“Whatever you think, be sure it is what you think; whatever you want, be sure that is what you want; whatever you feel, be sure that is what you feel.” “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” — T.S. Eliot
Last year was undoubtedly the most difficult of my relatively young life. In April, I discovered my aunt who is as much a mother as my own, was diagnosed with cancer.
I also decided to take a break from acting after years of working diligently without the return on investment I’d hoped for.
I lost whatever sense of identity I’d clung to for nearly 15 years.
And finally, my transition from New York back to Oakland after over a decade away, while looking for teaching work proved nearly as tough as show business itself.
Still, it was these moments that slowly shaped, or rather reshaped an identity I felt I’d lost.
Whether strolling around Lake Merritt or frequenting one of the many new coffee houses along the now trendy Telegraph and Shattuck Avenues, it slowly dawned on me that I was where I was supposed to be.
Of course, the city had changed almost has much as I had. The watering holes were different, the faces unfamiliar, and the demeanor had softened.
Who were these people? I thought to myself.
The Oakland I’d known in the 80s and 90s was equally paradoxical but perhaps in more extreme ways.
Tucked away in the Oakland Hills, the late night news reports of robberies and murders seemed as though they might have been in a far away land. I had everything a kid would want.
My school was less than a mile away from home, my best friend lived at the bottom of the street, and soccer games full of screaming parents each Saturday morning were as reliable as the morning paper.
As I got older I’d pick up on how people reacted when I told them I was from Oakland, or when someone asked me what my ethnicity was.
Those things mattered now. It seemed my identity was so intertwined with Oakland and its people that any attempt to veer away was futile.
Not only had Oakland influenced me in ways my younger self couldn’t fully grasp, but the added bonus of having a mother from Seoul, Korea and an Italian-American father from Brooklyn half convinced me the Bay Area was the only place where such a union could thrive.
When I finally did leave for the east coast I found myself gradually identifying more and more with being a New Yorker. I actually enjoyed the changing seasons, the breakneck pace of life, and the people who captured a part of my heart.
They were a little rougher around the edges, but embodied the same grit and integrity my father always had when I was growing up.
But when it came time to take inventory of my life and what I was doing with it, it slowly dawned on me there was more to being a son than a 10-minute phone call every Sunday.
Life was short and in the end my aunt’s ailment helped drive the message, and ultimately me home.
I spent hours each day looking for work as a teacher, reading, writing, and trying desperately to continue finding ways to leave my mark on the world, even if it might no longer be on a stage.
I still had so much to say I felt as though I might burst. But first, I had to find ways to cultivate relationships with my old community and in the process with myself.
Weekend BBQ’s with old friends, baby showers, and even trivia night at a popular hangout on College Avenue gradually made me feel like I’d made the right choice to be back in Oakland.
New York still crossed my mind as I convinced myself the plan was to get back once my aunt got better.
But over time, I got used to those home cooked meals — the dukkboki and kimchee she’d make for me each time I’d come home.
Even Benson, our family dog, supported the notion that New York would just have to suck it up. I wasn’t coming back if he had anything to do with it.
Eventually, my relationship to Oakland became one less of sentimentality but one of hope.
Yes, my friends now had “real jobs,” mortgages, and kids further indicating things would never be the same but I grew to appreciate those changes rather than resist them.
I was making new friends and slowly getting my footing in a community that had always been so good to me.
But what finally occurred to me was no matter where you live in the world two things are paramount:
— good people
— a sense of meaning.
If you don’t have either than where you hang your hat becomes arbitrary.
A beach house or swanky apartment overlooking the Manhattan skyline comes in a distant second to a more humbling abode filled with people who love you and support your belief that you were put here for a reason.
I don’t know what role being back will play for me in the future but I’m grateful for the childhood it allowed me to have and the revelations it continues to present with each passing day.
I suppose that’s enough for anyone to feel comfortable calling a place home.
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