I Never Wanted to Move Back to Michigan

“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 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 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 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.

***

Much changed over the next decade, but my feelings about Michigan did not.  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 felt only 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 else they had incredibly generous friends whom they could treat like family and call when they needed a night out.  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 choose 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.  Between us, though, 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 every top-ten list 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 drop by 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 managed our anxiety by making every spreadsheet and timeline possible 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 feed us.

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.

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Is It Financially Responsible to Live Here?

In LA, we talked about traffic. How bad it was today, the tricks we used to avoid it, that one time it took us 4 hours to get home. The highways weren’t I-405 and I-110; they were “the 405” and “the 110,” a phenomenon I haven’t heard anywhere else, so much were they a part of our daily lives. I never tired of “The Californians,” the recurring Saturday Night Live sketch, because it wasn’t as much a spoof as it was a documentary. (“At this time of day? It’s gonna be jammed!”)

In the Bay Area, we talk about housing. How much rent has gone up in the last year or five, how much so-and-so spent on a 2-bedroom house in San Mateo (the answer: 2 million dollars), how the combination of tech money, foreign investors, and limited supply are driving up prices at an astronomical rate. Last month, Forbes released its list of worst cities for renters, and the three top spots were all in the Bay Area. (Manhattan? Merely fourth place.) Even upwardly mobile, dual-income families that would be well-off in any other part of the country can’t afford rent in many places, let alone the cost of buying a house.

My husband and I fall into this category. Our combined income does not make us poor by any stretch of the imagination — but when we recently had to look for a new place north of Oakland, we found ourselves overwhelmed on multiple fronts. Overwhelmed by how expensive everything was, compared to even a year ago; places that rented for $2000 a month last year were now listing for $3000 and $3200. Overwhelmed at how stiff the competition was when we showed up at open houses and found ourselves surrounded by overzealous applicants with cover letters and headshots. Overwhelmed by the possibility, as the days on our current lease wound down, that we might not find a place at all, that we would keep losing out to the many other applicants who aren’t carrying the amount of student debt that we are.

This harrowing process raised two questions for me: Is it financially responsible for us to keep living here? And if this is what it’s like for us — two highly privileged, well-educated people — then what is it like for people without these privileges?

Continue reading on the Salt Collective

Image courtesy of Radpad

LA: the love-hate relationship, side 2

let’s be honest: it’s a little cliche to say that you love LA. it’s like saying you love the blondest, prettiest girl at school. hating LA, on the other hand — that never goes out of style, just as it never goes out of style to hate her sports teams. saying that you hate LA is a pretty quick and dirty way to connect with most people in the US. it’s as easy as hating that blonde, pretty girl — she’s an easy target. you hate her because she has everything, and when you’re completely honest, you hate her because you’re not her.

this is more or less what i’ve done for my 4 years of residence here, though perhaps a little less harshly. when asked how i like living in LA, i’ve generally allowed that i enjoy the weather and the beach but quickly followed with a list of all the things i don’t like about the city, along with a declaration of my intent to leave as soon as i’m free from the clutches of grad school.

recently, however, i’ve made two significant realizations:

1. refusing to like LA because it’s cliche is not being fair to the city, and it diminishes all that it does have to offer. and it’s pretty lame, because not only am i being dictated by the trend, but i’m also making my life more difficult, since i have to live here.

2. being painfully aware of a city’s problems does not mean that i have to hate the city itself. take detroit, for example. talk about cities with problems — the entire country knows about the tanking auto industry and economy, but there’s even more that they don’t hear about, like the racism and the horrendously-run education system (which i think is at the heart of issue). detroit is overflowing with problems. but i love detroit. i love its scrappiness and toughness. i love that it’s not a city for pansies. i love the giant baked potatoes from the potato place at cass and warren, the saganaki in greektown, the sweet potato everything from sweet potato sensations on lahser and grand river.

hence, i realized that if i can see detroit’s problems and still love it madly… then perhaps i could do the same for los angeles. and that opened up a whole new world for me — one where i could truly appreciate the city and not write off all of its benefits, which i experience regularly, as exceptions.

so. after 4 years of kvetching and resistance, i’ve come to a point where i can finally say that

i love los angeles.

this is a big step for me. it isn’t something i could have said even a month ago. but the aforementioned realizations have allowed me to see that LA is a phenomenal city. i’ve even cracked the door open to the possibility of staying long-term, something i’ve never considered before. and i’ve realized that, in the (more likely) case that i don’t stay, i will be very, very sad to leave, and i will live out my days talking about how great life in LA was.

***

so why exactly do i love LA? this is hard to explain in a few words.

i find that when people go to europe, the things that they love most about it generally aren’t the things they went to see. those things help, for sure — the eiffel tower and the colisseum certainly make paris and rome awe-inspiring — but the things that make people really fall in love with europe are the things the guidebooks don’t tell you about. the hole-in-the-wall cafe with the killer pasta and sporadic karaoke. the little alleys and courtyards filled with sunlight. the perfect cappuccino at the cafe off the beaten path.

so it is with LA. everyone will tell you about the weather and the beach, but the things that make LA truly fantastic are the things that don’t get nearly as much airtime. cases in point:

– the los angeles flower market. it’s the largest flower market in the country and second-largest in the world, trailing only the one in amsterdam. three giant warehouses with booth after booth of the freshest, most beautiful flowers you’ve ever seen, in every color imaginable — at a fraction of the cost of what you’d find in stores. (for example: the orchids on clearance for $7 that are nicer than any i’ve ever seen outside those walls.) the market opens at midnight on mondays, wednesdays, and fridays, and serve only retailers until 6am, when they open to the public. from then until noon, the place is bustling with people buying flowers for weddings, bar mitzvahs, graduations. it’s an extraordinary experience, and one you can have only here.

