“It’s marvelous to slip out of the life you know and explore. It’s magic to do it alone.”
-Caroline Jarvis, All Of The Secret Places
I know I often talk about the city of San Francisco with so much love, but there was a time a long time ago when I didn’t think I could ever love it. It’s a small part of the story of living there, but its existence is important because I don’t believe you can truly love something good without questioning the certainty of it first. For months, I kept trying to find joy, a glimmer of that I’m home feeling, looking in the cracks in the sidewalks, looking in the doorways and outside the windows of the train.
I’d been living in San Francisco for a few months when I finally made my way to Baker Beach for the first time. And I remember wanting to explore the city, and that it felt good to do it alone. I drove towards the Golden Gate and saw a parking lot to the left at a four way stop. I parked and grabbed my camera, held it close to me as I climbed a hill, the wind making my teeth chatter slightly.
And there I found it.
A secret place.
A place on a sea cliff, the bridge bigger than I’d ever seen it, and the Pacific ocean below, looking endless. It was in the middle of an afternoon, the sun was above me and the horizon was seeking solace in a cloudless sky.
It wasn’t a secret place of course. I doubt there is an inch in that city that hasn’t been discovered, or photographed, or felt with the heart or fingertips. But for fifteen minutes, it was my secret place. The first three months of living in San Francisco were the hardest, because I had never felt so alone. But that moment of sitting on a cliff made me feel as if I’d done the right thing. The good thing. I had found a secret place in plain view, a secret place that wasn’t really a secret at all. But those first few moments belonged to me watching the cars on the bridge, heart facing the sea, the waves reaching for the shoreline.
As much as I would like to pretend otherwise, I grew up in the suburbs. To me no matter what state, every suburb has a feeling of sameness. It is a feeling I have been inclined to move away from for as long as I was old enough to leave. The suburbs I grew up in were safe, and predominantly white. The neighborhoods and school teams and all of my teachers were white. My father is second generation Norwegian, which is pretty white, so lets not jump ahead of ourselves and assume I’m trying to be racist here.
No, what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t fit in. And I didn’t know how to.
It is true that the kids I went to school with were almost all white, and I felt out of place with my mothers Thai features and my fathers green eyes and pale complexion. All I knew was that I wasn’t white like all the other kids and for a long time I resented it. My mother used to send me to school in Thailand nearly every summer, in between school in the states. I stayed with family and wore the uniform and lived a much different and separate life there. And then, I would return to Texas like I had never left. I never told school friends I spoke Thai, because mostly I was just trying to keep up with the pop culture references of my peers. And because I have dark hair, 99.9% of people assumed I was hispanic, because it’s Texas and if you live here, it actually seems like a sensible thing to assume. I never remember articulating the question out loud, but I understand now as an adult that back then the question of where do I fit in? felt permanently etched into the space between my shoulder blades. I can trace my uncertainty of where I was supposed to belong with my fingertips in a line, back and forth, from my mothers history to my fathers history, and I was stuck somewhere in between. For a long time I was clueless as to where I was supposed to be and it wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco that I sort of gave up trying. Changing my perspective opened up my life; I stopped putting people in boxes when I stopped putting myself in one. And that includes the city I wanted to live in. I love that I grew up in Texas, but growing up in the suburbs of Austin was strange. So when I moved to San Francisco a few years ago, I realized I could be asian culturally, and american culturally too, and that I didn’t have to be one while giving up part of the other; I could be everything and the only thing stopping me from realizing this truth was me. San Francisco does that, it is limitless and opens up the potential of your life in one sweeping motion of its greeting when you arrive.
I love San Francisco, obviously. I talk about it so often I probably confuse a lot of people who think I live there already. I love that city, right down to my bones. I didn’t grow up with trains passing storefronts or parks filled with people on sunny days. I didn’t grow up with asian markets in the Outer Sunset, or pho restaurants in the Tenderloin. I didn’t grow up with trains that lead to the ocean. Those are things that have opened up my heart and made my life feel like magic. Like buying flowers and wine from a corner store near Dolores Park. Or that feeling I get when it rains, as if the city is overflowing from the doorways into the streets, mirroring its ugly parts and its beautiful parts in puddles gathered against sidewalks. I love it for the landscape, the ocean, but also, I love it because of the people. It is a very diverse city. It is everything that is not what I grew up with, yet I love it because it feels familiar to me too. It feels like home. I am excited to move back there, because San Francisco feels like the kind of place that will give me time, and trees and overcast days in a park, and late nights with new friends to figure this life of mine out.