Un/Belonging in the Bay

Part of 7 of in
By Ellen Chen
Illustration by Alycea Tinoyan
Nov 19, 2020 | 13 min read
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I was in an Airbnb booked by my employers and had tried all week to get in touch with my ex — I could sense that things weren’t right. There was, after all, an overwhelming amount of mixed messages around mask-wearing and distancing protocols, and little by little, everything in the city was shutting down. The whole reason why I was hired by this family in the first place was because our school closed (and all schools in the SF Bay Area), and parents who could afford it were scrambling to cobble together school alternatives for their kids.

At the time, my landlord in East Bay had said that having me BART back and forth from SF working a job with kids would be exposing her to too much risk, and that she couldn’t allow me to stay with her anymore if I were to accept this job. I had to choose between earning enough money to pay rent and support myself, or go homeless, yet again. Over the course of four years, I had already faced one eviction and near homelessness twice, and it was a hard decision, but I wanted to hope that the family was committed and their generous offer to put me up in an Airbnb for the duration of time that I was employed by them could be stabilizing. But I had just met them a week earlier. Despite that, I took a risk and chose to trust them.

Un/Belonging in the Bay

Three days into the job, it became clear that different people in the household were reaching the realization that shelter-in-place was no joke, and that the ambiguous perils of the invisible virus were a challenge to manage across hospitals and counties. The nanny started hoarding food. The dad started canceling travel plans and taking calls from his home office. The mom had been having conversations about how to manage her lab if people couldn’t go in for fear of contact or exposure risk. I tried to get the family to understand that things may be headed in a bad direction, and that I needed some level of confirmation that they would be committed to housing me, even if this became a full blown epidemic, which meant that we would essentially have to operate like a family unit, not knowing each other well having just met a few days ago. The mom agreed. The dad, a lawyer, drafted a contract to help allay my fears.

The next day at 4:00 a.m., they called saying that unfortunately, they had to retract the contract, and that they were really sorry, but they had no idea the governor had extended shelter-in-place orders statewide. I felt like the rug had been pulled from underneath me, yet again. That was when my ex finally picked up the phone.

Though we had broken up multiple times over the course of three years, he lived in my heart, and across the Bay in the house we looked so long for and that he bought with his family’s hard-earned money, but I lived nowhere. I felt alone, worried, unstable, and needed help. 

I told him I needed to vacate the Airbnb and needed a place to stay. He told me that I could come by. My friend who worked as a mover/handyman in storage borrowed his boss’s car and chauffeured me across the bridge, and we plopped my stuff outside my ex’s house. My ex had assumed that his tenant would be fine with me coming back to stay, and though the tenant wasn’t responding to my ex’s texts about my return, we put my stuff in the front of the house, which is quite removed from the tenant’s bottom unit in a split-level house. And I waited outside. When my ex’s tenant woke up, he unleashed at my ex, saying that I was exposing both of them to risk given that I had been working with the children and their family members who had probably had social contact with others over the course of the week. The tenant would not let me set foot in the house and forced my ex to remove all my things from the house. I sat outside frustrated, angry, and sad, wondering what I would do.

By the time the pandemic took over the SF Bay Area, I had lived four years in the Bay, stringing together contracts at tech companies wiping computer monitors and desks and working desk research jobs looking up loopholes in state laws so that companies could test out their financial technology products in gray areas. I worked multiple jobs barely scraping by. Fortunately enough, I had a lot of help from friends in the area who would let me use their showers, do my laundry, or sleep on their couches here and there since I had erratic housing throughout the years. They knew I was working hard, and they knew how difficult of a place the Bay had become.

I wanted to believe in myself, in my efforts, and I wanted to believe that I could belong in the Bay, a place that had held so much promise and potential. I wanted to believe that the Bay, a place that was world-famous for the progressive and inclusive ideals it espoused, could be a home for me, someone who had felt like a misfit all my life.

Growing up

I had grown up among one of the only immigrant families in a rather white and wealthy suburb bordering Ventura and L.A., so when I came to Berkeley for undergrad in the early 2000s, my eyes opened to a progressive, utopian safe haven where anyone could be accepted. I had a chance to meet other interesting and engaged hyphenated Americans, often children of immigrants, which began the process of cleaving from my self-loathing and idolization of whiteness.

