Santa Cruz State of Mind

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.

Panoramic of the Santa Cruz Diner.

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.

Lazy Week in Pictures, April 2 – 9

This was my laziest week ever. I did NOTHING productive. I “studied” Chinese with my friend/language partner, and by “studied” I mean socialized (which is still practice). Instead of reading or writing in the morning, I laid on my bed and listened to music until it was time to move. I swam maybe once. And I hung out with friends in the evenings a LOT. In short, I just felt lazy. Being lazy felt kind of good. Here are some things I did to pass my lazy spell…

Spring arrived early, and the trees are beginning to bloom, so I took long walks every day. I still have basically only seen Shinan! At some point, I really need to see the rest of Qingdao. I’m trying not to rush. I want to spread out my exploration for the whole year, so that my year here never feels old or routine.

A few days ago, the heat got turned off all over China. Right on cue, it got cold again. And rainy. What is one to do on a rainy, lazy day? Back home, I’d probably go to the movies. So that’s what I did here in Qingdao.

Am I one of the last people in China to see “Wandering Earth,” the top box office science fiction film that no one can stop raving about? Two friends and I had the entire theater to ourselves…which is probably good, because we could not stop laughing at all the parts where I guess you’re supposed to cry? I’m sorry, I know this was supposed to be China’s Hollywood moment, but really, it’s a comically bad, CGI-on-steroids hot mess. Sorry! Probably every Chinese person who reads this blog is going to hate me now….

And this was the ladies’ restroom in the movie theater. I can only imagine what the men’s room looks like….

Little LPG is right not far from where I live, so I’ve been stopping in here to socialize after work. One of the things I like about expat life is that it’s so easy to strike up a conversation with anyone. I don’t come here much as a rule, but it’s nice to have the freedom to just walk in somewhere and start talking to people. After a few times, you’re bound to run into someone you know, which is a comfortable feeling.

Another thing I do when I’m feeling lazy and aimless is wander around bookstores. At Book City, I found these cute Qingdao-themed journals….and bought them all, of course.

Xi Jinping’s books were not exactly flying off the shelves….

Speaking of books, I found this “library” at the Tongan Lu subway station. There is definitely a reading culture here in Qingdao, which is cool. It reminds me of the book boxes in the Bay Area–little mail boxes filled with books, which you could select for free and replenish.

And because I’ve been so lazy, I haven’t been cooking much. Luckily, across the street from me is a little canteen with standard Chinese fare for breakfast: veggies, soy milk, and baozi. To me, this is comfort food. Maybe excessive laziness is a symptom of needing some kind of comfort.

The Quieter Side of Downtown Qingdao

Shinan, the downtown area of Qingdao, is not exactly like NYC’s East Village or Valencia Street in San Francisco–meaning, it is not a manicured playground for hipsters. It’s more like a gritty mess of crumbling sidewalks, crunching together food stalls, restaurants, expat bars, bookstores, Korean coffee shops, massage parlors, fruit and vegetable shops, barbeque vendors, and saunas. Hidden behind the mammoth Mykal shopping mall and its bustling Starbucks, just beyond Xianggang Zhong Road, life slows down and shrugs off its Western facade, and a world of plain and simple China unfolds: people stopping produce shopping after work, a motorbike rides by broadcasting its tinny cries of “fresh milk for sale,” and older people picking up their grandkids from school and treating them to a street snack of milk tea or corn.

A man and a boy stopping for an after-school/pre-dinner snack.
This is what a typical apartment building looks like.
LPG is one of the expat bars on a Jiangxi Lu, otherwise known as “Bar Street.”
Gutian Lu might as well be nicknamed “Japanese/Korean Restaurant Street.” This is called the Cherry Lounge.
A “waimai” (delivery) biker dashes by in this wide alley. Beware of the waimai dudes! They stop for no one!
Merry Christmas!!! In April. Enjoy a Christmas dinner of Chongqing noodles and handmade dumplings.

Home Sick and Homesick

Or, A Study in Nostalgia from My Sickbed.

