This is a guest post from my friend Sarah Noelle, author of one of my favourite blogs, The Yachtless.
Almost exactly ten years ago, I moved from my small hometown in the northeastern corner of the United States to a large city called Suzhou, in China, just south of the Yangtze River. I was 25 years old and had about a thousand dollars in my bank account. I had never been to China before, didn’t know anyone who lived there, and didn’t speak Chinese. I didn’t have a job lined up in Suzhou or even a clear idea of where I would be living after the first month or so.
If you had asked me at the time why I was making this move (a totally fair question!), I probably would have told you something that sounded relatively logical. I might have said it was because I loved traveling and wanted to see new places. I might have said it was because I wanted to try teaching English and had heard it was very easy for native English speakers to get teaching jobs in China. I might have said it was because I thought Chinese culture was interesting. And all of those reasons would have been true.
But there was another, bigger reason.
I had been living for the past two years with my parents and working as an hourly employee in a bookstore, helping customers find books and ringing up their purchases. I was grateful to my parents for letting me live in my old bedroom for $200 a month, but I felt a growing sense of panic that I might never actually move out of that bedroom. I had a degree in English and no career plan—or any plan really. While thoughts of possibly going to graduate school drifted in and out of my mind from time to time, I couldn’t seem to muster the motivation to actually research or apply to any programs. Instead, much of my free time was spent reading, watching television, or eating junk food. I felt lazy, stagnant, directionless, and dragged down by inertia. I often wished I could rewind back to the beginning of college and start over, do more, be more.
And then one morning at work, as I was shelving books in the travel section, a customer who had been browsing nearby approached me and held out a book with the title River Town. I needed to read it, he said. Amazing book. Best book he’d read this year.
I often got book recommendations from customers, and I usually just smiled and thanked them and forgot about the recommendation within minutes. This time, however, I happened to be looking for something new to read, so I took a copy of River Town home and started it that evening. It turned out to be a beautifully written memoir on the two years Peter Hessler, an American, had spent teaching English in China. It was a book about moving to a totally new, unknown place, meeting new people, starting a new job, and learning a new language and culture.
I could not think of anything that appealed to me more than trading in my current situation for a totally different one. By the time I was halfway through River Town, I had started googling “teach English in China”. And about three months later I was on a plane.
The sun in Suzhou (SOO-joe) hung red in the sky most days—a side effect of the air pollution, but it made me feel like I was living on another planet. I loved the way that everything there was strange and unfamiliar. I loved the little apartment I had found to rent, with its bed and massive wardrobe, both of them made of a wood so dark red it was almost black, both of them intricately carved and impossibly heavy. I loved the miniature washing machine in the bathroom, wedged between the shower and the toilet. I loved the local mega-supermarket, Auchan, which sold raw chicken feet and bicycles and plastic packages of instant noodle soup with the instructions written on the back in Chinese, accompanied by incomprehensible English translations. I walked around Suzhou daily, for hours at a time, along skinny canals and over stone bridges, past shops selling tiny yellow-and-green birds in hanging cages, past tailors and foot massage parlors and fancy hotels, past huge factories, past small makeshift houses whose roofs looked like they would blow off in a storm.
It really did feel like getting a fresh start. Within the span of a few weeks, I had gained a new city, a new apartment, a new job, new friends, new routines, new habits, and beginner-level skills in a new language. I felt like a new person, Suzhou Sarah, who lived in her own apartment, taught English to elementary school students, ate healthy foods like soup and fish and vegetables, walked and biked around several hours every day, studied Chinese in the evenings, and went out with friends every weekend.
The thing about fresh starts, however, is that they can only stay fresh for so long. As the months passed and I became more settled into my new life, I started to realize that Suzhou Sarah still faced problems and uncertainties. For one thing, I wasn’t sure if I really liked teaching. For another thing, all of my new friends spoke English, and as a result I lost much of my motivation to study Chinese. I had also discovered Suzhou’s ubiquitous pirated DVD shops and had started buying and watching DVDs by the bagful. I still often felt lazy and directionless. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. The heavy air pollution also began to bother me more than it had initially, as did the damp, bone-chilling cold (due to a government mandate, there was no central heating allowed in Suzhou).
I lasted nine months in Suzhou, and then I moved back to the United States. At the time, I would have told you it was because I had decided I was definitely going to graduate school, and that would have been true. But it was also because I was ready for another fresh start.
Moving—whether to a totally new country or just across town—is a pretty good way to leave things behind. If you move, you’ll no longer have to deal with your sticky lock or loud neighbors. You’ll get to trade in your old kitchen and bedroom for a new kitchen and bedroom. You’ll get to trace new paths through a new neighborhood, learn new streets and trees and sidewalks. And perhaps most importantly, you’ll get to create new routines and habits in these new spaces, perhaps even reinvent yourself a little. As a self-improvement strategy, moving is probably a little bit more effective than New Year’s resolutions.
But you can’t turn yourself into a different person by moving. I’ve tried, and I can assure you it doesn’t work. Between age 25 (when I moved to Suzhou) and age 31 (when I moved to my current apartment), I moved a total of nine times—that’s almost 1.5 moves per year on average. Most of these moves weren’t to a new country, but all of them involved a hope that as soon I was in my new apartment I would be a new person. And each time I slowly realized that I was still the same person as before. I firmly believe that personal growth is possible. But true, deep personal growth takes time and experience and hard work and self-reflection. You can’t instantly change yourself simply by packing up your belongings into boxes and moving them to a new location.
At the end of this summer, I will have lived in the same apartment for four years—a record in my adult life thus far. Four years of the same cantaloupe-colored kitchen walls and the same rickety windows that rattle during storms. Four years of the same missing linoleum tile, of the same white painted bannisters and musty smell in the downstairs entryway. Four years of the same maple tree outside my bedroom window losing and re-growing its leaves. Four years of the same quiet, peaceful street where tree roots push up through the sidewalks a little more each year.
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve come home to this apartment from the airport, the bus station, the train station, jiggled the key in the front door a little to unlock it, and dropped my bags on the floor next to shoe racks and bikes. I still love walking, but these days I love walking around my own city, getting to know it better and more deeply.
There are still days when I feel lazy. I still watch probably too much television, and I wish I ate a little healthier, and some days I feel like I’m not sure where my career is headed. But I’m not moving. Not quite yet. I’m staying in place just a little longer, trying to be okay with my imperfect, evolving self, trying to understand her a little better, the same way you might stand still at the edge of a pond, waiting for the ripples to subside, so you can see your own reflection more clearly.