During an on-campus field exercise, the students in my Annenberg School of Journalism Advanced Magazine Writing course — some traveling from India and Australia to study in SoCal — returned with stories about having found places in and around campus that provided them with a sense of home in Los Angeles, something that grounded them amidst the uncertainty in their change of place.
As a native Angeleno, I know the lure the city can have for those who come, and also the disconnect that has caused millions to leave disgusted and disenfranchised. But everywhere these days, we’re thirsting for belonging — and too often, due to the pandemic and other factors, we’ve become more isolated than ever before.
So, I was excited (and grateful) when students found their own spaces of connection. This summer, I invited several of them to share reflections on their sense of home in Los Angeles — which they each came to very differently: one through food, another by way of a tattoo, and a third by following the proverbial yellow brick road that tethered her directly from her hometown in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, to Culver City.
This collection is kicked off by USC Director of Belonging Cat Moore, who Zoomed in for our first day to help me set the tone for acceptance, inclusion, and collaboration during the semester. We met online a few weeks after the mandated quarantine for her trademarked CLICK! course, which she teaches at the university and elsewhere. Through establishing simple, practical methods of connection — for introverts and extroverts alike — Moore has carved out a unique niche for herself at a time when we could stand to learn how to build more supportive connections, appreciate foundational skills for listening and nonjudgmental communication, and increase opportunities for wellness work in our schools, organizations, and institutions.
— Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn
Creating Mobile Homes of Belonging
“There’s no place like home.”
Dorothy’s mantra in The Wizard of Oz captures our universal yearning for belonging — our deepest, most basic human need. This yearning for the sense of security, place, identity, and purpose home provides has become dire amidst our “Great Unraveling,” this collective, painful disconnecting from self and each other, from purpose and our world.
Is “home” — be it a place, a nest of relationships, an endeavor, or an inward state of being — something we can ever return to given how much we and the world keep changing? How, with the right combination of heel clicks, do we rehome ourselves? Or can we, like a turtle, make a home wherever we are?
Homecoming is an ancient, human journey reflected in such foundational texts of Western civilization as the Odyssey and the biblical creation story of Adam and Eve. Yet we find ourselves in a historically new moment of soul-level homelessness in life. Over the last several decades, the social landscape has fragmented, exacerbated by tech and COVID-19, but the anomie has been a longer time coming. We’re just now feeling the pile-on. It’s hard to not experience it as a total existential crisis, which isn’t the best brain state for creative solutions. Despair is understandable, but it is not inevitable. We know in our bones that it doesn’t have to be this way, that we can commit to putting “the stubborn ounces of our weight” into a lifestyle of reconnecting and making a new home, on a more just and loving foundation, in what may feel like a social wasteland.
As of its 2020 survey, Cigna Health reports that almost 60 percent of the US adult population is lonely. And in March 2022, the CDC noted the accelerating mental health issues among teenagers, with one in five having considered suicide. More than half of seniors consider TV their primary companion. And over 40 percent of millennial women fear loneliness more than a cancer diagnosis. Beyond erosion in quality of life, we are also facing dire physical, mental, and civic health damage, not to mention the risk of early mortality due to loneliness and purposelessness. Loneliness is the result of not having our belonging needs met, and the drivers of this are complex and varied: from systemic inequity to the disaffiliation from groups to mass relocation to cities.
The awareness and intentionality that this moment is asking of us is nothing short of radical. And if there’s anything we humans tend to like less than change, it’s sacrifice, especially when we feel that we have nothing left to give. But as both Viktor Emil Frankl, an Austrian philosopher and Holocaust survivor, and the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. remind us, the human goods required for flourishing will always require an uncommon level of commitment and sacrifice, drawing from deep wells of courage and grit beyond ourselves. Even if a few of us can carve out a path home for ourselves via our own interior resources and the opportunities within our unique context, that is an exhausting lifestyle. And the kind of homecoming for humanity that we need will require building a bedrock of belonging, together. And just as Dorothy learned, we cannot find our way home alone.
Meditation apps, gratitude journals, and happiness calendars are great. But they will not get us there. It is a communal breakdown that has produced such profound nonbelonging, and it will be a creative, communal response that begins to heal it. One possible step is befriending this shared loneliness as a signal of our very normal need for each other — for meaning and purpose, and for security, needs to be met in simpler, more ancient ways. By embracing the fact of our belonging and our capacity, as social creatures wired to connect, to create connection and belonging everywhere, we can do this with the simplest, most sincere microgestures of care.
Slowing down in the midst of our daily grinds to make eye contact with strangers in passing can reduce the sense of loneliness. By asking someone’s name and how they’re doing, we are validating their existence and broadening our own — sowing the seeds of belonging in our shared context. When we listen to someone else’s story, the neurotransmitters in our brains sync, creating an initial bond of trust. Surely these repeated acts of coming towards each other — where we are, as we are — are things we all can do as first steps in moving each other home. And as we rebuild the conditions for home in these tiny moments and spaces, we begin the necessary rebuilding for larger moves towards a collective sense of home.
