Newark Liberty International Airport, NJ

The New Californian

Part 1: My First Month in the Golden State

Til we meet again

While my Dad waited for me in the car, I stared at my empty bedroom one last time and quietly said goodbye. Before leaving the house, I knelt down by the front door and touched my Mom’s feet. It was an Indian cultural display of respect; I’d never done it before and my parents never expected it, but it felt right at this moment. I gave her a hug and told her we’d see each other soon. Then she started to cry. Great. I planned a dry departure and now I was standing there choking back tears. At 11:00 AM on September 30, 2014, I left Edison NJ, my home for 31 years.

At Newark Liberty International Airport, I touched my Dad’s feet before hugging him and heading inside. I could see the worry in his eyes. If there was a thought balloon above his head, it would’ve read, “You quit a steady job with decent pay. I really hope you know what you’re doing.” Shortly after 1 PM, I was on Southwest Airlines flight #788 heading to California on a one-way ticket.

The plane reached Oakland at around 7 PM. I spotted Trishna and Joey (my sister and brother-in-law) waiting for me before I reached the baggage carousel. I hugged them as Joey said, “Welcome to your new life!” At their apartment, Sasha (our cat) greeted me by licking every inch of my hand. “Well, if you’re going to live here, might as well clean you up,” she thought. After more than 2 years of planning, I finally arrived. One minor task remained: landing a job doing visual design at a tech company. Easy peasy.

I hear Hans Zimmer music when I walk down this street

Brand new day

Day one of my new life: I stepped out into warm sunlight and strolled down Monte Cresta Avenue towards Piedmont Avenue. There’s a particular moment during this walk when you turn the corner and see rolling hills against a bright blue sky. In spite of the telephone poles and wires that clutter the scenery, at this precise moment I hear the “Man of Steel” soundtrack in my head (yeah, it was a lousy movie, but that music!)

Oakland, CA: day one.

At Timeless Coffee, I sipped a Latte and completed a design test for a potential job. Aside from the better coffee, amazing weather, tastier food, and overall nicer people, I moved here to get a job designing apps. My former company simply wouldn’t let me work on such projects. Applying to positions in CA while living in NJ was pointless. I did the only sane thing I could think of: I gave my notice, quit my job and moved here. Hard work and perseverance would take care of the rest. Fingers crossed.

Timeless Coffee. Don’t be an idiot, just go there.

As I job-hunted over the next few days, I became a one-man Yelp, mentally rating all food and coffee within arm’s reach. The participants: Gaylord’s (nope), Baja Taqueria (meh), Simply Greek (okay), Sparky’s (not bad), La Farine (how you doing), Caffe Crush (kiss me), Farley’s East (that’s nice), Torpedo Sushi (yeah, that’s it), Caffe Trieste (do it again), Bittersweet Cafe (oh baby), and of course Timeless Coffee (YES!!!)

A man needs to eat. And snack. And caffeinate.

Captain solo

A week after arriving, I dropped off Trishna and Joey at SFO. They were going to travel across Southeast Asia for two months, leaving the apartment and Sasha in my care. I knew all of this well in advance, but it felt strange to see them leave their home. My friends in California just shrank down to two people on the second floor and one cat.

Sasha agreed to keep me company in exchange for regular feedings, litter cleanup, and playtime. I quickly learned that leaving my bedroom door open was an invitation to wake me with her cold nose in my face. We developed a routine: I flicked crumpled paper balls across the floor and she chased them with the speed and ferocity of a ninja. Afterwards, I was allowed to have lunch or do work.

I was allergic to cat hair build up, so sweeping and “Swiffering” the floor was a daily survival tactic.

I spent the next few weeks getting used to my new surroundings. In NJ it’s illegal to pump your own gas; they say it’s because of public safety, but some wheels were greased to prevent it from happening. Since I’d never done it before, my big concern was spilling gas all over my pants and getting laughed at. Not a flash fire or anything serious, just getting heckled. This is what keeps me up at night.

And while we’re on the subject of driving, for the first time in decades I had no idea how to get anywhere. All that knowledge of shortcuts in NJ and NY? Useless. I used Apple Maps to find things (that’s right haters, I said APPLE maps)… and as a reward for my loyalty, the first time I drove to Emeryville, I ended up in Treasure Island.

Don’t start with me. Just… don’t.

On the right: what the hell are those things? Is that a yellow claw?

Grocery shopping is something that should’ve been mundane, but proved to be inexplicably enjoyable. I know there are probably good reasons why fruit and veggies taste better here, but I just don’t care. All that matters is when I eat it, my body starts to sway a little like I’m going to dance. And I’m not one to dance.

I had Piedmont Groceries, Temescal Farmer’s Market, and Berkeley Bowl at my disposal and they all taught me how easy I am to please when my belly is satisfied. I was often so overwhelmed with the sheer volume of options, that I would just stand in the aisles gazing at the food. It probably annoyed the other shoppers, but whatever… this wasn’t NJ. Nobody would to get in my face here.

Grand Lake Theater (left) and Piedmont Avenue Halloween Parade (right)
Decommissioned Imperial Walkers

If I wanted to see a movie in a modern theater, I had to go to Bay Street in Emeryville. Some people avoid generic mall cinemas, but as my sister put it, “It’s kind of hoity-toity. You’ll like it.” A drive to Jack London Square got me a closer look at the Oakland Cranes, which were supposedly the inspiration for the Imperial Walkers in The Empire Strikes Back. Lucas has denied it, but COME ON… those things are totally AT-ATs.

Eventually I realized that I needed to learn to cook for myself. That meant making more than just eggs or cheese toast. I knew that my first attempts would be offensive, but it was okay. I had YouTube.

