Personal Statement: Home is where they say "Pop," not Soda

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Illustration by Michelle Phillips

 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017 - 5:42pm

My mother would often express a desire to move to the West Coast when she retired.

In Seattle, or perhaps San Francisco, the winters are milder, the cities livelier and there are more native Chinese speakers for her than in our Detroit suburb. To her, Michigan winters are too long, the suburban sprawl of southeast Michigan too quiet and the options for quality Chinese food too limiting.

These places beckoned to her because they resembled — culturally and physically — where she had grown up: A bustling city nestled in Southern China.

Growing up, this love of one’s childhood home was alien to me. I had lived in Canton, Michigan for the entirety of my formative years. Before leaving for college, I had only moved once; when I was two years old, to a house in an adjacent subdivision that was also in Canton.

Tucked on the westernmost edge of the Detroit suburbs, Canton Township primarily consists of subdivisions constructed within a five-year window beginning in the late 1990s; each house is seemingly plucked from the same catalog of a dozen or so designs. A grid of roads connects the vast low-density residential expanses to a few strip malls and big-box retailers, interspersed with the occasional public green space.

Because such a large portion of the population consists of transplants who followed the late-90s building boom, it lacks the social cohesion that one could expect in a small country village. Meanwhile, the low population density of the suburb also means that the area lacks the benefits of a large city. The cohesion is further stunted by the fact that most of the working population evacuates to offices and factories beyond the township limits every day.

For one-third of the year, the weather hangs between summer and winter; too warm for snow, yet cold enough to chill off any leaves from the trees or green from the grass.

To the credit of the community, Canton was — and continues to be — far from a “bad” town, and it is a town that I owe much of my comfortable and privileged upbringing to. Crime is sparse, the public schools are filled with opportunities and the front lawns are well mown. Yet to my younger self, this suburban perfection felt more like suburban monotony. Michigan, as a whole, seemed to be in a perpetual state of melancholic decline: Detroit and the automotive industry a shell of their former selves, people and jobs being two of our most auspicious exports.

Around age 10, I vowed that I would leave Michigan as soon as I was old enough. I had come to understand there was a more colorful world beyond the Midwest; presumably free from long winters and boredom.

However, when the time came to choose a college, I deferred my quest to escape the Mitten for at least four more years to come to Ann Arbor. I had momentarily allowed myself to be mesmerized by Ann Arbor: by the city, the school’s programs and in-state tuition long enough to put down my enrollment deposit — despite its location, a 25-minute drive from the town I so vowed to leave behind.

At the tail-end of my sophomore year of college, I received an offer to intern in Miami, and my choice seemed natural enough. This was my first opportunity to live outside of Michigan on my own for more than the length of a vacation, and Miami represented to me everything Canton was not.

But while I was charmed by the beaches, colorful neighborhoods and palm trees of south Florida, a subtle nostalgia for what had been the classic fixtures of a childhood summer in Michigan crept on my conscience.

There would be no weekend trips this summer up to the lakeshore in Traverse City where I could hike the Sleeping Bear Dunes and polish Petoskey stones from the frigid, clear lake water. I would be absent for my hometown’s “Liberty Festival” and firework display, always conspicuously held two weeks before the actual Fourth of July.

Whenever I mentioned my hometown — to co-workers, locals and Lyft drivers — three of the most common responses were remarks about how the state was cold, provincial and supposedly on the decline. My use of the term “pop” also drew curious looks.

“Detroit — everyone’s trying to leave there,” one Lyft driver quipped during an otherwise pleasant drive.

While I perfectly understood these perceptions — after all, I had held many of these sentiments at one point or another — such a characterization didn’t do justice to my childhood home or the people I had grown up with.

Sure, Michigan was tucked in the “provincial” Midwest, but there was also an indescribable Midwestern charm that I now realized I had taken for granted my entire life.

Carpool parents treated me as a part of their own family; I bit into an orchard-picked Red Delicious in the crisp October air and got lost in the miles of winding wooded trails across the state. All of this had become part of me, and I couldn’t simply forsake it once I graduated.

When I was recently talking to my mother about possible places to retire, I casually raised the possibility of getting a house in Ann Arbor along the Huron River, or perhaps even a lake house in Traverse City.

“Why on Earth would I do that, Brian?” she replied.

I chuckled softly to myself. How could I expect her to understand? After all, she hadn’t grown up here.