It was a beautiful day with a few sweeping clouds. My daughter and I decided to go for a long hike at Lake Los Carneros. Before we began our hike, we thought we should probably grab some lunch so that way we could burn it off. Since we are big foodies (a fancy way to say we like to eat) we started going over a long list of amazing restaurants in Santa Barbara, and the lucky restaurant was Natural Cafe because it’s simple, easy, and quick. We ordered, I paid, and we went outside in search of a table for two, hoping for one with partial sun. The restaurant was crowded, and seating was limited, so we settled on a table in the full sun. As we took off our jackets, hoping we would not get sunburned, a cloud slowly and gently passed by. Feeling grateful for the shade, we settled in and began to have a casual conversation. I had not yet paid any attention to the other people that were on the patio. Our food arrived and we began to eat when we suddenly got distracted by a conversation between two men at a table beside us. Out of nowhere, a blast of jarring ugliness seemed to stream into our ears. It stood out from the background noise of others’ conversations, much louder and in a different tone: two men talking about Black Lives Matter.
One man said he did not understand why the Black Lives Matter movement was such a big deal. When the other man agreed, he continued, “I have lived in Santa Barbara my whole life, we’ve had exposure to immigrants and people of color. I read a book about different cultures every month to get a better understanding of the differences. What’s the big deal? I really don’t get it, the whole anti-racist movement!”
I had no interest in looking until this comment compelled me to turn and see who was spewing this ugly rhetoric. I saw two older white men, one was approximately in his late 60s and the other in his mid-50s. I wanted to yell out “Of course, you don’t get it! You’ll probably never get it because you live in a privileged bubble and have never experienced what people of color feel or have to go through.” I honestly could not believe these two men felt comfortable enough to blatantly expose their ignorance. I looked at my daughter and mumbled under my breath, “Did you hear that?” She nodded, her face showing disgust and almost a look of sadness. We ended up leaving because we wanted to get away from their negative, self-centered energy. When we got to the car, I was still irritated and I asked my daughter what she thought.
I was surprised by the calm, pragmatic opinion she shared “Mom…privileged white old men will always have these attitudes unless they are willing to step outside their comfort zone and view the world as it is, and not what they perceive it to be…it’s generational, and this is Santa Barbara after all.” But the overheard conversation got me thinking about this idea of home. Why do those men consider Santa Barbara home, and I don’t? What’s the difference? I began to wonder, what is home? Is home a feeling or is it something else?
I have often questioned myself on this recurring theme of “home.” I began to unearth old feelings about how I felt about this beautiful Mediterranean slice of heaven called Santa Barbara. The question of what home means stayed in the back of my mind as I had coffee with my neighbor shortly thereafter.
My neighbor, Ana, and I have always had issues. Normal, petty neighborly kind of issues, nothing serious—the things neighbors disagree about. But sometimes it can be a little more than that. From my perspective, my 83-year-old Russian neighbor had nothing else to do but interfere in other people’s business. I found her to be aggressive, rude, loud, territorial, and always sarcastic. She attacked my guests when they visited, yelled at people parking in front of her house, and so on! After many years of this behavior, we finally had it out, and I stopped talking to her. Eventually, Ana came around and apologized for her obnoxious behavior. Things calmed down and she changed a bit. Then, tragically, she lost her only son, who passed away from a heart attack. I felt sad for her and her husband, and I offered my deepest condolences with a card and some orchids. We did not speak for a while after that. One day, I ran into Ana and her husband while they were taking their daily walk and I decided to invite her for coffee. She accepted my invitation, and we settled on a day and time.
It was a beautiful Wednesday morning, the sun was shining and there were a few clouds. I show up at 9:00am sharp because Ana is very particular about time and likes people to be punctual. Since she lives directly next door to me, as I came out of my front door and walked down the driveway, turning right—there she was, punctual as always and ready to go.
I greeted her with, “Good morning Ana, you look pretty.” She smiled and I could see a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.
She replied, “Where’s your mask?” All while she was giving me a sarcastic grin.
