Sometimes, the loneliness of being home alone can be a catalyst for connection. In this episode of Home. Made., we’ll hear two very different stories about people dealing with communication issues.
Home. Alone. In Shanghai
In 2010, Boston native Audrey Murray moved to Shanghai on a dare. She arrived in the city alone and completely unable to speak Chinese.
Audrey had come to China to teach English and work on her writing. But she quickly realized how isolating it was to be alone in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. She couldn’t even enjoy some of the things she’d been looking forward to, such as the local cuisine. She found herself eating at McDonald’s frequently, because it was the only place where she could order without having to speak Chinese.
Enter the Magic Number. A friend told Audrey about this free hotline that non-Chinese speakers can call to get help communicating with Chinese speakers.
Here’s how it works: Say you’re in a taxi and you need to tell the driver where you’re going. You call the Magic Number and tell the person on the line what you want to say to the driver. Then, you hand to phone over to the driver, and the person on the phone will translate your request to them.
Audrey began to rely on the Magic Number for everything, calling 5 – 10 times a day. Until one day, when the Magic Number called her.
They were calling to invite her to their Chinese New Year Gala. In fact, Audrey was invited because she was one of their most frequent callers. She was mortified.
Audrey Murray doing stand-up comedy in Shanghai.
After the gala, Audrey made a promise to herself that she’d never call the Magic Number again, and that she’d commit to learning Chinese.
She did. And in doing so, she was able to make new friends, explore new frontiers and learn more about herself.
“What learning the language did, was it allowed Shanghai to become my home in that sort of like, deeper, more emotional sense,” Audrey says in the episode. “I mean, I just grew so incredibly attached to it and I learned to love the city and the culture and the Chinese language.”
Home. Alone. While Living Apart Together
Our second story follows the experience of Rebecca and Shawne Huff as they experiment with a living arrangement called living apart together (LAT) in an attempt to save their struggling marriage.
Rebecca was the one to suggest she and Shawne try LAT. Over the years, Rebecca and Shawne had stopped communicating. Their home was quiet, and even though she was living with her husband and their two kids, Rebecca felt alone. She would tense up when Shawne walked into the room.
“Which is ironic because that’s how my parents were as I was growing up,” she says. “And I always thought it was kind of sad that they both had such separate lives. And now here I was doing the same thing.”
Rebecca and Shawne Huff
While working on a podcast about relationships with her friend, Rebecca discovered LAT, a living arrangement where couples live in separate homes. She wanted to try it.
When she presented the idea to Shawne, he wasn’t crazy about it. But he wanted to salvage their relationship, so he agreed. What they both found was that being alone, together, was the push they needed to reconnect.
Learn more about the host of Home. Made., award winning journalist Stephanie Foo on our host page.
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STEPHANIE FOO: On a hot, muggy afternoon in the summer of 2010, Audrey Murray arrived in Shanghai. Alone.
AUDREY MURRAY: I definitely had a very typical suburban American upbringing. And while my family traveled a lot within the U.S. to see relatives and on vacations and things, we never traveled abroad. So that was a new experience for me as an adult.
STEPHANIE FOO: She had come to Shanghai on a dare. A friend told her she wasn’t adventurous. He said she wouldn’t last a day in a different country. At the time, Audrey was working a random office job in D.C., but she really wanted to become a writer. Her friend had just returned from China where he was able to teach English part time and pursue his own writing. So within weeks, Audrey got on a plane. But there was one little thing missing.
AUDREY MURRAY: I didn't study Chinese at all before I left.
STEPHANIE FOO: This is Home. Made., an original podcast by Rocket Mortgage® about the meaning of homes and what we can learn about ourselves in them. I’m Stephanie Foo. In this episode, two stories about the things you discover when you are home alone.
STEPHANIE FOO: After arriving in Shanghai, Audrey somehow made it to her new apartment, a rooming house full of other foreigners. She also got a job teaching English. But when she walked out the door, she couldn’t talk to anyone.
AUDREY MURRAY: I'm a fairly social person. And it felt suddenly strange to be taking a bus by myself, going to the movies by myself. And on top of that I was also just so isolated it felt because I couldn't speak the language
STEPHANIE FOO: Audrey had assumed that some level of English would be spoken throughout Shanghai. But in 2010, that wasn’t the case. So Audrey’s life was limited to a tiny piece of the city where she could speak English: the school she worked at and at home with the odd fellow foreigner. If she wanted to feel less isolated, Audrey would have to learn Mandarin, and quickly.
AUDREY MURRAY: I was like, well, I studied French for over 10 years and my French still isn't perfect. How am I going to make any progress in Chinese in a few months? I had never tried to learn a language on the ground.
