Coming Home

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.

Some of the victorious Jackson ladies at the Battle of the Sexes party.

Some of the victorious Jackson ladies at the Battle of the Sexes party.

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.”

San Francisco Snuggie pub crawl. Jackson, are you ready for this?

San Francisco Snuggie pub crawl. Jackson, are you ready for this?

Your Two Cents: Leave a Comment!

What’s been your experience returning to the place you grew up after time away?

Comments (12)

  1. Ide

    Josh and I were sort of discussing this topic over breakfast yesterday: Where will home be for us when we finally find one? I can’t quite remember when home became less about the place I live and more about the people in my life, but I think it happened around my senior year of college. New Orleans is probably the closest thing to a physical home I have at the moment, but it doesn’t really fit the bill anymore. It’s not my city right now, but neither is Chicago or, for that matter, my hometown of St. Louis.

    I think as we grow into adults, we come to realize that home is so much more than the house we live in or the city we move to. It’s the love that we share with others and the life that we build for ourselves, regardless of location.

  2. Sara Shea

    Melia, I still feel the same pangs when I go back to visit the Bay Area, and more specifically, Sonoma. It’s been nearly eleven years since I left California behind. I still feel totally “at home” at my parents’ house, but oddly, Sonoma and the surrounding environs are feeling more and more foreign to me. Give it some time, and you will start to notice that you forget things–that you won’t have time to see, literally just SEE, all of the things that you want to have your eyes remember (this doesn’t even include visiting friends). It’s weird that I’ve been in the Seattle area for over a decade, and it never truly felt like home. But now that I own a house in Auburn, WA (Petaluma-like town south of the city), I feel like I am home for the very first time. I used to dismiss Auburn as too suburban. Now I crave the quiet streets and my quirky 100-year-old house. I really love the Maya Angelou quote. It’s the perfect summation of my own experience.

  3. Stephen

    Nice post. 🙂

    Being that I’ve moved around the country 3 times in my life (twice i can remember, once on my very own), I haven’t had the entire-life-in-one-place-I-call-home experience, but I lived in San Diego and Seattle long enough for seeds to be planted and the feeling of “home” to stick in each place. The one thing that throws me off about going home to visit is seeing old places turned into something completely new and foreign, i.e. sprawling malls and highways where wooded areas used to be.

    I agree that home isn’t even a physical place. It’s a feeling, it’s the sense of familiarity, belonging, and security you get amongst friends and family. So it that sense, yes, it never leaves you. It travels with you wherever you go. Or better yet, when we frequent places that we cherish (in whatever city or town we’re in) and make friends, and build community, we are said to have found “a second home”.

  4. Sheridan

    Ahhhh, Melia it’s so comforting to know others are in the same boat! I always feel guilty, not feeling the same way as people who say, “Oh it’s nice here, but I want to settle back in X, where I grew up and where my family is, because nothing compares to home.” I like trying on new cities and seeing which ones fit. I love the family that surrounds me in those places, whether it’s great friends or relatives. San Diego is such a wonderful place for me, I can only hope the Navy keeps us here as long as possible and if not – I’ll try on a new city and hopefully someday return to San Diego.

  5. Melia

    Ide, I guess that’s why I feel such an affinity for New Orleans even though I’ve never lived there — because you all have such a strong community that I feel at home.

    Sara, congrats on the house! It must be strange to have spent such a long time away from the place you grew up. It’ll be even weirder once you’ve spent more time in WA than you had in CA. It is strange, isn’t it, that we sometimes end up feeling comfortable in places we never thought we could live. I feel the same way about Mississippi. It even makes me want to live a little farther out in the country.

    Stephen, I hear you about the jarring experience of seeing old places turned into something new. The City of Sonoma put in a new stop sign on a street near my house, and I’d have to screech to a halt every time I visited because I wasn’t used to it. The new developments in former cow pastures bother me, but at least a lot of land in Sonoma is covered by pretty vineyards.

    Sheridan, “trying on new cities and seeing which ones fit” is a perfect way to put it. There are things I’ve loved about each place I’ve lived — especially Sonoma, San Francisco, Barcelona, and Jackson — and each has suited me well during a different period of my life. It’s liberating to know that you can adapt to life in a lot of different places.

  6. Gilliebean

    I definitely relate to this post! I always feel at home when I go back to Sonoma, and I love when we have a week or two to settle back into our small-town routines and see all our friends in the Bay Area. But I have only lived in California for about a year and a half of the last eight years, so I am used to coming back to the Bay Area as a quasi-visitor. Maya Angelou is my girl– I completely agree that you never leave home behind. I will always be a Bay Area girl at heart; I just have a lot of New Orleans and a few other places mixed in now.

    Ide, I totally agree that your community makes a place home. That’s definitely a big reason behind wanting to move back to New Orleans. Spending the last year there while Brian was deployed was the best possible scenario– I was surrounded by our friends, my second family really, who supported me during some big ups and downs.

    I will be making a new home in Hawaii for the next year or two, and we may have yet another city or two ahead of us before we head back to New Orleans. I’m excited in one way since I love trying out new places, but I’m also eager to get back to the community I love in NOLA. And I expect to see you all there!

