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.