(Suggested song for reading this entry: “I Spent the Day in Bed” by Morrissey)

I am home sick with the flu. Something peculiar happens when one is alone and bed-bound: one starts thinking too much. And then real homesickness sets in.

Here is the non-sugarcoated truth about living abroad: homesickness is a real thing. And it’s a good thing. It means you had meaningful relationships with family and friends back home. That’s got to be indicative of a healthy psyche to some extent.

But it also might mean that something in your current life/location is lacking. Now, this is only my second month in Qingdao. I’ve met some really good people: nice people, caring people, people with unusual stories. That’s just one way in which I happen to be extremely lucky. Wherever I go, I tend to meet people who are genuine, unique, and kind. For this, I’m very grateful.

I can’t lie, though. The expat life? I think I’ve outgrown it. 

Qingdao at 30 years old isn’t anything like Dalian at 22. When I arrived in Dalian back in 2010, I had just graduated and was hungry to see the world. I was like a toddler: looking and mimicking, listening and repeating, trying to absorb the supposed wisdom from every person I met. I kept a notebook to write down new Chinese words that I heard. I read that notebook every day and awkwardly inserted those words into my daily interactions with Chinese people. I sucked at Chinese then, but I got better. Fast. I was a shagua (“stupid melon”) but I didn’t care. 

I was also young and eager to meet people, talk to people, stay out till all hours of the night with people. Once I met a stranger at a night club, a fellow expat. We left the club to talk. We wandered the streets of Dalian all night, holding hands and talking. Together we watched the sun come up. The funny thing is, I can’t remember what we talked about. Probably we talked about home and China, and the dissonance between the two. 

And there were the summer nights of sitting on plastic stools, hunched over a table of shaokao and beer, when somehow we all started singing songs by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

These are experiences that I’ve only been able to have abroad. Back home, the 9-5 mentality wraps people into smaller units; time gets compartmented and distributed for this or for that only. Life on the fringes of society is different. People get looser. They take themselves less seriously.

“Maybe she’s too laid back” is what I taught my students just last week, pointing to a picture of a girl living in squalor: her feet propped on the coffee table next to unpaid bills, empty beer bottles and a bag of chips on the floor. Too laid back, they all repeated; I could see their faces light up with recognition, and some wrote down the phrase, while others repeated it a few more times under their breath.

Too laid back is an apt phrase to describe what I now see as expat life. Over and over I keep meeting people who say things like “I teach kids because it’s easy and I don’t want to work” and “I got tired of being broke back home so I came here.” I swear, they’re like those children’s toys that talk when you pull their strings. You could pull the strings on any one of these people and they’ll say the same three or four things again and again.

At 22 in Dalian, I thought: These people are different—lost, but interesting. Maybe I can learn from them. Now at 30, I think: These people have nothing to offer me.

I am different now. My time is not as wide open as it was when I was in Dalian. Time not working is spent reading, writing, studying—working towards the fulfillment of my goals. It is no longer enough for me to sit back and enjoy life: now, to really relish life, I need to be active in it, I need to try things, learn things, create things. Achieve things.

And I am not as easily impressed as I was then. What was new and different then is now same old, same old. I know how this story is going to end, so why bother finishing the book when I can just move on to a different one.

Which makes me wonder: should I just pack my bags and go home?

Which leads to another question: where is home?

Is it Brooklyn? Is it Manhattan? San Francisco? Oakland? Berkeley? Santa Cruz? Dalian?

I am alternately nostalgic for each one of these places. My nostalgia is like an old diner jukebox: put in a coin, flip the records, and choose a song.

In 2017, back when I lived in the Bay Area and was on the cusp of my first major life change, I thought of nothing but this mythical place of my childhood: Coney Island.

This old guy with his butt crack showing is the real deal Coney.

But when I went back to my old neighborhood of Brooklyn, I felt estranged. It was just as I remembered. Nothing had changed. I hadn’t changed, either. I had never belonged there.

I often think about Manhattan. At heart, I am more of a Manhattanite than a Brooklynite. But after six years in California, I feel a little out of step there.

