Shit I Wish I Had Known Before Moving Across the Country

If you didn’t already know, I recently moved from the good ol’ Midwest all the way to California. In this period of time, I’ve learned a lot — some of which I wish I had known a tad bit sooner. Similarly, I’ve noticed a lot of things that I did right, which I also think are worth sharing. Since I, like most of the internet, enjoy lists, I thought I would create a list of what I wish I’d known and what I’m glad I knew, with the hope that others will learn from my victories and my utter failures.

Without further ado, here’s some shit you should know… before moving all the way across the United States.

1. Lower your expectations. Did you do it? Good. Now lower them even more. Okay, lower. Lower… lower… great.

Do you watch House Hunters? Do you remember those newly weds with the outrageous wish list? Marble counter tops, self-filling jacuzzi, moat with alligators, and a wine cellar to boot. It’s to be expected that, whilst considering your big move across the country, you will start to fantasize about where you want to live and what it will look like. That’s totally natural. But the reality is, if you’re a broke grad student like myself, you won’t get what you want. In fact, you’ll probably get none of what you want. I wish someone had reminded me, gently, to let go of the fantasy, and instead, accept things as they come. You’re probably not going to live in the studio with the views of the lake. Chances are, your first real place will not have what you want, but if you’re lucky, it will offer you a lot of what you need. Note the distinction. Keep it in mind.

And if you’re wondering, no, I don’t think there’s such a thing as a self-filling jacuzzi.

2. Visiting a city or working in a city is nowhere near the same as living in one.

No amount of day trips to Chicago or Detroit will prepare you for what it’s like to live, every moment of every day, in a city. I’m talking to you, fellow suburban kids. Living in urban areas will force you to contend with issues that you don’t normally think about. To name a few — gentrification, homelessness, poverty, race, class, and crime. And further, your presence in that city will force you to question your own privilege and your impact on that community. When you lived in your suburban enclave, you were able to leave all these “icky” issues behind. But when you’re living in the city, it’s staring you right in the face. Yes, white folks, I’m looking at you.

You can consider yourself the most progressive person on planet fucking Earth, and yet the second you step foot in your new city, all of the internalized prejudice you have will come out of the wood works. And if you only care about making yourself feel more comfortable, you might as well pack your bags and go back to the suburbs. If you’re going to live here, you need to step up. Educate yourself about your neighborhood, don’t isolate yourself, and peel back the layers of prejudice. Do the work. If you are determined to live in this community, be an active participant. Don’t just be a resident or a hermit. Be a neighbor.

(I wish I’d read this article before I’d moved to Oakland, for example, and this especially awesome response piece — and there is plenty of other literature on the matter. There is a dialogue happening about your community, and it’s your responsibility to tune in — not to chime in defensively, but to actively listen.)

3. I know you said you’d find a job within a couple weeks, but you won’t. Trust me.

You probably said you’d “hit the ground running” and that, within a couple weeks, you’d find a permanent place to live, a job, a primary care doctor, a pharmacy, and be on a first name basis with the bartender at the local dive bar and the guy who bags your groceries. News flash: If you’re anything like me, your first couple weeks will be trying to figure out how the bus routes work, getting on a normal sleep schedule, calling your best friend or parents way more often than usual, and stocking up on food. And guess what? That’s totally fine. In fact, if you’ve managed to utilize public transportation and found yourself a grocery store, you’re doing good. Really, really good.

The reality is, moving itself is exhausting. Hell, looking out of your window is exhausting, because everything is new and unfamiliar. There is a lot of mental and emotional processing you need to do. It is okay if you’re not being “productive.” The key here is to plan ahead, and recognize that you will probably spend the first few weeks taking small (but important!) steps towards getting around. It’s important to have the savings that allow you a couple weeks to explore and get lost. Because seriously, you’re not going to accomplish as much as you think you will. Give yourself the time to settle in — try walking before you run. Job hunting can take months upon months, so make sure you’ve saved enough money to sustain you for a while — or at least until the student loans kick in.

4. Find your people, and let them show you around.

By far, the best thing I did for myself was finding an online community of people in my city. Identifying as queer and trans*, I found Facebook groups like Bay Area Queer Exchange and Gay Area Housing, and wound up meeting extraordinarily awesome people who really helped me adjust to life in the Bay. The best part is, you don’t need to wait until you move to your city to find these people. You can join these groups before you move. In fact, I found these Facebook groups to be far more helpful than Craigslist. I found my sublet through Facebook, as well as my long term housing, simply by connecting with queer folks in my area.

Additionally, if you are moving to attend undergrad or, in my case, grad school, there are lots of ways to connect with incoming and current students. These are also your people, and chances are, they’ll become some of your best friends in the coming years.

Yes, you’re talking to strangers, which I’m sure your parents or guardians warned you about. But often times, these are strangers who know where the best taco trucks are. The benefits clearly outweigh the risks.

5. You are going to wake up and think, “What the hell have I done?”

Inevitably, you will have a moment — or a few moments, or many moments — where you contemplate if you’ve made a huge mistake. Thankfully, I had a few friends who reminded me of this before I left. And they were totally right. On more than one occasion, I wondered if I was a complete idiot who just blew my savings on a venture that wasn’t going to pan out. It actually helps to remember that this doubt and fear is a part of the process. Uprooting your entire life and moving someplace so far away from all of the support systems you’ve come to rely on is a big step. It is natural — in fact, it’s kind of expected — to be totally fucking terrified. But it’s also good to know that in almost every case, the fear will pass.