STEPHANIE FOO: To be fair, Mandarin isn’t French. You can’t just master the vocabulary; you have to master all of the tones – something Westerners really struggle with. So when it came to things like ordering food, many restaurants helped out foreigners by posting pictures on their menus
AUDREY MURRAY: There are convenience stores everywhere in Shanghai and they have these delicious hot steamed buns behind the counter. They're sold on the streets too. So there were all of these foods that I could see and that I wanted to eat, but I just had no idea how to ask for them. I mean it's crazy to me I didn't resort more to pointing and sign language, but I think I was just so overwhelmed, that that language barrier froze me a lot.
STEPHANIE FOO: So Audrey went to the one place where she knew the menu.
AUDREY MURRAY: I was not expecting to eat McDonald's in China. I was actually really looking forward to eating Chinese food. But yeah, at the very beginning I ate a lot of McDonald's because it was the only food I could order without having to speak Chinese.
STEPHANIE FOO: But then something happened that totally changed her life in Shanghai. A friend told her about the Magic Number.
AUDREY MURRAY: And they tell me it’s this free hotline you can call 24/7. And the person who answers the phone is perfectly bilingual in English and Chinese, and they will help you with anything.
STEPHANIE FOO: The Magic Number was a free, government-run hotline available to non-Chinese speakers to help them say whatever they needed to say. The friend told Audrey that if she was in a taxi, for example, she could call the Magic Number, tell them where she was going, hand the phone to the driver, and the person on the other line would tell them where to go. This was of particular interest to Audrey because a recent taxi ride home had instead landed her in the suburbs of Shanghai. So a few days later, she tried it out herself when a plumber showed up at her door. When he started speaking Mandarin, she pulled out her phone, called the Magic Number, and a woman answered.
AUDREY MURRAY: And before I could even think of my ask, she was just like:
PHONE OPERATOR: Please pass the phone to the plumber.
STEPHANIE FOO: The woman on the phone worked out what the plumber was there to do. And in that moment, Audrey was hooked. From that day forward, if language became a barrier she called the Magic Number. She used it for everything – groceries, restaurants, the bus – and life in Shanghai got way easier.
AUDREY MURRAY: It felt incredible to be understood, at least from a language perspective.
STEPHANIE FOO: She even used the Magic Number to haggle with a shop owner over a rice cooker.
AUDREY MURRAY: I called the Magic Number and I said, “Can you ask him how much this rice cooker costs?” And she came back to me after talking to him and said, “It costs maybe like 80 kuai.” And I said, “Do you think you could ask him if he could give it to me for 60 kuai?”
STEPHANIE FOO: Her phone was passing hands constantly.
AUDREY MURRAY: They were learning where I lived, what food I like to eat, where I like to go shopping, where I went when I got in a taxi, how late I tended to stay out at night. They knew I was allergic to powdered laundry detergent and they knew that I loved yogurt.
STEPHANIE FOO: Her friends were doing the same thing. A few said they were using the Magic Number like thirty times a day. Audrey thought, wow, she wasn’t using it that much. Maybe five, 10 times a day. But then, her phone rang. The voice on the other end sounded familiar. The Magic Number was calling her, which was weird – the Magic Number never called you. Audrey thought maybe it hadn’t been for free after all, and they were calling to bill her for all of the calls she had made. But that wasn’t it. The voice on the other end said:
AUDREY MURRAY: “Actually, I'm calling to invite you to our Chinese New Year Gala. Because from our records, it seems like you're one of our most frequent callers of the year.”
STEPHANIE FOO: Audrey was shocked. Her friends had been exaggerating. They weren’t actually calling the magic number 30 times a day. On the day of the banquet a couple of weeks later, Audrey wondered who else had been invited. She arrived at a grand, old hotel in downtown Shanghai and was shown to a table of young Chinese women – the same women who had been taking her calls for the past 6 months. As she looked around the room, Audrey realized no one else was there because of their frequent caller record.
AUDREY MURRAY: I mean, part of me wondered if maybe inviting me as the most frequent caller of the year was kind of a ruse and that actually they invited me because they were worried if they were all in a room together for four hours, I wouldn't be able to survive on my own in Shanghai at that time.
STEPHANIE FOO: During dinner, Audrey got to know the women at her table. They were all in their early 20s – same as her. They had all come to Shanghai from smaller towns for better jobs. After dinner, several of them stood up, walked to the front of the dining room and began performing funny skits based on the most memorable calls of the year, often involving foreigners in really helpless situations.
