I'm Moving Away From Shanghai / by Heather


When I originally wrote my first post about moving to Shanghai four months ago, my mom asked me about how personal it was and what would happen if the move didn’t work out. That’s alright, I told her. If this doesn’t work I want to show that it’s okay if you take a risk and it doesn’t succeed. More than okay. In fact, one of the bets that I took when I took this risk is that the risk alone would be my measure of success, whatever the outcome.

And now, having made this decision a couple weeks ago and on mark to fly out of Shanghai in a couple days, I can confidently say, it has indeed been a success. Not all the ways possible, but in all the ways that have made me a happier, wiser person in the long run.

Simply enough, the main reason I am leaving China is because my partner that I moved here with, Nathan, and I have mutually decided to part ways romantically. I’ve always considered traveling with someone to be one of the best ways to assess a potential partner and your connection with them. And of course, moving to a foreign country with someone increases the ferocity of that assessment tenfold. Very quickly, you learn your partner’s levels of adaptability, strength, and commitment, as well as their ability to work through the stress and difficulty of settling into a new place together (and of course, you learn this all of yourself as well). I wasn’t expecting the move to be easy, especially on a new relationship, and it wasn’t. We discovered that we just weren’t the right match and I personally wasn’t getting what I needed.

But the beauty of difficult relationships, if you look at them right (and they are otherwise healthy and between two respectful people), is that the opportunity for learning and personal growth is boundless. I feel like I just went to the summer school of relationships, with an incredible amount of lessons about myself, interpersonal communication and connection, differences in expression and thought processes, and love languages all stuffed inside of me within a short amount of time. And I was lucky enough to be with someone who took the same opportunity for self-study and development, so that we could both look at each other in the end and say, ‘thanks for that.’ We ended on good terms and I feel fortunate to come out with another friend by my side.

Of course, I can already hear the inevitable finger-waggling of those who don’t know me or Nathan well…. “That’s why you don’t move to a foreign country with someone you’ve only been dating for seven months.” It’s not in my interest to defend my decisions, but I want to put this out there for the sake of others who might be considering their own leaps of faith. There’s no right way to have a relationship. And Nathan and I both, without hesitation, have agreed that we are glad we did it the way we did and we would do it again in a second, struggles and all. It was the only way within the circumstances to pursue this path and know what was at the end of it. I also feel confident that if we had somehow found a less-intensive way to be together, we would have still come to the same conclusion, but spent more of our lives getting there. In my post about moving to Shanghai, I said that I don’t live my life by what-ifs, and I completely stand by that. Now I know what’s around that looming ‘if’ and I am richer for it. But taking those leaps does mean that you have to be aware of all possibilities and understand yourself well enough to know that you can handle any one of them.

“Persistence. Resilience. Adaptability and crisis management. All are key themes in exploration, as in ordinary life. Keeping things in perspective helps too: Explorers tend to take the long view, recognizing the illusory nature of failure and success.....If you take away uncertainty, you take away motivation.....There’s no magic to getting where we already know we can get.”

~ Hannah Bloch, National Geographic


Ending a romance isn’t the sole reason for my move away from Shanghai, however. Living abroad was the equally enticing motive for me to come to China, and the things I have learned about this country and culture could also fill a summer school curriculum. But frankly, I have had a hard time loving Shanghai. I certainly don’t dislike the city, but its focus on modernization and westernization at all costs strips it of what little history and culture it could have. Those who really enjoy Shanghai seem to always end up citing its restaurants, nightlife, and big buildings as its main draw, and that just isn’t what I hold in top priority. I miss nature that hasn’t been planted and landscaped, among many other things. So if I am going to deal with the pains of visas, trying to work abroad, and finding my own place at the extremely high cost of living that Shanghai boasts, there are many other big foreign cities I would rather struggle in. But the three months I did spend here, although an altogether more abbreviated time than I expected, managed to grant me a plethora of wonderful experiences and opportunities.

