Breathing Through Smog

I’ve been feeling out of sorts. 

Ten years ago – a whole decade ago – I packed up my then eight-year-old son and a few suitcases and we shipped ourselves off to Wuhan, China. I wasn’t only the only single mother there – I was the only high school teacher parenting a child while living abroad.

Zac and I shortly after arriving in Wuhan

I agonized two years later about what to do and where to go. Did we stay in China, return to Canada, go to England, go to Colombia? I had job offers in all but my own home country. 

We decided on Shanghai because we could still keep ties with Wuhan friends and China itself – the language, the food, the way of life (though we were to learn how very different cities within the country could be from one another). 

Maybe I was able to leave Canada because I felt like I didn’t quite belong, though I cloaked that in job frustration, which was true and valid. But had I not experienced that job frustration, I wouldn’t have had an opportunity to go and see what was waiting for me. Would not have seen that I might feel more authentically myself elsewhere, outside of my home country, which seems ironic but perhaps isn’t – perhaps growing up with a White mother, and a White family, who complimented my “tan” skin but didn’t mention the cultural origins that went with it, I always felt just felt a little bit unseen; just a little bit like I didn’t belong. 

Me and my mom

Regardless, this wasn’t my solo experience. It was very much centered around my son. 

Zac and Harmen on Jianghan Road

When deciding where to move, I tried to tie together the freedom and adventure of abroad with the comfort and safety of our new home and newly made friends-who-became-family (though when you live abroad, the illusion of safety and permanency is ever more frail; people come and go with more frequency, and the loss of those people as they return home or move to another country is ever-constant). 

Playing “Signal” at our apartment

Change combined with familiarity. Was I trying to achieve the impossible? Doing my best to fuse together two things I believed to be in opposition of each other? Still, I was optimistic. For my son, I would pull it off.

Of course, that was not my thought process while deliberating. At the time, it looked more like crying – wailing? – to myself in the cold, concrete bathroom at school (no central heating, just freezing cold toilet seats and windows open in December because it’s colder inside than out) while agonizing over lack in my life. Lack and absence and all that was hard. No permanent job, no permanent home, no permanent partner. 

I had to make these huge monumental decisions that would impact my son’s life and I didn’t know which way to turn. I knew I could go home, but that didn’t feel right for us and that was the one place where a job was not waiting for me. Where life had been harder, living in my mom’s basement and feeling less than by society’s standards. 

Zac and Deb in Shanghai

Two years in Shanghai later – four years in China total – I returned to Canada. I returned with hope and optimism. That I would retain the spirit of myself I had found there, that I would continue to live a creative and fulfilling and stimulating life. That the feeling of freedom I experienced there would travel with me back home. That I could access it no matter where I was. 

Me, in 2018

That I was stronger than the cultural messaging around me, that once I knew it was there and had escaped it that I could continue to do so – though I was but a fish immersed in polluted water, swimming in it every day and trying not to let any of it permeate my thin skin – ahem, scales. 

As though it couldn’t consume me. 

There was more pollution in Wuhan. But it didn’t always feel that way. 

Slowly, I faded. I am highly susceptible to cultural and societal messaging. I always have been. Sometimes I think that means I’m more sensitive than others around me seem to be. Maybe, it means I’m more aware of it than others seem to be. 

I lost myself. But today, I start to find her again. 

Published by Natasha

Natasha is an educator, traveler, and writer who lives with her son in the Greater Toronto Area. Empowering students by day - but writing the rest of the time - Natasha has a BA in English Literature and MEd in Social Justice Education. She enjoys writing memoir and personal essays about motherhood, creativity, and travel. You can get in touch by visiting

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