I moved to Taiwan in 2004 after I graduated from college. I was going to teach English for a year and then come back to the States to find work. One year turned into five, and then I moved to Shanghai to work as an editor. After a year there—and three years without going home—I moved back to the States to start all over again. This series of posts was written in commemoration of the anniversary of my life in this new town.
When people are ready to, they change. They never do it before then, and sometimes they die before they get around to it. You can’t make them change if they don’t want to, just like when they do want to, you can’t stop them. -Andy Warhol
I came back to the US for a friend’s wedding. I scrimped and saved so I could spend a month’s salary on the plane ticket. That effort alone scared me: What if someone in my family got sick and I needed to come back in a hurry? I didn’t have any savings at the time. I didn’t even have a credit card.
I hadn’t been home for three years before that. That’s three straight years of everything being different, with the incongruities ranging from the exotic to the frustrating. Three years was too long to stay away. I had loved living in Taiwan: I loved Chinese people, Chinese culture, Chinese food, and learning Chinese, but I was starting to hate the hustle and bustle of life in busy, beautiful Shanghai. Back in familiar neighborhoods in Pennsylvania, I could get around in English, the coffee was consistently good, the clothes were all my size, and I was surrounded by the family I loved. Everybody had dogs, cats, cars and backyards. Within hours of getting home, I was messaging my boyfriend and asking him to join me, making jokes about not coming back. He didn’t want to leave.
Also, I saw for the first time how my parents’ divorce was taking its toll on my mom. The financial strain of running the big, old house on her own was wearing on her. She promised me that everything would be okay, but I worried. I knew that if the thin ice she was standing on broke, there was nothing I could do in Shanghai to help her.
At the wedding, the bride introduced me to everyone as her friend from China. Everyone looked politely awed and asked me what I did there, how long I’d been there, and whether I could speak Mandarin. But I looked at those people and I realized that as nice as they were to gush over my-life-the-adventure, I had a lost a decade building relationships and careers like theirs. They had inside jokes and graduate degrees and retirement funds. They remembered Christmases and weddings and birthday parties spent together. I didn’t think they were very sincere when they said they wished they had spent a year in another country. I realized I had made sacrifices to live and work so far away from my family and for the first time, I felt like I was missing out on more than I had gained. I didn’t even have insurance or a savings account, and I was only finding work at places that needed native English-speakers. I didn’t see how I could create a stable life for myself as an expat without any transferable skills.
I looked as far as I could down the path I was on and I could see that nothing was going to change. As awesome as my job as an editor was supposed to be and as much as I adored my boyfriend, I wasn’t living the life I wanted to live and I knew it wouldn’t change if I stayed.
I really did think about just staying in America and not going back. My job in Shanghai felt like a dead end, I missed my family and I was worried about my mom. But I couldn’t do that to my boyfriend. I loved him and I never doubted that he wanted me to be happy as much as he wanted to find his own happiness.
As soon as he met me at the airport, I told him I was going back.
“I know,” he said.
“I said I know,” he repeated without looking at me.
I told him I’d given my mom two-weeks notice. I was worried about what two weeks of waiting for our hearts to break would do to us, but he helped me pack and shop and clean. I was ripping apart the life I knew and I couldn’t even decide what to take and what to leave. As my departure approached, I burst into tears at shorter and shorter intervals.
“I feel like I’m out of control,” I told him. “I feel like I’m running away.”
He hugged me. “Not running away. Just changing direction.”
I don’t know why he understood so well in those last few days that our incompatibility had no bearing on our feelings. We wanted each other, but we each wanted different things. And when it came time for me to radically alter the direction of my life, he drew his line in the sand. I wished he hadn’t, but when you love someone that much, you don’t hold their decisions against them. If someone wants something different out of life, that’s no reason to hate them.
He took me to the airport and walked me to the threshold of the security check. The whole time I thought, “I could turn around. I could stay.” But I knew that as good as it would feel to run back into his arms, I wouldn’t suddenly be happier as an underpaid expat editor and he wouldn’t suddenly want to have kids. I thought about my mom and my family. I walked toward the airplane feeling like my whole body was on Novacaine while my mind boiled.
I’m still in awe of the version of me who trumped romance with reason because I never thought that’s who I was. I don’t regret it because I got the job I wanted (after my grad school plans fell through) and then I met a good man who treats me well and shares my goals and values. But I still feel guilty about leaving my ex behind when our feelings were still so strong. Sometimes I feel like I killed a puppy for food. Maybe I’m just being arrogant.
So I survived that. I rebuilt my life here and it’s a good one, although it’s not one I had really imagined for myself. I’ve even made progress toward my goals, although I’m uncomfortable with how many of those goals revolve around money, even if I really just want the freedom it can buy. I miss being an expat, but if and when I leave again, I won’t have to take the first job that’s available or get stuck doing something I hate just so I can stay in the country. I think about those six years often and fondly, but I’m resolved not to go back unless it’s on my terms.
What’s the hardest move you’ve ever had to make? Why did you decide to make it?