If we develop eyes to see them, we will begin to recognize the opportunities to say yes, with hope and humility, to what our inner and outer lives are offering us as paths home to ourselves, to each other, and to worthy purposes. One yes leads to another, and we become nothing less than mobile homes of connection and belonging everywhere we are.
“There’s No Place Like Home”
All my life, I had dreamed of moving to Los Angeles. Growing up as a big fish in a small pond, I frequented the stage in my hometown, won state competitions, and eventually landed a vocal scholarship to Berklee College of Music. With the inflated ego of childhood, I had the delusion that I’d move to Los Angeles, where my musical dreams would instantly reach fruition, as they seem to do in the movies. But once I made the leap — within the stable confines of a graduate program — I’d overly identified with the Los Angeles I had imagined, making it impossible for the real city to live up to my daydreamed expectations. There was no yellow brick road I could walk on that would lead me directly to my career, no rolled-up red carpet waiting for my arrival: in fact, this city didn’t owe me anything. I quickly learned that having musical aspirations wasn’t quite as unique as it seemed to be in my Midwestern suburb. Instead, I was missing home, away from the people I love and confused about who I wanted to be.
On a day when I felt particularly lost, my professor, Janice Littlejohn, took my class for a walk around the University of Southern California as an immersive writing practice. As we all sat around a beautiful fountain near the edge of campus, other students began to confide their own homesickness, to which my professor replied: “There’s no place like home.” Immediately, I felt tears well in my eyes. Of course, Littlejohn had no way of knowing that my hometown’s legacy was the world premiere of The Wizard of Oz, but the coincidence felt too perfect, too meaningful. For me, in that moment, there was no place like home.
It’s hard to imagine that MGM Studios ever doubted the potential of The Wizard of Oz. Estimated to have had one billion viewers since its debut, the movie’s influence on the film industry has been extraordinary, from its popularization of Technicolor to a previously skeptical audience to its sneaky use of political allegory. The song “Over the Rainbow” is now considered a staple of the American songbook, and the film’s historical importance led it to be one of the first 25 movies to be protected by the National Film Registry. But in 1939, the movie was considered rather experimental, so before rolling it out in Hollywood, MGM aimed for a soft launch in lesser-known places, and billed for the official premiere was my hometown: Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.
Back in 1939, the population of Oconomowoc was estimated to be around 4,500 people. While this definitely fell into the category of “lesser-known places,” film historians have been curious how Oconomowoc got picked in the first place. Some have guessed that it’s due to the proximity to Okauchee Lake, where one of the film’s composers, Herbert Pope Stothart, had a second house. Some even credit Meinhardt Raabe, who played the munchkin who announced the death of the Wicked Witch of the East, since he was born and raised in the neighboring city, Watertown.
There are others who doubt that Oconomowoc was even the site of the official premiere: the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently unearthed conflicting reports on which town had aired the movie first, crediting other Wisconsin cities like Appleton, Green Bay, and Oshkosh. Still, there’s a record from an Oconomowoc newspaper in 1939 calling the town’s Strand Theatre the “world premier showing,” and that’s been enough for my hometown to claim its small place in cinematic history. Now, the town celebrates the film’s anniversary with honorary viewings, and in 2019, the 80th anniversary celebration attracted thousands of people to Oconomowoc’s Main Street. The event featured live performances from local talent, food, games, and a costume contest in which little girls proudly wore their hair in braids, bringing me back to one Halloween during my childhood when I too dressed as Dorothy — and Glinda the Good Witch the next year. The event ended with the grand unveiling of Oconomowoc’s “Oz Plaza,” which features statues of the cast, a yellow brick road, and a 70-foot-long mural leading to the Emerald City, painted by local talent.
So, it’s safe to say that The Wizard of Oz means a lot to my community. It means a lot to me. Hearing my professor say that famous phrase somehow summed up everything I’d been feeling for the past few months: you may think that leaving some place will make you happy, or that achieving some big dream will be the answer to all your problems, but without the people you love by your side, what’s the point? And will it really provide the answers you need, or is it only escapism?
After having this realization, my homesickness inspired me to watch the film later that evening. And when I did, I realized that there were more parallels between Dorothy Gale and me than our origin stories.
The movie begins with Dorothy longing for a land far away from home where dreams really do come true, and for me, that was Los Angeles. Dorothy’s small town in Kansas mirrored mine in Wisconsin — slow-paced and peaceful. And while our hometowns were full of the people we loved, the places we called home didn’t hold the things we dreamed of. My industry doesn’t exist anywhere in the Dairy State. If I wanted to be involved with anything musical, whether that be music journalism, curatorship, or even the childhood dream of performing, I’d have to move a little further from home.
