It’s funny how one day you can be living your life, the tomorrows unfolding merrily much like the yesterdays. Then out of nowhere, something shifts and it’s not the life you want any more.
Only two columns ago, I announced that Elsa and I would be here for "dot dot dot." We were settling into a semi-permanent life here, at least until Elsa neared secondary school age. Then I received an e-mail from a friend. Stranded in the Gobi desert (relationship-wise) for as long as I had been, she had recently met someone.
This hit me like the defining coin placed in a fairground arcade slot machine. Underneath the freedom, the adventure and – even after four years – the invigorating novelty of our life here, a quiet dissatisfaction had been building unnoticed. Years of singledom in Beijing’s dating wasteland, the inevitability of always being an outsider, the distance from grandparents, siblings and friends back home – all at once, these issues came clattering down, with the suddenness of a jackpot shooting down into the slot machine tray.
Looking back, I can see the signs. The fervent redecorating, the rabbit, the dog – all were attempts to create a feeling of permanence and family. But they were just sticking plaster.
I have always believed in following your own path and finding happiness for yourself, rather than seeking it out in others. That’s what took me to China in the first place. It has proven an incredible experience – in fact, these past years have been the undisputed highlight of my life, for which I feel so lucky. But I want more. I want someone to share my life with. I want the chance to have more children. Although these things could happen here, at nudging 40, I’m convinced, rightly or wrongly, that a return to the UK offers better odds.
I’m a bit embarrassed when people ask why we’re leaving. It’s tempting to invent a bland cover story, but I like to be honest. We all have our hidden vulnerabilities and perhaps sharing mine will help someone else feel better about their own.
So on April 5, Elsa and I will be starting a new life for ourselves back in Bristol, a laid-back city in the southwest of England’s green and pleasant land. There’s a lot to sort out, not least Elsa’s education. To ensure pole position on school waiting lists, we’ve been advised to live as close to our preferred school as possible. My new street directory boasts a heavy black circle with a quarter-mile radius around the targeted school’s postcode. Favorite streets are highlighted in yellow. Property agents have been forewarned and Internet alerts ping daily into my inbox. My mother, bless her, has even pushed flat-seeking adverts through doors in the immediate vicinity. Unfortunately I discovered too late that my carefully prepared notices had been liberally adorned with little gold stars. Mum, 70 this year, loves stickers even more than Elsa.
Trickier than securing a school and a flat is keeping Elsa’s Mandarin alive. Unlike mine – in true face-saving fashion I habitually dock off two years when asked how long I’ve lived here – Elsa’s Mandarin is definitely worth maintaining. A live-in Chinese-speaking student or au pair would be the best solution, but selfishly I worry about losing my privacy. So I’m hoping that a Chinese babysitter, a suitcase bulging with Xi Yang Yang DVDs and hopefully, an annual visit from ayi will prove sufficient.
Whatever the obstacles, if there’s one thing living in China has taught me, it’s that there’s always a solution. With less than six weeks to go as I write this, I’m determined to quietly enjoy the time left and not stress too much about what lies ahead.
As my China chapter nears its end, an adventure waits in the wings for another single mum. This week I became acquainted with a woman who’s currently in the United States. She found my email and asked if we could speak on Skype. We talked for over an hour about the life she could lead here with her 7-month-old son. Maybe it’s fanciful, but it gave me a sense of resolution – like I was passing a very precious baton into kindred hands. I hope she comes to Beijing.
Sarah Cooper came to Beijing over four years ago when her daughter Elsa was 3 months old. She would like to thank beijingkids readers for their interest and support, which has been very much appreciated. Please keep in touch with Sarah via her website and blog: www.cowsfrommywindow.com.