By MIA NAKAJI MONNIER
Though I’ve only lived in California for a nonconsecutive third of my life, I consider myself a Californian, for the most part. If nothing else, I’m at least a native West Coaster: my dad’s family comes from Oregon, my mom’s American relatives live in L.A. and the Bay Area, and I graduated from high school in the South Bay. My parents even met here, in Little Tokyo, almost 30 years ago (at Kinokuniya Bookstore, where she worked).
Still, on days when the temperature reaches unrelentingly over 90 degrees and I have to blast a fan at my bed in order to get a good night’s sleep — in May — I find myself missing the cooler climates I’ve known. When hot summers stretch from May through September, drizzly Seattle mornings seem like a faraway memory. The freezing winters and dramatic seasons of New England, even more distant.
In Vermont, where I lived during college, the mountains, hills, and trees are the constant backdrop to everything manmade. I lived in the Champlain Valley — between the Green Mountains to the east and the Adirondacks to the west — where artwork tends to all give a similar treatment of the landscape. In paintings, drawings, collages, it looks layered: indigo mountains behind red hills behind green fields behind black and white dairy cows. To a Californian, it looked foreign and surreal. Even in the thick of homesickness or heartbreak, I could look up at the mountains beyond the campus and think, “I live here??”
When it snowed for the first time during our freshman year, everyone in our hall — some native New Englanders, others from Kansas, Singapore, Oakland — ran outside together, and I threw up my arms and stuck out my tongue, taking it all in. We called the quad behind our dorm Battell Beach and it filled with us, college students shouting in woolly hats and mittens, not too proud, in the snow, to be children again.
When the winter lingered on for six months, though, it lost much of its charm. The snow turned brown and gray, froze over, unfroze, and froze again until it looked like the dried-out remainder of bad shave ice. We learned that special discomfort of walking from the freezing outdoors into a heated building, sweat gluing a layer of long underwear to our clammy bodies. In the season of short days and long nights, I couldn’t be by myself for more than a couple of hours without feeling impossibly alone.
Then, suddenly, like an impossible revelation, spring came. As soon as the temperature rose to the 50s, the New Englanders stripped down to sundresses and shorts, and the rest of us tentatively left our long underwear in the drawer. As the last of the hardened snow melted into the ground and the grass began to sprout, I felt a collective mood lift. Enlivened by the warmer air, people who loved each other in secret from afar found the courage to do something about it. We lay in the sun at every opportunity. The seasons propelled us forward and our lives fell subconsciously into their rhythm.
When my faraway friends tell me they could never live in L.A. (and this happens sadly often), one of the reasons they give the most is that they “need seasons.” It’s true that we Angelenos don’t have seasons in the same way as a place like Vermont. Here, we have no snow, and no maples to change color. During college, I came home only for summer and Christmas, and when winters were warm, I felt disoriented, like, compared to Vermont, my hometown existed in a state of perpetual summer: unnatural and disorienting.
Here, we’re governed by a different logic. The palm fronds fall not in the cold but in wind storms that knock out our power. The hills turn green not in summer but in winter, when brush fire season ends and the scrubby plants have a chance to soak up moisture again. Over time I’ve learned this rhythm; when I walk outside and the air smells like jasmine for the first time, I begin to notice the little buds of jacarandas overhead. I wait for them to bloom in full, setting off the city in an explosion of purple. Soon after, the marine layer will hang over the beach cities, transforming, as it sweeps inland, into a form that looks less like ocean spray, more like straight smog.
On the nights when the fog makes it to downtown still looking like fog — clean, thick, and haunting — and the lights of the skyline blur, I breathe deep and drive slower. On those nights, I fall in love with the city over and over. The Decemberists’ lyrics play in my head: “Los Angeles, I’m yours.”
Something in people seems to need this kind of environmental change — routine, predictable, yet somehow, each time, miraculous. There are superficial reasons: an excuse to wear scarves, then flip-flops; perfect conditions for snowboarding, then surfing. But for the nostalgic among us, they also give us the chance to relive moments while living them for the first time. This spring will never be last spring, but it looks and smells the same. The magnolia leaves rattle against each other in their familiar way, the breeze fans our hair, the markets fill with avocados. And as the sun sets over the ocean, the fog, as it always has, settles in over the city.
Mia Monnier is the online editor of The Rafu Shimpo and can be reached via email. Ochazuke is a staff-written column. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.