I comfortably call Seattle home now. I’ll admit that I’ve had to reacquaint myself a bit after being away for more than fifteen years, but Seattle has certainly grown tremendously over the last 15-20 years. People have moved here from everywhere, bringing with them diverse, artisanal culinary and cultural tastes to go along with the tech jobs, rising property values, and the gridlock.
And even though it’s been over four years since I’ve moved back to Seattle from Hong Kong, every so often, people still ask me if I miss it. I give pause before I answer because in all honesty, Hong Kong was a complex place for me. While it was a city where I looked like I belonged, I never really felt like I belonged, mostly because of my atrocious Cantonese. And while everyday life was navigable in English and even in Mandarin, it’s still hard to feel comfortable or at ease when you can’t exactly understand everything that’s going on around you.
I thought I loved Hong Kong, but Hong Kong never really seemed to love me back, at least not in equal parts. And even though I lived there for nearly seven years of my adult life, I could never quite bring myself to call it home—my real home. So I usually respond to the “Do you miss it” question with something like: “I miss my friends there and some parts of my former life. But as for the city itself, I don’t miss it as much. Seattle is home now. Oh, but I really miss the food.”
My relationship with Hong Kong stirs many love-hate feelings because so many of the things I loved about Hong Kong (the food, the people, the energy, the efficiency, the glamorous global vibe) are inexorably tied to things that I absolutely loathed (the suffocating density, the unrelenting crowds, the long working hours, the in-your-face conspicuous consumption and overt classism, and the constant pressure to attain and maintain status.) My loves and hates of the place always go hand and hand together, and so the city elicits a very strong reaction from me: like a simultaneous attack of euphoria with hives. And Hong Kong doesn’t just evoke memories of city skylines or certain foods and smells, but it also represents the person I used to be 5-10 years ago, which also adds another layer of complexity. But what made me love Hong Kong were the friendships with people there. They became my family during that exciting season of my life.
Unlike Hong Kong, Seattle doesn’t provoke the same range of emotions in me. The sentiments stay on the sweet side of nostalgic because most of my previous memories of Seattle are from my college days when I lived on campus. With no money and no car, a meal outside the dorms on the Ave was a splurge, as I’d try to only eat half of it, taking the rest back to portion out. So it’s been quite the revelation to move back as an adult, and to be able to explore various changing neighborhoods and to try fabulous new restaurants that have popped up.
Many of my friends from college have settled in the Seattle area with their own families now. But even while we were in school, I noticed that most of my closest friends were not from the Seattle area, but from out-of-state or hailed from opposite corners of Washington, just like me. We called ourselves “transplants.” And so an important part of our initial friendship was the fact that we didn’t already have established friends. So we seemed naturally more open to meeting and befriending others. It’s a lot like the concept of making up your own family when you live far from your actual blood-related family.
While this openness is especially visible during early college, I’ve also noticed that certain places foster and thrive on this transplant mindset because they serve as regional Meccas where most everyone is from somewhere else. Hong Kong is one of these places, particularly if you are an expat there. It’s always been a pulsating center drawing different people and languages and ideas from all over the world. And because most expats don’t have any immediate family around, it seems easier to meet and befriend people. Seattle also has elements of this openness, and tends to attract many transplants. Obviously the local economy dictates much of the demographic shift, but cities with a transplanting trait seem to exude a more positive, upbeat vibrancy and tend to have growing local economies instead of declining ones.
Falling in love with a specific place is deeply intertwined with the quality and depth of relationships you happen to forge in that unique place. Relationships are central to the definition of when and where you are able to call a place your true “home.” My childhood hometown cannot be separated from my unique memories of growing up and with my family. And in many of the same ways, I still categorize Seattle as the place where I went to college. Even after moving back, I still find myself subconsciously gravitating towards many of the same neighborhoods that I lived and frequented while I was a student here nearly 20 years ago. The Ave has changed a bit, but it still has the same feeling, and you can still get free validated parking at the U Bookstore if you buy a pack of gum.
And while Hong Kong probably won’t be home again, it will always be the place were I became a real grown-up, and where I fell in love. While I miss it, I’m not the same person I was when I lived there.
There is something deeply satisfying and human about forging relationships and connections with people you share a deep resonance with. We’ve been built to need and crave this sort of connection. And layering meaningful relationships with a specific place transforms that place into something familiar and comforting. No matter where you might find yourself, it means you’ve probably found your way home. Your real home.
For me, home has always been more of an abstract concept. I still remember the feeling of going home whenever I was on the Greyhound bus from New York or Boston back to Vermont (to my small college dorm room). At that time, maybe it was the familiar comfort of your own space?
Now, older and married, I like to say home is where your heart is. We are definitely on the same page regarding what constitutes a true home!
Hi Mr TBP! Yes, totally agree with you. I think an alternative conclusion to this piece is that I’m definitely feeling “older”… (not quite “old,” but definitely well on my way,) which makes the formerly abstract concept of “home” much less abstract these days. More importantly, it’s the people that make the place, and make a home what it is!
That said, there will always be youthful memories of HK, no? Thanks for stopping by!
This was a very well-written post. As someone who was raised in Seattle until I moved away at 30yo, lived an expat life in London, then Korea, and now in Vancouver where I’ve found “home,” I can relate to your thoughts of the past and the now. When I return to Seattle now, I feel an odd sense of being out of place, yet an extreme familiarity with the city. It’s amazing to see how much it has changed, yet remained the same since I left it more than five years ago. In a way, this is reflective of how I have evolved too. ~M.
Hi M. Really appreciate your thoughts, and especially your comments about feeling an odd sense of being out of place + extreme familiarity, all at the same time. It’s a hard concept to describe and explain. Totally agree with you about how a place you thought was so familiar has a way of changing dramatically, even in five years, but much of it might be because we’ve changed. Thanks so much for stopping by!
I didn’t realize that you were in Hong Kong *almost* 7 years! Just shy of the permanent residency prize! (ouch?)
Seattle and Hong Kong are such amazing cities. We’ve both been lucky to have had the chance to call each place “home.”
Yeah, unfortunately 6.5 years doesn’t count! -sigh- HKPR would have been nice, but I did have a short break in the middle, so it was more like 4.5 years the second time round after the first 2 years. So altogether it was *almost* 7. It just wasn’t meant to be.
Yes, totally agree about how lucky and blessed we are to have had the privilege of living in two amazing cities! And welcome “home” to you as well!
Thanks for writing about this! Since China has been my address for only a few months, there is a lot that makes it feel like a vacation, or temporary place– roads, kitchen, establishing a social network….But the thing that makes it home for me is, whenever I read about bird flu, or food safety scandals, it hits close to home, literally. So maybe, home is the city where you rely on the systems (food delivery, roads, banks), to work properly, and not kill you. 🙂
Hi Mrs. Axe, thanks for stopping by! Been thinking about you guys and how your adventure in China has been so far. It must be a lot for the senses, and I’m sure all the news about the new bird flu isn’t exactly helping things. But you’re right, many of the things we’ve come to take for granted (safety, clean water, roads, stable banks, etc.) also help to contribute to our idea of home. Stay safe and healthy, and hope you and the fam are well in your new home!
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