Dorothy and I both dreamed of something more. When Dorothy sang of “somewhere over the rainbow,” she had a rose-colored view of a place she had never actually visited, making it appear so much better than her current reality, and I had the same fantasies about Los Angeles — a wish-granting factory in my mind. But that’s the trouble with romanticizing some place where you’ve never been: you know nothing of what it’s really like.
So, when I got off the plane in L.A., I felt very much like Dorothy when she stepped out of her house into the vibrant land of Oz: Los Angeles was a shock to the senses. From the palm trees scraping the clouds to the trash lining the highways, there was a strange juxtaposition between the side L.A. presents to the world and the side it seldom shows. As I met students and staff in my first few weeks, I was warned by nearly every person that I shouldn’t go out around campus at night because of how dangerous the area was, and those warnings would be backed up by a myriad of crime alerts. When Dorothy first arrived in Oz, her new friends also warned her that there would be dangers on her journey, but if she wanted to reach her destination, she’d have to keep going. But I didn’t have a yellow brick road because Los Angeles isn’t walkable at all, so if you don’t have a car, it’s nearly impossible to experience the wealth of what L.A. has to offer — its music scene, its beaches, its sunshine. So, instead of exploring Los Angeles’s musical potential, I was holed up in my bedroom at six p.m. as sirens screamed past my window.
For both Dorothy and me, the places we once dreamed of presented new obstacles and dangers, but Dorothy’s dreams began to shapeshift before mine did. While I missed my family and friends too, my eye was still on a career in music and the completion of my master’s program before evaluating if I wanted to go back home.
But the journey hasn’t been easy. Pursuing a career in the music industry has felt like a trek almost as difficult as Dorothy’s journey home. So far, I have been going about my career in a very academic way: I’ve studied hard, landed three internships in the industry doing music publicity, participated in university clubs, represented my university in collegiate events, graduated summa cum laude, published my writing, founded my own voice studio, earned a scholarship and fellowship to attend a master’s program, and worked as the music editor for my college arts magazine. Yet I’ve still been rejected from entry-level positions and internships. It’s starting to feel as if I truly need some ruby slippers to click together in order to break into the music business. But that’s the reality of sharing the same dream as so many others. I’ve even applied for internships where I’ve had to compete with over 100,000 applicants. Despite how hard I’ve worked to be a strong candidate, it’s difficult to stand out with those odds.
Perhaps I could learn from Dorothy: stay the course when things get tough and eventually life might give you a bit of luck in the form of a conveniently placed water bucket. But a dream can feel lonely when you’re far away from your support system. Like Dorothy, I’m close with my family: my grandparents, my best friends, my partner, and my own personal Toto are all back home. But leaving everything behind to pursue an ambition makes me feel my loved ones’ absence more than ever.
This conversation brings me back to a time when I was on a real road trip with my family. We had taken a pit stop at a diner, and over brunch, my dad posed the question, “Would you rather have success or love?” Everyone at the table chose love … except me. At the time, I was entering my sophomore year at Berklee College of Music, having just experienced a breakup, and I thought I truly wanted to be in music more than to feel love. But looking back, I’m starting to wonder if the real reason I picked success that day was because I didn’t trust anyone with my happiness, not because success was better than love. Chasing dreams is such an independent venture that when you’re at your most rejected, choosing success over love is a kind of self-preservation.
Thankfully, I don’t really have to make a choice between the two, though it does feel that way sometimes. But I’m still figuring out if my dream is like the Scarecrow’s brain and the Tin Man’s heart and the Lion’s courage: is it something I’m seeking to make me feel whole, or has it been under my nose all along because it’s actually being with the people I hold most dear? Although the Wizard ended up being a con man, he did provide a wonderful quote near the end of the film: “Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable.” I’m torn between a heart that yearns for a creative and fulfilling career, and a heart that aches to be near the people I love. Until I figure out how to have both simultaneously, I’ll be in the position Dorothy was — making a choice that forces me to leave something meaningful behind.
Oconomowoc may be a cute town that some people call home, but these days it seems that home isn’t tied to a location so much as it is to people. While I thought Los Angeles was going to be my “somewhere over the rainbow,” it has turned out to be more like Dorothy’s Emerald City — the seemingly glamorous place that revealed what I was truly feeling: that I still haven’t figured out what will make me happiest in the long run. Escaping to Oz didn’t give Dorothy everything she needed to find peace, and it certainly couldn’t change the real problems she was facing. And Los Angeles couldn’t hand me opportunity, nor could it change the fact that success doesn’t equate to happiness. Just like Dorothy, I needed to figure out what I valued on my own, and why I was truly doing the things I was doing. Maybe I’m still on my journey, homesick for a home I’ve yet to discover.