My portobello mushrooms were soggy and tasteless, and my kale looked like it was rained on. Nonetheless, I ate it all so I could learn what not to do ever again. On to the next experiment. The following day’s Swordfish was still a bit bland, but it was good enough to Instagram and text to the family. They were mildly concerned that I was starving, so this would put them at ease. Next up was Salmon: very tasty, but it fell apart due to my lack of grace with a spatula. No Instagram that night. On the fourth evening, my Shitake Mushrooms looked and tasted good enough for another human being to savor. Mic drop!

You’ve become completely Californian if:

  1. You think that 50 degrees with a light drizzle means the day is ruined. A week of this and it’s time to take out the winter coat. You don’t understand why this is happening to you.
  2. You eat food that is anything less than culinary perfection and you want to throw it at the nearest wall. If it isn’t organic, it may as well be poison.
  3. You absolutely refuse to enter a Starbucks, let alone drink what they think passes for “coffee” (Sidenote: you happily gulped it daily before moving here.)
  4. You freely throw around the word “earthy” to describe anything that tastes like beach sand.
  5. You think sticking two iron legs on a slab of reclaimed wood makes the perfect dining table.

Table for one

Hi, welcome to Shimizu Sushi, how many?
Just me, thanks.

It turns out that moving to a new city where you don’t know anybody brings the slow creep of loneliness into your life. I enjoyed so many new experiences, but there was nobody to share them with me. I should’ve expected this, but it’s my habit to set my mind towards a goal and ignore the consequences to myself.

Here were the facts: I moved across the country away from everything and everyone I knew in pursuit of a better career. Trishna and Joey were on another continent one week after I arrived. I hadn’t been here long enough to form strong bonds with the small number of people I knew. And it didn’t help that I’m introverted by nature.

As I wrote the above, I’m equally horrified and fascinated by my lack of foresight.

I knew that once I started working, it would be much easier to make new friends, but for now this was my reality. So what would I do about it?

There were a few obvious solutions to my situation:

  • Begin having conversations with Sasha. I mean, she’s right there and I was already tossing things around the apartment for her to chase. Chatting it up with her every morning and evening cut the silence and did wonders for my state of mind (yeah, I know how ironic that sounds.) She became one of the most loyal and affectionate friends I could ask for. Plus nobody else was around to clean up her poop.
  • In addition to the feline community, take the initiative to talk to people. Maybe I’d start with the nice baristas who made coffee while I squatted at Timeless. Or perhaps the farmers market folk. People seemed talkative there. It was never easy for me to put myself out there, but that fear was not exclusive to me. And despite how much I suck at remembering names, I had to put more effort into using them when saying hello.
  • Cultivate the skill of experiencing life in solitary. This one was the toughest because it required overcoming the universal fear of being alone. I don’t know many people who are truly capable of this; the ones that claim to be are same ones that conveniently have someone in their life. I tried flipping the script. Instead of, “I’m alone, what the fuck do I do?” it could be, “I’m alone, I can do whatever the fuck I want!” It took time, but at any moment when I felt particularly friendless, I just kept repeating this to myself… and there was lots of repetition!

The shape of my life in California was entirely up to me. I had a clean slate to work with and nothing in my way, aside from the excuses I manufactured.

What goes up…

So, back to the job hunt.

One of the first things I did was clean up the appearance and usability of my portfolio website. Someone advised me to make it “less NJ and more CA.” Next, I reached out to other Bay Area designers I found on Medium. I sought feedback and advice about their experiences in moving here and finding work. Finally, I put my resume onto all the job boards. Less than a week later, the phone calls from recruiters started.

Game on!

The more calls I received in a day, the more I danced around the apartment with a snack in one hand. And to reiterate, I don’t dance. One call in particular came at the end of the month; it was for a role at a design studio. Their only client makes the fancy phone we all keep in our pockets. You know the one. My dance moves got bolder and Sasha looked concerned for me.

A few days later, another recruiter called. This was about a different role working directly for the company that makes the fancy phone we keep in our pockets. You still know the one. I secured a phone interview with the hiring manager and now my dance moves got wilder. Sasha looked really worried for me now.

The excitement I felt that week was like gaining superpowers! And not just one, but all of them! I spent the next few days brushing up on the design guidelines of this company that I respected the most. Think fast, Batman.

The next morning I sat prepared for my phone interview with my laptop open and my notebook ready. One hour passed. Then two. Complete silence. What the fuck?

After two and a half hours of anxiety and no call from the hiring manager, I inquired with the recruiter to find out what happened. They were clueless. Again, what the fuck?

Was this normal? Was it something I said? It couldn’t be, I didn’t get the chance to say anything! Maybe this was an elaborate prank? Did hiring managers in tech punk people by luring them into fake interviews? A courtesy email to reschedule would’ve been the humane thing to do. It would’ve spared me over two hours of refreshing my email nonstop or wondering if my phone service was cut off.

But let’s not forget to mention the other phone call that I did receive that day: it was from the first recruiter informing me that the design studio decided to pass on me as a candidate. They mentioned my “lack of enough experience” to which I wanted to reply, “But that’s what you were supposed to be for! What good are you then?!”

If the lead up to this day gave me superpowers, then this must be what Kryptonite felt like.

Ominous tree on Piedmont Avenue giving me multiple middle fingers.

It was October 31 and the end of my first month in California. For the first time since moving here, the sun was blocked by cloudy skies and persistent rain. My feedback was, “Dear Weather, this is my life that you’re mocking with your excessive personification. Please stop being a jerk. Regards, Viv.”

Sasha noticed that my day was less than ideal and decided to cuddle up on my lap. She raised her head to look at me and said, “It’ll be fine, you’re just getting started. You have more options coming sooner than you think. Now scratch my forehead.”

You’ve got a friend in me.

Happy Halloween.

To be continued…