Deciding to Stay

In The Art of Travel Spring 2018, 7. Free topic, Shanghai by William Denning3 Comments

Though you may not make it explicit to yourself, every movement in your life is done with the intention of discovering a part of yourself that you feel is necessary for your own well-being. People move away from home to find themselves outside of their relationship with their parents. They move abroad to see themselves as a citizen in a different way, to understand themselves in relation to others by being an international figure themselves.

I haven’t quite figure out what I was looking for when I moved to Shanghai. Maybe it was something small, like wanting to learn the language. Maybe it was for bragging rights. Maybe because every time I move somewhere more foreign (yes, I would consider New York to be foreign in it’s own sense) I lose a part of myself that I’ve been waiting to lose all of those years back in Georgia.

There’s a program in Shanghai that allows me to stay on campus for another 9 weeks that I just applied for. It’s a Chinese immersion program in which you are only allowed to speak Chinese for the entire 9 weeks. Anywhere. Two semesters of Chinese study in 9 weeks. In a way, it’s the fastest way to learn as much Chinese as possible within the shortest amount of time.

While I was considering the course before I arrived in Shanghai, after I had lived here a while I had decided against it. I thought it would be ready to return to my life in New York, that I would miss it so much that the idea of staying would be torture. But, just this last week, something changed. I felt as if the program provided an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up—as if it was something that I couldn’t leave without.

I came to China—at least partly—to learn Chinese. Currently, my Chinese is not nearly where I want it to be. In a way, I came here to study, to work. And sure, I’m studying, sure, I’m working but I’m reading English books on European history, only taking 5 hours of Chinese a week. So, isn’t increasing that four-fold achieving what I came here for? Maybe what attracted me was the game element of it all. The restriction of the means of communication in order to improve another—theres something oddly poetic about it. Like blindfolding someone to improve their hearing.

Regardless, theres something keeping me here. There hasn’t been a milestone—nor a sight, an event, a feeling—that has made me satisfied with this city just yet. I feel like if I leave, I’ll be leaving behind something unknown yet something important. Like abandoning an adventure, turning down an opportunity.

Have you ever left a place before you were ready? Do you remember that feeling? It’s heavy at first, like you’ve lost something but you’ve not sure what. Did you leave the lights on? The garage open? You ignore the feeling at first, try to forget it. You try not to reminisce and think about what never was. It’s not good, you tell yourself. It’s over and your gone.

There’s one thing you can learn from this feeling—don’t let it happen again. If you can, stay until you’re ready. And only when you’re ready, leave.

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(Image: Shanghai Silhouette; Source:


  1. I am so glad to have read this post as I have been feeling similarly about my time in Berlin. There is such a short period of time before I will have to leave, and this temporality has forced me to think about the ways in which I don’t feel ready for my break up with Berlin and the ways in which I do. I have been so frustrated with my own ability to truly feel immersed here. I want to feel soaked in Germany, so that I can shower hundreds of times and never wash the experiences and the changes out of me. But it is hard to feel truly within the culture and population here without a level of comfort speaking the German language. But then I question, will I ever feel immersed enough? Will I ever be ready to leave?

    I am so glad you decided to stay. I hope that even without a program offering like yours I will be able to feel immersed in Germany. I hope that Shanghai is as fulfilling as you wish and that those experiences truly will not be washed away.

  2. I so admire your commitment and bravery to staying in Shanghai, especially when you feel like you’re behind on where you want to be with learning Chinese. I totally relate to the idea of not feeling ready to leave. This is my second semester abroad and I have noticed a pattern in how I relate to my surroundings – the first half is often a little bit more trepidatious, even underwhelming, and then around the halfway point something switches. I remember sitting on a bus crying during my last weekend in London in the fall, feeling overwhelmed by the possibility that I might not go back for years…. but now I have decided that I want to do my MA in London. I think that it is a rare thing to feel ready to leave, but the good part is that that gives you a reason to go back, and you probably will.

    1. Author

      This reminds me of a quote from my favorite book, Beryl Markham’s /West with the Night/ that I always think about when moving from place to place… (had it marked and on my desk, haha)

      “I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.”

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