Snowy winter day in Manhattan. View from my window.

For the summer of 2018, I lived in a shack in Berkeley, managing someone’s Airbnb. And I missed my beloved Lake Merritt:

Lake Merritt on a cloudy, blue evening.

I missed being near water. I missed the cool sea air of Jack London Square.

Typical foggy day on the ferry from Jack London Square in Oakland to the Ferry Building in SF.

And then when I went back to Oakland, I longed to board the Richmond train and take it back to Berkeley, to sit in cafes among fellow bookworms.

Among the many excellent cafes in Berkeley, my favorite remains Berkeley Espresso for their book and newspaper-reading clientele, constant flow of classical music, and palatable coffee .

I’d never liked San Francisco very much, but as I was leading a tour of Korean journalists in November, views like this stunned me:

View of San Francisco from Coit Tower: the financial district, North Beach, and the Bay Bridge

And I realized how much I loved San Francisco.

But before 2017, I yearned for Dalian and my expat life. Dalian had been a second home to me. It was the hometown of my ex, with whom I’ve had the longest and most meaningful relationship so far.

You Hao Square in the Zhongshan district of Dalian, 2010

It is no longer a home.

How is it possible that a place that was once home can no longer be a home? Isn’t that the point of home? A stable place, an unchanging base that you can always return to?

Maybe in life we cycle through false homes until we find the one that feels right. Or until we get tired of looking and just settle for what’s in front of us.

Or maybe when it comes to choosing a home, like a career or a partner, there is no perfect choice: it’s just another decision that one has to make and stick to, and build up from there.

The alternative? Permanent expatriatism. And as any expat knows, permanence is a kind of prison.

The Week in Pictures: March 16 – 22

Welcome to another edition of the Week in Pictures. This was a busy week indeed: aside from working so so much, I managed to get out of my apartment and imbibe Qingdao’s beauty.

You think I’d be sick of pizza after three months in NYC, but no. This is hands down the best pizza I’ve had in China: from Life Bar on Yan Er Dao Zhi Lu. I shared this with a friend at Life Bar’s wine tasting event last week, which featured several wines from South Africa, France, and Austria, followed by a round of energetic salsa dancing. Work was a little painful the next day…

After all that wining and dancing, I needed some time to be alone with the sea, so I went to what is quickly becoming my favorite place to walk in Qingdao: the docks south of Xianggang Zhong Lu.

Even on such a windy day, it was so tempting to go for a swim…

Does anyone in Qingdao read? I yet to see anyone on the subway with a book open. Most people seem way too addicted to their phones. Surprisingly, there are quite a few bookstores in Qingdao. This one, called Deep Reader, opposite to the Aeon/Josco and across from Book City, features mainly Western literature in translation. But not surprisingly, it was completely empty. How do these stores stay in business?

For lunch one day, I met a friend at Qingdao University, where she studies Chinese. It brought back all kinds of feelings of nostalgia for when I was a student at the Beijing Language and Culture University back in the summer of 07. For a long time, I’d entertained thoughts of returning to China on a Chinese Government Scholarship–and walking QU’s campus renewed those dreams.

So after lunch, I headed to the on-campus cafe, Lisa’s, to pretend to be a student and get in some studying. It was quiet and spacious–good for studying–but there’s no nice way to say this: the coffee was terrible.

The Week in Pictures: March 8 – March 15, 2019

Welcome to The Week in Pictures. This is me trying to be a less sucky photographer with my iPhone. It’s also what I do when I don’t have time to write a proper entry…which, sadly, has been the case these days, due to work, studying Chinese, and writing a novel. I’m mad busy! Oh well, here we go!

Xi Jinping greets me every morning at my desk. Who made this the wallpaper??? I don’t know, but I’m keeping it here as a reminder to be on my best behavior and not get kicked out of the country again. (Yes, that really happened. Long story.)

At work, I had to give all the students–even the male ones–this card in observation of International Women’s Day. “You are the irreplaceable goddess.” Hell yeah. That’s like the first thing I say to myself every morning….

