tropical home

i've been gleefully unemployed for three months now, which means i've been watching the entirety of Suits on Netflix. Suits has inexplicably become the show of the summer since its streaming release, and it makes sense—the first few seasons are sharp and Gina Torres is aspirational. it's incredibly fun to watch them attempt to pass off the Bay Adelaide Center in downtown Toronto as midtown Manhattan, and even more fun to note every time the King streetcar makes a cameo.

Suits is a very quotable show, but there's a moment from God's Green Earth (s5e13) which i am going to remember forever—the one in which lawyer Jack Soloff tells managing partner Jessica Pearson,

When I left Boston, people said I was a traitor; that I thought I was too good for my hometown. But I knew the real test for me wasn't making it in my own hometown, it was making it in the toughest city in the world—and as far as I'm concerned, I haven't done that yet.

anyone who has moved from their safe, sleepy hometown to a modern industry city knows exactly what he means—New York for finance, LA for entertainment, D.C. for policy, SF for tech. there's the type of person who aspires to buy a house around the corner from their parents and the type of person who visits home once a year to take a four-day break from chasing capitalist ambition and professional success. i've been both.

these days i'm a blonde asian California software engineer splitting time between two major metropolitan cities, one on each coast; the kind of Asian girl who loves EDM and hot yoga—she's a cliché by now—the dominant demographic at every Equinox and Trufusion in town. every child-of-immigrants story has a line about how it feels to encounter a place where the people look like you, and my place is a hot barre class in San Francisco's Financial District, even though it's a long way from home.

my hometown is a Canadian suburb which is supposedly now the eleventh largest metropolitan area in the country, but in my head it's a small town and a simple life, made up of weekends spent picking apples at the orchard, Sunday mornings at church, stargazing in farm fields in the summer, weekends spent hanging out at the cinema and driving past swaths of farmland on the way to the beach. my best friend and i went to a country music concert exactly one time when Dan + Shay came to town, and we were the only two Asians in a sea of white girls in cowboy hats and cowboy boots. it's the kind of suburb people choose when they want to live in a small town, but with the convenience of big box stores. one of my friends who moved from Toronto affectionately refers to it as a hick town even though he lived next door to a Chatime. it's an alright small city, but it's a really great big small town.

when i finally moved to Toronto for my first job out of school i thought it would satisfy my ambition; it was the "big city" while i was growing up and i always knew i wanted to live there, but it was never quite everything i wanted—i was always frustrated by how its startup scene was effectively the same fifty people building machine learning consultancies and knockoffs of American companies, and how every big tech office was a second-tier sales office for its successful American counterpart.

Blackberry is an excellent example of a canonical Canadian tech company. there's a moment in the Blackberry documentary where Balsillie angrily says, "You said they were the best engineers in the world," and Lazaridis responds with, "I said they're the best engineers in Canada." i knew it was a documentary, but i didn't expect it to tell the story of every Canadian software engineer ever. there's a reason for the running joke about the Bay Area tech scene being built on the labour of ambitious Canadian software engineers on work visas. the first time i visited San Francisco i stood in line at Mensho Tokyo and made friends with the strangers in front of me whom i'd identified as Canadian tech exports by their conversational references to the 504.

these days when someone asks me where i'm from i never know quite what to say—when i'm in San Francisco i tell people i'm from Toronto, but that's not really true. these days my single tie to Toronto is five hundred square feet in an anonymous condo tower, but i fondly look back on it as the place where i made most of my mistakes on the way to becoming an adult. i hold a lot of wry affection for the years i spent working at one doomed tech startup after another, bouncing between cursed studio apartments, getting my heart broken while exclusively dating autistic white dude software engineers. i rewrote personal history to call Toronto home, but only because i've learned to consider home distinctly different from my hometown. i wanted to call Toronto home so badly for so long, and in a lot of ways i still do. part of me keeps hoping that one day i'll be back for good.

so i told the Uber driver in Montréal that i was visiting from California because the real answer was much too complicated for small talk–that my ambition is in California but my heart is in Toronto, but my hometown is actually a suburb two hours away, and yes, i suppose my parents are from China, sort of, yes, my last name is Vietnamese. i didn't tell him that i split my time between San Francisco and Toronto and am bad at being fully present in either; that i keep missing parties on both coasts and everyone says "let's hang out when you're back in town" instead.

California is all mythology and ambition. that's the clearest source of its magnetism as far as i can tell, because it's certainly not the excellent healthcare outcomes or its exemplary status as a car-free fifteen-minute-city urbanist dream. everybody here complains about how expensive and unliveable it is; how the transit system is broken and housing is astronomically expensive—but the unspoken shared understanding is that this is a chosen existence and if you ever decide you're sick of it then you can simply leave. there are at least twelve cities that have a higher quality of life than San Francisco. you don't have to compete in one of the most competitive cities in the world. the people here choose to be here because their ambition outweighs their good sense; they pay thousands of dollars for tiny apartments and buy $7 lattes and join startups and procrastinate having kids to be here because there's nowhere else to be if you want the unmatched experience of seeing if you can make it in a place designed to crush your spirit. it's a character flaw, but it's an interesting one. California attracts characters in search of a performance, and we all play our part.

despite this cosmopolitan roleplaying, my secret is that i still listen to a lot of country music. it reminds me of my hometown, the life i could've lived, my own mythologies built and torn down. the most important lesson i ever learned was that if you don't like the life you have then you can simply get a new one, but that doesn't mean that i don't hold a lot of affection for the lives i gave up to be here. a friend from a small town—a proper one, with cottages and river locks and general stores—said, you don't look like someone who listens to country music. he's right—i don't, i'm a mess, only semi-legible at best. one moment it's i'm still here with the ones that i came with, look at the sky i'm still here i'll be alive next year, whatever the lyrics to Language are, and the next it's courthouse bricks, crushed bud heavy can fading in the ditch, book of John, barn doors, shipped off soul that was born to fight, windtorn flags, friday night. none of it makes sense together; i'm just trying to stitch together the best of every life i've lived to-date. i've never driven a truck but does it count if i love corn mazes, picked pumpkins in the fall, wrote letters to a man who joined the military? am i doing California right if i go to yoga, hike the coastal trail, date a Google software engineer? i've never felt like i was done making up my dreams. i'll be back in San Francisco for another round soon, but i know that i won't be there forever. these days you'll find me in airports with white QC45s alternating between country songs about small towns and SoCal tropical house, always waiting to board a flight home.

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