Oysters, saltwater, kelp. When the first breeze hit me, full of enticing ocean scents, I was thrilled and perplexed. What would it be like to live here? Where the sea was a constant presence. Where the trees were dark, needled and looming. Where forests and hills were lush and abundant. Where the color green dazzled in full array of shades and forms. Even the large body of saltwater that lapped-up near the skyscrapers and concrete roadways was a murky, deep green—swirling and choking with seaweed on its rough, boulder-strewn borders. The city was like a shiny grey barnacle on a mossy rock, its reflection endlessly quivering on the waves. Would it be everything we had hoped for?
These were my first impressions of Seattle as I stared out of an open car window, gulping-in the fresh sea breezes as we drove into the city for the first time. It was 1993, I was thirteen years old and my parents had decided to leave Chicago behind. It was mostly done on a whim, my mother had had an extremely vivid dream of wandering through a pine forest with a voice from above commanding her to “go far, far west”, so they decided to drive straight west until we hit the ocean. That it was just a dream didn’t really matter, we all wanted the change anyway. But it had to be another big city, where they could easily find work, it would have to be Seattle. It would be a fresh start and perhaps, a better, greener future for us. We all hoped.
There was a big house waiting for us. A wooden house painted bright green to match its surroundings. There were twelve tall pine trees in the front lawn. There was a pebbled stream of clear water running through the large backyard. The garden was full of strange, beautiful plants. I couldn’t be any happier, it was my dream come true. Growing-up mostly in cramped apartments in urban Chicago, I dreamt of enchanted forests, idyllic farms, lush pastures, pristine beaches and the vast, shimmering ocean. My head was full of stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Astrid Lindgren, Lucy Maud Montgomery and Patricia C. Wrede, among others, stories I read again and again to escape the feelings of confinement, distress and anxiety that plagued me as a child.
Shortly after we settled into our new house, I began attending Eckstein Junior High School. The teachers and kids there were very friendly to me on my first day. The most popular kids even took me to sit with them at their lunch table. I could hardly speak from all my happiness and excitement. It was all so perfect. I thought as I sat in the school’s main office at the end of the day, waiting for my registration paperwork. Just then, a girl about my age, stumbled into the office, followed by a stern teacher and another girl, who had a guilty look on her face. Apparently, they had caused a disturbance in a classroom.
There was something that struck me about the first girl, something that made a lasting impression. She seemed both extremely angry and extremely sad—ready, like a loaded coil, to spit into all our faces or burst into tears at any moment. Her ash-blonde hair was tied in a too-tight ponytail, she wore a red shirt with checkered racing motifs and dark, baggy pants in gangsta style. Her pale, freckled face bore heavy eyeliner and thin hoop earrings grazed her small jaw. She had pretty, delicate features, but the harshness of her expression distorted her beauty—seemed to dry and toughen it like a piece of raw meat left out in the sun. Unlike me, she didn’t seem to care what anyone thought of her, I liked this about her immediately.
“You are in a lot of trouble, young lady,” the school counselor had said in passing. But the girl was clearly not sorry. She was defiant. Instead of looking down submissively, like her accomplice, she straightened, lifted her chin up and turned to glare at me. The teacher who brought her in was plainly relieved to unburden herself and promptly left the room, leaving the three of us alone for a moment. It was then that the girl’s severe expression softened slightly, though she kept her gaze on me. “Hey, you’re new here aren’t you?” she asked me directly. “Yes,” I said, wondering if she was about to insult me. “I’m from Chicago,” I added furtively.
“Why would you ever move here?” It wasn’t a question but a statement. Startled, I didn’t know how to respond. Then the counselor returned to escort her to the principal’s office. “I am so sick of this place! I hate this stinky city!” she screamed as if she had been holding this back for years. She looked at me pointedly and walked away. There was so much pain in her voice, but she had been too tough to shed any tears.
At the time, I didn’t want to accept what she said could be true. This place was a dream. It had to be. Hadn’t we suffered enough? This would be our new home, a real home. She was just a troubled girl. I quickly concluded. I would never see her again. But her words hung in the air like a curse, mildewing in the damp.
It’s true what they say, that it rains a lot in Seattle, but it’s more of a constant mist, rarely a torrential downpour. It’s more of a soft rain. And the water, in the air or in the ground, is always present and always ice-cold. The iciness lingers every morning and every evening, making sleeping outdoors more of an endurance-test than a pleasure. Northwesterners pride themselves on their preparedness for all weathers: Wearing layers of clothes all year is more of a necessity than a fashion statement, though the grunge look is its perfect conduit.
The best thing I found about the constant rain is the distinction between the land and the sea becomes blurred. That wonderful ocean smell I experienced on my first day there, it didn’t just come from the sea—it also comes from the rain. The rain there smells like fresh oysters. Truly an odd thing to smell between the glass and steel buildings of downtown or in the middle of a dense pine forest. But most residents get used to the smell, they don’t even notice it anymore.
I would stay in Seattle for nearly half my life: fifteen years. Unfortunately, like that angry, sad girl, I grew to hate the place—and fairly quickly, making my stay there feel more like an unjust, unduly long prison-term. Although the wondrous sea-scented rain never left me. I never stopped gasping at the magnificent sunsets over the peninsula, mirrored and refracted in the shining, flowing water. The cityscape with its backdrop of snow-covered mountains (the Cascades to the east, the Olympics to the west, Mr. Rainier to the south) viewed from the top of a hill or an overpass always stunned me. I would always appreciate the beauty of nature and remember how hopeful we had been.
