any reason to believe them.

About a million years ago, maybe when I was living in London (and struggling) or perhaps when I was living in the middle of Turkey (and struggling even more), my mother asked me a question that I keep repeating to this day: Are you coping or are you thriving?

Usually my brain would scream out, ‘Coping!’

For the first time in my adult life, I could finally, honestly, tentatively, hesitantly answer, ‘Thriving’.

I had thrown away everything I’d been building over the past half decade (including the ability to honestly use the title of this blog, built on the premise that it was all about Shanghai) and I was plunging into the unknown yet again.

And this time the niggling voice at the back of my head was not cursing me out for going against my gut instincts.

In the About page of this blog, years ago, I wrote something about being fond of scaring myself silly with new and improbable living situations.  This is very true. I’ve indeed spent decades trying on new lives and selves and paths to see what fit. Many of these little experiments were successful. Some were absolute disasters and I have no idea what I was thinking at the time.

I regret none of them, though I have come close.

I don’t regret leaving Shanghai, even though I had built up a rather complex and interesting life there with many opportunities still left unexplored. I could have continued to use this blog’s name with honesty. I could have continued to build and rely on my manufactured persona to keep me from feeling lost: Shanghai expat, Shanghai writer (published, with requests for more and more, and paid!), Shanghai teacher in great demand (despite personal doubts), world traveller and China observer. My name was out there and I could have carried on using it, propelling myself ever forward, toward something. I didn’t know what that something was though.

However, when looking back with clear eyes and a calmer heart, I know I was just coping there. I filled my days with baking and gardening experiments and hyperbolic online writing and ridiculous amounts of work to make a wrong fit feel less wrong.

Somehow, 12 months later, I’m living in rural England with my new husband’s family (I have a husband! Holy crap!), with a 33 month spouse visa in my passport and my name freshly inked on the 6-month lease of a Victorian terrace house (with a tiny back yard) in a groovy, pleasantly low-key bohemian bit of Leicester. We will be moved in within a few days, after sorting out furniture. Beyond having a baby (I’m going to have a baby! Holy crap!) due some time around mid-February, I have no idea what will happen next.



This is not Xuhui.


Maybe I’ll open up a stall in a local farmers’ market, selling experimental breads. Maybe I’ll do my MA (our new neighbourhood is very near the university). Maybe we’ll end up in Oman or South America. Maybe.

I have no idea.

And that’s okay. It feels right this time.

How was your year?

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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.