My sense of home keeps evolving and fragmenting with each person I meet on my journey. But at least on that day with my professor, I felt a sense of home through a universal phrase that has brought together people from Oconomowoc to Los Angeles, touching us and helping us understand ourselves: “There’s no place like home.”
Beaches. Sidewalks. Freeways: Finding Heimat in Los Angeles
Scratch. Scratch. Scratch.
A single needle etches a thin line of black ink just below the surface of my skin, marking its place on my body forever. A permanent placement. Perhaps it is this very immutability that drew me to commit. A permanence of place — something I am not accustomed to but have yearned for time and time again. Having moved from place to place, country to country, I’m not used to occupying one physical space for a long stretch of time. In making this mark just above my forearm, I offer myself a little reminder: though I will continue to move around, I’ll find a sense of home in each new place I settle down.
My body is place. One which occupies space. It — I — may move, and my tattoo will move with me, a mark of (perceived) permanence and stability in otherwise shifting spaces.
Heimat loosely translates to “a feeling of home.” This German word has taken up residence on my body for five years. It’s faded, been retouched, and moved with me from Zürich to London to Los Angeles.
A brief overview of the constellation of places that together make up heimat for me: Adelaide, Australia (one year); Hong Kong (eight years); Zürich, Switzerland (nine years); London, England (four years); and now Los Angeles, California (still TBD).
My heimat is different from yours, from my roommate’s who sits next to me as I type this in our L.A. apartment. It’s different from the teen who moves cities every couple of years for her parent’s jobs. From the man who has lived in the same town forever, whose kids now go to the same high school he attended 30 years previously. Another’s heimat might not be a place at all but a loved one, a multitude of loved ones, memories of loved ones lost.
Heimat need not be a physical space, but I’ve found that, although the people make the place, a feeling of home does tend to stem from that which is tangible — and all that comes with it. The people. The landscapes. The smells. The local haunts — the cafés, the restaurants, the shops. The streets. With each move comes both the burden and the opportunity to fill the gaps that leaving opens up, to piece together a new, or changed, sense of home.
Tattoos have long provided a sense of stability in transient contexts. According to Nina Cesare, a graduate of sociology at Ohio University, “sporting a tattoo allows the wearer to make a permanent (and often public) declaration of self amidst ever-changing social demands.” The ever-changing demands of ever-shifting places and spaces. Emma Dresler of Massey University echoes this sentiment, regarding the body as a dynamic and mobile corporeal site for “a collection of inscriptions,” forming a skinscape or corporeal linguistic landscape. Given that bodies undergo constant transformation and exhibit continuous movement, it is only natural to seek some sense of order in the form of permanent marking. An inscription of stability.
Tattoos have also been conceptualized as a means of coping with loss. Typically, the loss of a loved one. But perhaps my heimat is also a coping mechanism — not just one that seeks to provide stability but one that attempts a recovery, a remembrance and reclamation of places left in the past. For leaving a place is, in a sense, a grave loss. An inevitable leaving behind of a certain stage of life, an inevitable move in order to make room for the next.
Now I’m in Los Angeles, embarking on that next stage, heimat inked on my arm. The letters are all connected. At the time of inking, I liked the look of the cursive lettering snaking up my arm. But looking down now, from the crease of my elbow upwards, I see that this string of linked letters ties into the linguistic meaning of my tattoo. Like the places they represent, they’re all linked — the idiosyncrasies of cities I find echoed in each other. Like people from old homes who come to visit new ones, these places are connected simply by virtue of my spending time in and learning to love — and leave — each one.
Los Angeles is now, at least partially, home. Much as the city itself is fragmented, it now constitutes a fragment of my heimat. It’s in these various pockets of the city that I’ve found semblances of home, places to which I can establish a connection. Sometimes in the familiar, sometimes in the foreign things to which I’ve become accustomed (so are no longer foreign?).
I move throughout the city, heimat planted firmly on my arm, finding spaces and places that elicit this feeling of home. If you spend long enough in any one place, you’ll likely find little connections to home, whatever/wherever that may be. Or perhaps it’s a testament to Los Angeles, the vibrancy and variations that burst the seams of this sprawling town.
I get a sense of home at the beach. Quintessential L.A. — cliché, even. It’s also classically Australian. I only lived there for a year (zero to one, pre-memories). But it was through frequent visits to the land down under, days spent at Glenelg Beach, the sun beating down on my olive-toned skin that would be well and truly tan by the end of the week, that I cultivated a sense of attachment to the country — my country. The smell of the salty air, the feeling of it against my skin and in my hair, floods my memory with moments in the sand, running into the small-but-mighty waves, topping up sunscreen in between swims. Climbing on the rocks that line the sand, up to Jetty Road, where I’d walk, hand in hand with my cousin, to get a Boost Juice or an ice cream on a hot summer’s day.