I don’t love Seattle because it nearly broke me. More than once. Although, I must admit my view of the city is completely biased and subjective. Bear in mind that I lived in Seattle in the past: 1993-2008. I am sure lovers of Seattle would disagree with me on all points, among them would be several of my own siblings, who happily (and willingly) still live there and consider the place their home.
What I grew to hate about Seattle were the barriers. The first barrier I encountered was the most painful and also happens to be the biggest, most far-reaching and most relentless: wealth. The children stopped being nice to me on my third day at school when they quickly realized that I was poor, foreign and uncool: a lethal combination. I did not own any fashionable clothes or name-brand shoes, something they liked to point out to me constantly. I did not know anything about pop culture or the latest trends. My religious parents only allowed me to watch an hour of TV per day, we could not afford cable TV or even movie tickets. My peers’ preoccupation with money, especially with crude displays of it, bordered on obsessive and they were cruel about it. “You are wearing the same pants you wore two days ago.” I had not encountered this kind of material fixation in Chicago before, probably because most of the kids I went to school with were also low-income and I was not yet an adolescent. Being a poor, uncool thirteen-year-old Asian girl was a pretty terrible thing to realize you were in Seattle in 1993. I started getting bullied, demeaned and isolated on a constant basis in school. It felt like falling into a shallow well, even though I desperately tried to be optimistic and likable, I couldn’t climb out of it, and my perspective became skewed. I fell into a depression and the next several years of my life were obscured by darkness.
Even when I grew out of my awkward adolescence and assimilated better (by reading teen magazines and buying better clothes with money from a summer job), I realized that there were barriers everywhere. The beauty of Seattle’s setting is incredibly alluring and was the perfect lure for tech entrepreneurs and people like my parents, looking for a fresh start in fresh air—hence its population grew by the thousands in the 90’s. But the truth is this: That beauty is completely, frustratingly inaccessible to the poorer people who live there. Most of the shoreline is inaccessible to the public, there are no beaches to speak of unless you can drive across the city and brave the terrible congestion along Alki Beach or Ballard. There are some tiny public and private beaches by lakes, but the water is ice-cold and often contaminated with geese droppings. Did I mention the congestion? Despite being so green-looking, public transportation in the city is a nightmare. The city’s large population of homeless men often stay in the buses to keep warm, they are often intoxicated and caked with their own excrement. Fast, reliable, eco-friendly public transportation is nonexistent, so you must own a car to run basic errands, and since everyone must have one too, you guessed it: the roads are always clogged. It often takes more than one hour just to cross the city (an area of 369.2 km2). I have wasted most of my life sitting in traffic.
As you can see, I really enjoy ranting about Seattle, a city that many people admire from afar, and a region that many popular writers (never having lived there) find to be the ideal romantic setting: the Twilight series, Shades of Grey, to name a few. This is also one of the reasons why Seattle is so frustrating to me, it has all the elements of the perfect romantic setting: interesting people, unblemished nature, a rainy climate to rival the melodramatic moodiness of England in a Jane Austen or Brontë novel, but somehow it all fails to come together. That beautiful picture of Cathy and Heathcliff on the windswept moor with dark clouds against the burning sunset never develops, somehow the pixels got stuck in traffic.
By far the most frustrating thing of it all was that my unhappiness could have been prevented. Yes, I didn’t have to hate Seattle the whole time I lived there! There is nothing fundamentally wrong with Seattlelites or Seattle. Although I became well-acquainted with a kind of icy snarkiness, a detached and superficial gaze that equates humility and honesty with weakness, wealth and arrogance with strength. Yet, generally, I don’t find people all over the world to be so different from each other. I believe that if my parents had informed themselves better, if we had acclimatized ourselves better to the weather, if we had integrated ourselves better to the culture, it wouldn’t have been so bad. Seattle nearly broke me because it exposed my failure: my failure to integrate, to adapt.
When I was finally (financially) able to leave Seattle, I headed straight for Europe, then New York, then Europe again and continued exploring the rest of the world from there. I thought I would never look back, but I realized something strange. I found that ever since I left, I have been telling everyone, “I’m from Seattle,” (I lived there most of my life after all) and I have been unwittingly gathering information in a bizarre mental checklist. Apparently, I have made a kind of special basket in my mind, I’ll call it: “What I could have done better in Seattle” and gathered all the useful wisdom I learned in my travels there.
When I look back on my fifteen years in Seattle, I always see the city I first saw as a hopeful child. A shining city of silvery skyscrapers rising out of the seawater—that shiny barnacle on a mossy rock, its reflection endlessly quivering on the waves. Though, for me, the place is no longer a furtive hope or an open question, it is a song. A song tattooed into my skin, in my eyes, my guts, my brain—something that cut me, made me who I am. A song with a raw and soulful voice that mourns of lost love, angsty and melancholy like most of the music that comes from Seattle. The lyrics tell of a beautiful but selfish, immature lover who was cruel and failed too many times to return the love. A sad and depressing song, but with a refrain so tender, you tilt your head to the side and close your eyes, wishing for it to play just one more time.
Text and images by M.P. Baecker