Fast forward to my life in the Bay, circa 2016-2020, things just felt hard, hypocritical, and I again found myself in a space all too familiar: on the fringe. In order to pay basic bills, I had to contort myself into these weird tech jobs that wielded language that championed “changing the world” and having “social impact”, but these words about “making a difference” often originated from a sophisticated content marketing or corporate social responsibility department rather than from a place of genuine ambition. I judged that rhetoric and wanted to believe that people could do better. 

I often felt like I hit a wall in conversation (talking to my ex or certain friends) feeling upset that people who could seem so close to me felt so emotionally distant, unable to relate to my situation. After all, we all graduated from the same schools, why couldn’t we all get the same jobs? I was angry that what seemed so easy for others was so hard for myself. I felt like emotionally, I was pulling something really heavy that I couldn’t get out by myself, and everyone else was sitting around saying things like, “Man, too bad that car got stuck in that mud pit...”  or “That looks like hard work you’re doing...” or, more often, “Did you hear that Steph Curry broke his hand when Aron Baynes ran into him?” I felt like if everyone who could pull just pulled a bit harder, then I wouldn’t have to pull so hard myself.

These differences were highlighted when I started dating my ex, and he wanted to help. I had trouble discerning whether his offer to help was a sign of codependency or a sign of love. I felt similarly when my friends who were landlords extended offers to help temporarily house me during my time of need. Feeling a real power differential, I could see how their act of helping could become a pernicious disease as opposed to a path to health. It makes all the difference when generosity comes from someone willing to journey alongside you trying to understand what you’ve been through as opposed to someone telling you what you should do to get better. In the words of writer Larissa MacFarquhar, “What is coming from a sinner is malignant coming from a saint.”

My ex’s parents couldn’t understand why someone as educated as I was could not get a stable job, and they judged me for it. The gap continued to widen when my friends started to judge me, too. People wondered if I had self-management or anger issues. People had expectations about my ability to change, but I felt like I was putting in the work, and change was something beyond my control. I felt like receiving help from friends made me obligated to let them into my life in a way where I was constantly feeling like they had the liberty to tell me how to “work on myself”, and it felt exhausting.

Even though I was in a relationship and had a bunch of friends who cared for me, I felt separate and often alone, not really belonging to the people who I sought to belong to. That loneliness was exacerbated by the fear and anxiety of not having the security of commitment from my ex who couldn’t decide if a long-term partnership with me — someone he loved but also someone who seemed to attract more chaos than he could handle — was for him. The challenge of surviving in the Bay was exacerbated by the trauma of joblessness, evictions, homelessness, and a bike accident that left the bones on the right side of my face dented in and in need of facial trauma reconstruction. I was certainly not living the life I thought I’d be living at 33.

I started tracking my anxiety and often found my thoughts drifting to dark places:

“I can’t trust anyone since people are constantly trying to take advantage of me.”

“I’m a failure. Something’s wrong with me, and that’s why I’m not the same as everyone else — I can’t get a job, don’t have stable housing, and can’t hold down a stable relationship.”

“I’m a fraud. All those scholarships from Harvard and MIT were a waste. They placed their bets on the wrong person, because look at where I’m at now. All these sunk investments with nothing to show for them.”

“I do all these things to help everyone else around me to seem nice, because what I’m covering up is how unsuccessful and judgmental I am, how I’m always comparing myself with others, and I’m ashamed that that matters to me.”

“I deserve the same as everyone else, but I’m not getting through because I don’t have their privilege. Fuck privilege.”

My thoughts became isolating, and my loneliness spiraled into a depression; the more separate I felt, the more threatened I felt. In a state of constant desperation and survival mode, I felt the anger rising and resorted to blame. Underneath that though, I felt shame and rejection by others. I felt like I wanted to fix whatever was wrong with me and just fit in like a normal, well-adjusted, well-educated person, like all my friends.

