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I felt like a tourist.

On my first couple of days in Portland, I felt like a tourist. Everywhere I walked, my eyes either searched for something to make sense of or stared in awe at both the strangeness and surprising familiarity of the Rose City. I definitely didn’t know how to dress for the weather, even after checking the forecast and thinking I knew what 60 degrees or “light” rain felt like. A very interesting observation (and a bit of a culture shock) was that even if it were pouring, it’s rare to see Portland natives use umbrellas.


the view from my 7th floor window
The view from my 7th floor window of a Portland State dorm

I feel at home.

Portland is patchwork of diverse neighborhoods and geographies, often stark contrasts to the gentrified, downtown-y image of Portland I had in mind. It feels like a collage of places that I’ve known as well as those I will never know. If plucked from Earth and dropped back down in any spot here, I couldn’t guess it to be Portland.

While strangely disorienting in that way, what also struck me was how much Portland reminds me of home. Not “home” as in where I reside, but rather “home” as in where I have felt belonging even though I can’t necessarily claim it as home–old bookstores, my freshman dorm room, Bryant Park in New York, Virginia’s hiking trails, my birthplace an ocean away. Portland is a soup of those familar scapes, in an indistinct, but cozy way. Perhaps it’s the floral whiffs I get that remind me of Homesick candles, the friendly and open mannerisms of its people, or the pleasant balance of greens and grays.

Besides sense of place, one thing that grounds me is the people here. From my DukeEngage peers to my coworkers at OPAL Environmental Justice, and from the staff at Portland State to a stranger at the Saturday Market who kindly (albeit randomly) explained to me Portland’s seasons.

Peonies at PSU Farmers Market on Saturday morning

So far, I’ve been so incredibly happy to be here. It has a well-equipped public transportation, big environmental activism scene, lively farmer’s markets, and a friendly openness for so many different identities and abilities. However, I recognize that I may be seeing the city with rose-colored glasses. I’ve yet to understand the complexities of it.

Though Portland is often identified as a model city, it isn’t perfect at all. Being in Portland helps me understand this, Appreciating good work of its people is not to overlook that there will always be room to grow.

the view from my dorm room at night
The view from my dorm room at night

I’m experiencing new things.

I’m met with a lot of new experiences here. Like the time that a group of DukeEngage participants went grocery shopping to cook for ourselves for a full week. It was the first time to do so for many of us. Together, we went to a nearby grocery store to buy what we each needed. We grossly overshot how much or what kinds of things we would need. The 15 minute hike back was excruciating, as we heaved the crushing weight of our unwisely made decisions. We must have taken half a dozen breaks just to pause and catch our breath, expelling hybrids of cries and laughter. What felt calamitous then is comical in hindsight, and we surely did better in our next trips.

That moment is an early snapshot of my many experiences (and missteps) in this new city. These firsts remind me of how much room I have to grow. When I peered down into the Willamette River one Saturday, I felt akin to the weeds I saw growing on a floating dock along the bank. When I looked closer, I saw that some bore yellow flowers, small yet hard to miss. Like those persistently flowering weeds, I hope to grow over the next eight weeks to ground myself in an unfamiliar environment.

Weeds flowering on a floating dock on the Willamette River.
Weeds flowering on a floating dock on the Willamette River