The Thing About Fresh Starts

The Thing About Fresh Starts

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.

  • What a powerful story and a great lesson. Thanks for sharing!

    “But true, deep personal growth takes time and experience and hard work and self-reflection.” I agree with this 100%. I think that I have improved greatly over the last few years (with lots of hard work) and I hope to continue doing so. It would be nice if there was a shortcut or a hack to get there quicker, but I haven’t come across any as of yet that work.

  • Wow…except for being in China, I feel like this could have been written by me. I too used to move around a lot (albeit just within the Midwest), hoping to find that magical place where things just “click”. And I too have now been in the same place for four+ years, just trying to get used to myself and be okay with the uncomfortable and boring parts of life as a normal adult.

    I think it’s natural to want to take the easy way out of discomfort. Even if we’re not physically moving, a lot of us are trying the next new fad, resolution, or self-improvement project hoping it will get us closer to that ideal version of ourselves. But like you said, nothing stays fresh forever. It got to a point where I just had to stop trying to fix what isn’t broken and just live my life.

    Thanks for the great post!

    • Wow, Hanna, it does sound like we’ve had similar trajectories in terms of moving around to find something better and (finally) choosing to stay in one place for a while longer! :)

      I totally agree that it’s natural for us to try to get away from discomfort whenever possible. I don’t know if you’ve ever read anything by Pema Chodron, but her books have had a huge impact on me. She talks a lot about how discomfort is part of being human, so the wisest thing is to work towards accepting this, rather than trying to run away from it.

  • Thank you for sharing your experience which mirrors my own in many ways. The journey is inwards and often times uncomfortable, for me anyways!

  • Wow, that was really moving.

    You can move but you can’t move away from yourself. I also have moved to get a fresh start but I have realized the scene might seem different but it was really me that needed to change.

    Now, I’m content with not being perfect. I enjoy the flaws. I like being different.

    I’m glad you got to a place where it seems you can just be.

  • Thank you for sharing this. I am stuck in this exact same moving cycle – for me it is more of a hope that maybe the next place will be “perfect” and exactly what we need to be happy. Sigh… We’ve got one more move ahead of us (currently living with parents again…) and then I would equally love and be terrified by the concept of staying somewhere for 4 + years…. That requires some internal work. Thanks for letting me know I’m not alone!

    • You’re definitely not alone, Sarah! I’m still working through all of this, even though I’ve been in the same place for a few years now. I totally know what you mean about loving the idea of staying in one place while also being terrified of it — well put! :)

  • I think it is important that you are creating great memories along the way. Memories you can enjoy, grow and learn from. Even if they only show you what you don’t like most of the time. LOL

  • I always dreamed of moving away and in retrospect, I realize I wanted a fresh start, too. I landed only about 30 miles from the hometown I wanted out of. I have no regrets about that, but I still sometimes dream of moving. We’ll see what the future brings–I’d need a real purpose to move, a bigger purpose than a fresh start (which I no longer feel I need). Anyway, I think it’s awesome that you both had your fresh starts and adventures, and are at peace with where you’re planted for now.

    • Ah, interesting that you happened to end up closer to home than you expected, Kalie. I think it’s great that you’re content where you are, at least for the time being. And as you say, we will all see what the future brings. :)

  • I love this SO much!!!
    Like you, I have moved a few times, and even changed countries more than once.
    I do feel like this time I am much closer to the kind of life I want to live, but I also don’t think that you will turn your life around 100% simply by moving.
    All the best to you!

  • Thank you for sharing your story. It has only been in recent years where I have felt more comfortable with myself imperfections and all. Sitting with those feelings is hard and that’s why we usually try to numb them with things like being “busy”, food, work, booze etc etc.

  • This is just beautiful. It’s not a new thought but that’s what makes it such great writing – there’s a real gift in articulating an old adage in a way that’s fresh enough to move me anew. Loved reading this. xx

  • That’s a beautiful story. I really want to travel to China too one day and live there for a bit. My girlfriend is Chinese and we went with her parents recently to this restaurant in Chinatown where I was the only white guy and everybody ate chicken feet. Really made me realize there’s a lot I don’t understand about Chinese culture in that moment.

    • Haha, yes, I definitely had moments like that in China where I was like, “I understand nothing about what is happening here.” Even after months, I still felt like I had only just barely scraped the surface of Chinese culture. I also have to confess that I did not try chicken feet!

