New City, New Culture, New Life

Darren and me at Bass Pro Shops, like Disneyland for hunting and fishing.

Bass Pro Shops, the perfect union of a hunting and fishing shop, Sam's Club, and Disneyland.

I’ve been thinking lately how crazy it is that my life and environment could change so much within the last year. Nine months ago, I was living with two roommates on a busy street in the San Francisco Mission District. Two months ago, I was living with my folks at my childhood home in Sonoma while I went back to school. Now, I’m living with Darren in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi, indefinitely.

Careerwise, I worked much more than full-time for years at Spark running youth programs, then became a student again in the fall during my intense three-month period of reschooling. This spring, I’m trying out freelance writing and seeing if I’m able to work completely on my own time. For now, I’m grateful that my phone stays mostly quiet, and my calendar isn’t booked up with meetings and coffee dates. My fast food and red meat consumption has gone up probably 500% (given that I used to eat hardly any), but so has my amount of exercise and sleep.

The other night, I felt like a real Jackson resident for perhaps the first time. Someone mentioned that the writer Ellen Gilchrist is from Mississippi, and without thinking about it, I felt proud to be a fellow southerner.

Three thoughts about this:

1) There may be no better way to make a fresh start than moving to a completely different city.

2) Even if you think you could never live away from the place you grew up, you probably could. And you might even like it.

3) Life can change quickly, for better or for worse.

Because my new life here is so different, I’ve been keeping a mental list of the things I miss about the Bay Area and those I love about Jackson.

Things I miss about the Bay Area:

My friends. It’s not that I feel socially disconnected here, because I have Darren and his — and now my — group of friends, who are smart and talented and hilarious. We see them fairly regularly but are happy hanging out by ourselves most of the time. Of course I still miss my Bay Area friends, because I’ve just added new friends to my circle here, rather than replacing the one-of-a-kind old ones. I miss the people I’ve known for years and can talk to about anything. One of the common gripes of my generation is that our friends are scattered all over the country, and often the world. Usually the only time they’re in one place is at weddings.

A wide selection of my favorite things:

Healthy, organic food. The local co-op, called Rainbow like the one in San Francisco, is wonderful but small. I miss the Costco/Sam’s Club-sized Rainbow in my old ‘hood.

Authentic taquerias. El Sombrero, the tasty Schwindaman family favorite, is tiding me over until I can gorge myself in the SF Mission District, where I lived for two years. I do have to say that the individual salsa bowls that Mexican restaurants provide their diners is quite possibly a southern innovation, and I think it’s brilliant.

World-class restaurants. As Darren says, “There’s maybe one good restaurant in Jackson for every type of food,” which is pretty accurate. Perhaps pizza and southern food are exceptions. Jackson also has a few classy restaurants, which we’ve tried on special occasions. But of course San Francisco is one of the best places in the world for foodies and hard to beat.

Hills. Especially the green Sonoma hills in the spring. Jackson is flatter than Carson Daly‘s personality. Luckily, in my neighborhood thick trees cover the horizon.

Speaking Spanish every day. When running youth programs, I used to speak to Latino parents or school staff every day. Now, in a city with a much smaller and more sequestered Latino population, I don’t get a chance to practice much. I get a little too excited every time someone speaks Spanglish on the TV show Dexter, which is set in Miami. I’m thinking about volunteering with translation, to get my fix.

Acupuncture. Not that I have the money for it now, but the option would be nice. Mississippi is only one of seven states that doesn’t license acupuncturists. To practice acupuncture here, you need to have an M.D. or a D.D.S. (dental degree), so it’s a service rarely offered. The MS State Medical Association actually called acupuncture “quackery.” I think my people (as I call the Chinese) and other cultures that have been curing ills for over 5000 years might just know a thing or two. Update: By the end of the month in which I wrote this post (March 2009), the Governor signed into law the Acupuncture Practice Act, which made Mississippi the 44th state to license and regulate acupuncturists. Hooray!

A structured work life. While I don’t miss the full-time nonprofit grind, I’m still finding it a challenge to structure my own time, working mostly from home, in a disciplined way. I’m going to start setting my own deadlines and trying to go to sleep and wake up on a regular schedule.

Lots of dance clubs. I hear that there are a few fun places here, but I miss the Top 40 mix at Blondie’s. $3 in exchange for 50 Cent: now that’s a deal.

Smoke-free public places. I was thrilled to find out that my move to Jackson coincided with a smoking ban in restaurant-bars within the city limits. However, due to confusing new legislation and business owners who simply ignore it, some places are still chokingly full of smoke. It bothers me so much to be in a smoky bar that I think I’ll stop going to Tuesday pub quiz at Sportsman’s Lodge. It’s a bad sign, after all, when the owner himself is smoking. On Tuesdays I have to remember not to wash my hair, because I’ll end up washing it again after going to the bar.

Things I love about Jackson:

Slowing down. I’ve always said that if I lived in New York, the city would spin my Type A tendencies out of control. Now that I live in the south, I’m realizing that San Francisco was beginning to do the same thing. It’s not quite as loud or frenetic a city as New York, but there are too many shiny new things for me to keep up with: trendy restaurants, shows, museums….and going out in general. I used to go to parties or clubs several times per week, and it was starting to empty both my energy and my bank account. I love that Mississippi natives speak and move at a more leisurely pace than Californians, with a drawl that rolls over the tongue like molasses. And I’m finding “y’all” to be a more efficient and gender inclusive term than “you guys.”

Southern hospitality. People tend to be genuinely friendly upon meeting you and want to get to know you. They look you in the eye as they speak and find common ground with you right away. For example, last year at Mardi Gras, my sister and I stopped in at an acquaintance’s house, and her mom insisted upon feeding us homemade jambalaya and gumbo. She’d never even met us but still called us “baby.”

