The concept of a hometown is a complicated one. When people smile and ask “where are you from?” my mind races. Are they referring to the home that gave me this brown skin? The city where I’ve celebrated major milestones in my short 21 years of life? The place where I finally felt like I could put down my things and stay for a while? The answer to each of these questions is different, so I’ve been searching for a place where I can honor the time when I grew up on the periphery of Seattle and when I finally made it to the city.
When people ask about where I’m from, the short answer is straightforward. I was born at the University of Washington Medical Center – and 6 weeks early because I’ve been trying to get ahead of the curve since the beginning. Shortly after, I spent the first 17 years of my life in Federal Way, Washington, a city that’s identified by its 30-mile proximity from Seattle. As a result, I resided near the bleeding age of change that never hit my community. Other school districts were teaching their kids to code as early as 3rd grade, but I didn’t even realize how fast the tech industry was changing the city of Seattle until I got to college.
Even though I was rooted in city bounds that were made for people just passing through, I was always in transit. I would drive to Tacoma at 7 a.m. with my father, sometimes for school and other times to sit in the back of his private practice and file charts. On the weekends, I’d stand on my tippy toes to buy chocolate thumbprint cookies and frozen yogurt from Pike Place Market. As long as I could turn the corner and see my house at the end of the day, I could breathe a sigh of relief. Federal Way was my home base, and that’s not something that everyone can say.
But when my co-workers and classmates and friends ask “where are you from?” and wait expectedly for a short answer, I find myself wishing they would ask, “where do you feel at home?” Without this latter question, you’d miss the story of how my parents went to medical school in Pakistan, immigrated to New York, passed through Chicago, and settled down in Washington State where they would build a life for our family. It is because of them that I have been able to make a life here with my brown skin and Muslim faith and dark eyes that see the world a little bit more clearly. The home of my mother country, Pakistan, has always been inside of me, and it continues to inform my definition of “home.” For this reason, I know that Ineed to be somewhere that acknowledges my history and the fact that home does not have to be one physical place. I carry my Pakistani roots with me in the colorful outfits I wear, the spices on my tongue, and the flowers on my shoulder that bloom like the ones my mom used to see in her hometown in Karachi. And so, I’m learning to only find home in places that allow me to celebrate every part of me. This began to manifest in small ways like that corner stores that sell cardamom pods by the bag or conversations about how to say “Pakistan” with the right inflection.
The way same my Pakistani roots have always been a part of me, I feel lucky to have grown up in a place that has changed with me. No, I don’t have those marks on the wall that show how my height has changed or a copy of my science fair presentation about maglev trains from third grade. But I can pinpoint moments when the city fought to be seen as a place that was capable of growth and supporting a new wave of people like me – anybody who had a story to tell that was rooted in a rich ancestry that predates their time on this Earth. Like the story of my family is forever changed by the India-Pakistan partition, I think about how the Galaxy Theater where I celebrated by 7th and 9th and 11th birthday was ultimately converted to a $2 theater with re-runs only when a shiny new theater opened a block away. I remember when rounding the corner and waiting 30 minutes for the opening of Coldstone Creamery that led to the closure of Baskin Robins, the first place where I could be greeted with a scoop of cookie dough ice cream upon entering the store because I was a “regular.” Only then did I realize that the places that I love will always be in flux, just like me.
And so Federal Way is changing, which means that I should too. Moving to Seattle for college was the first time that I put down roots for myself in Seattle proper, not just its nearby suburb. I was frequently asked to name my hometown when meeting scores of people who’d never learn how to spell my name. Over the course of quick intros during the first day of class or icebreakers on my dorm room floor, it became clear that people didn’t see my hometown the way I did. The hard part of growing up in a place like Federal Way is that success is defined by your ability to escape it. I can recall so many times where people asked me if I lived in “the ghetto” (my mother would laugh at the statement from the balcony of her waterfront home on Dashpoint) or would furrow their brow at the thought of living somewhere so “unsafe.” What mental images did they have of the city outside of the Wild Waves, the only thing close to a theme park and a sad attempt at that, and the Black Friday deals at Best Buy? I even remember talking to a makeup artist about moving from Federal Way to the University District to study engineering and intern at Microsoft. She feathered blush on the apples of my cheeks and jovially said, “so you’ve finally made it out!”
Still, I was determined to make Seattle my own and feel like I was actually “making” it. When college began, I was a bright-eyed 17-year old future M.D. But when I finally moved into my sparkly dorm room with a view of the Space Needle – a surefire sign that I was living the high life - it didn’t feel like the home. I used to be frustrated about going to a college with 40,000+ students because I thought I’d be destined to sink. How could I have something consequential to say in a city that’s defined by its industries, not necessarily its people? I wandered past the Google, Facebook, and Tableau offices while opening my PC – and later, Mac – with no idea that I’d end up in this industry and finally make my mark as a storyteller at a tech company.
Fast forward 2.5 years. I landed my first internship at Microsoft where my job would focus on storytelling at tech companies. I used to put my hands together and thank God that I was paid like an engineer to be a writer, which meant that I could afford the soaring rent cost on my own. My internship enabled me to live in Seattle for the summer instead of commuting 1.5 hours each way from Federal Way just to get to summer classes or work on campus. It was one of the first times I was no longer in transit – and it was the first time where I felt like Seattle was fully mine for the taking.
During my first summer at Microsoft, I experienced deep heartbreak that I’m still recovering from. As I trudged home and deleted scores of screenshots, text messages, photos that reminded me of love that was no longer mine, I waited for Seattle or Redmond to give me the peace I needed, but neither did. Instead, I found myself taking a bus back to the Federal Way Transit Center and walking 9 miles just to get home. I remember turning the corner to see my home at the top of the hill and breathing a sigh of relief – home, this place that I had tried to escape for so long, had waited for me. When I took of my shoes and sprawled out on my bed, I realized that this was the place that stayed constant when everything else is a whirlwind. Seattle could be a place of residence, and Microsoft could be a place to work, but home had always been in Federal Way, even if my opportunities weren’t. And so I went to the bed that night with a newfound peace.
I think my time living in Seattle is a story of falling in love with a place and leaving it anyways. I’m glad to be seen as a local who can confidently suggest the places to buy the best donuts (General Porpoise – I prefer the location in Pioneer Square and recommend the chocolate marshmallow donut) or take someone special out on a date (you can’t go wrong with Oddfellows in Capitol Hill). The only way to find out if I’m really in love with this city is to move and put down some roots somewhere else – after all, Federal Way and Seattle will always welcome me back with a familiar view of Mount Rainier.
Home is not a city or a place or a moment or a thing. Instead, home has always been inside of me. My Pakistani roots, time in transit, and ability to see old places in new ways remind me that I too am a work in progress.
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