Going Home: Returning to Suburbia

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When asked where I am from, I’ll sometimes say my mom’s womb (she thinks I’m a hoot); otherwise I’ll vaguely say Southern California. For some, my claim to SoCal roots conjures up images of downtown L.A. with its juice cleanses and celebrity cults. I don’t correct them because I’m a tease and desperately want to be big city cool (think: Carrie Bradshaw). Unless further prodded, I rarely admit to my true origins, to my unglamorous upbringing in that uninspiring, bland wasteland that is suburbia–the place that I, as an angsty teen, wanted nothing more than to leave, that I regarded as not unlike the inside of a womb: cramped and seemingly inescapable.  

But I (like Amish teens during Rumspringa) did get out. I packed my bags and left my small town for college. It was that easy. Still, without fail, every four months or so, I grow homesick and long for the things I thought I resented: washing dishes, eating fast food, swimming in the community pool. Every break, I look forward to going home and seeing those familiar places and faces. And yet, after a few days of being back, I’m reminded again and again of why I didn’t want to be here in the first place. It’s never because of anything someone said or did and, perhaps it’s precisely because of this lack. When I’m home, I utter that snub of reluctant suburbanites everywhere–nothing ever happens here–then join my mom in her SUV and make our way to Costco (for free samples, of course).

As a child of the early 2000’s, I divided my afternoons between soaking in an inflatable kiddie pool, Berry-Blue Kool-Aid Burst in hand, and creating pixelated masterpieces on Microsoft Paint. When puberty graced my breast area in the form of chest acne, I abandoned these childish pastimes for more cultured pursuits–i.e. eating nachos at the local bowling alley and going to the mall to buy matching t-shirts with my soul sisters.

I didn’t grow tired of my small town until my senior year of high school (I’m a late bloomer.) I can recall the exact moment–the Aha! moment as dubbed by the O magazines on my living room table–that I thought, “I need to get out of this place.” One Friday evening, a friend and I drove into the sunset (this was California, after all) and passed by nondescript cul-da-sacs, 7-Elevens, and the occasional froyo joint, unsure of where to go and what to do. Eventually, we pulled up to our high school’s parking lot and pulled out our phones in search of something. Anything. Like our neighborhoods, Google led us to a dead end. We sat in the empty lot, searching, waiting. I stared at a sign, which read “Class of 1998,” a terrifying reminder for me of all those people, born and raised here, who attended my high school, whose children will one day be students who will send their own kids here. I was overwhelmed by the predictability and tedium. I told my friend to drive me home. It was almost past my curfew.

To hush my suburban blues and whatever other teenage grievance held–how my parents just didn’t understand me, how I couldn’t stand another night of Uno–I comforted myself with this thought: in two months, in two weeks, in two days, I would be long gone in a delightfully distant land far away from home. For me, the sheltered suburbanite, college did deliver with its rotating door of guest speakers, shows, and parties that don’t begin with the words birthday, sleepover, potluck, pool, or reunion. Back in my hometown–which was recently ranked number ten on a list of the best places to retire–there was nothing to do, no late nights, no 3am study sessions, no parties to attend. Or maybe, I was just never invited.

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In essence, my freshman year, I was awakened to a way of life beyond Slurpees and strip malls. For this reason, when I go home, when I return to the suburbs, I feel sad for my hometown and the people who stayed behind. I can’t fathom how they can enjoy the same parades, picnics, movies in the park year in and year out, stuck in a single time and space, forever unchanging. Don’t they know what they’re missing out on?

It’s a bit condescending, I know. Because to reject suburbia and the people who live in its static, manicured sprawl, I’m also proclaiming my own uniqueness, my big fish status, my ability to change. Aren’t we the ones who got away? Who change, for better or worse? By the end of my freshman fall, my promise to keep in touch with high school friends, my resolve to never, ever wear sweatpants all fell by the wayside. When I went home, everything felt different from how I had remembered it. I wanted to believe that it was because my hometown had changed, but it hadn’t—I had. I didn’t fit my town’s cookie-cutter image of me anymore. Regardless of how hard I try to shake my outgrown identity, I’m reminded of my past and my former self at every turn (on a road that leads to nowhere): trees that I used to be able to climb, band t-shirts (re: High School Musical) that are now too snug, friends who’ve known me since I was young, who can’t possibly separate the old-me from the new-me. Suburbia is stifling for me because it doesn’t give me room to change. It insists that I have Berry-Blue Kool-Aid Burst (a flavor that has been discontinued) coursing through my veins, and I hate it.

It feels wrong, sacrilegious even, for me to say this, especially since I’m part of the lucky lot who can go home, who have a home to go to, for whom home means boredom, not trauma. Shouldn’t I be eternally grateful? Shouldn’t I quit yammering on and, instead, shovel down fistfuls of my mom’s cooking before it’s cold and gone? Shouldn’t I cherish this normalcy? Trust me, I’ve tried–an innocent conversation about school erupts into an interrogation about job prospects and financial stability; my efforts feel as forced and unnatural as meatloaf (seriously, if anyone has ever eaten a good one, let me know). I want to love my little ‘ole town of Fountain Valley where the motto is “A NICE PLACE TO LIVE,” where my family calls home, where it’s devastatingly perfect. I want to say that growing up doesn’t involve some communal estrangement. Yet, despite how much I try to convince myself otherwise, for me, this hasn’t been the case. Perhaps, something was already lost and cracked long before I was whisked away. I want to say that you can go home because it’s easier to sulk over suburbia’s ticky-tacky uniformity than to acknowledge this: how home no longer feels like home. Because then I have to face those pesky questions: Where is the bosom onto which I latch? What do I call home? My dorm room?

I giggle at this thought–that my dorm room is home–because no matter how many Pinterest projects I cover my walls with, I can’t ignore my dorm’s ephemeral nature. Come move-out day, my dorm room becomes another vacancy, another twin mattress waiting for a new crop of residents to languish in its foamy fantasy of permanence. The leftovers of a year spent on-campus: stains and scuff marks (don’t tell ResEd) of a forgotten past. So for me, home is not where I make my bed. Is home, then, where the heart is? I think this adage gives me too much credit (because it assumes I have a heart to begin with). On the real though, I’m not crafty enough, not outgoing enough to have a transplant group of friends to dub “family,” not decisive enough to know where my love and loyalties lie–at least not yet.

I know I sound difficult to please (don’t get my mom started!). But just as the sameness of the suburbs is suffocating, the flux of the dorms makes it equally tough to take off my shoes and lay down a doormat that reads “HOME SWEET HOME.” Maybe for now, nowhere is home for me–not in a sad sense, but in the sense that it’s not necessarily a physical place that I’m seeking. We’re straddling a transitional state between adolescence and adulthood, so why can’t our understanding of home be a kind of in-between too? Like the commitment-fearing millennial that I am, this is the best (non-) answer that I can settle on for now. In the meantime, I’ll go back to the ‘burbs, go home–whatever that means–because I can and I have to (curse you, ResEd.) I’ll ask for a second helping of chicken casserole, visit my old high school, go to bed by 10pm. It isn’t big city livin’ and it isn’t exactly home, but, hey, at least it’s my own. 

Photos courtesy of Flickr

1 Comment on Going Home: Returning to Suburbia

  1. Joshua Deng
    December 11, 2015 at 8:48 pm (1 year ago)

    Hey Nikki, it’s Josh! I saw this posted a few times on Facebook and finally got around to reading it, awesome work!


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