Some days, I wake up so sure of what I want in life. And then someone comes along and gives voice to those nagging insecurities at the back of my head:
Why am I working at the same kind of job I had seven years ago?
Should I move back to California?
What should my next career be?
My ex called to tell me that he wants to move back to China later this year. He asked if I still wanted the apartment. It is dirt cheap. It’s also infested with silverfish and lacks any sort of soundproofing. Still. Affordable housing in the Bay Area is a coveted rarity. Should I go back and snatch it up?
“But I like my life here,” I said. “I like my job. I like my friends. I like speaking Chinese every day. I like being an expat. And I want to travel more before I go back.”
All true. But I miss California.
I guess I have a hard time letting go. Of people. Of decisions. And places.
Working at this training school here in Qingdao has made me realize three things: I am an educator at heart; I’m good at teaching; I love teaching. But in the U.S., it just doesn’t make money, and I want to make money. So I should move on to something else, perhaps in some industry where I can use my Chinese skills. I want to move on to something else, actually. I want the challenge. But I have yet to make plans.
It’s hard to let go of China. I’ve been coming here on and off since 2007. This is my comfort zone. It doesn’t feel like I’m living in another country. I have no fear of walking around, shopping, doing errands. I don’t fear not being able to understand people or not being able to express myself. I feel at home.
And it’s hard to let go of the Bay Area. Funny, I always pined for New York when I was there, at least in the beginning. But six years is a long time. Last year was the first year that I really felt like I belonged in the Bay Area. I’m afraid to go back, actually. Every single place there is saturated with memories of an old life that I can never recover. Alameda. Jack London Square. Even the Bay Bridge at night. I needed a change.
In the old days, during long stretches of soul-tattering confusion, there was always one place I turned to for answers: Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz has always been a mirror to my psyche. Nothing stays buried for long there. I always came back a little changed.
So I’d pack my backpack with notebooks and ride my bike to BART, take BART down to Fremont, get on the bus to San Jose, and then transfer to the bus to Santa Cruz.
No matter the season, Santa Cruz was never really warm. Noon was comfortable; but by evening, a chill seeped in, unnoticeable at first.
People are strange. When you’re a stranger / faces look ugly / when you’re alone. This may as well be the anthem for Santa Cruz. For whatever reason, people in Santa Cruz just seem off to me. They approach me and then ignore me; attraction and repulsion in strange magnetic waves. Few cafe baristas smile as they prepare a nourishing, locally-sourced salad. People on the beach eye me as I walk by. Men hit on me in subtle ways that put me on edge. Students take up space in cafes, loudly discussing Noam Chomsky, imperialism, sustainability. Hooded guitarists sit cross-legged on benches on Pacific Avenue at night, drinking black coffee.
It is a very lonely place that I keep returning to. Everything slows down in Santa Cruz. A weirdness swirls there that is both compelling and fearful. I drift down Pacific Avenue to the beach, in step with the strange rhythm of this city. By the time I get to the beach, the sun has almost faded beyond the horizon, and a Smashing Pumpkins murmurs in my head: We only come out at night.
Almost every time I visit, the amusement park by the beach is closed. It always reminded me of the emptiness of Coney Island in the winter, the image of cold abandonment. My friend Faye and I used to hang out on the boardwalk in front of all the gated stores and unmoving rides. I do the same thing here until the sun sets.
Back in town, I merge with the student crowd at one of the many cafes. Santa Cruz is a city of cafe culture, and perhaps to accommodate the study habits of the students at the local university, most cafes are open late. I usually ended up at Caffe Pergolesi, a Victorian era house-turned-graffiti-walled-coffee shop that served tall glasses of coffee or beer, depending on your own body clock. People literally chilled on the patio, smoking and discussing art. Inside wasn’t much warmer, but the students didn’t seem to care. They sat huddled over laptops at the booths. Sadly, Caffe Pergolesi is no more.
In the evenings at the these coffee shops, I wrote. I wrote until the words that came out of me scared me. These words contained a truth that I didn’t want to be true. And when that happened, I packed my books and left. I saw a late-night movie about vampires. Or another time, an anime film about a girl who can’t stop thinking about fifth grade. I left before the movie ended. I didn’t want to think about fifth grade, the worst school year of my life—but of course, I did. It followed me out the theater and down the dark streets and probably into my dreams that night, where I lay in my hotel/motel/Airbnb studio, straining to listen for the ocean during patches of wakefulness.
Santa Cruz: a city of night and day. Daytime starts with fog, but mid-day is bursting with pure California sunshine. Women wear floral maxi dresses and sandals. Office workers eat lunch outside on a bench or at public tables. I, too, eat outside—something healthy at Cafe Delmarrete, or an Italian sub from Zoccoli’s (if I feel like waiting in line). If I don’t mind feeling stupid ordering dishes with names like “I Am Radiant,” I’ll go to Cafe Gratitude. Or sometimes I retreat to the local diner for comfort food.
People are quietly dedicated to their own lifestyles of environmentalism, veganism, anarchism. And some are just here for the surfing.
I’m there for the writing—an act of discovery. After lunch I walked, and after my walk, it was time for another long struggle with words. Another session of filling blank pages, the blank pages like unformed questions, the black ink digging for reasons. Sometimes writing is like cleaning an abscess. Extracting the vestiges of old things before it starts to rot.
To not be able to hop on BART and go back to Santa Cruz is a disconcerting feeling, like I’m missing something. And I simply did not have time to write today. I had to get ready for work soon.
In true Bay Area fashion, I took my feelings to my yoga mat. I stretched and breathed and gave myself a time out. I asked myself what I wanted. Go home and start over for the sake of cheap rent?
No. When I go back, it’ll be when I’m ready, on my schedule, not somebody else’s.