  • What a wonderful story!! I love to peek inside other people’s lives too see how they live. I have lived in the same house now with my husband for , wow, 17 years!! I am quite envious of your travels. No two people are the same, so we all “grow” in different ways and take different paths. As long as we enjoy the ride, everything will be just fine. :)

  • This story gave me chills as I was reading it, it was so powerful! I can’t imagine going to a new country I’ve never been before, very brave of you to make the plunge and make it happen.

    I love moving (though I can’t say I moved 1.5 times per year) because it gives me a fresh new start feeling. Even if the city is just 3 hours away from where I used to live, I act and live differently than my previous dwelling and I think it makes me a better person. Great thing about life is that we can all create fresh new starts, no matter how old!

  • Love this post- I was 19 when I realized the truth of my mother’s rather pointed philosophy: “Wherever you go, there YOU are” especially about what she and her friends term “geographical cures” :) I just moved again last year and did think maybe I’d find a newer version of myself, even at this point in my life! And immediately fell into old routines and a few new bad habits! I join you on your journey to change intentionally :) – I do it now in baby steps but those steps are progress!

  • What a great post! I feel I am exactly in your shoes. I’ve spent years moving around, and even though probably have another move coming up soon, I’ve finally realized that I am going to have to settle down to the hard work of self-reflection no matter what my surroundings. Thanks for helping me articulate my own thoughts!

    I’ve actually read River Town and lived in China for a bit as well! But I was mostly studying and lived down south in Haikou. River Town was fantastic and a verrry helpful book in starting to prepare me for what it was like to live somewhere so totally different than my original context.

    • Hi Kate :) It’s so cool to hear that you also read River Town before living in China! It’s a fantastic book and sooooo well written. I hope you enjoyed Haikou — I don’t think I ever visited there. Best of luck with your upcoming move!

  • I got so much out of this. Thank you so much for this post. It’s exactly what I needed as I sit here in my new neighbourhood, hot on the heels of my 3rd move this year (so tired).

  • Wow. I’m 42 and have lived in 3 homes my entire life, all in the same town. Yet, this makes sense to me because I often feel like I want a fresh start and then don’t go get it. Then I realize I don’t need a fresh start I need fresh eyes for what I already have.

  • Your writing is amazing and I can identify with a lot of what you wrote. I’m 32 and the longest I’ve lived anywhere (except for my parents’ house) is 2 years. I don’t think I’ve moved intentionally in order to get a fresh start, but once I’m at the verge of moving, I do look forward to that aspect of it. Plus I get the feeling of relief you described that I can leave the sticky locks and annoying neighbors behind. While my moves have been for practical reasons and they haven’t always been to a new city, I’m sure the desire for fresh starts is in there somewhere. After all, I’m sure I would not have chosen grad school and a university path (of visiting positions so far) in literature if I wanted a settled lifestyle. At some point it would be nice to figure out how to get settled though. I’m glad you’re still loving exploring your home city.

    • Hi Jill :) I probably should have mentioned in the post that a lot of my (non-China-related) moves were for practical reasons too. I think it was often a mixture, like, hey, how about I move to Boston to start this new new career that I’m interested in and oh, also so I can get another fresh start. I think we often have really complex reasons for wanting to do things, and it can be hard to really tease them apart when we’re in the moment of making the decision — at least for me it can!

  • Amazing read, and really relatable! I’ve lived in three very different places in 2016. You always feel like the next move is going to give you everything you want, and you just focus so much on the change and how perfect it will turn out.

  • Sarah, very beautifully written. Thanks for sharing your evolution throughout these years and how you came to these insightful conclusions about life.
    I’m also a fan of Pema Chodron, and I consider her to be one of my main mentors about how to deal with the complexities of life.
    I like what Tony W. shared earlier, about not forgetting that all along – even if it feels like running away from something – you are creating memories that bring lessons, joy, and others meaningful things.

    Our choices in life are based on where our mindset is and what it needs at any given time. I think that memories are cherished when the person starts to understand the value of the present moment and the little things that come with this awareness. I would love to put another perspective into your story, what about if instead of running away from something you were indeed taking an intentional decision of not running but going out to encounter that self in you that was dormant and wanted to come out.
    (I feel there is a tendency in society today to put aside the wild nature from where we come. We were not always sedentary beings, but explorers. So that nature in us is still present; and even when discomfort was the cause to make you move, might not be the root of the desire).

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