Jessai Flores

California, as Frank Sinatra once sang, is “a land that paradise could well be jealous of.” To the thespian, it is where stars achieve immortality on the silver screen. To the techie, it is where innovators cradle the infant technologies of the digital world. To me, it is home.

I was born and raised in California — Northern California, to be exact. I have called the San Francisco Bay Area home for the past 18 years and counting. California was where I took my first steps, said my first words, made my first friends and found my first love. It was, naturally, the land of my firsts. Yet, the first time I came to appreciate California truly was on a cold autumn evening at a bustling airport in the Midwest.

Roughly two weeks ago, I found myself sitting in front of a gate at McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. I successfully completed the first leg of my trip back home for Thanksgiving. Staring at the screen above the gate counter were two words cast against a navy blue background in bold, white, sans-serif text: San Francisco. Upon seeing those words, I felt an epiphanic rush of undiscovered excitement and energy that encouraged me to reflect. I have always appreciated my home, albeit placidly, yet that appreciation has since matured. The emotion is the same, yet the feeling is different. Having spent the last few months on an opposite coast of the country, home has taken on a greater meaning for me. 

Before moving to New Haven, home and its surroundings were an afterthought. I never cared much about the commutes I would take on U.S. 101 or I-280 or the signs marking city limits I would pass on my way to school. I never paid much attention to the rolling vineyards I would watch from my window on road trips through Napa, or the winding cliffs and crashing waves that caressed the Pacific Coast Highway on the road to Big Sur. I never gasped as loudly as the tourists on my left and right would when they caught a sight of the Golden Gate Bridge peeking through the fog, or of the sun shining through the aged foliage of redwoods in Muir Woods. Even beyond the Bay Area, my travels have taken me to the shores of Lake Tahoe, the rich farmlands of the San Joaquin Valley, the plains of the Mojave Desert, the beaches of Los Angeles and the restaurants of San Diego. In my young mind, these places and experiences would always be a ride away. I was never compelled to appreciate them beyond their aesthetic beauty since they would always be there. They were as accessible as my backyard would be. Suffice it to say, I took them for granted.

Beyond the tangibles, however, is the fact that my calling California “home” extends well beyond its sights — also to its people. A great number of my friends remain in California as they follow their academic journeys, while others, like me, have traveled in pursuit of their intellectual callings. Regardless, we are all Californians by heart and home, and thinking of the Golden State while in New Haven brings back memories of evenings playing pool at a friend’s house, going birding on the San Mateo Coast or high school hijinks that only now mature in hilarity as time passes. 

California, also, is synonymous with the family I love. My parents and a substantial majority of my relatives live in California. If the sights of California make my home pretty to the eye, it is my family that makes California a place where my heart can smile. On some days, when I have finished my many readings for my political science lectures or my problem set for calculus, I let my mind wander back home. And as my thoughts breeze through the places I have known and seen, they bring me to scenes of my mother wrapping her delicious lumpia or my father listening to his Elvis records. These images of my friends and family now rest as mental vignettes captured in the library of my mind. They exist now as memories to be cherished, not as scenes I would encounter presently in my day-to-day life.

Now that I have spent months away from California, all these memories have taken on a greater significance in my mind. They have encouraged me to reflect and better appreciate that which I have taken for granted for many years of my life. I can count, on one hand, how many times I have traveled on a Connecticut highway; I have become the classic college pedestrian on city sidewalks. The California Coast or the bridges that span the San Francisco Bay are no longer in view; they remain only in the confines of a Google search or a digital wallpaper. My friends are no longer a car ride away; they are scattered across America’s time zones as marbles tossed along a rug. In all, the absence of home has only made me appreciate it further and grow in gratitude for it.

Before flying out to New Haven a few months ago, my father told me that “distance makes the heart grow fonder.” He knowingly quoted a pithy adage, one as inseparable to the modern romantic comedy as a smartphone is to a teenager, to challenge my way of thinking. As someone who appreciates nuance, I never understood how a blanketing, solitary sentence such as this one can encapsulate the intricacies of life. But, his imparting this saying to me reminded me that sometimes, the best way — perhaps the only way — to teach a certain lesson is to state it simply. My father, in imparting this saying, was not necessarily alluding to any distant romances that might come my way, but trying to tell me that wherever I may roam, I must not forget about my home and my love for it. 

Thus, in the spirit of the Thanksgiving season, I developed a new sense of gratitude for home 2,000 miles away from it. I came to love California more in Detroit. With a keen sense of appreciation, I now yearn for the chance to stroll on a beach in Carmel and feel the waves slip through my fingers. I now long for the moment I can warm marshmallows over a campfire with friends while exchanging stories and songs. I now pine for the rich smell and taste of my mother’s homemade Filipino delicacies as my father hums along to a track of “It’s Now or Never.” I, now a much wiser and more contemplative self, intend to immerse myself in every moment and to wrap myself in the present beauty that I call my home whenever I find myself in California’s embrace.

To quote Sinatra a second time, “it’s very nice to go trav’ling, but it’s oh so nice to come home.” He was right. Notwithstanding the fact that my adventures are wonderful, my escapades are thrilling and my travels are enthralling, there is a profound, indefatigable and irresistible allure to my home that no other place can emulate. Thinking about this as the seats around me filled with rushing passengers, I found myself grateful for my home with a gratitude rooted in firm earnestness and deeper understanding. This gratitude rests well in my mind where I can rely on it to keep California not as some place distant or mystical, but simply as the home that is near and true in my heart.