I told myself that the sunshine and celebrities were over-rated. I told myself I was too much of a progressive hippie to fall for such a superficial place.
It turns out I lied.
My first visit to California found me in the wrong parts of East L.A. sorting boxes of donated food. I learned three phrases in Spanish, crushed on a kid with a goatee and folded a whole lot of bedsheets.
Since that week thirteen years ago I have traveled up and down and in and out of California a dozen times.
I learned that Chico is home to a dozen or more of the world’s most authentic humans—the kind of people who love you just because they can see you need it right now. They’ll buy you margaritas and give you a tour of the a’mond orchards.
I learned that San Francisco is the place I’d move if I could afford it and if my SheLoves clan would all come with me. And I don’t care what you have to say about fast food, In-N-Out Burger is delicious and still novel to me. It tastes better in California than in Arizona, trust me.
I learned to drive a stick shift on vacation in San Jose when I was 16 and I saw my first avocado tree up close. I cried happy tears.
Almost a decade after my first visit to the land of eternal sunshine I moved to Los Angeles for three months. I shared an itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny-yellow-polka-dot … apartment … with another Sarah. She slept late. I woke early. She’s an introvert. I am not always. She loved my cooking. I loved her music.
That’s when I finally admitted it—I had fallen for California. She charms you with sunshine and concert tickets and ocean views. I was smitten.
I bought a beach cruiser.
I people-watched at Venice Beach.
I ate In-N-Out on Saturdays.
I stayed out til 2 a.m.
I wore heels to a party.
I bought cheap avocados and mouth-watering strawberries.
And then I drove home. Happy to see the lands of rain and jeans under dresses and unkempt hair. But a little bit of me missed sun-kissed freckles and flip-flops.
In February I visited the other Sarah again. It was 68 degrees, but I got sweaty walking through Chinatown. I stumbled on a Chinese New Year parade and shared stories with an elderly Chinese woman under fluttering ticker-tape. I bit my tongue each time her elderly husband chided her.
I walked the streets where shops sell Pho and potted bamboo. I passed theaters and a park and then I discovered the stretch of Broadway where you go to buy quinceañera dresses or a gold necklace. Where the women offer quiet smiles and the men met me with the same greeting each time, “Hi, mama.”
I smiled my winningest smile.
What I miss so much about L.A. are the pockets of deep cultural roots—where I see my country, not as a melting pot, but as a lunch tray. A bit of everything—so come take a taste. I walked, knowing I was out of place, but also that I was welcome. So I made friends and asked questions and fell in love with California all over again.
This morning I landed in California once again. Already today I’ve soaked up the sun and eaten an avocado. God bless you, California.
This visit I am on a mission to snuggle three kiddos who’ve been oceans away in Kenya. To find them only a few thousand miles away is close enough to show up and stand on the same plot of earth together. This visit is also to sit and cherish their mother—to hear her and see her and to thank the California land that raised her and made her my sister.
California, I love you.