And for International Women’s Day, a friend dropped by my office and gave me a coffee. This new friend saw right through me: she knew that the key to my heart is a cup of coffee. How come no man has figured that out??

Speaking of coffee, I finally had it with the Nestle Instant Garbage and got myself the real thing. Mission Coffee, located behind the Aeon/Joscow at Yan’er Dao Lu, sells fresh coffee beans–which they grind themselves right there and then at the moment of purchase!

About two blocks from where I live is a hidden “food street,” crammed with tiny, no-frills restaurants so packed that you’ll be lucky to grab a free stool to sit on during the noon lunch rush. A couple friends and I got together at one of these joints for some tender, crispy Beijing duck.

Spring has sprung prematurely in Qingdao…but I’m not complaining. Now that Qingdao has finally shed its frigid temperatures and apocalyptic smog, I luxuriate in the mild weather and blue skies by taking long walks. This marina near my house filled me with a longing for Jack London Square in Oakland, California, where I had been living for the past six years.

It’s curious how I always end up living near water: New York, Dalian, San Francisco, and now Qingdao. Water puts me in a meditative state of mind; it both soothes and troubles me. In its repetition and endlessness and beauty, I see unlimited options–and then the gradual disappearance of those options when they become decisions. And then, the emergence of new options with every decision in life.

Now I Live in Qingdao

Has it really only been one month since I arrived in Qingdao?

I arrived during Chinese New Year, which was probably not the best timing. All the shops were closed, except for a few restaurants, like Burger King (I managed to avoid eating there, though).  Even the most massive streets of Qingdao stood still and silent, like Christmas morning in New York City. 

I have to admit, it was the most depressing Chinese New Year of my life. For the past few years, my Chinese New Years were filled with friends and dumplings. This year I spent it alone, sans dumplings. I watched the Chinese New Year Gala on TV by myself. Yep, it was just me, a bottle of surprisingly really good and affordable Bordeaux wine, and the unceasing fireworks outside. 

To my credit, by the time Chinese New Year came around, I had gotten my sh*t together. Apartment? Check. (Never mind that it’s furnished with literally the UGLIEST sofa in the world….) Internet? Check. Groceries, cooking ware, visa docs . . . check, check, check. All I need now is a bank account, a gym membership, a Chinese class, and a paycheck. 😀

For the first time in . . . I don’t know how long . . . I am really, truly alone. OK, not exactly: I’ve made several friends, and I’m sure more are in the cards. Make no mistake: this is NOT a complaint. It’s a lovely feeling to come home and be by myself all evening.

And this is one of the reasons why I moved to China: to live alone. If I had stayed in New York or San Francisco (where I’d been living for the past 6 years), would I have been able to afford to live alone? As a teacher? Unlikely AF. I’d be roommating it up like every other millennial. Having a roommate can be fun (I loved my roommates when I lived in Dalian), but this year, I needed some space. 

Not only can I afford an apartment all to myself, but I also live in the freakin’ city center (Shinan), where all the action is! OK, to be fair, there isn’t a whole lot of action in Qingdao, actually . . . but I’m steps away from awesome food, a bookstore, a Starbucks (very very VERY important to me), bakeries, and about ten different expat bars. Throw in an art gallery or two and I’d never leave. 

First month: done. Whew. Now it’s time to explore.

5 NYC Foods I Will Miss the Most

“My pants are tight,” I said to Faye, my good friend since childhood and fellow native New Yorker.

She rolled her eyes. “It’s because you’re in New York,” she said, and then described how she experienced the same my-pants-are-tight phenomenon when she moved back here from Russia. “Basically, it’s impossible not to gain weight in this city. The food is just so good!”

And it’s everywhere. 

One could travel the world through the culinary arts here in New York:

A Yemen restaurant in Brooklyn where there are neither English menus nor eating utensils (your hands will do).

Dipping ramen warmed with obsidian-colored hot stones.