AUDREY MURRAY: I'm not offended by this. There's nothing malicious about these skits, there's one that's based on a real call where a man had called the Magic Number to say, “I'm sitting here with my girlfriend. Can you tell her that I love her?” The only way I'm understanding this skit, by the way, is that the women at my table are translating for me. I'm like, “This is going to be my future if I continue to not learn Chinese and if I continue to try to make my home here without this really crucial part of it. I'm going to be like that guy. I'm going to fall in love with someone and not be able to tell them that without calling the Magic Number.”
STEPHANIE FOO: Audrey was mortified. When she left that night, she made a promise to herself: she would never call the Magic Number again. The next day, she bought a Mandarin textbook and signed up for lessons. They were really difficult at first, but over several months, Audrey slowly started piecing together words and phrases. She grew to admire the elegance and construction of the language. Audrey started to feel confident when she was at a local market with a friend. They were looking for another friend, but a pushy shopkeeper kept trying to divert them into his stall.
AUDREY MURRAY: But I remember saying like, “Oh, actually we're not here to buy anything,” and halfway through, I sort of turned to my Taiwanese-American friend and I was like, “You should really be having this conversation, not me.” She was like, “No, you're doing great.” It was a long time coming, but it was, yeah, that was a really good feeling.
STEPHANIE FOO: Audrey no longer needed the Magic Number to communicate her needs or to understand what others were saying.
AUDREY MURRAY: I got to know people that I never would have met through work or through friends, for example, particularly my neighbors in an apartment that I lived in in Shanghai. And they were so lovely I continued to visit them after I left that apartment. We never would have been in a situation where all three of us were in the room and there was someone else who could help translate for us.
STEPHANIE FOO: Her world started to open up. She made friends with those Chinese neighbors, who taught her about the history of Shanghai. She traveled alone to western China. And even made her way up to Russia several times. She moved through the city freely and discovering things she never would have. One of those discoveries was a comedy club. Audrey took up improv and stand-up comedy.
AUDREY MURRAY: What learning the language did, was it allowed Shanghai to become my home in that sort of like deeper, more emotional sense. I mean, I just grew so incredibly attached to it and I learned to love the city and the culture and the Chinese language.
STEPHANIE FOO: Audrey lived in Shanghai for another 5 years. And then she moved back to America, to New York. Back in China, she had used her time off to work on her writing. Just like her friend suggested. And so she published a memoir about her time spent traveling in Russia. As she re-acclimated to American culture, she found her experience in Shanghai had shifted the way she perceived the concept of home.
AUDREY MURRAY: I think living in Shanghai gave me a less rigid idea of what home was, and sort of made me less apprehensive to move in and start a new home somewhere else. So for example, after I'd returned to the states, I was living in New York and my boyfriend got a job in Miami for one year. And I think if I hadn't lived abroad, the idea of moving to a new city for a year only, it's sort of scary, because you think, how am I going to meet people? How am I going to make friends? Am I just going to be really lonely? I think living abroad taught me a lot about how to find communities, wherever you are.
STEPHANIE FOO: In the next story, a married couple find that they don’t know how to talk to each other anymore. They end up all alone in the same house.
STEPHANIE FOO: Silence. That was the sound in Rebecca and Shawne Huff’s home. In 2018, the couple was living in separate parts of the house. They weren’t talking to each other. And anytime Shawne walked into the room, Rebecca says she would tense up.
REBECCA HUFF: Which is ironic because that's how my parents were as I was growing up. And I always thought it was kind of sad that they both had such separate lives. And now here I was doing the same thing.
SHAWNE HUFF: I mean, I knew what I was doing wrong I guess, but I just didn't know how to push the reset button.
STEPHANIE FOO: Still, Rebecca didn’t want to tear the family apart by divorcing. They had two teenage kids and lived in a nice farmhouse in Knoxville, Tennessee. She was a successful blogger and he worked in the auto industry. Shawne’s sister had introduced them 20 years before.
STEPHANIE FOO: So what were some of the things that attracted you to him?
REBECCA HUFF: He seemed pretty grounded and reliable. And I really found that attractive. He was the owner of this company and his family worked for him, and he had other employees, and he just seemed to really have it all together.
STEPHANIE FOO: Yeah, a guy that has it all together. Very hot.
REBECCA HUFF: Mm-hmm.
STEPHANIE FOO: Rebecca and Shawne started dating, but pretty soon there was an issue. Rebecca first noticed it when Shawne’s business hit a rough patch.
SHAWNE HUFF: I just kinda hid it all, didn't share, didn't involve Rebecca in those decisions and struggles, under the guise of, well, I don't want to cause stress.
