Home Isn’t A Place — It’s A Mindset

by Allyce Yang | Class of 2020 at Minerva Schools

Photo: Stella Serger, Class of 2020

I lived in the outskirts of New York City for the first seventeen years, eleven months, and twenty-three days of my life. I loved the enormous oak tree outside my house; the winding roads through my neighborhood in Valley Stream; the quiet moments when the lights went out on the train connecting Long Island to lively Manhattan; the tiled murals scattering the walls of subway stations; the indescribable energy of people bustling around Union Square. Underneath the colossal skyscrapers, I often felt like a tiny ant crawling between blades of grass — small, perhaps even a little insignificant, but grounded. Looking up at the top of buildings, feeling the flow of passersby around me, I could not help but feel that I was standing exactly where I belonged. I wanted to stay in New York City so badly that all but one of the colleges I applied to during my senior year were within three hours of Manhattan. All but the one I ultimately chose, Minerva, a liberal arts and sciences institution, where undergraduates live and learn in seven cities around the globe.

I had always fantasized about seeing the world — who hasn’t? At the same time, I wasn’t a seasoned global traveler, like some of my classmates were even before they came to Minerva. Though I had briefly visited Europe, taken a two-week bus tour to Toronto with my family, and flown back to China every few years to visit relatives, I had never really felt at home anywhere but New York. The feeling of setting foot in a completely new place simultaneously exhilarated and terrified me. Even during the most idyllic moments of travel, I always felt slightly lost and perplexed when I was anywhere but home. I never had enough time to adjust to all the little things about being somewhere new, like the fact that cars run on the other side of the street in the United Kingdom, or that everything closes at 5pm in France. Before I could develop a consistent routine, find my favorite restaurants or learn where to buy groceries, I always had to leave.

The feeling of setting foot in a completely new place simultaneously exhilarated and terrified me.

To be honest, I was relieved to get back to New York so I didn’t have to struggle anymore. Rather than being astounded by new sights, I preferred rolling my eyes at attractions I’d marveled at ten thousand times before. Instead of asking people on the street for directions to a restaurant in an unfamiliar place, I preferred knowing exactly where my favorite spots were — and sticking to them. I’m not alone; 63% of all adults born in the United States have never lived outside of their hometowns (Taylor et al., 2008). Our familiarity with the ways of home makes it difficult to imagine how things could be any other way.

When I was accepted to Columbia during my senior year of high school, I realized that I would be quite content living my entire life confined to New York City. Despite its enormous size and diversity, I had a feeling I would not be the adventurer exploring abandoned subway tunnels, excited about what mysteries lay around the corner. No, I would be walking the same path I’d walked hundreds of times, from Penn Station to Union Square, knowing exactly what was waiting for me around the corner. At that time in my life, home meant familiarity, comfort, and safety, things that I only felt when I was in New York.

I knew I needed to get out of my comfort zone and explore the world the same way one feels the need to go to the gym after months of sitting at home on the couch. However, after choosing Minerva and moving to San Francisco, I realized immediately that moving out of New York was even more uncomfortable than I had anticipated. Even though I had visited San Francisco before, I could not have predicted exactly how different living in San Francisco would be from living in New York. The first time I left the Minerva residence hall, I rushed down the sidewalk of Market Street alongside just a trickle of people, rather than the ocean of humanity I was accustomed to. Without the crush of human life around me, without the familiar sights and streets to keep me grounded, I felt close to lifting off the sidewalk like a balloon. So I floated adrift through the streets, peering carefully at the map on my phone, somehow still turning the wrong way. During those first few weeks, I was so disoriented that I could not feel San Francisco beneath my feet at all. I simply wished to be brought down to earth again — and that meant being back home, in New York, where people speed-walk like me and jaywalk like me — which is to say, at every possible opportunity. Every time pedestrians in San Francisco actually waited for the “Go” signal to cross the street, I rolled my eyes a few feet ahead of them, already speed-walking across the intersection.

I began to wonder what else in life I was missing out on because I could not let go.

After a few weeks, however, I found myself waiting with them, taking the opportunity to stop, breathe, and look up. I started to understand how nice it was not rushing around everywhere, as if on the brink of missing a train. It started to seem silly to rapidly calculate how efficiently I cross the street when the weather was always so (comparatively) mild in the Bay Area. I learned how to enjoy the cool sea breeze and savor the feeling of sunlight, especially as I explored the natural wonders of the city. I searched on Yelp for delicious, cheap food within walking distance of the residence, and built up a roster of establishments that could meet any and every craving, at any time of day or night. By the end of my first semester, I had built routines and patterns that made me feel just as grounded in San Francisco as I did in New York, especially because of the friends at Minerva that I made along the way.

