I started putting this talk together the day after it was announced that someone who lives in Seattle is officially the richest person of all time.
I’m guessing it’s not one of the people in this room. But if it is, can you give me a ride home?
When I moved to Seattle in 2005, the idea of sharing a metro-area with two of the richest people ever didn’t really occur to me. I moved here from Dubai — where I was born in the early ‘80s — to turn my student visa into a work visa, a process that took around six years.
That's the sanitized version, the one I tell at dinner parties and that I put on my Tinder bio (which is really weird to say with my girlfriend in the audience, but either way).
The unsanitized version, the one I tell at public radio events, is that it was the longest, most grueling process of my life. It cost me and my family our life savings in legal and filing fees. It forced me to work a terrible job without pay for 18 months. And it left me burnt out, depressed and too broke and jaded to even think about packing up my bags to make a home somewhere else.
Be part of our next storytelling event: Email firstname.lastname@example.org to join the mailing list.
By that point in my life, Seattle wasn’t a home. Seattle wasn’t even Seattle; it was a tiny studio room in Shoreline that I could barely afford. Seattle was a mind-numbing, work-from-home transcription gig, where I would listen to focus groups and stupid reality television interviews and type them out word-for-word, working 20 hours straight to make enough money for a grocery trip. Seattle was a master’s degree in organizational psychology that I couldn’t use and couldn’t finish paying off. And Seattle was being so mentally and emotionally worn out that I didn’t have the energy or the means to make friends.
One year, one of the few Christmas cards I received was from my immigration attorney’s office.
My attorney tried to help, but I have a very vivid memory of being in her downtown office, on the 41st floor, on a beautiful summer day. Looking out the window, she had a straight view of Pike Place Market, and while I was indoors discussing the complexities of a visa application, I could see happy people milling about this iconic and historic part of Seattle. I wondered if I would ever be one of them.
And this was during the Obama years. Man, Obama... *deep sigh*
You could ask why I didn’t simply move somewhere else, but I couldn’t go back to Dubai. I lost all residency rights there after I turned 18, and I was ineligible to stay on my parents’ visas. My parents are originally from Sri Lanka, a country that I’ve never lived in and never spoken the language of. I had sunk so much of my life in trying to make Seattle work, and the idea of filling out more forms — and promising to pay more filing fees — was almost too traumatic to contemplate. So I stayed in Shoreline in that tiny studio room, doing that meaningless work. I had no other choice.
The only place I would go was Pike Place Market — that [pulse] of Seattle that I had seen from my attorney’s window — because I was so isolated and lost that I didn’t really know anywhere else in Seattle. I just went where the tourists went. And people were actually happy there. For brief, stolen moments, I felt connected to this place called Seattle. I didn’t know what it meant, but it was something. It was escape. It was freedom. And it was a second — no more than a second — of thinking and hoping that there was a world beyond that studio room.
But I would inevitably have to go back to Shoreline. I came to dread the northbound 41 bus, because the only thing it meant was having to say goodbye to that space of community and acceptance, that space of not feeling like an outsider, that space where people were happy and where they wanted to stay.
Part of my desperation to make Seattle work was connecting with a local social media group in 2012. This was Seattle, of course, so everyone there was really weird, and we met at Golden Gardens in the pouring rain. Even though I had lived in Seattle for seven years by that point, I didn’t even know where Golden Gardens was back then. But it was actually Seattle, not just a tiny studio room. It was hipsters and nerds and cool people having free food, playing Cards Against Humanity. And it was the moment I felt connected to the people who call this city home.
For the first time in seven years, I just hung out with other people. No one cared about my legal fees or the avalanche of paperwork that I was digging myself out of. For the first time in seven years, I began to think that there was more to Seattle than being trapped and out of ideas.
In 2014, nine years after moving here to look for work, I found a job that was actually meaningful for me. I’ve always loved to write, so to actually get paid to do that, and to think of myself a part of the creative community of Seattle, gives me both a voice and a place. It boggles my mind and breaks my heart that I had neither of those things before. Nobody in Seattle rolls their eyes when I tell them I’m a writer. No one asks me when I’m going to get a “real job.” They accept that, and they accept me. When I go to some random coffee shop, pop open my Chromebook and start typing, I feel like I’m making myself at home.
Finding a line of work you love can change your life, but to find a city that accepts your life can change your world. It can make you want to stay.
In 2015, I moved out of that small studio room and into a house that was a 15-minute walk away from the University of Washington. It used to take me an hour to get from Shoreline to downtown Seattle, but now I could walk to the beating heart of UW. For years, I’d felt envious of the people who went there, because I thought that if you went to UW, you had your life figured out. And in 2015, with my messy hair and bad skin and glasses, I looked like I was one of those people. I could walk to the UW Light Rail station and take a train that put me in downtown in 10 minutes. I could walk through campus and see Mount Rainier with my own eyes.
And for the first time in years, I didn’t feel like I was on the outside looking in. I felt like I was a part of Seattle — like I belonged to Seattle — and I knew why I had stayed. Not because I didn’t have the options or the money to go somewhere else, but because I knew this was always where I was going to be.
It’s January, 2018. Fifteen years after I came to the United States. Thirteen years after I came to Washington state. Why did I stay? The weather sucks, the traffic is terrible, and if you don't drink coffee, there's really nothing to do. But now I tell people I write for a living, and I can say that with pride and honesty. Many of friends have moved away from Seattle, largely because living here became too expensive. But out of all of us, I stayed.
So, if the richest person of all time really is in this room, you know what? You don’t have to give me a ride. I’ll enjoy the walk home.
Michael Perera has been a Seattle-area resident for 15 years. He writes for a living. He was under the impression that Seattle was the capital of Washington state until a few days before he moved to the area.