Now, I sit by the Pacific Ocean, 8,000 odd miles from those early memories. And for a brief moment, that distance doesn’t seem so daunting, nor the intervening years an intimidating stretch of time.
That first step in the sand always elicited a sense of arrival. The tiny grains of sand pushing up between my toes, the crisp white surface burning slightly as I made my way to the shore. Here, the grains are slightly bigger, a little less white. But they still get stuck between my toes. I can still reach the shore, feel the heat turn to a cool sludge as my feet sink into the soft soaked sand, my toes leaving an impression, only to be washed away once the next wave crashes. Much more often than once a year, I’m home again.
After getting a tattoo, you’re supposed to wait two weeks before swimming to let it fully heal. That wasn’t an issue when I got my heimat — Zürich being landlocked, there’s no ocean to swim in. Knowing that, were I to get another tattoo in Los Angeles (a likely possibility), it would be an inconvenience in that I couldn’t go to the beach for a couple of weeks, is exciting. I’ve never had such easy access to the ocean! Convenient to the point of inconvenience — a dichotomy worth celebrating. Perhaps with a visit to the beach. It’s only a 10-minute drive, after all.
I get a sense of home while walking. Having grown up in cities far more conducive to walking than Los Angeles (Zürich; London), it’s ironic that walking through this car-centric city makes me feel at home. Granted, I can’t walk from Culver City to Santa Monica as I would have from Covent Garden to Chelsea. I considered this possibility aloud once, and the very suggestion earned me an incredulous side-eye from my L.A.-native friend. Be that as it may, I’ve ended up in what I’ve been told is a fairly “walkable” area — by L.A. standards. I recall the horror I felt when I first drove up to my apartment building on Washington Boulevard, realizing I would be living on this large four-lane road, cars speeding by at all hours, nary a pedestrian in sight.
This four-lane road is now part of my daily routine. I walk down Washington to the Culver Steps and keep walking until I reach Sony Pictures Studios. Perhaps I pick up a coffee on the way home, or stop by Trader Joe’s to stock up on necessities. The more I do this walk, the more at home I feel. I’ve branched out, explored more of Culver City. The Helms District invites people to wander through its art deco buildings. I’ve climbed the steps of the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook all of three times. Each ascent, I’ve vowed to make it a “weekly thing.” That routine has yet to materialize. But I always, always return to my walk left down Washington.
Were it not sunny, warm, and paved, I could almost be on my daily London walk down Old Compton and Brewer streets. Only it is sunny, and it is warm, at least 96 percent of the time. And it doesn’t matter that I’m not strolling the skinny cobbled streets of Soho because I’ve come to feel almost as at home wandering the wide roads of Culver City’s Arts District.
You can learn a lot about a city on foot. All it takes is a gear shift. A literal one — put the car into park and opt for the footpath. While you might need to drive from place to place, any given area is worth the walk. The streets of Santa Monica, as far from Third Street Promenade as humanly possible. A stroll around the Silver Lake Reservoir. A tour of the stars that line Hollywood Boulevard, if only to show visitors that it’s anything but the glitz they’d come to expect.
In making a city more knowable, walking also makes clear its pitfalls. It’s easy to whiz past a row of tents under a bridge next to a freeway entrance, less so to negotiate your way past a string of unhoused people who have set up camp on the footpath, left with no other choice due to Los Angeles’s extreme housing crisis.
On the flip side, I feel a sense of home on the freeway. I definitely didn’t see that one coming. As someone who moved to Los Angeles without a license (at the time of writing, I’m still working on this one, with permit acquired), I thought the necessity of cars was going to be the bane of my existence. I certainly look forward to the convenience of having one. But it’s more than that. I’ve become accustomed to being driven around the city, over the arching highways linking Los Angeles’s diverse neighborhoods. Plus, as convenient as a tube or bus is, sitting on public transport doesn’t match the feeling of whizzing down a highway riding shotgun. Maybe the fact that I’m not at the wheel, thus freed of responsibility, makes it more enjoyable.
Car culture is not something that I expected would resonate with me. I’d always seen it as deeply American (which I am not). Not that that’s changed. But I’ve come to understand why so much literature tells stories of the great open road. The sense of freedom it evokes (for some), the possibilities it sets forth (for others).
When my cousins came to visit from Australia, they rented a car — a convertible. The chatty salesman convinced them that it was worth the extra dollars per day for the “experience.” Driving down Pacific Coast Highway, the blasting music drowned out by the speed of the highway traffic, wind tangling my hair, I couldn’t help but smile. The drive didn’t stir up memories like those salty breezes. Instead, it engendered excitement — a sense of coming home to somewhere new, a place I could definitely get used to.