In three months in China, I:

~Got to watch amazing thunder and lightning storms from the balcony of the 29th floor flat I live in (courtesy of Disney)


~Explored Shanghai’s best nooks, crannies, and subway lines

~Made a surprisingly large amount of amazing friends from all different circles of expats and locals

~Joined the local swing dance community and collaborated with a wonderful team of friends to work towards creating a bigger scene in Shanghai

~Was employed by a tutoring agency and tried my hand at teaching English to a six year old Chinese boy (when I gently took away his toy because he wouldn't pay attention, he called me a pig. But he called me a pig in English, so I'm calling it a win)

~Tried WWOOfing for the first time on a farm on Chongming Island, in the Yangtze River

~Was accidentally driven into a restricted military zone while staying at aforementioned farm and was detained and questioned by the Chinese air force, police, and government.

~Climbed the Great Wall of China, watched Peking Opera, and saw the sights in Beijing

~Learned how to eat xiaolongbao, Shanghainese soup dumplings without pouring scalding hot soup down my throat (not without several messy first tries)

~ Had several custom ideas made at the local fabric market- the plethora of skilled labourers is one of the things I love and admire most about China

~Worked with a fabulous swimwear designer and an amazing creative team to start the launch of their new swimwear line (I modeled samples for a shoot that took me from the grungy streets of Old Town Shanghai to the infinity pool at the top of one of Shanghai’s tallest skyscrapers)

~Learned very basic Chinese and got to a point of understanding the gist of many Chinese conversations around me


(and learned how to make my own dumplings!)

These, along with many other memories of my time here, have made the stay a sincerely positive one. My only regret about the whole experience is that I was here during the summer, where record-breaking heat and humidity limited the day-to-day exploration I could do. Luckily, it is finally starting to cool down now and my last bit of time is infinitely more comfortable.

However, the things in China that I won’t miss include; the smells of China, the sounds of China (including that particularly lovely and prolonged one where a large mixture of snot and spit is hocked up the throat and expelled near wherever I’m standing), the crowds of China, and being dripped on by mystery liquid whenever I’m walking down the sidewalk. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve been so excited to return to the States before. Nothing like a little China to give you gratitude for your own developed country. And besides gratitude, one of the things I love about traveling to particularly difficult places is the infinitely increased tolerance and patience bestowed on you when you’re back on familiar ground:

You’re letting your dog poop in the street?

Well at least it’s not your baby….or you.

You’re trying to run me over with your car while I am in the crosswalk with a green signal?

Oh, that’s okay, you’re right, I should have been walking faster.

You’re shoving me because I am trying to get out of the subway while you are getting on?

Of course, I don’t mind being jammed here while the doors threaten to squish me into human jelly.

I am the Zen master.


Those that were paying attention in the first post might remember that I’ve been staying in China on a student visa, acquired through registering at a local university for Chinese language courses. As per with the choice to move away from Shanghai, I decided to save the tuition fees and leave before courses even start. I will admit that having my Chinese learning cut short is the one thing that leaves me a bit unsatiated, as I have really been enjoying picking up the language on my own. However, the truth is that the more deeply I dive into Chinese culture, the less I am interested in having a life-long association with it that would come from knowing the language.

I have met some wonderful, fascinating local Chinese people, whose friendship I have truly been blessed with. But I do find that as a whole, the way the Chinese population acts and what it values grates against my own actions and values (this based off my experiences in Beijing, Shanghai, and the more rural Chongming Island). I find that the community is generally split into two categories; the older generation that clings to tradition and tight-knit social circles that no laowai (foreigner) could ever hope to be a true part of, and the younger generation that all of a sudden has had the western world in all its capitalistic glory thrust at them, which they devour feverishly with their heads deep in their iphones and their clothes branded with garbled English. While there are gems of interpersonal interactions to be had here and there, on a large scale I find people to often be dismissive and abrupt, bordering on rude. Even my smattering of Chinese helped me see this more clearly too. While I have gotten to the point where the language doesn’t sound as harsh as it used to, I was surprised to discover that the translations actually match the curtness of the sounds. For example, in English, if we were to turn down something being offered to us, more often than not, we’ll say something like, “Oh, no thank you,” “I appreciate the offer, but not right now,” or whatever sidestep of politeness best suits. In Chinese, the common response is ‘bu yao,’ which means, ‘don’t want.’ Stranger, close friend, salesperson, I’ve seen it used on everyone…don’t want, don’t want, add a dismissive hand wave. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this and it certainly keeps things clear, but it’s just a small example of difference in interaction that is hard for me to relate to.