Chicken and waffles in their birthplace of Harlem at the dinner-breakfast threshold of the early A.M. 

Kimchi pancakes and Sapporo at the magic post/pre-karaoke hour of midnight.

Crispy potato pancakes and potted meat pierogies in the old Ukranian pockets of the Lower East Side.

But these are my top five:

1. Pumpernickel bagel with lox spread and a large coffee.

Simple, filling, and a little more affordable than straight up lox. This was my go-to breakfast on mornings when I’d work in my aunt’s office. I came in so often that the cashiers at the bagel shop told me I can skip the line. Finally, I’m a VIP somewhere!! 🙂 Just in time to leave the country. 🙁

2. Pizza 

I lost count of the number of times I had pizza this time. I had plain, pepperoni, white, and The Grandma, which is a square pizza that is layered thusly: cheese, sauce, fresh basil. Mostly I went to my aunts’ neighborhood pizza place, Arturo’s—their pies truly are superior to almost anything else I’ve had elsewhere. Their crust achieves the perfect chewy-to-crispy ratio, they don’t use the cheapest mozzarella ever (some pizzerias use mozzarella that has a gross artificial rubbery look to them), and the grease pools elegantly onto the paper plate. Damn, son.

3. Shake Shack

The Shack Burger, fries, and a black & white shake. A day and a half worth of calories.

Only made it here once (and once is enough), but Shake Shack is where I go for my fast food fix. Admittedly, I never needed a fast food fix until Shake Shack came on the scene. Founded by Michelen star restauranteur Danny Meyer, Shake Shack is easy on the wallet but satisfying in the belly. Because it’s so crowded, it’s typical to share a table with someone — and that’s how I discovered that Shake Shack is a bit of an international travel hub, as I often end up dining with other teachers of English abroad.

4. Diners

Odessa diner on Avenue A in the East Village–my go-to spot since high school.

Diners are where I go to remember where I came from—a far more cosmic purpose than simply to eat. I derive a great deal of comfort from the knowledge that I will never see the bottom of a coffee cup, not with servers rushing around, pot in hand; the endless chain of refills create the illusion that time flows uninterrupted, that my childhood is not so remote. I am probably the only weirdo who waxes philosophical about diners. Except for Faye here: 

Faye and I wax philosophical in diners over coffee.

Needless to say, I don’t go to diners for the food–although I do like it.

5. Good Italian

…oops, I tore it up and forgot to take a picture!

On the eve of every big adventure in my life, my aunts and I dine at a local Italian spot called Arturo’s, a favorite of ours for about thirty years…so, my whole life, basically. My Qingdao trip was no exception. Good Italian is not a thing in China, so I made sure to have my fill, as you can see from the photo. (I had veal stuffed with prosciutto and mozzarella, topped with a marsala wine sauce.)

Bonus food….my aunt’s cooking

My aunt cooked me all of my favorite meals. Boeuf bourguignon. Asparagus pesto pasta. Eggplant parmigiana. Meatloaf. Steak. Omelettes with popovers and prosecco. “Are you sure you want to go to China?” my aunt asked. “I cook whatever you want and you don’t even pay rent. You have a pretty good deal here.”

Don’t worry, I always come back for another round!!

The Third Bedroom

Although I have no brothers or sisters, I have never had the privilege of my own room. Ish. Growing up, my “room” was a wall-less corner that connected to the living room and the kitchen. Technically, my parents raised me in a one-bedroom apartment. 

To get privacy as a kid, I used to do things like make a tent out of chairs and a blanket. Sometimes I tried converting the bathtub into a bed by curling up in it with my sleeping bag and some stuffed animals.

When I turned eleven, my dad built a bunch of book shelves that stretched from my little corner into the living room. It wasn’t exactly a wall, but it was a barrier of sorts.

I liked my room anyway. As a teenager, I started decorating it with posters of my favorite bands, artsy-looking postcards, and bumper stickers that said weird things like “The truth is out there…somewhere.” Two reading lamps hung over my bed, my shelves were lined with books and CDs, and my boombox was always playing whatever was considered alternative in the day (any New Yorkers out there remember 92.3 K-Rock? RIP :(). 

