Before leaving to work abroad in Hong Kong in September of 2014, I had lived the entirety of my life, all 22 years, in Oregon. I grew up in the vanilla suburb of Beaverton, 20 minutes outside the city of Portland. At 18 I would experience what at that time would be my most significant change in residency, moving 40 minutes away to North Portland to attend college at the University of Portland.
Not only did I enjoy a purely Oregonian upbringing geographically, I enjoyed familial stability throughout my childhood and formative years as well. I grew up in a textbook nuclear family with parents who were married, a sister 18 months younger than me, a dog and two cats, all situated in a quiet suburban neighborhood. With a garage full of skies, skimboards, hiking boots, kayaks and an SUV, we were 21st century middle-class Americana in its purest form.
And though some grow to detest the place they are raised as they age, as I grew older, I only learned to appreciate Portland more. In college it was to the mountains in the winter, beach in the summer, interesting street fairs, farmers markets, fun bars, and longboarding with friends across one of the various bridges that spanned the Willamette river — all with Mt. Hood and the eastern foothills providing a lush green backdrop for our Northwestern activities.
From birth to college gradation, Portland provided the setting for 22 years of memories, an environment that in my eyes could not have been better for a healthy, if not stereotypical, upbringing. I understood the city, felt a part of it, and I was grateful for feeling a sense of place there. Portland was truly home.
Since college graduation, a lot has changed. After graduation, as almost always happens after you walk across the stage and excitedly enter unemployment, there was a great exodus of my college social circle in which everyone quickly scurried in different directions as they confronted ‘the real world.’ One friend to Utah, one to San Francisco, one to Washington, one to Hawaii, and so on.
After graduation, as almost always happens after you walk across the stage and excitedly enter unemployment, there was a great exodus of my college social circle in which everyone quickly scurried in different directions as they confronted ‘the real world.’
The same goes for my family. After getting divorced in 2011, my parents have gone a number of different directions, settled at the moment with my mother living in Mexico and my father recently back in Portland after living shortly in Florida.
Portland itself has changed as well, or so I have heard. San Francisco 2.0 is slowly being established in the Rose City, forcing most recent grads out and forever changing the feel and vibe of what was a small, largely overlooked metropolis of families, hippies, and artists.
Once the cradle of my identity, the place of my childhood and young adult memories, my social circle and my place in the world, the Portland I knew has since largely dissolved into the ether. Much like the thought experiment of the boat which has every wood board of its hull replaced, Portland is still Portland, but I can no longer say it is the Portland that I grew up in.
I realize now that I may have taken for granted how comforting it was to say with such conviction and certainty the statement I am from Portland, and the role that statement played in my personal identity.
I now hesitate with the question “where you from?” a question that just three years ago would be answered by reflex and with pride.
Where are you from is not precisely the question that gives me pause. It is the underlying question that where are you from causes me to reflect on. Namely, where is my home?
With Portland now sentimentally foreign in my eyes, my current city of Da Nang, Vietnam, provides little solace for establishing any true sense of place. I am reminded regularly that here in Vietnam I am very much an oddity; people on the street openly stare at me: a large, blue eyed, light-browned haired white man walking among a sea of Vietnamese men and women half his size. People approach for a picture or snap a poorly concealed one. They guess where I am from, laugh affectionately at my inability to understand the language and, when I truly need it, offer a helpful hand. It is all in good nature, but all of these moments serve as reminders I am hardly anywhere I could call, with any sincerity, home.
Just as it was living in Hong Kong or Hanoi, in Da Nang I am on the outside looking in, an observer to a culture I make an honest effort to understand, but could only feel a part of through blinding ignorance of just how separate I am.
With the Portland I knew now largely existing as a backdrop of faded memories and Vietnam a peculiar snow globe that I can hold up and look at with equal parts confusion, affection and objectivity, there seems no place for me to plant a flag of identity, to say again with confidence this is where I am from.
What, then, is the source of satisfaction that overpowers the feeling of loss? What can possibly be gained in the process of having lost what many would identify as the cornerstone of their identity, namely, some unequivocal place in the world to call their own?
Comfort Among the Unfamiliar
The feeling of “place” that is lost by living abroad gives rise to a wholly other feeling and skill altogether: the confidence in one’s ability to find comfort among the unfamiliar. And what a skill to have. What before may have been cause for uncertainty, fear or anxiety is now a welcome challenge: the opportunity to enter what is unknown to me, observe the rules, tendencies and behaviors of those around me, and assimilate, to a large extent, to a new environment.
This skill of assimilation is not only a necessary aspect of living abroad, it is a point of pride. Like moss growing on a brick wall, the contrast between myself and my environment is stark: I am not Vietnamese, nor was I a Hong Konger. But this is the privilege skills of assimilation afford: the ability to live comfortably and find place in any environment or society, no matter how different it may be from the ones I have known before.
There continue to be times when I think that there would be nothing more satisfying than having a beer with old friends again in downtown Portland, or eating lunch at a food cart, or grabbing coffee on Northwest 23rd. Hell, just walking into a restaurant without being met with hundreds of unabashedly inquisitive eyes would be a comforting change of pace.
Like soldiers who can’t adjust to civilian life because they miss the rush of war, I not only enjoy my current state as an oddity, but am thankful for it everyday.
But I know that the feeling wouldn’t last. That I would get bored. That “home,” the sort that is familiar and comfortable and known, would quickly become unfulfilling. Thus far, I have trusted my sense that now is time for adventure. Now is a time for night markets and riding on motorbikes and crowding into busy metros and unplanned weekend trips to cities most people only see in magazines or the Travel Channel.
For now, I accept the otherness and the lack of attachment to any one place. Drinking a coffee alone, watching the passersby as they make through the streets on their motorbikes, it is clear that I have not only accepted that I have lost the familiar, but that I now thrive in its absence. Like soldiers who can’t adjust to civilian life because they miss the rush of war, I not only enjoy my current state as an oddity, but am thankful for it everyday, and continue to run towards that which is new, weird, odd or different.