Buckle in, it’s a long one. This is how I went from being a nervous traveller who didn’t go abroad for six years to moving to Shanghai alone in my late twenties…
I was speaking to a colleague the other day about how both of us fell in love with travelling late in the game. For me, growing up, travelling wasn’t a thing at all. I didn’t go abroad until I was 11. I spent my teenage years going to lovely package holiday resorts in Lanzarote and Majorca with the fam, and when I finished school my friends and I saved up to go to to Ibiza for a fortnight.
They were all amazing holidays, and I never really had any desire to go any further afield or do anything more off the beaten track. I thought gap years and going travelling were things for other people, people from more privileged backgrounds, not me. And it was true, at least at that time.
One of friends from uni went to South Korea to teach English straight after graduating. She had a telephone interview in the hall while I watched daytime TV and was off before I knew it. Could I have gone? The short answer is no. I was already £2.5k into my overdraft and with a hefty student loan to boot – I felt like couldn’t justify dropping another couple of grand on the start-up costs. So no, I don’t think I could, at least not with the carefree abandon that I’d want to go with.
“I never really had any desire to go further afield or to do something more of the beaten track. I didn’t think travelling was for people like me.”
That feeling continued throughout my early 20s. I was on a minimum wage job and living at home and I really didn’t have a lot of money to spare on holidays. I didn’t go abroad for almost six years – from that Ibiza holiday when I was 18 to going to Berlin with my boyfriend at the time aged 24. And by that time, I’d developed a degree of anxiety about it. I’d never even been on a city break to a European city and it felt a lot different to the packages holidays I knew so well.
To be honest, I didn’t really enjoy that holiday in Berlin. I distinctly remember getting flustered because we couldn’t find the hotel – this was back before everyone had smartphones. When we finally got there, we ended up taking a nap in the hotel room, almost because I was (secretly) anxious of going outside. It didn’t just happen on that holiday either. I went on a few holidays around that time and still had a sense of unease, of not quite feeling comfortable. I visited Gothenburg twice, in the space of two years, which in retrospect seems like once I’d been the first time it wasn’t quite so scary anymore.
“I remember finally finding the hotel and then taking a nap, almost because I was anxious of going outside. I didn’t enjoy that holiday.”
I don’t know when or why it changed, I really can’t put a finger on it. Maybe it was just getting a bit older. Maybe it was getting a few other city breaks under my belt and realising that it was totally normal to get lost or to wing it on about three words of the language. I went on holiday with my pals to Amsterdam around that time and that felt different; there was a group of four of five of us and it was just a laugh from start to finish. I was more relaxed, maybe because they were relaxed.
As a side note, I also had a growing sense of restlessness in my job. I wanted to earn more money and one thing that kept coming up was teaching. I thought a good way of road-testing that career option, and being able to see a bit of the world, was to do TEFL. I did hours of research. I did two TEFL courses. I applied to tons of jobs. It was odd. It was the thing that my friends had done all those years ago when we first graduated that I had no interest in doing, and now I wanted to do it more than anything. So much so that I was prepared to quit my job and leave my lovely new boyfriend.
“I had a growing sense of restlessness in my job and I wanted to try out teaching. Doing TEFL seemed a good way to road test this new career option – as well as see some of the world.”
To cut to the chase, I ended up moving to Shanghai for six months when I was 29. It was a leap into the unknown. And I fucking loved it. It was the best thing I ever could have done and was an absolute joy from start to finish. I didn’t love the job, and I quickly realised that I didn’t want to be a teacher. But it made me feel alive. Every day there was something new to see, a new district to explore, a new food to try. But the thing I loved the most about it was the people I met.
One of the guys who arrived at the same time was a guy called Joe, who ended up living at the same apartment block as me and teaching at the same school as me. He was 22 and fearless. He would walk into a street food place and point to the Chinese characters on the menu and order something, using the two or three words he’d learned in Mandarin. I was in awe. I went in with him a few times, and then I started going in myself. Just like that I’d have a dreamy bowl of dumplings in front of me, served up by the lovely Chinese family who smiled politely at my terrible pronunciation. It was a revelation. Looking back, that was the moment when I realised I could go anywhere and be OK.
“He was 22 and fearless. He’d walk into a street food cafe and point to the Chinese characters on the menu and order something using the two or three words of Mandarin he knew. I was in awe.”
The experience has stayed with me. Since I’ve been back from China, I’ve been to a number of places. Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam. I’ve booked a trip to India for me and my sister in a few week’s time. All those cliched backpacking destinations that people would go to on their gap year that I never thought were for me. Yes, I’ve still never been travelling per se. But I’ve lived in another continent for six months, and I’ve visited some of the most beautiful places in the world. And that’s good enough for me.