“Of course I miss Michigan,” she said. “Don’t you?”
It was the day after Thanksgiving, 2005. I was home from my first year of graduate school — my first time living outside of my home state, my first time needing to fly home for the holidays. After graduating from college the year before, I had watched almost all of my friends leave for New York and San Francisco as I stayed in Ann Arbor, applying to graduate school and trying to enjoy my life before selling my soul to a six-year program. Since most of my friends in town were still undergrads, I had spent much of the year hanging out near campus, fielding strange looks and pointed “Didn’t you graduate?” questions — thinly-veiled accusations, essentially, that I was weird for still being around, that it was time to move on with my life. By the end of the year, I was desperate to leave, the last kid to be picked up from the party.
Now I was a California resident, living just outside of LA. I had tons of new friends, a graduate program that I found endlessly interesting, and a constant supply of warmth and sunshine. I could walk less than a mile to restaurants, shops, and grocery stores; I could drive less than five for a run around the Rose Bowl or a hike in the San Gabriel mountains. I was animatedly describing all of this to my high school friends at our annual post-Thanksgiving leftovers potluck as they shared about their new lives in New York, DC, Boston — vast upgrades from our childhoods in the Midwest suburbs, we all believed. Well, all but one, who had wistfully asked me this question.
I looked at her with a mix of surprise and confusion. No, I did not miss Michigan. Not even a little.
Over the next decade, my feelings about Michigan changed very little. I missed certain things about it — my family and the handful of friends who remained there; specific restaurants (Ajishin, Olga’s) and regional delicacies (Vernors, Superman ice cream); fall and the crisp air, changing leaves, cider mill donuts, and football Saturdays that accompanied it. But overall, I was content to live 2,000 miles away, my longings for home sated by phone calls and twice-yearly visits. After graduate school, when my classmates started to move back to their small hometowns in the Midwest and the South, I looked at them with bewilderment. Why are you going back? I wondered. Wasn’t the point to get out?
Then I had a baby, and everything changed.
My husband and I knew that having children far from our families would be challenging. Almost everyone we knew who had children also had the benefit of families nearby on whom they could rely for child care (or at least the occasional night out), or else they had incredibly generous friends whom they could essentially treat like family and call in the middle of the night when they needed. We had neither. My husband’s family was also in the Midwest, thousands of miles away; we were relatively new to the San Francisco Bay Area, and our friends-like-family here had just had a baby of their own. We had other friends we could call in a pinch, but in terms of our day-to-day lives, we were going to do this by ourselves.
My parents came to town for a month when our son was born — a nod to the zuo ye practice of traditional Chinese families, only without all the restrictions. I did not anticipate how helpful it would be to have food on the table at every meal in the midst of my exhaustion, how much I would appreciate having someone to hold the baby while I napped. My mother took care of everything — cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping — without placing on me the burden of giving her instructions. If she saw something that needed to be done, she just went ahead and did it, and I was immensely grateful.
More significantly, I did not anticipate how meaningful it would be to watch my parents start to form a relationship with my son. They thought everything he did was miraculous — stretching; staring at lights; contemplating their faces, brow deeply furrowed. They found him as interesting as my husband and I did, and they were as concerned about his burps and bowel movements as we were.
So in the month they were here, I came to understand why people chose to live near their extended families, why my grad school pals had forsaken our interesting, progressive city for their small, boring hometowns. These relationships were beautiful. The help was lifesaving — not to mention cost-saving. Having seen very little of my own grandparents, who lived in Taiwan, I had not understood the meaning that grandparent-grandchild relationships could have — or how my own relationship with my parents could evolve after having a child.
One night during that first month, after my parents had returned to their AirBnB, my husband and I revisited our conversation about where our next destination would be. We had started this discussion a few months before, overwhelmed by the cost of living in the Bay Area and how much more we could get elsewhere — and how much less stressful life could be as a result. Seattle was high on both of our lists; when my husband suggested Ann Arbor, I laughed dismissively.
Tonight, though, things were different. “I would move to Ann Arbor tomorrow,” I whispered as we reclined in our bed, our newborn sleeping soundly in the bassinet beside us.
“Me too,” he said. And just like that, our new plan was in place.
We kept this plan mostly to ourselves for the next two years, quietly checking homes on Zillow every night, letting on to friends who asked that we were contemplating a move at some point but not to where. But between us, it only felt better with time. Ann Arbor was a dynamite city, one I adored and had deep connections to, one that reminded Robert of a progressive version of his hometown. It made top-ten lists for cities in which to raise a family, to go to college, to retire. It was an hour from my parents — close enough that we could see them regularly and they could be a normal part of our lives, but not so close that they could come over unexpectedly. It was also significantly closer to my in-laws in Missouri and our siblings in DC and Boston than our current home in California. It was diverse — for the Midwest, at least — and our kid would never be the only Asian American or multiracial kid in class. It had more than enough restaurants and cuisines to keep us happy, especially as a young family that didn’t need thousands to choose from. Thanks to the university, it had a constant stream of interesting talks and lectures and concerts coming through, not to mention year-round sporting events and performances that were relatively affordable. It had a hospital where Robert could practice his very specific kind of psychology. At no point did Ann Arbor ever feel like the wrong decision.
We tentatively planned to leave six months after Robert’s California pension vested — in the spring of 2019, right before homes in Ann Arbor started going on the market en masse. Then I got pregnant with our second child. On a rare breakfast date in the early days of my pregnancy, we looked at each other across the table and wondered how we were going to raise two children with no family help. We moved our proposed moving date to fall 2018, immediately after Robert’s pension vested.
Remarkably, things have more or less gone to plan. I had that baby, albeit five weeks sooner than expected. Robert got an unofficial offer from that hospital in July; after ten weeks of waiting for state approval, during which we made every spreadsheet and timeline possible to manage our anxiety like the two firstborn children we are, it became official a few weeks ago. We set our moving date for October 30 — interminably far when we thought about how much longer we’d have to raise these kids without any help, but far too soon when we thought about all the friends we’d want to see before then. We’ll live with my parents outside of Detroit while we look for a house in Ann Arbor, which could take anywhere from a few months to most of a year, during which time we’ll take full advantage of all the extra hands we have to help us with our children and to make our food.
So in three weeks, I will be returning to Michigan as eagerly as I left 13 years ago. Whether you’re a pal from high school, college, or grad school from the state or a friend with no Michigan connections, we warmly welcome visitors (seriously, please come visit) and offer our still-hypothetical guest bedroom. Here’s to new beginnings in old places.