Joan Didion captures the unique experience of the L.A. freeway better than I ever could. In The White Album, she recalls a top-down drive around the city. She writes about the freeway as the only secular communion Los Angeles has — or, at least, had, at the end of the ’60s: “I remember driving downtown on the Hollywood freeway in Gary Fleischman’s Cadillac convertible with the top down.” The essay isn’t about driving. Driving — or rather, the road — is a backdrop. But in making sure to mention her journey from A to B, that she was in Fleischman’s convertible, top-down, Didion reminds us that she is in Southern California — and that her writing couldn’t, or wouldn’t, take place anywhere else.
After exiting the freeway, I find a renewed sense of home from setting foot in the places I’ve read all about. The storied L.A. landmarks that long fed my imagination through books and movies, years before I ever landed at LAX. Most of which Didion covers, many of which a host of other writers have shared intricate tales of. Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere made perhaps too great an impression on my 11-year-old self. When I first visited Chateau Marmont, I couldn’t help but think of cigarette-smoking Johnny Marco moping about the hotel (in the most glamorous way possible), burdened by ennui and his inability to care properly for Cleo. That sense of familiarity, albeit with fictional characters, elicited a sort of attachment before I’d ever set foot in the storied castle on Sunset.
I’m under no illusion that this was all actually glitz and glamor. But the stories I grew up reading and the movies that raised me are etched in my brain like the tattoo on my skin, so visiting these places brings a sense of (perhaps false) familiarity, flaws and all. Perhaps not false so much as skewed. For the longer I spend in Los Angeles, the more I’m able to parse out the imagined City of Angels whose star-studded narrative had been pushed on me time and time again. What emerges is a sense of ambivalence — toward the changes in the city and the positives these bring, along with the pitfalls of displacement often engendered. The convenience of the car and the insipidity of the traffic. The novelty of year-round heat and the strangeness of the lack of seasons. The peculiarities one must wrestle with when finding that sense of home in a new and different place.
I suppose this could form the basis of a “10 Best Things About Los Angeles” listicle (the beach; walkable neighborhoods; driving in cars; Hollywood!). A general guide, an L.A.-for-all. The impressions from which it stems are, in fact, the antithesis: it’s a collection of places in which I’ve found a particular sense of home. They’re specific to me, informed by past homes and hopes for this new one. Perhaps it is a list of starting points — of places in which to search for semblances of home. And why shouldn’t these touchpoints offer that same potential for another newly-minted L.A. denizen?
Novel or not, these spots will always provide a sense of home. A walk on the beach. A visit to an old Hollywood haunt. When feeling lost in this vast metropolis, I know where to revisit to ground myself, be it on a walk or a drive. Ideally, both could do the trick.
Right now, my sense of home comes from the semblances of past cities I find in and around this one. As I become more familiar, it will be Los Angeles’s idiosyncrasies that I will form new attachments to. It’s happening already, what with my appreciation for the roads I have yet to drive myself. Perhaps, wherever I end up next, I’ll search for pieces of L.A. in the as-yet unfamiliar landscape.
Los Angeles isn’t the first place I think of when I think of home. Nor will it be the last. But now it’s etched into my skin forever. It’s part of my heimat, assimilated into the six connected letters that wind their way up my arm. The “t” is fading off, almost unfinished. As if leaving space for what — and where — is next to come.
From Los Angeles to Ahmedabad: One Bite at a Time
A New Home
I lived in Ahmedabad all my life until I uprooted my entire world to pursue a master’s degree in journalism on another continent. I landed in Los Angeles nearly a year ago to attend the University of Southern California. At first, it was exciting: a new country, a big city, new people. It screamed freedom — to do anything I wanted without parental restrictions and curfews. I was determined to become an independent woman who was going to make it.
Then the novelty of this place wore off — quickly. Despite the inspired writing and sunshine-filled movies about a fresh life overseas, Los Angeles was nothing as I imagined. The city was too big — inaccessible by foot, with unreliable public transport and without the familiar warmth that I experienced back home. I had no friends. Everything felt impersonal. As the routine of classes fell into place, I was a bundle of emotions and felt homesick.
Even after a year in Los Angeles, I still hadn’t felt like I belonged here. Granted, Los Angeles was just another stop in a journey with no particular destination at the end. I had always thought of Ahmedabad as the only home that I would eventually go back to. No other city would ever come close to it. And yet, here I was in this vast city: lonely and longing for home. What could possibly make this place more palatable?
I began with a fresh home-cooked Gujarati meal. It’s the one thing I knew would bring me some comfort, although I never bothered to learn how to cook anything beyond a steaming cup of masala chai — and I didn’t even like that! At best, I could whip up some edible instant noodles, while I could hear the I-told-you-so’s from my parents, grandmother, and sister in my head. They often tried to get me to cook while I was home, but I avoided the kitchen.
It wasn’t that I hated cooking, but Indian meals are an extravagant and time-consuming chore. I had no patience for it.
