Flying into San Francisco Airport last month was a surreal experience. I’d landed at SFO dozens of times, from cities as far afield as Barcelona or Guatemala City, and every time the plane’s wheels hit the tarmac, I knew I was home. This was the first time that I didn’t feel that way, because I was just visiting.
I’d spent the past two months in my new home in Jackson, Mississippi, and I was flying back to visit for two weeks and then drive my car cross-country. As the plane flew north over the San Francisco Bay, I felt my throat get tight. I had lived in the Bay Area for all of my 28 years, and I suddenly realized that it wasn’t home anymore. I looked around the plane, at the passengers excitedly craning their necks to see the landscape, and I wanted to tell them, “I’m not one of you. I’m not just a tourist. I grew up here.”
We landed, and I felt dazed as I walked to the baggage claim. People swarmed past me through the giant airport, moving and talking more quickly than they did in the South. Within five minutes, I heard more international accents than I ever had in Jackson. A fair-skinned Eastern European couple passed me with two children in tow, speaking what may have been Hungarian or Czech. A portly Middle Eastern man talked in Arabic on his cell phone as he waited for his suitcase, and a multi-generational Asian family jabbered next to him. In Jackson, I’d grown accustomed to seeing either black or white folks, always speaking English.
Things that I used to take for granted as part of my everyday landscape in the Bay Area began to stand out to me. Homeless people. Hipsters and fashionistas. Young people in Cal Berkeley and Stanford shirts. Spanish speakers everywhere I went. Though these surroundings were familiar, they felt foreign, even after just two months in Mississippi.
My parents and my sister, who was also in town, drove me an hour north to my childhood home in Sonoma. There I ate my mom’s cooking and jogged through the quiet country roads. I felt at home, like I always do with my family. Later that week, however, when I drove hours for back-to-back meetups with friends, I didn’t feel at home anymore. As a lifelong resident of California, I’d never had to live out of a suitcase or crash on couches for days. My brain felt confused. Was I home, or not?
I was curious to see how I’d feel when I got back to Jackson. Darren flew into SFO a couple of weeks after I did, and days later we packed my Jetta chock-full of my possessions and headed out on the road to Jackson. Driving cross-country felt like a ritual, a gradual and conscious transition to my new city. I was newly aware of what I was leaving behind in the Bay Area — rolling hills and vineyards, top-notch radio stations, and world-class restaurants. But I also knew what I was driving toward: a more relaxed pace of life, and a close-knit community where I’d already found my niche.
After six days of driving, Darren and I crossed the Mississippi state line and drove east toward Jackson. I felt a sense of contentment as I pulled my car into our neighborhood that night. I was happy to be home. We barely had time to drop our bags at the apartment before leaving again for a dinner with friends. They greeted us with hugs and smiles, saying that they were glad to have us back. I was glad, too, and relieved because I finally felt sure that Jackson is where I’m supposed to be.
Bringing my car here sealed the deal: I’ve begun making my residence in Jackson official. I’m registering to vote, getting a Mississippi driver’s license and plates for my car, and getting involved in activities here. All signs point to Jackson being my home.
However, the Bay Area is also home, and in a sense it always will be. I’ll have to learn to relate to it in a different way than I’m used to, as a visitor and not a resident, but it’s still a core part of me. When I leave California, I carry pieces of it wherever I go: my mannerisms, for example, or my liberal views. As Maya Angelou writes, “You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it’s all right.”
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What’s been your experience returning to the place you grew up after time away?