Taking The Leap
The craziest adventure in my life was not joining the JET Programme and moving to a village in no-man’s-land Japan for two years as the lone foreigner. It was not dropping everything and randomly studying Chinese in Beijing. It wasn’t even venturing through the countryside of China and traveling by bus to the depths of Vietnam alone. No. All of those things, to me, are semi-normal.
The decision to move to Shanghai was the most rash, insane, and completely bewildering change of my life.
It was summer 2011. The government told me that I received a full ride scholarship to a famous Japanese university, only to have it taken away. My hopes were crushed. I turned down a life of tranquility and stability in Tokyo with my boyfriend at the time, letting the chance to lead a life of marital bliss in Japan slip away from my fingers. I was heartbroken, poor, unemployed and living with my parents in Utah—all with a dull and longing ache in my heart for China. I was homesick for Beijing, and America was anything but exhilarating. I was 25. I was too young to waste away in the USA, I told myself. I needed to make the leap.
I needed to go to China.
So, on complete impulse, I told my parents that I bought a one way ticket to Shanghai and I was moving there.
Did I know anyone?
Did I have a job set-up?
Were there any prospects?
When I think back to that moment now, I think that I was completely insane. I moved in with a complete stranger in Shanghai that I found on the internet. I only kind-of-knew one person in Shanghai. I had no idea how to even get around the city. Absolutely nothing was familiar, as I had only been there once for a 2 day vacation a year previous. At the time, my Chinese was sub-par if not terrible. I was venturing into the unknown. I was literally living on a prayer. I mean seriously, if my kid told me that they were going to move to Shanghai with absolutely nothing and just ‘wing it,’ I would flip.
But do I regret it?
Not at all.
It just goes to show that you have to take chances no matter how ridiculous they may seem. We’re afraid of the unknown. The unfamiliar. The places and people we have yet to see intimidate us. Many of us just stay holed up in our comfortable bubble, never venturing away to see what else the world has to offer us. I wanted to be more than just a traveler, a nomad if you will—I wanted to get a grasp on China (much like I did Japan), and I knew it wasn’t going to happen getting a 9-5 desk job in SLC, or even backpacking around Sichuan and Xinjiang. I had to root myself in China for a while, and root myself I did.
In Shanghai, I started with zero. Literally. I knew nobody. I didn’t even have an uncle’s friend’s co-worker’s distant relative’s boyfriend’s sister-in-law to show me around. The first few weeks I wandered around the streets of Shanghai without point, purpose, or destination. I was fascinated by the sprawling high-rises and charmed by the architecture of past colonization. I was drawn to the simmering shen jian (dumplings) on the street and enamored with the vegetable market. And in these pointless wanderings, I met K. My first friend in Shanghai. My first cup of coffee shared with another. My best Japanese friend.
Despite having zero connections and speaking terrible Chinese, I managed to get a job as a business analyst at a large consulting firm.
My first day on the job was a fateful one. There was a young, rebellious looking Chinese girl with her hair tied up in a ponytail; black, thick-rimmed glasses perched on her nose, her outfit reeking of tomboy attire. She played with her iphone apathetically when our manager was giving the usual introductory meeting. I thought, “how disrespectful.” We filled out our paperwork throughout the morning, and then the most dreaded time of the first day on the job came: Lunch. In fear of eating alone, I went up to this “bad girl” and, with trembling voice and a stumble in my step I so meekly asked her:
“W-w-want to eat lunch together?”
And that is how I met Z. My lifeline. My soulmate. My best friend in Shanghai. And, quite possibly, the coolest Chinese person in China. If anything, she has made my whole Shanghai experience worth it.
From there, the relationships and experiences just continued to grow. My ‘short stay’ in Shanghai (I originally intended to only stay one year) ballooned into almost three. There were times I drank from the highest high-rise with a martini in hand, starring out to the sea of lights and absorbing the radiance of my cool cosmopolitan life in Shanghai with pride. There were other times I was betrayed and insulted by the locals to the point where I broke down in tears sobbing ‘I hate this place.’
There were ups, there were downs, but there was one thing for certain—there was never ‘boring.’
Living in Shanghai is dynamic, engaging, thrilling and captivating. And damn, I’m going to miss it.
Although the Shanghai Ronin is leaving Shanghai, she will still remain a ronin. I’m going back to the USA (for the time being) for a myriad of reasons involving family, love, finances and stability; but for the most part, I knew that I would have to part with my lover Shanghai one day or another, and I feel that now is the time. As much as Shanghai feels like home, I know China isn’t the best place to carry on with the remainder of my life. Plus, the rest of the world is waiting for me. I can’t let Shanghai keep a monopoly on Mary 😉
This will be the fourth time I have to say a tear filled farewell to a place I now call home–and it just gets harder.
I can’t help but ask myself: If I have such happiness here, why am I throwing it all away?
Why do I put myself through the pain of so many farewells?
Why can’t I be a normal person and root in one place and grow old with my neighbors?
Why do I have to disconnect myself from the people I love most?
“That is the price you pay for being a world citizen.”
Wise words from my cousin that definitely ring true.
The other night, one of my best friends (and also a multilingual world traveler) also told me:
“When a place starts to feel like home, that’s when I know it’s time to go.”
Seeing the world is a great achievement indeed, but it does come at a high price. The constant yearning for another place, another destination, another dream, another achievement—for us world wanderers, it is insatiable. My mother often tells me I’m like a bird, and I just fly from one destination to the next. I just can’t seem to plant my feet on the ground. A part of me wants to, but another part of me wants to see what else is out there.
Parting truly is sweet sorrow, but I know this is what I need to do.
You don’t grow by remaining static and in your comfort zone. You don’t experience life by just settling for what you have. It’s time to go to the next stage of my life and say farewell to Shanghai.
But goddamn. It’s hard.
I will be back. I promise.