Many of my friends did not share my thirst for familiarity, but instead looked for happiness in other ways. Some sought out adventure by cliff-diving into the sea. Others savored the whimsical things in life, like tiny dollhouses and teacups in novelty stores. As I learned to see the world through their eyes, my dependence on tried-and-true routes to happiness seemed limiting. So I tried a lot of things I would never have dared to in New York, like top-rope climbing with my friend Arne at an indoor climbing gym, despite my deathly fear of falling from high places. Scurrying up the artificial rock face was physically grueling, but not that scary for me, since I was focused on looking and moving up. However, allowing Arne to lower me down on the belay took much longer than it should have because I was so afraid of falling five meters onto a padded mat. Although my fear was quite irrational, he patiently reassured me, explaining that I simply needed to stop trying to hold on to the hand grips and allow the rope to suspend me as he lowered me to the mat below. I learned to let gravity take charge, allowing myself to slowly descend into the unknown, until my feet hit solid ground again. I was embarrassed at how ridiculous I must have seemed, clinging onto the wall when it was not only safe, but also incredibly liberating to let go. I began to enjoy the feeling of falling, bouncing down the wall happily, rather than clinging onto control.

I began to wonder what else in life I was missing out on because I could not let go. Once I realized that connecting with other people was one of the most significant sources of fulfillment in my life, I decided that I wanted to explore my thoughts and dreams the same way I wanted to explore the many neighborhoods of San Francisco and other cities in the Bay Area. When I lived in New York, passersby were just humanoid shapes that either walked alongside me invisibly, or became obstacles in my way. I learned to ignore everyone and walk the crowded streets alone, even when I was surrounded by dozens of people. In San Francisco, the slow pace of the city and my newly ignited desire to know other people prompted me to start countless conversations with dog owners by asking if I could pet their dogs, then branching off into deeper discussions about their lives, jobs, and the skyrocketing housing prices in the Bay Area. I once complimented a woman on the sand castle she was building on Ocean Beach and ended up talking with her for half an hour about her time at cosmetology school. In the Castro District, I conversed with a homeless man, with a bottle of whiskey in his hand, about what it was like to live on the city streets.

I know that in many areas of the world, it is unsafe, or socially unacceptable to start conversations with strangers. Nonetheless, I believe there is always a way to find meaningful conversations and interactions with new people, as long as you are resourceful and passionate enough. The point is that seeking to understand people, who are much different than you are, can be enlightening and rewarding — much more so than simply dwelling in your own perspective. By the end of my year in San Francisco, it was no longer enough for me to enjoy a city by simply walking around and observing my surroundings the way I had often done in New York. Although the city itself is beautiful, it pales in comparison to the complexity and beauty of the people I got to know over the past year. I will take their stories and experiences wherever I go, not as extra weight in my checked baggage, but as colorful lenses that I can switch out to interpret the new places and things I see.

I believe there is always a way to find meaningful conversations and interactions with new people, as long as you are resourceful and passionate enough.

The true journey I made during my first year at Minerva wasn’t by airplane, car, or train, but was a movement through ideas. The true journey was the mental one I made from a very insular perspective of the world, to one that not only tolerated, but embraced viewpoints much different from my own. This journey was made possible by my friends, classmates, professors, neighbors, and even my fellow public transit riders. My definition of home has expanded beyond the limits of New York City, and transcended the limits of time and space. Now, I am at home whenever I am comfortable in my surroundings, safe in my own skin, and supported and appreciated by the people around me.

As I live and learn in Seoul, Hyderabad, Berlin, Buenos Aires, London, and Taipei over the next four years of my Minerva education, the challenge will not be in building a routine, or becoming familiar with my immediate surroundings because that happens quite naturally when you live somewhere for four months. The challenge will be continuing to open my mind to the unknown and forming meaningful connections with the people in each place. No matter if I am back in New York, or living in East Asia for the first time, I hope that I will continue to search for meaningful relationships, adventures, and complexity in the world around me.

References
Taylor, P., Morin, R., Cohn, D., & Wang, W. (2008). American Mobility: Who Moves?
Who Stays Put? Where’s Home? (p. 1, Rep.). Pew Research Center.