REBECCA HUFF: So when he would not communicate with me, I felt like he didn't trust me as his partner to help make those important decisions.
STEPHANIE FOO: But that period passed and life went on. They got married and had a son.
REBECCA HUFF: That was a really beautiful time when we had my son. It was just really sweet. He was, and still is, a wonderful father.
STEPHANIE FOO: Soon after that they had a daughter. And things got really busy.
REBECCA HUFF: I started, maybe even entered kind of a midlife crisis period of time where I was like, this isn’t working for me. Is this all there is to life? He was working a second shift job at that time, so we weren't really connecting, you know?
STEPHANIE FOO: The more difficult life got, the more Shawne bottled up his stress. And when he got stressed, he would go silent. But Rebecca really needed someone to talk to. She begged Shawne to open up. Despite repeated promises, he didn’t.
REBECCA HUFF: And after a while, it just broke our trust.
STEPHANIE FOO: Did you feel lonely because of this lack of intimacy and connection?
REBECCA HUFF: I was lonely, but at the same time, I kind of feel like I pushed people away too.
STEPHANIE FOO: Hmm.
STEPHANIE FOO: So Rebecca went to therapy. The therapist suggested she might want to get a divorce. Instead, she decided to just live together in the same house with Shawne, but separately. They slept in different rooms. They barely interacted. But that didn’t exactly make either of them feel better.
REBECCA HUFF: I was so frustrated and I blamed everything on him. I was feeling defeated, maybe a little depressed, just because I was really sad that I couldn't make this work. And I just felt trapped.
STEPHANIE FOO: And then one day, Rebecca got a call from a friend asking her to co-host a podcast about marriage.
REBECCA HUFF: I was like, “Are you crazy? I have the world's worst marriage. Why would I do that?”
STEPHANIE FOO: Her friend said they could compare and contrast Rebecca’s bad marriage with her amazing marriage. For some reason, Rebecca agreed. And Shawne says he felt so defeated, he didn’t care what Rebecca said about their marriage. And so each week they explored a different topic. While researching an episode about divorce, Rebecca came across something called LAT, which stands for living apart together. Living apart together is when couples stay married but live in their own homes. And a lot of people do it, about four million American married couples. It can happen when one partner relocates for a job, but the majority of married LAT couples live in separate houses in the same town. And they do it happily. They spend a few days and nights together but then retreat to their own spaces. So Rebecca thought, what if instead of living separately in different parts of the same house, they just lived in two different houses altogether? The challenge was proposing it to Shawne.
SHAWNE HUFF: It wasn't like, “Hey, that's a great idea.” I was always very resistant to anything that I thought would separate my family in any way.
STEPHANIE FOO: Rebecca told Shawne she was committed to the relationship, if they could salvage it. LAT would allow them the space to work on issues they couldn’t address while living in the same house. So they moved out of their farmhouse into an apartment building. They rented two units, one on top of the other. For the first time in 20 years, Shawne and Rebecca were living in separate homes. Their daughter stayed with Rebecca, and their son stayed with Shawne.
SHAWNE HUFF: They saw the benefits of it. They saw the stress levels reduce. I think it would have harmed them way more if we just either persisted in doing what we were doing with the tension in the house, or if we had just thrown in the towel and said, “Well, we give up. We're getting divorced.”
REBECCA HUFF: My son and daughter enjoyed having each of us to themselves for a while. And so it was kind of we presented it as a fun thing.
STEPHANIE FOO: It wasn’t as fun for Shawne.
SHAWNE HUFF: I missed waking up beside her or walking into the kitchen at the same time to get a cup of coffee or sitting on the couch and dozing off every night, you miss that.
REBECCA HUFF: I really never lived alone. When you live with another person, you're sharing a space. And so you have to be kind of in tune to the other person's wants, needs and desires. And so you're not completely focused on just doing what you need to do. But when my daughter and I lived in this apartment together, it felt almost like living alone. If I wanted to hang up pink curtains or if I wanted to have flowers on the table every day or if I wanted to watch a Korean drama and be all sappy and whatever.
STEPHANIE FOO: So this was the deal: Unlike most LAT couples, for the first couple of months, Rebecca and Shawne would have no contact outside of therapy. In therapy, the first thing they tackled was Shawne’s lack of communication. After every session, he would go back to his own apartment.
SHAWNE HUFF: I could go back to my own space and analyze it, for lack of a better term, with nobody saying, “Well, what are you thinking?”
STEPHANIE FOO: But the big breakthrough for Shawne didn’t come during a therapy session. One day his son came home, upset by something, and started telling his dad about it. Shawne immediately went into solution mode.
