“If the great horror of traveling is that the foreign can come to seem drearily familiar, the happy surprise of traveling is that the familiar can come to seem wondrously exotic. Abroad, we are not ourselves; and as the normal and the novel are transposed, the very things that we might shun at home are touched with the glamour of the exotic.” -Pico Iyer
Being back in this strange land of San Jose, I marvel at what I always considered a desolate, residential sprawl of failure. The tech industry has played a joke on me. I’m still ambivalent about this city. Most times it strikes me as soulless. It’s arguably driven by the clenched claws of Moloch; it exonerates ultimate capitalists and exiles those who truly want to stay. My family and some of my best friends live here, and that is the only reason why I return.
However, as Mr. Iyer noted, much of what was normal my whole life is now a rarity. After living in Colombia for over a year, I’ve gotten accustomed to the rolo way of life. In Bogota, the streets are crowded, traffic is round-the-clock, and people live out loud. The dream of striking it rich in the Golden State- or in the U.S. in general- still abounds. Colombians are kind, prioritize family over money, and take great pride in their country and traditions. Homogeneity prevails, though if you head to the coast, you’ll get a sense for a different world- one with African and indigenous roots.
Most times when I go back to San Jose, the first thing that strikes me is its multi-culturalism. Turn any corner and people’s features morph as if you’re traveling through the continents. Cross the street and you’ll hear conversations in English, Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish, and Portuguese. Bounce from one neighborhood to the next and you can find authentic Mexican tacos, pho or banh mi prepared by Vietnamese expatriates, pizza with thick dough served to you by Italians. In Colombia, I often long for diversity, ache to hear a tongue other than Spanish (or, sometimes, English). The blandness of this South American cuisine has propelled my cooking skills to edge on culinary prowess.
By now, I’ve come to embrace the unfamiliar, to accept my perpetual status as an outsider. Being in my hometown, I feel I don’t belong. I’ve become a tourist in my own city. To be sure, I never felt right in San Jose; home was always meant to be elsewhere. I wasn’t built for suburban life. I was destined for greater accolades than living across the street from my family in the East Side.
Returning after six months, however, I see this divided town differently. Sure, there is still a lack of safety, drunk people rummage through garbage cans at 6am, and more tents straddle the freeways than I ever remember. Homelessness abounds throughout California as more start-up stars earn six or seven figures. Apartment complexes spring up like wildflowers, strategically placed next to new public transit that never existed before we were the “Silicon Valley.” Many people have two or three jobs to afford the suffocating prices of rent, or they live with family members. Their 20s are long gone, and so are the dreams of making it on their own.
The overwhelming expense would never allow me to live here again as a common writer. People who earn $100,000 per year are considered below the poverty level. The reality is absurd. And the convenience, the access to everything, is overwhelming. From Amazon deliveries to the latest iPads to Teslas, anything you could desire is available for a price. You can cross the street without worrying that a bus will run you over like roadkill. The magic of San Francisco’s hills and the foggy, seagull-filled skies of the Boardwalk are just a short drive away. If you have a car.
Wherever I go, locals say I’m not a common American. Perhaps I’m not, but I wouldn’t be who I am without this state, without this country. I’ve countless privileges and opportunities that have nothing to do with who I am, but instead with where I was born, which language was first bestowed upon me, the color of my skin, access to education, and a strong currency. I’m hyper-aware of how lucky and undeserving I am.
But what strikes me as the most unusual part of San Jose is the amount of support I have here. Living abroad on your own, it’s easy to forget how many people care about you. Loneliness is deceitful. You overlook how many friends and family members wish you weren’t always gone. You look at your parents, and suddenly they’ve aged 10 years. You realize not only your own importance, but also others’ struggles and inevitable mortality. You’re humbled that, while you’ve been searching the globe for a tribe, these people have been in your corner all along. Perhaps they’re not all talented writers, prominent artists, or woke globetrotters. But they’re undoubtedly your people, rooting for you from the 408, loving you no matter how strange you are in comparison.