We’re used to travel bloggers showcasing the newest, most Instagram-worthy destinations. We’re used to summer arriving and friends and family jetting off to exotic places. We’re used to so-called digital nomads rejecting the constraints of a settled lifestyle and heading into the big wide world (usually South-east Asia, and Chiang Mai in particular).
But what happens if you stay?
Most of the expats you meet in Asia, especially if not studying, will probably move on, or change location after a year. This is particularly common for those teaching English, after all, the long summer holidays offer ample opportunity to find a new position and start again in another country, or at least, a different city.
Until last summer it was the same story for me. In fact, even as I arrived in Nanjing, in the roaring heat of August, I told myself the same thing, do a year and probably get out. Why? Well, for one thing I was working for a company that was actually based in Shanghai at the time. For the first few months in China, it’s where one of my closest friends in the country lived. In addition, my current position was something of a new departure for me; I wasn’t sure how I’d get on with this type of work.
What’s remarkable in retrospect is that I was able to sustain momentum from India – China – UK – Bangladesh – Vietnam – China again within the space of three years. I got used to constantly packing up, to goodbyes, to starting in a new job every few months. Not that there weren’t advantages. At the end of every job contract I’d head somewhere new and exciting, Thailand, Nepal, Laos.
I really loved Hanoi. The old charm of that city really worked its magic on me, and leaving Vietnam wasn’t an easy decision. Up until now, deciding not to leave has always been the decision to make. Now, it’s about staying put.
There’s another side to impermanence when you’re the one that stays.
There’s been a lot of change in both my colleagues and friends outside of work in the past ten months. Part of that is just the nature of expat life, most people return to their country of origin at some stage. In addition, I think that my office does have quite a high turnover. Choosing to stay has therefore been something that has been presented as a constant choice; other people haven’t stayed.
Something about the familiarity of this city now makes me feel content. I’ve started to get a new perspective on an old place (a very ancient city, in fact). Not everything is new anymore, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t find new things to enjoy. Almost a year since leaving Hanoi, I’ve found some of the things that I liked about Hanoi to enjoy here, the café lifestyle, the history, the beauty in small things.
Staying doesn’t have to mean standing still. Sticking at my job (the longest I’ve remained in one position) gave me the chance to actually spend over a month on the other side of the country. I’ve also moved apartments and now live towards the centre of town, and so I’m able to appreciate the nuances of where I lived previously.
On one hand, I wish that I could travel further afield this summer, but on the other, I know that sometimes depth matters more than breadth. This is especially true when learning a language, as I used to constantly balance learning Mandarin with whatever else was going on at the time, Bangla, Vietnamese etc. Now I can really see the difference, especially in my reading and comprehension, even if my speaking (口语) still has a long way to go! 越来越
I’m not going back to where I came from. I’m not heading somewhere new. But I’m putting more of my time, my resources, myself, into this place, and embracing it.
It’s easy to get stuck in a routine. It’s just that sometimes, moving becomes the routine. Don’t run through the woods and miss the trees. The beetle on the bark. The goldfish beneath the water lily. You can see a lot when you just sit still.