Then some unpleasant family stuff went down, and at 16 I moved in with my two aunts in Manhattan. It was an upgrade in my life in every aspect, except for one: now, I had no room of my own. I slept on a blow up bed in one aunt’s bedroom and stored my stuff in the other aunt’s bedroom. It was the best we could do, and it was no small sacrifice on my aunts’ part. Still, we were and still are a family, so we made it work. Every time I return to New York, I stay with my aunts.

In senior year of college, I had my own real room for the first time in my life. And man, I lived it UP. It constantly smelled of coconut coffee, which I would make at all hours of the day and night (oh the days of pulling all-nighters on the regular to work on my thesis….never mind, I don’t miss that part!!). I did whatever I wanted. I talked to myself A LOT and laughed at my dumb jokes. I was my own BFF. And when I was lonely, my dear Roomie (we were roommates in sophomore year), who lived just above me, would come down for a study break/impromptu Britney Spears dance party.

My next room-of-my-own was in Dalian, China. I shared a three-bedroom apartment with two awesome people. I loved my room like it was a person. I had a queen bed, a beautiful mahogany desk, and a wardrobe. But best of all, I had pink overhead lights. The color of a Chinese brothel. Who knows, maybe that unit had been a brothel before we’d moved in. Actually, the entire apartment must have been designed with partiers in mind, because there were blinking lights lining a mirror in the dining room, and the overhead lights bathed the living room in a deep, sensual orange. 

That was back in 2012. Since then, sadly, I have been room-less. I moved to California with my ex, where we struggled pay rent in a basement bedroom-converted-studio in Alameda. There was no sink; we had to wash dishes in the shower. Four months into our lease, however, the fleas arrived off the backs of—this is gross—rats inside the walls. Within days, we fled to Oakland, where we rented a playroom-converted-studio. No fleas, plus it had a proper sink, so it was as step up for sure. But it was so small. Move-the-bed-in-order-to-open-the-refrigerator kind of small. Whenever we cooked, we had to do it as a team: one person manning the wok, the other desperately fanning the smoke detector. 

Now its the dawn of 2019, and as I await to board my flight to Qingdao in a few days, I have downgraded to sleeping on my aunts’ sofa once again. Luckily, for a Manhattan apartment, it’s pretty spacious—but at the end of the day, it’s still three people sharing a two-bedroom unit. And although it’s not a huge deal—it’s great to spend time with my aunts before I move abroad, plus they feed me really well—I dream about having a space of my own in Qingdao.

I also literally dream about a third bedroom in my aunts’ apartment. That would be the perfect arrangement. Jokingly, I told that to my aunts. They came up with a solution that is pretty close: why not hang out in my aunt’s office when she’s not at work?

Hmm. Why not indeed. One of my aunts runs her own therapy practice with an office nearby. But the office is actually a studio apartment, complete with an efficiency kitchen and a fireplace. And a GARDEN. In MANHATTAN. Un. Heard. Of. 

I looove the interior brick wall.
A real fireplace….now a home for plants.

So that is now where I hang out (at least, it is when my aunt is not at work). 

I work on my yoga mat.

It’s kind of a great studio, actually. I liberally enjoy fantasies of living in this space, or any kind of roommate-less space close to four different trains, decent restaurants, coffee 24/7, nightlife, etc., etc. And did I mention there’s a garden??? 

A garden! There’s the proof.

However…it’s not perfect—no apartment is. Noise is an inescapable thing. But it’s tolerable—in fact, I kind of enjoy it. I get a kind of semi-voyeuristic thrill from hearing the signs of life around me. Or maybe it just makes me feel less lonely. Mostly, it’s muffled voices from next door (luckily I can’t make out what they say). One morning, it was waking up to a lovers’ quarrel in the lobby, with a woman shouting: “Everything’s always about you, isn’t it! It’s just you, you, YOU!!!”