– on any given night — weekend, weekday, no matter — you can find at least 10 decently-known bands playing at one of the city’s many music venues. every band or exhibit, no matter how big or obscure, will make a stop here, if not several. and it goes beyond that: the dodos played at the getty museum two weekends ago. bon iver is playing a 6am show at the hollywood bowl. the cultural experiences here are one-of-a-kind, and the boundaries between different mediums are always being pushed and crossed in interesting ways.

– the tapestries behind the altar in the cathedral of our lady of the angels, the mother church of the dioscese of LA, depict a street map of the city. inscribed are the words, “see, God’s dwelling is among mortals. God will dwell with them. they will be God’s people and God will be with them.”

– the variety of ethnic food. within a 30-minute drive, you can find any cuisine under the sun and find it cheap and delicious. chinatown, k-town, thai town, filipinotown, little tokyo, little india, little armenia — the list goes on and on. the importance of this cannot be overlooked, both because eating is very important to me, and because it points to the bigger issue of…

– diversity.

in the US, we talk a lot about being multicultural and diverse, about different cultures brushing up against each other every day and rubbing off on each other — but the reality of the matter is that most of the country isn’t like that. the number of places where that’s actually true are fairly few, and of those, none provides quite the mix that LA does. you see it in the kogi truck, but more than anything else, you see it in the people. no where else have i seen interracial friendships, relationships, and babies as taken for granted as they are in LA. no one thinks twice about it. i am almost never the only the minority in the room, which is not something i can say in most other places. i’ve never been anywhere where people of all races know how to order eel and boba. diversity is generally a given here. when people talk about the multiculturalism of the US, what they’re generally describing is LA.

which leads to something even more significant: no matter what your ethnicity, lifestyle, or taste, you can find a likeminded community here. if you’re asian, black, gay, orthodox, outdoorsy, coffee-loving, fire-juggling — or all of the above — you can be that with all of your heart and find a community of people who will support you.

it’s that last point, i think, that best captures what i love about LA. the city holds so much diversity; it contains so many different people doing different things, and allows them all to do so wholeheartedly. and that has allowed me to explore all of the diversity within myself — all of the different facets of me, with all of the complications and seeming contradictions — and hold it all together. just as it holds so many disparate pieces, LA has given me the space to embrace all of these different parts of me, and it is here that i have become the most fully myself.

and that is why i love los angeles. the weather and the beach are nice, certainly; but more than anything else, i love that this city allows people to fully be who they are.

LA: the love-hate relationship, side 1

in eat, pray, love, there’s a part in the italy section (the best section of the three, no question) where elizabeth gilbert talks about every city having a word:

“every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there. if you could read people’s thoughts as they were passing you on the streets of any given place, you would discover that most of them are thinking of the same thought. whatever the majority thought might be — that is the word of the city. and if your personal word does not match the word of the city, then you don’t really belong there.” (p. 103)

and then she and her italian friend discuss the words of various cities. LA’s word, she says, is SUCCEED — similar to yet vastly different from new york’s word, ACHIEVE — a distinction with which i agree.

i disagree, however, on her choice of word. LA’s word, i think, is ENTITLEMENT.

this thought struck me one day as i was backing out of a parking spot at ucla. as i inched out of my spot, i glanced up at my rearview mirror to find a middle-aged, slightly paunchy man in a polo shirt walking right behind my car. he stared directly ahead, offering no acknowledgement of me or the fact that my car was mere inches away from him, and getting closer.

only in los angeles.

in most places, people see you backing out and stop. in the midwest, they’ll give you 20 feet and sweep their arms in front of their children. but here, this completely average man — not a young punk trying to give me or the world the finger — felt that he had the right to walk where he wanted to walk, regardless of the activity around him. the burden of changing course was everyone’s but his. the sense of entitlement conveyed by this simple action astounded me.

you see this kind of attitude all over the city. it’s on the highways, where drivers feel entitled to go as fast as they can, and where a turn signal for a lane change will only provoke them to accelerate so as to prevent your entry. it’s in the industry, where people seek to be discovered (note the passivity of the verb) and receive the fame and fortune they deserve. it extends to the valley and orange county, where people live in ignorant, materialistic bliss, because they are entitled to comfort and luxury, just as they are to perfect weather all year round.

LA’s word is not my word. part of it is the detroit in me — detroit, the gum on the bottom of america’s shoe, with its blue-collar, working-class values and its “swallow-hard-and-deal-with-it” attitude. detroit doesn’t expect anyone to hand it anything; look how washington threw money at the banks without penalty or question but made the auto industry provide an account of every cent it would receive. part of it is the asian in me, with its premium on taking care of yourself and not imposing on anyone else. part of it is the immigrant parents who raised me, who knew nothing would be handed to them in the states, that they were going to have to work for every cent, and who instilled similar values in their children.

there’s a lot about LA that irritates — the smog, the traffic, and on and on — but the thing that grates on me the most is the entitlement.