  7. Val Spangler

    Melia, I really enjoyed your “Coming Home” post. People and place. Maya Angelou was right on and thank you for the quote.
    As an old guy who has move West across the country from Michigan to Wisconsin to Iowa to Washington and, finally, to California, one finds you take a lot with you from each place and yet, as in my case, only one place truly feels like home. That one place can change and I hope in your case you find “home” in Jackson. Thanks again for your story – you brought lots of good memories back to me in my present place – – that still doesn’t feel like home. If home is where the heart is, then I am home with a family I love, stillll….

  8. Melia

    Gill, I love when our California visits coincide because when the whole family’s together, it’s like when we were growing up. I love Sonoma and the rest of the Bay Area and am grateful for my roots every time I go back there. I’m also loving Jackson more and more. And New Orleans? We are going to have a rockin’ community there that brings in all the things we’re learning independently right now. Cooking, urban composting, organic gardening, do-it-yourself home improvement. Oh so excited.

    Val, I’m curious about the city you feel is truly home, after all that moving around. Those are some pretty different places! What I love about traveling around the U.S. is that I can actually envision myself living in a lot of environments. Having grown up in the Bay Area, I used to think that I could never live anywhere else. I was happy to find that this wasn’t true. I like your blog, by the way! It’s a great idea, and an example that people can keep up with technology if they want to, no matter what their age.

  9. Sandra D.

    I’ve been living in SW Florida for 7 years now. Still to this day, after countless trips back home, I get choked up when the pilot announces, “We have begun our final decent into the San Francisco Bay Area”. Time seems to go into slow motion as all the other passengers scramble for their bags and flip open their cell phones to announce their arrivals. I sit calm and still in my seat waiting in anticipation to exit the plane and make my way down to baggage claim. I’m wander looking for my bags in a sleepy jet-lagged daze until the large, automatic sliding doors open for me and I get that first sweet kiss of California air on my cheeks.

    There is something comforting about the drive up the 101 home to Petaluma. Passing Saint Mary’s Help, where I was born, San Francisco State, where I graduated from college, and Parkmerced, where I lived while in the city. The curve of Park Presidio that leads to the GG Bridge still excites me like a carnival ride . . . and then, there, as it always is . . . the Golden Gate. Red and powerful and so iconic . . . and I feel home.

    Then the concept of “home” slowly fades as the visit progresses. I walk around Petaluma and realize I don’t recognize as many people as I once did. Familiar pastry shops have turned into sushi bars and Starbucks does not come close to the “hair of the dog” I looked forward to at Deaf Dog. The store I used to buys incense and beaded jewlery at in high school now sells $180 jeans.

    Things change and it took me a long time not to be annoyed by that. The best part about moving to another place is that you can take where you left from with you. All your experiences and memories that shaped who you have become today can shape the experiences you will find in your new surroundings. Leaving the Bay Area and moving first to Miami and then north to Fort Myers certaintly challenged my view of the world. Suddendly this liberal girl with a social work degree and an earing in her nose became the “exception” at work, with my new family, with friends. That’s a life lesson in itself . . . to be, or feel like, the odd man out. Getting out of your comfort zone forces you to try new things, do new things, experience situations through different eyes. And, maybe that’s not a bad thing these days. Maybe learning to see things from someone else’s perspective can change yours.

  10. Melia

    Sandra, I so relate to the emotional feeling of flying into SFO and seeing all the old sights….and then the new ones. Stop signs have popped up in random places in Sonoma, shops have changed, and fields have been developed into subdivisions. It’s crazy having seen Sonoma go from a cow-field town into a world-class tourist destination over 28 years.

    I had a similar identity adjustment in the South, too. In the Bay Area I hadn’t seen myself as especially green, but in Mississippi I realized how I’d taken my green ways for granted (recycling, composting, etc.). Luckily, my crowd in Jackson is as politically progressive and socially conscious as my friends back home, so I’m in good company. That said, I stick out as one of the only Asians and someone with a California accent (we tend not to think of ourselves as having one). As you said, I think it’s healthy to live for a time outside the place you grew up, because you expand your frame of reference.

  11. Leann

    I found your blog site while researching for a writing project I am working on called “Think Mississippi.”

    I showed this to my dad, and it brought back a lot of memories for him. He transplanted from Santa Clara, Cali. to Mississippi when he was 16 and has been back to the Bay Area three times since he moved here.

    I remember going to Orinda for a family reunion when I was near 17, and my California cousins the same age having the normal misconception of people from here. They spoke slowly to me like I was a baby. I finally had to tell them that they could speak normal and that I may be from Mississippi, but I am not stupid.

    I like to know that you have an open mind of our wonderful, though a little crazy state. Mississippi is a culture all its own. Her beauty is her uniqueness and having to find the things worth looking for.

    Also, welcome to our little piece of humid and hot paradise.

  12. Melia

    I’d love to learn more about “Think Mississippi.” I agree that there are a lot of hidden treasures here — you just need to know where to look. Having a crew of awesome people helps, too.

    I know Santa Clara well, having gone to college at Santa Clara University. I can imagine that the South would be a huge change for a teenager and am glad that the post resonated with your dad.

    I told a California teenager that I was moving to Mississippi and she got a funny look on her face. “What’s there?” she said. I had no concept of what it was like here before I visited, and certainly no idea that Jackson was such an artsy city with a small-town feel. I’m happy that I can send glowing reports back to my people.


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