But oh, how I missed my mother’s chilla, a savory pancake made from mixed dals and topped with roasted vegetables and soft paneer. I can make a decent omelet, but I craved the flavors my father would create with his own — bursting with salty processed cheese and drizzled with a creamy homemade pesto. My grandmother’s khichdi, a staple Gujarati food — a hot medley of rice and lentils piled high in a bowl; the aromatic ghee, red chilis, a hint of garlic and curd — makes my mouth water just writing it.
Endless days of cold caprese sandwiches and store-bought pasta salads forced my hand. Everything tasted the same — bland, with similar dressings. Being a vegetarian did not help either, as most places lacked a variety of veggie options. I knew I wouldn’t starve, but I desperately needed to step into the kitchen.
I got acquainted with Shreen Khan, a faculty fellow at Annenberg’s Media Center. Khan was raised in Connecticut, but her family’s roots are in the Indian city of Hyderabad. “American food is so much simpler,” Khan said, referring to Indian food as a “symphony of flavors”:
Unlike American food, the art of Indian food is in the blending of flavors. They’re like from two different planets. American food — particularly Californian food — is really focused on garden-fresh. You’ll taste the lemon and you’ll taste the herbs. But things are very, very simple. With Indian food, you can’t make anything in under an hour; you need a lot of time to make the amalgamation of flavors come alive.
That’s what I was missing: the essence of liveliness.
After a trip to the market, I found myself in the kitchen surrounded by the kinds of vegetables, spices, and herbs that my family used at home, without a clue of what to do with any of them.
I decided to start simple: a bowl of vegetable pulao. It’s rice flavored with vegetables and an assortment of spices — chilis, mustard, cardamom, and cumin. I followed a YouTube recipe step by step, but nothing about it tasted the way my mother prepared it. Not enough salt and too much spice. It was the middle of the night in India when I called her frantically hoping to salvage the dish. She answered, half asleep, her voice filled with concern. I explained the situation, and she patiently told me to add a little jaggery and lemon to neutralize the taste. With her instructions, I managed to make my pulao edible, but I decided I was done with cooking.
There are no Indian street food vendors here. No local guy who sells pani puri with his sweaty hands that no one bats an eye at before eating. Most of the snacks my friends and I purchase from the local Indian grocery store are way over our limited student budget. No matter how hard we try, we cannot recreate, in Los Angeles, the same feeling of eating our hometown food.
“In terms of migration and food, the ability to transport ingredients is very important,” said food writer Tien Nguyen. Nguyen is the co-author of two books: the New York Times bestseller L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food (2013), with Natasha Phan and chef Roy Choi, and Flavor Bombs: The Umami Ingredients That Make Taste Explode (2018), with restaurateur Adam Fleischman. Nguyen has written about food and culture for more than a decade and now teaches a class about it at USC. “Being able to recreate dishes in a different country where ingredients might not be the same is difficult,” she offers, “so you have to do with what you can.”
After about a week, I called my mother again and asked her to send a recipe for my favorite masala khichdi, with exact measurements and method of preparation. I wanted to get it right. And once I ate a spoonful of that khichdi, there was my Ratatouille moment. I was transported right back into my home, to our dining table where we had all our meals as a family. As I poured hot ghee over my bowl of khichdi, I could conjure up the familiar smells of our kitchen back home: roasted garlic and the sharp whiff of masalas. With the first bite, the hot khichdi and the cold curd melted together, and I could picture us at the table, laughing over the way our dog would lick the entire bowl in a minute. I gobbled it up in under 10 minutes, and both my stomach and heart were full.
Then I realized: it wasn’t only about the food. Back home, when my mother shouted, “It’s time for dinner!” we dropped what we were doing and headed to the table. Our household had one rule above others: dinners were meant to be eaten together. No phones. No television. By contrast, my L.A. dining experience was often in bed, watching the latest episode of some TV show I found on Netflix. There was no one to talk to. No one I could share my day with. Nothing warm outside my bowl.
I was also dealing with the separation anxiety I felt not being with my twin sister, Nirja. We’ve always been together — even before we were born. Growing up, we went to the same school, and later to the same college. For the first time in 23 years, we were on opposite sides of a foreign country: Nirja pursuing her master’s in psychology at NYU in New York City, while I was here in Los Angeles.
It stands to reason, I guess, that we would end up on opposite coasts — we’ve always been different. She is a big foodie and loves creating new dishes: from tangy bell-pepper pasta to delectable cherry pies, she can do it all. Me? I loved eating everything she cooked. Although we fight over clothes, or who’ll sleep on a particular side of the bed, we bond over food. She reveled in feeding me and I gladly allowed it.
Now, I call to pester her for her recipes.