Afternoon cookouts and big front porches. It’s common in the south to invite friends over for a cookout on a weekend afternoon. I’ve been to two now and feel so content sitting in a rocking chair on the porch, sipping a bottle of Abita beer and sampling whatever deliciousness comes off the grill. Friends play bluegrass on the banjo and fiddle, and the rest of us “visit.” I think the culture of the Bay Area would slow down if it had more porches, rocking chairs, and visiting.

A community of creative young people. Most of the young people I know here are creative in some way: writers, visual artists, musicians, or actors. Most know each other and form a loose crew, so that if you show up at Hal & Mal’s for a show, many will be there. I hope they’ll also come out to the Writer’s Spotlight I’ll be a part of this Saturday.

The Jackson Free Press. The alt-weekly has helped me start building a portfolio of published pieces, as well as a way to plug into my new community. Plus, the writing class I took is helping me develop the craft of writing, instead of just doing it on instinct.

Reasonable prices. Darren and I pay less for a modern two-bedroom apartment than I paid for one room in a three-bedroom flat in San Francisco. Some restaurants have $5-$6 dinner plates (e.g. El Sombrero), which stuns me. Gas is 20-30 cents cheaper than in the Bay Area.

A landscape of woods and lakes. We don’t have to drive very far to be in the wilderness. Real estate developments are moving in, unfortunately, but more slowly than in California.

Darren. Freelancing from home together, working in separate rooms so we can concentrate, has been wonderful. We eat most of our meals together and can run errands midday if we need to. Given that freelancing doesn’t pay much or provide insurance, we take these perks where we can. I’m glad that we can share a small space literally 24-7 much of the time and still want to hang out. Occasionally we’ll call each other on Skype video chat from the next room just to appreciate that we’re not 2,200 miles away from each other anymore, and more like 220 feet.

Though I could never have imagined that I would end up living in Jackson, Mississippi, I’m happy here. The environment is totally different than what I grew up with, but it’s exactly where I want to be right now, and it’s starting to feel like home.

Comments (10)

  1. Mr. Hsu

    Sounds like you’re feeling like I did when I first moved down to the Bay: excited, scared, a little crazy, but knowing and feeling that it was the right thing at the right time. I’m so happy to hear that you’re enjoying it. But I do miss giving you all the crap about “your” peoples. And kudos on the 3 dollar 50 cent quip. Priceless.

  2. Melia

    You got it. I’m still in transition and sometimes feel discombobulated, but I haven’t ever doubted that this is the right thing. I do miss hassling you about our peoples, too. Ha, you of all people know what I mean about 50 Cent! 🙂

  3. Melia

    I may have exaggerated the red meat and fast food intake — it’s not like I eat it every day. Burgers and steak at cookouts, sausage in jambalaya, and the occasional Chick-Fil-A sandwich and Little Caesar’s Hot N Ready pizza is all. I try to go with a healthy option, though I can’t resist the occasional chicken nuggets and fries.

    I also forgot to put “family” on the things I miss about the Bay Area and love about Jackson. I miss seeing my parents every day and knowing what’s going on with them. I do feel lucky that I get to see Darren’s parents at least once a week. Maybe one day my dream will come true, and my loved ones will live in one place.

  4. Marijke

    And so we all have the same dream….that our loved ones will live in one place. I doubt it will ever happen (I speak for myself) but that I have learned over the years: it’s not the quantity but the quality of time spent together that counts. And Skype video is terrific to fill the gaps between visits ……

  5. Melia

    With the people closest to me, I find that I can pick up right where we left off, no matter how long it’s been. And as my dad just emailed in response to this post, “Thank Gawd for the internet, as it almost seems like you are still at home with us.” (Aww.) At least we have Skype and Facebook keeping us updated.

  6. Margaret

    What a great post! It is like returning home in itself, just to read “Things I Love” because it is such a centering, calming, gratitude-inspiring practice. Thanks for the ‘fix,’ Melia!

  7. Siobhan

    “Even if you think you could never live away from the place you grew up, you probably could. And you might even like it.”-
    I totally agree with ya! When people hear of where I’ve lived, I get a lot of ‘I could NEVER live in ~~’ and I think ‘Uh, yes you could! Just GO!’ lol!
    Glad to hear the South is treating you well! 🙂

  8. Gilliebean

    I can totally relate to this post. When I first moved to New Orleans for college (almost eight years ago, jeebas!), I was so homesick for the Bay Area. I missed my friends, my family, the food, the progressive politics, all that good stuff. Some things drove me crazy about NOLA, like how the bank teller would spend 10 minutes chatting with the person in front of me in line about how their mama was doing.

    But about halfway through my freshman year, I started to make great friends and began to appreciate the slow, friendly pace of life. I will always miss some things about California and hope I can always come home often, but New Orleans is home now. It’s where Brian and I met, and we plan to come back and start that intentional community with you and whoever else we can wrangle back to the city!

  9. Melia

    Yeah, Siobhan – Ireland, Japan, Boston…you just pick up and go! Talk about culture shock. It must be cool getting to know each place and your favorite things about it.

    Gill, I’m just so impressed that you made this move at 18 years old. I wasn’t ready to live so far away from the comfort of our home base until now. I’m glad that I got to do San Francisco before swapping city living for southern living. When you move to Hawaii, I’m sure you’ll be writing a similar post because the culture is so unique there.

    Yes, I am so, so excited to find a corner of New Orleans to make into our kingdom. I don’t think the rest of the Loyola crew will be able to resist the creative tractor beams pulling them back, and maybe we can even entice some of our CA crew to join us.

  10. Keetha

    That’s the most apt description of Bass Pro Shop I’ve ever heard. 🙂

    Another great post.


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