REBECCA HUFF: My son finally said to him, “Dad, I don't want you to fix it. I just want you to listen. That's what family is there for. I need to be able to vent to you just to get things off my chest. And I need you to be able to relate to it.” And I had been telling my husband some version of that statement for years. And so the next time we were in therapy, he told my therapist and me about it. And it was just very emotional for him. It was probably the first time I'd ever seen him cry. And so he just got it. Oh, you want to tell me something? You just want me to listen.
STEPHANIE FOO: Years of isolation and bitterness started to thaw pretty quickly. Rebecca and Shawne started talking, really talking to each other.
REBECCA HUFF: Within the first month or so of us living apart, I started feeling so much better. Like I felt like I could breathe. I felt like I knew who I was again. I even started feeling a little attracted to him. It was pretty quick.
STEPHANIE FOO: At that point, Shawne and Rebecca started enjoying more of the LAT lifestyle. Date nights, family dinners up at Rebecca’s, watching movies together in Shawne’s apartment. And Shawne helped Rebecca out. Doing small repairs in her place, watering the plants and other household things. They came and went more freely. And they started to have a lot of fun.
SHAWNE HUFF: Probably one of the funnier ones was, I guess when I blow my nose, you can hear it on the other side of town, like it's an elephant or something. So I blew my nose one morning and I got a text that says, “I can hear you blowing your nose.”
STEPHANIE FOO: But as great as life was in separate apartments, Shawne and Rebecca eventually decided to stop living apart together and move back into the same home. Maintaining two households is expensive, and they wanted their children to be in the same house.
REBECCA HUFF: And we had repaired our relationship to the point where we felt like we could not just tolerate living together, but that we could actually enjoy it.
STEPHANIE FOO: So you moved in together?
REBECCA HUFF: Yes. We've only been back in the same house for about a month.
STEPHANIE FOO: Oh wow. And so how has it been?
REBECCA HUFF: It's definitely been an adjustment. It’s having everyone together again, there's a little bit more demands on my time. So I've had to push those boundaries more and say, “I need a little privacy. I need a little time to myself.” It's something that I recognize that I have a need for now.
STEPHANIE FOO: Well, that's great. That sounds like a lasting lesson that you’ll always have, is essentially enabling you with the permission to have needs.
REBECCA HUFF: Right. And that it's not selfish of me to ask for a couple of hours of time to myself.
STEPHANIE FOO: Are you having fun would you say?
REBECCA HUFF: Yeah actually, it is fun. It's kind of like getting married for the first time again, because we're setting up this house together and being back in the same bedroom is kind of like going back to that honeymoon phase again. So that's fun.
STEPHANIE FOO: But for Rebecca there was something about LAT that has stuck with her.
REBECCA HUFF: When I say that I would consider it again, I mean, I don't think that a married couple has to live together to have a good relationship. I fully believe that two people can be completely in love with one another, have every intention of staying together for the rest of their lives and still enjoy living in separate spaces.
STEPHANIE FOO: Shawne feels a bit differently. During their whole time living apart together, even during that first part where they weren’t talking to each other at all, Rebecca still cooked meals for him. It was her way of letting him know she still loved him. And Shawne appreciated it. But there was something missing.
SHAWNE HUFF: It’s not the same as waking up smelling it, or being in some other part of the house and smelling dinner being cooked and hearing the sounds and knowing you're about to enjoy that meal cooked by somebody that you love and that loves what they're doing. And it's just like a … I don't know. It's just like a sign that you're back home, that your home is back together, your family is back together. So it's pretty cool.
STEPHANIE FOO: At the same time, Shawne is still working on his part.
SHAWNE HUFF: I'm still not perfect at it by any means. But I've learned that being honest and open about what's going on in your lives is key to making your relationship work.
STEPHANIE FOO: Both Shawne and Rebecca agree that living apart was good for them. It taught them to take care of themselves first. To work on their own happiness and independence, so they could bring the best of themselves into their marriage for each other. Living apart might be the most romantic thing they've ever done. Sometimes loneliness is a catalyst for change. It can push you out of complacency. Or make you go the extra mile to find connection, whether that means couples therapy or learning a completely new language. In that way, maybe a little loneliness might be good for us after all.
STEPHANIE FOO: You’ve been listening to Home. Made. by Rocket Mortgage. My name is Stephanie Foo. You can reach us at rocketmortgage.com/homemade. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER: Equal housing lender licensed in all 50 states. NMLSconsumeraccess.org #3030
Home. Made. Podcast
Home. Made. is a new podcast from Rocket Mortgage® hosted by Stephanie Foo. Inside every home, there’s a story.Learn More