“You miss me,” she’d later tell me over the phone as I was working on this story. “I know that when you badger me with your incessant calling and texting about the salt measurement or the technique to blanch spinach, it’s just your way of showing love.”
Someone to Share
I convinced my roommate, Vidhi, to cook with me. Both of us are from Ahmedabad and love eating Gujarati cuisine. And both of us are equal novices. Together, we started experimenting with recreations of Indian recipes that required time, patience, and the acquisition of a new set of skills.
Our weekend ritual harkened back to the days when my entire family would gather for festivals, particularly Janmashtami, the celebration of Lord Krishna. My grandmother brought everyone together and assigned tasks to create an elaborate medley of 36 kinds of vegetables. Our entire family would sit together — some would cut the greens, some would peel potatoes and carrots, and some would prepare the curry. Between Vidhi and I, we divide the chores evenly: Vidhi would make hot rotis while I took on curries and lentils.
While I was still learning and trying to cook every day, I also began building community. My new friend Harnish, from Bombay, loved to cook. Even more importantly for me, he loved cooking for others — and I found myself at his house whenever he cooked. He effortlessly created extravagant dishes like matar paneer, a creamy gravy made with tomatoes, peas, and tofu; and pav bhaji, with its medley of vegetables coming together and creating a new taste with ingredients from this Southland region. Just as I did when my mother called, I would drop everything when Harnish called saying he had made Indian food.
Every South Asian person I met at the university expressed the same American-food fatigue that I’d been experiencing. Some, like Harnish, cooked, while others like me relied on frozen ready-to-cook packets or ate in restaurants. There is an Indian restaurant, Manas, near the campus. We all went hoping to have some regional delicacies. Sadly, the Americanized flavors they had adopted to cater to local taste were rather off-putting, to put it mildly. Other Indian restaurants were too far away and unaffordable on our budgets.
“This idea of regional specialties might be a little difficult for an audience that doesn’t quite know yet how to make all these compromises,” Nguyen said. “So you can have somebody from that region, making the authentic dish in the kitchen, but economically they just can’t make it work for the restaurant. And that’s why they have to make these compromises.”
For Annenberg’s Shreen Khan, home is Connecticut, which she said was “pretty white” and didn’t offer much in the way of culturally competent Indian cuisine. “So when I was researching colleges,” she added, “that was one of the first things on my mind: to be in a very diverse place and find people like me. Luckily, I did find that. We’d cook Indian food, watch Bollywood — a space to explore our Indian identity.”
Khan started a little ritual we called “Desi Food Fridays,” which included other South Asian women at the school. She is a food enthusiast who loves creating new recipes and feeding us — the home-starved students. Every Friday was a potluck where we shared the food of our homelands. One evening, Shreen treated us to chhole — chickpeas cooked in spicy gravy made with tomatoes and onions. I proudly shared gulab jamuns — soft dough balls dipped in sweet rose syrup. Served hot, they melted sweetly over the tongue the second you put them in your mouth.
Slowly, I have been getting the hang of cooking. Instead of songs, my YouTube follows now consist of easy-to-cook Indian dishes. In my free time, I browse through Hebbars Kitchen and rummage through easy-to-cook recipes on Instagram.
Although it’s difficult to cook every day, I still find time to make a simple rice and curry — there’s a sense of pride that I can. I send the pictures of my dishes to my parents and get such joy from their surprised and delighted responses. I am growing in ways they never imagined. I never imagined this either.
With masalas and chai, I’ve transformed four empty walls in a student housing complex into a home.
It took over 8,000 miles for me to embrace cooking — only because it brought me a little closer to home. Each time I have a whiff of tadka filling up the kitchen, it feels as though I never left India. Vidhi and I listen to songs as we cook — a new ritual we have created together. Later, we will enjoy our meals on the porch and talk about everything under the moon.
Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is a journalist, author, screenwriter, producer, and the associate director of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at USC, where she is also an adjunct instructor at the Annenberg School’s Specialized Journalism graduate program.
Cat Moore is the director of belonging at the University of Southern California and an award-winning innovation fellow disrupting a national loneliness crisis.
Haley Griffin received her master’s degree from the University of Southern California, studying Specialized Journalism: The Arts. Additionally, Griffin is the music editor and a contributing writer to the university’s arts magazine, Ampersand LA.
Madeleine Schulz is an Australian-born, Los Angeles–based writer (with a few stops in between). She has a BA in English with a politics minor from King’s College London. She has a dual master’s degree in global media and communications from USC and interns at and writes for Flaunt magazine.
Lajja Mistry is a multimedia journalist from India. She received her master’s degree in journalism from the University of Southern California. Her work is mainly focused on stories about culture, gender, and the South Asian experience.
Featured image: Downtown Los Angeles taken from the roof of the Hedco Neuroscience Building at the University of Southern California by T. Nathan Mundhenk is licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0. Image has been cropped.