Ultimately, I could see myself getting used to Chinese culture just fine (already, I’m more pushy in the subway)…it is fascinating to observe and every day is an enjoyable lesson. But honestly, now that I don’t have to stay among it, I am more eager and inspired to spend my time and energy in an environment that better stimulates me positively. Which leads me to….

Plan A

As some of you studious readers might recall, before I ever even knew China was on the horizon, I was planning to drive across the country and move to Boston, a city I adore. Then life stepped in and gave me that extra adventure I couldn’t resist. But once the decision to move on from this relationship was made, it didn’t take me half a day to know exactly what my next step was. I had tried Plan B, benefitted greatly from it, and now it was time to take Plan A aside, put my arm around its shoulders, scuff my feet a bit, and say, ‘hey old buddy…whatcha doing….?’ (maybe bat my eyelashes a little).

I think one of the best things you can do while switching life paths is to hit the ground running. Though I’m flying back into LAX, it doesn’t make sense for me to loiter around Los Angeles without a car, even if my amazing parents are there. So giving myself just enough time to recover from jet lag and see some friends, after flying in on the 10th of September, I fly right back out to Boston on the 17th, where I’ll spend a couple weeks staying with a wonderful old friend as I find my own place and try to lock down a job (obviously not looking for my next career or dream job in two weeks, but what I can find that suits me well enough). When I wrote my original post about moving to Shanghai, I expressed concern about being stuck in another 9-5 rut in Boston. While that still isn’t my end goal, after 9 months of traveling and working at odd gigs all over the place, I’m actually pretty eager to have a structured schedule and be making an actual income…you know, like a normal person. I am also certain that Boston can offer me richer opportunies in work and personal interests than Shanghai ever could.

So after that mad dash of a settlement is locked down, I fly back to LA, kiss the parentals, get a rental van, jam all my stuff in it per usual, and scoot my butt across the US asap. Hopefully, if all goes according to plan, in about a month of this post being published, I’ll be settled in Boston with everything I own. Best of all, that includes this guy:


Those who know me personally know Baklava the bunny as my real boyfriend, a complicated relationship that has blessed the last 4 and a half years of my life. While I’ve been in China, he has been taken excellent care of by an amazing couple, but I have missed him. He wasn’t in the original Plan A, as a big part of that was a meandering roadtrip across the States that wouldn’t have been bunny-suitable. So this is the upgrade (Plan A.5?), though no doubt he will be thrilled at being dragged across America in my own personal Amazing Race.

So there you have it. The entire story of one Plan and the ambitions of the next.

But here is the important part, so if you’ve been skimming through, this is what I really want to tell you.

It’s easy to take advice from people who have taken risks that have turned out exactly how they hoped. And even though we know that with every success story comes a trodden path of failures, it seems that most people don’t come out with their sage counsel until they have reached the top. They can say, look at me, I took a lot of chances, and fell down countless times, but here I am, this most recent risk paid off, I am a success in society’s eyes, and now I can tell you that taking risks is worth it.

Which is why I made my personal life public and chose to share this particular path from beginning to end. Because I haven’t made it to the top yet. I haven’t found my niche in life, my life partner, my home. My most recent risk, in its main possibility, failed. But I am here to tell you, fresh from a break-up, right about to leave China behind, with not a lot of money, and with no idea of what the future holds in a new city ….risks are worth it. Take them. There is nothing I could change in this experience that could make me happier than I am in the present moment.

I feel as lucky right now, leaving Shanghai, as I did coming here.

In my first post, I wrote that what I wanted from this was to “the chance to live in a huge, international city abroad, focus on my own projects and some new ones this opportunity presents, and explore future possibilities with a fascinating person I care about.” I did exactly that and so succeeded in my goals. I said the decision to move to China felt right, and it absolutely was. I didn’t have expectations to how things might go in the long term, and though my hopes may have leaned one way, once I discovered the reality of what would or wouldn’t make me happy here, they quickly changed direction.

I have improved as a person from this risk, tested my own strength and values and found them sound. The chances I took were actually fairly small, as all this cost was a small amount of money and time, with the payoff being a little more wisdom, an even wider world perspective, and extra gratitude, for my own ability, and especially for the incredible people I am surrounded by. Everyone’s costs and payoffs will be different. But choosing to reach out, leap, and change yourself is one of the most invaluable actions you can take in life to grow and learn as a person. It doesn’t have to succeed. You just have to be willing to leap again. And that, truly, is the real success.