When a city changes your life — and you never want to go back

Dalian from above by Expat Edna

I first moved abroad in early 2008. I was 18 years old, a sophomore in college. The plan was only to stay for four months and study Chinese, then return to my ‘normal’ life at home.

I ended up staying a year — and after that, a ‘normal’ life was the last thing I wanted.

Dalian changed everything. I was never the same after living there. Dalian inspired me to become a permanent expat; made me realize my true passion and career path was in communications (not the political science degree I was pursuing).

My year in this city took everything I knew, turned it on its head, shook it a few times, and spat me out a totally new person. I arrived an awkward, painfully shy ugly duckling; I left the most confident swan you’ve ever seen.

Girls Night, Korean bar, Dalian by Expat Edna

If I hadn’t gone to Dalian I might still be in Pennsylvania, married with the white picket fence and a second kid on the way — as so many of my high school/college classmates now are! — because that’s just what you do. (And if that’s what you truly desire, then I’m happy for you! But I can’t see myself in that life.)

Instead I’ve spent my early 20s traveling around the world, working with the Olympics, living in Paris (…and Italy, Singapore, and Shanghai).

I owe it all to Dalian.

Quiz team, Brooklyn, Dalian - Expat Edna

Which is why I never wanted to go back.

For a place that gave me so many happy memories, I swore up and down I’d never return to Dalian.

Yet this weekend, seven years after I lived there, I’m returning to the beginning. Dalian is the heart of my origin story, and after almost two years together, Joe naturally wanted to see the seaside city in northeastern China that influenced me so much.

It’s precisely because of all those memories that I didn’t want to return: every girls’ night, teppanyaki dinner, Gaelic football training, and KTV session reminded me of a time and place that doesn’t exist anymore (literally: I’ve heard from friends that half our old haunts have closed down).

I read a piece once that really resonated with me about Chasing Ghosts. I was going one step further: I didn’t even want to attempt to chase the ghosts; I wanted to avoid them.

Part of me didn’t want to see what had become of Dalian — China changes so much in six months, what would the city be like after six years? The other part didn’t want to face reality: I was happy to leave the city as it was in my 18-year-old memory; a year frozen in time.

Binhai Lu, Dalian - Expat Edna

And some of it really is frozen in memory: 2008 was a low-tech time.

When I moved to Dalian the first iPhone had just come out; Facebook had only recently opened to non-university students — and it wasn’t blocked yet (those were the real good ol’ days in China). Twitter was used by about ten people and the few of us who did own digital cameras, only had dinky point-and-shoots.

We weren’t buried in technology, we lived in the present. My Dalian year represented life in a time when society wasn’t yet soaked in technology, when we weren’t bombarded with “follow our bar/restaurant/band on social media!” links  and WeChat QR codes everywhere.

Nights out actually meant face time with your friends and zero people buried in their phone — and weren’t dampened by someone’s device running out of battery and needing to find a bar with a charger.

If you got lost, you couldn’t use Google Maps, you had to actually develop a sense of direction or have a fun, lost adventure.

I am so grateful I spent my year abroad in such a time. We actually lived for ourselves instead of likes on Instagram.


It’s not that I’m adverse to change: change is good, progress is good, and I’m happy the people of Dalian finally have a metro line.

I avoided Dalian because I didn’t want to be that grumpy grandparent who laments how things were better in the old days. I’d rather be the content grandma in a rocking chair, whispering about that wonderful year she spent on the beach in the 1950s, blissfully ignorant of how the beach is now actually a casino parking lot.

Why face the wrinkles of the present when you can remember the beauty of the past?

In my head, Dalian remains a golden time. It wasn’t all perfect of course, there were bad moments too — when I messed up, I messed up big time — but all of it melded with the positive and ultimately, it’s a ‘golden age’ of my youth.

It’s not that I want to go back to being 18 — it was still a tumultuous age and my early 20s turned out to be even better — but it was comforting to imagine that somewhere in northern China, there was a time caspule of a city in memory, where the ghost of a newly-confident, newly-changed 18-year old Edna lives.

The ghost of that 18-year old self wants to stay there, and going back at 25 feels somewhat like time travel, confronting an era better left alone. It forces me to accept the reality that the city has changed; that the place I loved so much no longer exists, except in memory and a hard drive full of low-res photos.

I think I’d rather leave the ghosts where they are.

Street bbq, Dalian - Expat Edna

Does anyone else feel this way about a city? Do you have a Dalian of your own?

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  1. I think returning to anywhere I’ve lived is a time capsule. I lived in my hometown for 18 years, then NYC for 6, and I return back to both each year. And each time it is bittersweet and weird and surreal.

    Let us know how it goes!

  2. This post made me smile. Dalian was the city that transformed me as well – it made me more confident and more internationally-minded, and plus it’s where I met my husband. I definitely feel the opposite of the way you feel, though – I’m always happy to go back! I lived in Dalian from 2010-2012, and then went back for the summer of 2013 – it’s definitely changed in some ways, but not unrecognizably. After you’ve visited your old stomping grounds, be sure to check out Xiaoping Dao and Dong Wan, two artificial islands. Back in 2013 these places were mostly construction sites, but I bet now there’s something cool. And…Dalian has a metro now?! It’s finished? Hallelujah.

  3. It’s kind of how I felt when I stopped in Shanghai for a couple days. Although I guess my feelings for the city were a little different from yours in Dalian. It’s not easy to go back someplace like that, but sometimes you need to face the past to move forward.

  4. For me, it’s the island of Boracay in the Philippines. I spent a week in Boracay with 7 of my best friends after a semester studying in China. It was the greatest, most fun week of my life and as much as I would love to return to Boracay, I know it would never be the same without my friends. I have the best memories from that trip and I would rather just preserve them as is then go back and try to recreate them. I think I would just be disappointed.

  5. Beautiful post — I spent a semester abroad in 2005 (!) and back then there was almost no technology outside of the laptop, it was blissful, improved my French, ability to navigate maps, and most important — ensured that I met lots of amazing people :)

  6. This is a lovely post. :) I haven’t travelled anywhere yet that I wouldn’t want to go back to but I have the same feelings about the little village I lived in for 3 years while I was in university. I have so many incredible memories there. I changed a lot and it definitely has a special place in my heart. I have heard that it’s changed a lot in the 7 years since I graduated though. Lots of places have shut down, the local town became rougher, etc. I’m not sure I’d want to revisit and spoil my memories either.

  7. Pedro Carvalho says:

    I spent 2014 in Montana and it was the best time of my life, what makes me want to go back there at some point. Many of my friends have already graduated and moved to another state or country. Nevertheless Butte is pretty much the same lovely quaint town once referred to as the Richest Hill on Earth. If everything works out, I will spend a year in Dalian starting next month. The reason I am willing to leave what I have in Brazil for a city I’ve never been to is that you get addicted to that feeling, I assume. I can’t express how much I grew during the year I spent in the US, and I desperately need another adventure to get me out of my comfort zone. Very interesting post. Thank you for sharing that.