Then I looked at her. “Where’s yours? You need it more than me!” She laughed and gave me a little pat on my back and we left for Renaud’s French Bakery, as she had not been there before. During the drive to Renaud’s, we both made small talk. I could tell that she was happy to be out and have someone to talk to other than her husband. At the restaurant, Ana surveyed the patio and decided on a somewhat private spot, close to the fountain but not too close to other people. Ana dictated her order, a black coffee, and an almond croissant.
I placed the order and made my way over to where Ana was seated. We briefly commented about the beautiful weather and how grateful we are to be living in Santa Barbara before diving into a deep conversation about Ana’s immigration from the Soviet Union as a young girl. Ana told me that she left because of anti-Semitism. In her broken English and strong Russian accent, Ana described her experience upon arrival to Santa Barbara as unpleasant. She said that people came across as uptight, snooty, fake, and unfriendly, and said she felt that they didn’t make room for outsiders. Consequently, she always felt alone and never made any close friends.
I felt sad for her. Here was this 83-year-old woman who had lived in Santa Barbara for forty-four years, and her experience with American culture was aloof and unfriendly. I felt empathetic because I also felt like this when I first moved to Santa Barbara. I thought there must be more to her story, and I got curious and I probed for more information.
“Do you feel this way about all American culture, or is it unique to Santa Barbara?” I asked.
“American culture, in general, is like this. People don’t care about other people.” Ana continued, “I had a hard time when I first came to Santa Barbara. My husband and I did not speak any English and it was difficult to learn. I was an engineer in Russia, but because I did not speak English I had to work on a factory line putting parts together.” Ana described how her language barrier made it difficult to adapt to living in Santa Barbara. The way she described her experience is that no one helped her or seemed to care. That was why she’d had to become more assertive.
“What kind of attitude did you have when you lived in the Soviet Union, do you feel like you were the same person as you are now?” I asked. It was hard to imagine her any other way than as the cantankerous old neighbor I’d known for so long.
“No!” she said. “I was not aggressive at all. I was not rich, but I was happy. I went on vacation and ate good food. People were friendly and genuine. Here, people are rude, not genuine. The kids here don’t have manners and respect. All people here care about is working all the time to make more money…more…more!”
Suddenly, I had an epiphany. I understood what happened to the hopeful young woman who came to America in search of a better life, what had transformed her into this aggressive, overbearing, and judgemental person. All immigrants come to the U.S.A in search of a better life and face many challenges adapting to their new home: culture, food, people, and language. I always thought Ana was unpleasant, but after our conversation, I realized that I was mistaken. Ana wasn’t at all the person she appeared to be—Ana has learned to be the person she is today because of the environment and culture she was forced to adapt to. It’s a defense mechanism and her means of survival. This is the outcome of assimilation to a culture that she experienced as foreign and uncaring. When Ana came to the U.S.A to escape the Soviet Union, she was timid and did not speak English, and she was struggling financially. She adapted to her new home the only way she knew how: by becoming strong, forceful, and demanding. She changed her identity in order to survive. This became her armor, and she never again took it off.
And I realized something else too—that I was not so very different from Ana.
When I was 13 years old, I moved with my family to the U.S.A as an expatriate. My father worked for an oil company and I had spent most of my childhood in the middle east. Soon after moving to America, we decided to stay and become U.S. citizens. Life was difficult during that time. I tried to adapt to my new culture in high school and college, but I never really felt at home.
After I got married, I continued a life filled with extensive global travel with my husband and kids. After living in Thailand for six years, we moved to Santa Barbara and purchased a home. I thought I would finally find my home in Santa Barbara, because Santa Barbara sparkled with welcoming hope and beauty, and everyone seemed so friendly. Once my children began junior high school, I started to notice that it was difficult for all of us to connect with people and make new friends. It seemed everyone had already built their own exclusive communities and did not have room to let anyone else in. My husband worked globally and traveled a lot, so he did not understand what my kids and I experienced. We felt lonely. We dreamed of leaving, moving back overseas, and to our relief, after a year and a half, our dream came true and we ended up moving to Singapore.
