Davis After 5 Years

Becoming an immigrant means you have to compartmentalize your heart. After I moved to California, the first place where I truly began to believe that in some small way I belong here was Davis, CA, where I went to college. It was also where I started to discover my strengths and identify my weaknesses. After graduating in 2008, I never went back until last week. 

I was invited by students and staff who work closely with my undergraduate major Adviser to give a talk on my career journey. It was an exciting opportunity that I readily accepted. Rebecca and I drove to Davis last Friday morning, May 17th. Only in California will you have a day in May marked by dazzling sunshine and a cool steady breeze. Davis was just the same. And in many ways, it was not at all how I remembered it. Of particular and immediate note, many of the students I observed walking around us still had their baby fat, whereas I have not only shed mine, but also acquired the opposite of it - residual fat from having a baby.

When I walked through different campus buildings, I felt a strange mixture of nostalgia and regret. Maybe I shouldn't have been in such a hurry to leave this place and go out into the real world for a real job, I thought. Davis, on Friday afternoon, was in a lull. The distinct red color of Unitrans buses looked brilliant in the soft light. There were very few bicyclists on campus. From a distance, I could see that the Memorial Union, a campus hotspot, was nearly deserted. After giving two talks to eager, bright, and surprisingly attentive undergrads, we went to Downtown Davis.

Let me take a step back and orient you. Davis is the quintessential college town. It's small, charming, and bright. It is bicycle friendly - no, that is inaccurate - bicyclists own that town; they always have the right-of-way. I never owned a bicycle in Davis. Instead, I used to walk everywhere. It is where I first enjoyed this simple, solitary, and reflective act of taking a long walk. It was customary for me to walk 10 miles a day back when I was an undergrad

Downtown Davis inspired me to write many stories and poems. I used to sit at Ciocolat for hours, sipping my iced coffee, eating a Caesar salad, writing, studying, writing again - to procrastinate sometimes, and sometimes simply because the words flowed so easily and freely that there was no stopping them. As I walked away from campus last week, I remembered those streets when I felt like I belonged to them and they belonged to me. I remembered walking on them on freezing mornings, rushing to make it to molecular biology lab, munching on an apple, downing the chai in my travel mug. I remembered walking home from campus, all the way to N Street, on sweltering July afternoons, the very air buzzing around me, mimicking the song I was humming. I remembered walking through the streets of Davis at night with my friends, the best friends anyone could ask for. I remembered telling them about night-blooming jasmine and how it smelled just like the garlands sold at intersections of large roads in Lahore. I remembered everything, even the stronger flavor with which I missed Lahore when I was in Davis.

I felt in some ways as though time had not passed at all. I was here, in the place I first began to call home in this country, I was here and I had never left. If I just walked a little farther, cut through the Amtrak station, past the homemade chocolate shop, through the plot with small gardens and arrived at the yellow house on N Street, everything would be just the same. Haena would be cooking in the kitchen, Bibi would be barking at the door, maybe Sharon would be watching Friends in my room, Inki would be playing the guitar. Maybe Haena would tell me we were having some friends over for dinner. She might say, "I cooked you bulgogi for dinner!" Everything would be just the same. 

"It seems so strange to be here this way," I said to Rebecca. "You know how you associate places with people? I feel so disoriented seeing new faces here. I feel like a familiar face will turn the corner and I will greet an old friend."

So, becoming an immigrant means that you have to compartmentalize your heart. I realized last Friday that Davis is still home to me. I will never forget the kind of freedom it gave me. The freedom to like and dislike. The freedom to agree and disagree. The freedom to simply be, and in many ways the freedom, permission, and confidence to be better, aim higher, achieve more, make a home there with three wonderful people and a golden Pomeranian in a yellow house on N Street, and then here in the Bay Area, while never forgetting the home I left across the ocean

Photos by Rebecca McCue