The Cities That I Love

All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore… There were years when I called Los Angeles “the Coast,” but they seem a long time ago.
- Joan Didion

Leaving New York City seems like a social rite of passage for those who have outgrown it, cannot afford it, or have become so tired of its hubbub. Leaving for the west coast — especially to the sunny shores of Los Angeles—is such a well-trodden journey, it is nearly clichéd. Think Joan Didion, Brooklyn Dodgers, Hollywood and bi-coastal celebrities; think of this fanciful New Yorker piece, whose author recounts bouncing between the two cities only to end up leaving them both for the in-between. The story of New York City and Los Angeles is such a recurring theme that it has spawned love-hate/breakup stories, given life by those who have lived it.

How can two metropolises be so far apart in distance, with such diametrically opposing characteristics, be so (equally) cherished? L.A.’s warm weather competes with New York City’s walkability and transit. Hollywood’s Walk of Fame is as much a tourist trap as Times Square. Yet, both cities are centers for fashion, entertainment, and food; both are so enriched by people and cultures of all kinds. Notwithstanding a three-month college internship in Washington, D.C., these are the only two cities that I have ever lived in and called home.

The author as a tourist in Midtown Manhattan during her first trip to NYC.

As a native Angeleno, I arrived to New York City fascinated by its density — of people, subways, activities, and places. It was all buzzing with a contagion, with unspoken energy. This phenomenon feels both commonplace and special. And during my first few months living there, I would wake up wondering if I was really here, in the greatest city in the world.

“Don’t ever lose that feeling, the excitement of living here,” a friend told me when I first moved here. Even after all this time, despite all the mishaps, I never have.

I remember my first visit to New York City with a tinge of nostalgia: stumbling upon landmarks like the Flatiron Building and Radio City Music Hall, gleefully perusing artwork at Union Square, and being floored by the sheer amount of talent at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and my first-ever Broadway show, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights. The musical setting and storyline felt so New York, illustriously telling the story of a close-knit Dominican community in Washington Heights, Manhattan.

Yet, even amid the musical’s backdrop adorning the George Washington Bridge, I was reminded of home: L.A.’s own Eastside and its immigrant, predominantly Mexican, community of Boyle Heights. The bridge could have easily been Sixth Street Bridge, and the characters my own friends. Even Vanessa, the narrator’s love interest who is academically struggling at Stanford yet tempering her family’s high expectations, felt like a close friend whom I’ve known forever.

This universality dawned on me even more when I later watched a rendition of In the Heights at CASA 0101 in Boyle Heights. This is the sensation that David Ulin captures when he writes: “This is what I love about cities, the way that even the most distinct of them resemble one another when you least expect it, the way the line between memory and imagination blur.” I felt like I was coming full circle.

Goodbye To All That

The idea of returning to L.A. never left me. Friends would inquire about “returning home,” which even after five years of living elsewhere, still retained the notion that home was this sprawling Southern California city. After my year-long fellowship with the City of New York was complete, I contemplated moving back. But a string of job opportunities kept me here. So did a relationship or two. Soon, I seemed to have more friends on the East Coast than back home. I was creating so many memories, venturing into new parts of the city and even beyond into upstate New York or super-dense and diverse Hudson County in Jersey. I loved it all. There were more reasons to stay than to leave.

And still, there was always a lingering thought that I would leave. I even bought an anthology of writers detailing their departure from New York (the title, “Goodbye To All That,” as an homage to Didion’s 1967 essay) to brace myself for the eventual move.

I forget what came first: the appeal of L.A. or the disgruntled attitude toward New York City. The urban experience of living among 8.5 million people can be unbearable when you confront minor inconveniences, like subway delays or rudeness from strangers. It is exacerbated by increased rents throughout the boroughs, high cost of groceries and amenities, and decreased quality of life. And it is worse still, when late-night noise reverberates through your wall, when you are sexually harassed and assaulted, when you feel so tired of the blatant disrespect of people’s humanity — all of this can push you out of the city that you swore you love.

Home & Loss

My relationship with home is complicated and intergenerational. As the daughter of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees, home is a fragmented concept, one that has been dictated primarily by circumstances and less so by opportunities. My mom lost three older brothers to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s (one younger brother died earlier, during the period of U.S. bombing in Cambodia’s countryside). Nearly one-fifth of Cambodians, a varying estimate of one to three million people, had died during the four-year genocide. The nation’s trauma and tragic loss of its citizens — who were primarily educated, artists, and middle-class — still resonate among the diaspora today.

After living in Thailand and the Philippines, my mom and her family arrived to Utah and later to L.A. For over 20 years, my family lived in an 1895-built Eastlake Victorian four-plex tucked in the foothill of Echo Park, a neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles. This was my first home. I remember the skyscrapers, zipping cars on the 101 Hollywood Freeway, and summertime lotuses in Echo Park Lake, the neighborhood’s namesake. During the early 1980s, a wave of Southeast Asian refugees and genocide survivors had settled into this area; my family was among them.

Yet, for all its childhood glory, the Los Angeles that I lived in was evidently poor. As I grew older, I noticed my neighborhood’s businesses and residents began dramatically changing. In 2005, there was a change in property ownership. Not so long after, we were unlawfully evicted from the only home I ever knew. It was a rent-controlled building that, for decades, housed many Cambodian families resettling and starting anew in America.

At the age of 16, I experienced the bleak realities of poverty. Being forced to leave our home, once again under circumstances beyond my family’s control, was painful. Our home was irrevocably gone.

Echo Park, the beloved neighborhood that I grew up in.

The Cities That I’ve Lived In

In college, I studied cities. In everyday life, I live and experience them. Like other urban planners, I was fascinated by New York as an urban laboratory fraught with housing, transportation, educational, and zoning issues. After all, innovative policies and interventions in cities can have lasting impact on some of our most vulnerable and needy populations. As the famed Jane Jacobs stated: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Being an Angeleno, for me, means that I have a keener understanding of human dynamics, diversity, and how socioeconomic issues manifest in the physical landscape. It is not the airy superficiality that Los Angeles has become associated with. This is the L.A. that I return to, the ever-changing city so eloquently embodied by Luis J. Rodriguez’s poem.

Living in New York City as an adult — which has admittedly been more grit than glitz — has undoubtedly shaped my understanding of the world and myself. There are things I’ve come to terms with (being an introvert) and things I have achieved (better financial management). I feel a firmer sense of self, with my identity being defined by my own daring nature, failed relationships, and happy accidents.

One of the primary drivers behind returning home, besides family, is my career and a dream opportunity in software development. During my time here, my career trajectory has taken shape and pivoted, rekindling a sense of purpose and peace of mind with who I have become. I retreat to L.A., a bit resigned yet incredibly hopeful about creating opportunities in tech for my community. I am excited to deepen ties with family and friends while discovering new facets of this city of mine, wary of how much may have changed in my absence.

Leaving New York is not as I had imagined; it is not a great fanfare or a finale tour of the city’s greatest and grandest sights. My last few days have been relatively banal. In preparing to move, I have found myself buried in organizing and packing, preoccupied with domestic duties and errands and catching up with friends.

I’ve realized that I am not leaving forever, but I am leaving tomorrow — and surely, I will find my way back here. My heart is full of gratitude for everything that has come to pass; my spirit set on all things yet to come.