After my daughter graduated from high school in Singapore, she and I moved back to Santa Barbara so she could attend college, while my son and husband stayed in Singapore to finish my son’s high-school education. I wanted this time to be different than when we’d moved to Santa Barbara previously. I decided to join the gym and a yoga studio and signed up for different experiences, all to make friends and connections. I tried to meet people, but it was in vain—I couldn’t seem to find those deep connections I sought. I finally gave up.
Again, I began to ponder this question of home: why is it difficult for me to call Santa Barbara home? Here is this beautiful city with amazing weather, year-round flowers, beaches, and mountains—it’s close to perfection, and yet, I have never felt at home here. Is it me? Then I began to wonder about the larger question of home and belonging as I reflected on my past travel experiences and living in so many different cultures. What is home? I kept searching for a home, yet I could not seem to identify what home is.
After my coffee with Ana, I reflected on the incident that occurred at Natural Cafe. Was it just another all-too-common incident of people with privileged attitudes being themselves without any awareness of how their words and beliefs might hurt others? And what about my feelings—are they not valid?
I kept wanting to investigate the issue, circling around and around my questions of home and belonging, but then I would wonder if it was worth my time. Why would I give this issue so much of my energy? I wondered if I just needed to move on. The world is becoming so globalized and there are so many individuals with a multitude of culturally diverse backgrounds who are now living in Santa Barbara and contributing to the many positive changes that are currently taking place. All these positive changes happening in Santa Barbara make the city a better place to live than it used to be. But then what bothered me was this: Could it be that the two men from Natural Cafe were also evolving their views, but in the opposite direction? Maybe the men felt threatened, rather than encouraged, by the recent influx of diversity to their beautiful home Santa Barbara. They seemed to be narrow-minded and conservative, unwilling to evolve or even attempt to understand anyone’s experience but their own. Nevertheless, it was incredibly frustrating. I shouldn’t care what they thought, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And the more I thought about it, the less I felt at home here.
It was only later, when I was writing about Ana, that I realized there was a strong connection between the two men at the Natural Cafe and Ana and me—though opposing in many ways, we were not opposites. We are all searching for and longing for the same thing: Home. The biggest difference between us was that each of us considered the other a threat to that idea of home. To the old white men, Santa Barbara is their home, and people like me are the intruders. Movements like Black Lives Matter are the intruders, bringing change and disruption to what they see as the status quo. They were being forced to change what their idea of home was, and, feeling threatened by these changes, created this defense mechanism. An armor not unlike Ana’s. Their idea of home is slowly eroding and they feel threatened and uncertain, so they become more stubborn about their defenses to preserve their idea of home. Meanwhile, Ana and I were desperate to find a home, and we felt threatened when we were perceived as outsiders. So we came up with our own defenses. Our own armor.
It seemed so ironic. We are so different, and we want the same thing—Home. But what is home? Is home a physical space? A house? A neighborhood? A town? Is it a person, or a community of people? Can you point to home on a map, or is it inside you–is it a feeling? Is home love? Comfort? Warmth? Safety? I feel like I, and so many others, have been in a lifelong search for a home. The word home signifies all these qualities—security, comfort, warmth, family, love, community—but it is more than these adjectives. And while it may be a place in your mind, a physical space, or a feeling, it is more than that too.
After searching for years, this is my perspective of home. Home is a culmination of our life experiences intertwined with human connections. These form indelible moments in our hearts, minds and souls which we then process into something we feel or call home. I think maybe home is this:“me, you, us.” We are home. Home is what we create within ourselves, for ourselves. It is our self-esteem, our power, the positive energy we share, our safety, our humanity, our kindness, our selflessness. Knowing oneself and feeling confident as you are. Also, being fallible. Not comparing yourself to others, not judging yourself or others. Self-forgiveness. Confidence in the face of Insecurity. Kindness in the face of defense. Accepting yourself for who you are and who you may yet become. Simply being you and all that it means to be human, is enough. You are home.