On leaving California and moving back East

I moved to California in 2000 to start a Ph.D. program in cultural anthropology at Stanford, just south of San Francisco. When I applied to Stanford, I was living in Cambridge, MA, and finishing up a master’s degree in East Asian Studies at Harvard. I could have stayed at Harvard to do a Ph.D., but the allure of Stanford’s palm tree-lined main drive was too much to resist. At that time, I had lived on the East Coast (in Massachusetts and New York) for about seven years. I had endured a lot of winter. I was ready for some California sunshine. I remember that when I first arrived in California I had massive culture shock. I did not understand this place, with its super casual dress code (flip flops!) and casual social plans (I was very confused by the discovery that “let’s get together soon” did not always mean the person saying it wanted to get together), but I could bask in the glow of the sun in February just fine.

It turned out that Stanford and academia was not right for me, and I left it two years later. I fled back to Massachusetts, but only lived there for six months before the return of winter and the lack of good salsa (which I had acquired a taste for almost immediately after arriving in California) drove me out West again. This time, I moved to San Francisco. Instantly, I felt at home.

San Francisco. When I think of this place, this is what I love the most: My friends, whom I met almost immediately upon finding a sublet in the Castro District. My first year in this city, we used to hang out at this horrible dive bar at Church and Market on Thursday nights. I had no money — I was trying to be a “freelance writer” by this point, and that didn’t bring in much. The good thing was, drinks in San Francisco were (and still are) cheap. This is a drinking town founded by gold miners who lived in hastily assembled shacks, carving out streets up and over the hills, bracing themselves against the wind and the fog and partying a lot to deal with it. The people I found in San Francisco — my queer community — were natural descendants of those men and women who moved out here in search of gold, then silver, then technology. We came here to strike it rich, in personal freedom if not in cash.

This is the city where I learned the joy of that personal freedom. This is where I learned that it was OK to be gay. It sounds a little trite these days, when we are awaiting the U.S. Supreme Court’s latest decision on the legalization of gay marriage, but learning that changed everything. It freed me to fall in love, and it also freed me to become the writer I am today.

Today — April 21, 2015 — I am leaving San Francisco and moving back East, back to Massachusetts. I’ve moved to Massachusetts three times in my life already; this will be the fourth time, and I suspect this time it will stick. This time, I’m going there with my wife, who grew up in New England. I’m going there with a career that is easily transportable. I have friends and family already waiting there. And this time, I know how to make my own salsa.

I will absolutely miss San Francisco. I will miss the friends I made here, most of whom have moved on to other places for work or love or because this city has priced them out. I will miss those chilly, windy nights when the fog is blowing in your face and making you bitter and angry that it’s so freezing but you have to walk all the way across town to get to that party because the Muni never came. I will miss taquerias and San Francisco burritos that are so giant I can only eat half at a time. I will miss having a Chinese bakery within walking distance where I can get pork sung scallion rolls that are soft and chewy and salty and probably a 100% Chinese American invention. I will miss having easy access to fresh produce — avocados! — and amazing local wines and fantastic restaurants that go overboard explaining where they got their organic grass-fed hand-tended meat products.

I will come back and visit.

But the fact is, San Francisco has changed, and so have I. I never feel more like a San Franciscan than when I’m talking with my remaining Bay Area friends about how this place isn’t the same as it used to be. The only lesbian club in the city is closing at the end of this month. The Mission is now some weird hipster neighborhood stuffed with overpriced tacos and a shop that sells taxidermied animals. Even the fog is less prevalent these days; climate change seems to have made this city warmer and drier. And, of course, there’s the drought that is affecting all of California. I’m worried about the drought.

It’s time for me to move. I have loved living here, and for several years I belonged here. One of my earliest formative experiences was feeling displaced when I immigrated from China to the United States when I was three and a half years old. Feeling like I belong somewhere has been a goal for me ever since. I have treasured the time I’ve had here, especially the years when I felt like I was always meant to be here, but that time has passed. I wonder, now, if my whole life is going to be about finding the place where I belong. I don’t mean this in a depressing way — I mean it, sort of, as an epiphany.

You know that song "I Left My Heart in San Francisco"? I'm not leaving my heart here. I found my heart here. I'm bringing it with me to my next home.

I’m very excited to move back to Massachusetts. I’m looking forward to the seasons, especially the fall. I’m looking forward to clam chowder and New England accents and beautiful historic buildings and yes, I’m even looking forward to snow. It’s been long enough and I’m ready — this time I have the funds to buy a really good coat. I’m especially looking forward to being closer to my friends from college, most of whom have stayed on the East Coast, as well as my wife’s family. I’m excited to be closer to many writer friends I’ve made over the past few years, and a lot closer to New York and publishing, because I hope there’s a lot more of that in store for me too.

My wife and I are driving across the country in our Prius (with California plates) with our 13-year-old black lab in the back seat. We are taking the most direct route, I–80, but making a pit stop in Colorado to visit my family for a few days. While I’m in Colorado I’ll be speaking at the Queer Young Adult Literature Conference at the University of Colorado, Boulder, on April 25. And then we’ll head back on the road again.

I’ll be posting photos from the road trip on instagram and twitter if you want to follow along. I can’t wait to get started!