Over time, some friends began to tell me that I was being masochistic and that I didn’t need to live like this. One friend in particular said that I was guilty of needing to feel the struggle in life in order to make my life feel worthwhile, and that it was getting unhealthy. He also told me that I had issues with receiving help, noting that I often was worried about overburdening others when I overextended my offers to help others.

I felt like I wasn’t entitled to more, often feeling guilty of the resources I had already taken up, but mixed in was also this pride, confusion, and resentment that others didn’t try as hard as I did and somehow had more. The devil was digging into my strongholds, pressing into my insecurity around proving my place, worth, and value in the world. I felt the extreme frustration of fruitlessness, despite my efforts. The harder I tried — in my relationship, in my jobs, trying to build rapport with my landlords by helping out here and there — the more it backfired, and I felt like I was losing steam.

I was angry that I had worked hard to attain advanced degrees from renown institutions and was in arguably a worse place on a downward spiral in one of the most expensive, best-educated cities in the world. I thought that I had community here, since I’d worked hard to build it up, but I’d burned every bridge and worn out every welcome. And everyone who’s ever believed in me, I’d let down. I felt like a failure; worthless; pathetic. Something needed to change.

That’s why when the opportunity came to help a struggling neighbor, who I’ll call CSW, I jumped on it. CSW is a single mom raising two young sons, all recent refugees from Burma. I saw it as a chance for me to give back and make myself useful to someone who needed help. I could identify with CSW and felt like we suffered similar struggles: the unsettling anxiety of housing instability, threat of evictions, unemployment, and job instability. Though we came from different contexts, I felt that CSW and I shared the pain of being outsiders wanting desperately to belong, the pain of having to sacrifice crucial parts of ourselves in order to belong only to be told to wait a bit longer. We feared that because we didn’t have a legal address, respectable work status, or access to wealthy connections, we wondered whether our survival concerns mattered to anyone. We feared that there wasn’t a place for our opinions or preferences simply because we were not seen as key contributors, and hence, our choices were simply held at the whims of others. We were angry because we often felt defenseless, unheard, and hidden away. We were not sure how to jiujitsu our way up from our existing circumstances to a place where we could be seen and have our experience count for something. We knew that it wouldn’t be easy to make things work in this city, but we loved San Francisco and wanted to be able to call this place our home.

In a way, I felt responsible for them. I knew that I had to make a choice. I could submit to everything and make excuses, or I could push myself and re-energize my life with meaning and purpose by taking on the duty of helping others figure out how to survive in this six-figure city. I figured that I’d seen my parents do it all my life, helping others and building community. How hard could it be? 

Because of the erratic nature of taking care of two young kids, I often found myself skipping work to fill in co-parenting for CSW. I did this without questions asked. Many of my colleagues seemed genuinely confused as to why I was so committed to helping CSW and her kids access health benefits that they felt they did not deserve, and they advised me to just let her figure it out and keep my head down at work. They discouraged me from getting involved, saying things like I’d be “in over my head”. On one hand, they championed the liberal lexicon around embracing diversity, vulnerability, and empathy, but on the other hand, they seemed to have trouble connecting the dots to demonstrate standing in unity with our neighbors who didn’t conform to their view of deserving help. It broke my heart to see how “embracing diversity” and “inclusivity” had become a bourgeois suburban construct from highly-educated people who I expected to behave in ways that were consistent with the graceful words they espoused. But these very words served as the white picket fences of a mentally- and emotionally-divided society. It was frustrating that so many self-regulated, well-educated, successful, and progressive people around me just did not seem to know how to love their neighbors well. There seemed to be a desire to embrace diversity conceptually, but practically speaking, there seemed to be more resistance both internally and externally.

Around this time, a friend introduced me to Henri Nouwen’s concept of the “wounded healer” and told me that my own brokenness can be a conduit for healing for other people, and that we don’t need to wait for a perfect situation or time to be able to do God’s work. This friend encouraged me that sad people can still help other sad people. In retrospect, perhaps CSW and her sons also gave me an excuse to distract myself from my own life that others had been trying to fix for so long and gave me an opportunity to focus on helping others out of a desperate situation. I was tired of leading and living my own life, and I was happy to stay busy being involved with others’ problems for a change. 