Despite the noise, I began spending a few hours in my aunt’s office almost every day. My aunts and I joke that it’s our third bedroom. I guess when I go over there, it’s all about me, me, ME. And for even just an hour or two each day to write or work on this blog, what a luxury it is indeed.

What Happens When a New Yorker Leaves California

…and returns to New York.

What happens is that said New Yorker forgets how to be a New Yorker.

This “said New Yorker,” by the way, is yours truly.

I came back on Thanksgiving Day. Two months later, I have yet to shed my California skin. The truth is, I just have no idea how to function in this city anymore. Here’s the proof:

Exhibit A: Rush hour ding dong

For the first time in maybe a decade, I found myself on the train during rush hour. I was standing near the doors. Some people needed to get off. Did I get off the train to make way for them, as one should? No. I just stood there like a ding dong. A woman trying to get off yelled at me: “Jesus Christ, MOVE!” If I were her, I would yell at me too. I HAVE yelled at people like me!! And now I’m one of them!! Oh, the shame.

Exhibit B: Crossing the street

Is jaywalking an art? A skill? Never in my life have I even thought about it—until now. What used to be a instinct is now a drawn-out debate in my head at every freaking crosswalk: Should I cross? Hmm, I don’t have the light, but neither do the cars. If I cross, will the light suddenly turn green? Will a car hit me? Is the preservation of my identity as a New Yorker worth the risk of getting hit by a car? Oh, everyone else is crossing—I guess I’ll follow them. 

Exhibit C: Compost no more

The first time I dumped food waste in the trash, it hurt my soul. In the Bay Area, we compost—and whenever I composted, I felt like I was doing something good for the environment, and in a subtle way that boosted my happiness/sense of connectedness to the world/warm fuzzy feelings. Now, I’m just another earth murderer.

Exhibit D: More earth murdering

Speaking of environmentalism, the Bay Area observes a ban on plastic bags, so when I went grocery shopping, I always carried cloth or canvas bags—as is the norm. (The alternative is to purchase a paper bag for ten cents.) I do that here, too. But here, even if I have my bag out and ready to pack, the cashier will ALWAYS beat me to it with plastic bags. They are just. So. Fast. Come on, New York, if you’re so progressive, why do you still use plastic bags??

Exhibit F: Who has time sit around all day drinking coffee?

Desperate to write (draft 2 of my novelette), I sought the shelter of a bohemian/artsy/intellectual cafe a la those of Berkeley or the Mission District of San Francisco, where people linger over manuscripts, screenplays, homework, the newspaper, or chess games, or meet with friends to discuss art, politics, and their disappointing love lives. Little did I know, few such spaces exist in Manhattan. Cafes in Manhattan, it seems, are designed to get people in and out the door as quickly as possible: they’re fast, noisy, splashed with cold colors, and furnished with minimalist (read: uncomfortable) seating. I ended up at Starbucks. The music was so loud, I only lasted an hour.

Exhibit G: What do you expect?

Also…oh my god, it’s freezing. On the street, I overhear the same conversation about the weather again and again:

Person A: It’s really cold today, isn’t it!

Person B: It’s January, what do you expect? What do you think this is—California?

(For the record, Person A is not me.)

So yeah, I’m going through a bit of an identity crisis at the moment. But I guess there have been a couple of instances that have proven that I’ve still “got it”:

  • I still walk fast. I keep up with the other fast walkers, which is almost everybody else. Elegantly, stridently, I weave between the slow pokes who are text-walking, but without rudely cutting them off—as subtle as a stream. How liberating, indeed. Gone are the days of stop-and-go walking among the herds of slow San Franciscans. For some reason, people in San Francisco walk in large groups at a leisurely pace, as though they don’t have a job to get to. Never understood that. (Note to self: stop being late to everything so that I won’t need to power walk/run everywhere.)
  • The other day I passed by Times Square, and…yep, I still hate it.

…Well, that was a short list. 

Sadly, I won’t be here long enough to get back to my roots, because I’m moving to China. And when people there ask where I’m from, I think I’ll say California.