Just remember that inaction will not help with the anxiety. What will help? Calling a good friend, taking a nice shower, finding a fun distraction (like yoga in the park! salsa dancing lessons! a stroll around the lake! something that helps you feel connected to and excited about your new home). If it’s anxiety about housing or a job, set a manageable goal — replying to one housing ad or working on your resume — to help you feel like you’re making progress, without overdoing it. Whatever you do, don’t sit around and panic.

And just remember…

6. Your luck can change at the drop of a hat.

Yesterday you had roommates and an apartment that you were ready to lease. Today your roommates are suddenly moving back to Vermont and the apartment is no longer on the market. Yes, it really is true — your luck can change unexpectedly and quickly. However, just as it can change for the worse, it can easily and quickly change for the best. The key is to hang in there, and take good care of yourself. Because tomorrow, you will probably wake up to three replies to your Craigslist ad — two of them are promising housing leads and, bonus, one of them is an unsolicited picture of a sexy stranger’s abs! Hooray!

Moving has its ups and downs, and often times, much of what happens is truly out of your control. All you can do is keep moving forward, keep trying, and remember that, even if today was a train wreck, tomorrow can be (and very likely will be) a totally different story.

7. You might become best friends with your mother! Or call your childhood best friend that you haven’t spoken much to recently… or reconnect with an ex that you probably shouldn’t reconnect with.

Sometimes, when we change our lives in a drastic way, we start to regress back to what’s familiar to us. At least, this is what my therapist told me. And it’s actually true. I’ve talked to my mother nearly every day since I moved, and a week before I left, I reconnected with an old best friend. When I got to California, I tried to add my ex-partner on Facebook, who, thankfully had clearer judgment than I did and declined to respond. Whether we’re seeking closure before moving onto the next chapter of our lives, or seeking comfort in an otherwise unfamiliar place, sometimes big changes in our lives prompt some really unusual (yet totally understandable) behavior.

I wish someone had pointed this out to me sooner, so I could take a step back and decide which behaviors were healthy, and which ones were less wise. Nonetheless, it’s good to know that your seemingly strange need to feel connected to your past is actually a healthy and normal part of moving. Especially if it’s far away from home.

8. When you get to your new city, you’ll probably forget about your old friends for a little while. This doesn’t make you a bad person, either.

And if they’re good friends, they’ll understand that you need the time to get acquainted with this new place. It helps to be reminded that you aren’t a lousy friend for taking this time to focus on this new chapter. I spent a little too much time feeling guilty about not calling my friends or responding to their emails, only to find out that they weren’t expecting me to. You might want to refrain from promising everyone in your family a postcard, though, or making other promises you may be unable to keep — instead, dedicate the first couple weeks to YOU, and settling in. Besides, if they’re truly interested in what you’re doing, they should be following you on Instagram anyway.

9. Purposefully leave some “important” things behind.

This applies more so to folks who have a mother like mine. Parents often feel helpless when their kids leave. Even though I’d lived on my own for a year prior to moving to California, my mother in particular is constantly looking for ways to be useful during this time. I’m actually glad that I left some things behind in Michigan, because nothing makes my mother happier than watching me open one of her care packages over Skype. If you have a best friend, sibling, or parent that you know will be especially impacted by your moving, leave some of your belongings with them, and let them ship it out to you later. They’ll be able to feel helpful to you during a time when things are often beyond their control, and you’ll have a package from home to look forward to.

And lastly…

10. Be kind to yourself. Be really, really fucking nice to yourself. Because you deserve it.

This is, by far, the best advice I can give you. Listen: You’re doing something incredibly brave, and you deserve a lot of kudos for that bravery alone.

I remember just before I left, my grandpa told me that the vast majority of Americans don’t move any further than 30 miles from where they are born. 30 miles! And you, ambitious person, have made the remarkable decision to go on an adventure, far from anything you’ve ever known. Despite the uncertainty, you made the incredible choice to leave everything behind and create a life for yourself that reflects who you are and what you truly want. Or at least, that’s what I did. I left Michigan because I dreamed of getting my MFA in Creative Writing, and living in the queer mecca of the world. And we didn’t make this choice because it was easy — we made it because we knew it would be worth it, right?

After my first week in Oakland, I bought myself some chocolate-covered potato chips from Trader Joe’s and some face moisturizer. I had a Bob’s Burgers marathon. And I just kept reminding myself, “You’ve done a good job. You’ve done a really, really good job.” Because just being here is a sign of courage. I remembered what my grandpa said, about how so many people never get to see, let alone get to live someplace other than the place they were born — and it’s not only a remarkable privilege, but also a brave decision to make.

So when you fall flat on your face, as you may wind up doing, or learn some lessons the hard way or later than you wished you would, just remember this: You are learning. Every day, you’re learning. When you embarrass yourself because you don’t know how the doors open on the bus (some have buttons, some you need to push — it’s complicated, okay?), or when you accidentally get off at the wrong stop, just tell yourself: Now I know. Be kind to yourself, and move forward with the satisfaction that you’re a little wiser than you were yesterday.

And no matter what, you can take pride in knowing that you’ve done something that most people will never do in their entire lives.

Well, according to my grandpa, anyway. Take it or leave it.

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