Maybe God was trying hard to get the point across about pruning, which in many ways, means death. When I consider the Bay Area episode of my life, I see a series of deaths:

Death of my pride through living in the shadow of lack/poverty to the extent of having to ask others for help.

Death of my fear of failure through situations where I could not win (i.e., in unsuccessful employment, transitioning friendships, and a vacillating relationship).

Death of my desire for comfort, stability, and success through multiple efforts to persist and strive to achieve certain outcomes (in the context of gaining stable housing, employment, or relationships).  

Death of my desire to be heard, have a voice, be right, get ahead, judge others, and feel superior by being constantly placed in situations requiring humility, self-restraint/control, and survival.

Death of my hope and idol of independence/self-sufficiency through seeing my flaws exposed in various conflicts.

Each season of dying has felt like the choking of something I have loved, desired, and clung to for hope, peace, and safety. The choking out of things in me, writhing in pain, gasping for air and persistent praying, “Does it have to be this much of a struggle to survive? Can’t I achieve things that I desire, be great, unique, and comfortable at the same time? Do my hopes and dreams of being in the Bay really need to die?”

I’ve come to understand that in God’s kingdom, as with all great gardeners, pruning is caring. Without pruning, my life will become something even I don’t want — an overgrown, prickly bush with no fruit to offer. In this challenging season, I’ve felt pruned and exposed of my misplaced hopes, and I am continuously reminded of a self-important agenda flowing in the undercurrents of my heart, rather than being drawn to relinquishing my own ways in surrender. Even when tempted to grab hold of the thorny overgrowth of my life, deep down, I knew it was killing me.

Was I guilty of committing the same kind of sins as the Israelites who worshiped Ba’al, who were willing to kiss any ring, shake any hand, in order to gain power, cut a sweet deal, beat out a competitor, or monopolize an earning opportunity? How had I been compromising myself in an idolatry of belonging to a certain class of people that the Bay symbolized for me? Was complying with tech companies that took all I could give to help them cut corners in operating in gray areas without giving me health care benefits a symptom of my deeper issues around knowing my value, worth, and identity?

What was it that I was lusting after that I thought living in SF working a tech job and getting with a stereotypical Bay Area white dude could give me? What was I hungry or greedy for? Was I trying to climb the ladder of social acceptance by trying to marry up into the NorCal caste of a Norman Rockwell world? I needed to take a step back to clear out the garage of my emotions to understand what fueled this victimhood tied to feelings of injustice, pride, and entitlement.

I’ve been grieving and mourning the many things lost, and instead of trying to hold on, I am trying to move on. I think somewhere in the good book, it says that what others perceive as “death” is actually a “rebirth”, and believing that gives me some level of hope, even if it will be a long time before anything comes into full view.

In times when we feel like we have failed, it’s natural to start with ourselves and ask questions about what was wrong with us, and what could we have changed, but it’s important to move beyond that. I can’t see what God wants for me and what my purpose is until I get outside of myself. That’s why I’m writing this, in the spirit of exile, from Taiwan, the land of my ancestors. I have accepted that it will be hard to start all over — to leave the person I loved, the people I loved, my hopes and dreams in the Bay — but that I’m not a failure. This is just rock bottom. There is a difference.

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Ellen Chen

Ellen Chen is interested in social behavior as influenced by environments and motivated by place-based connections. Her journey has led her to China, India, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia to witness how different social groups and individuals create opportunity and perceive livability and mobility in a rapidly urbanizing world. Throughout this process, she has been committed to cultural development through preparing communities to navigate an increasingly complex environment through the union of urban planning, cross-cultural literacy, and economic development. Ellen earned her Bachelor's from UC Berkeley, and Master's from MIT and Harvard.

Alycea Tinoyan

Alycea Tinoyan is a Los Angeles-based illustrator and designer, cat mom, and adventurer. Influenced by comics and cartoons growing up, her illustrations address raw emotion through expressive lines while using nature and animals as metaphors for the duality of man. Her works tend to be narrative-based and often focus on a wistful protagonist.

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