Choosing Between Opportunity and the Comfort of Home
Much of the summer sports hoopla has been around LeBron James’ return to Cleveland. After four years and two championships in Miami, James is returning home to the team that drafted him and the city that raised him.
The idea of going home is romantic: It’s sentimental and nostalgic. But if you were to ask me or Spanish soccer star Cesc Fábregas, it's not possible to really go home.
At age 16, Francesc “Cesc” Fábregas left the sunny Catalan coast of Spain for an opportunity with the English Premier League's club Arsenal.
Fábregas progressed rapidly through the ranks and got consistent first-team action during the 2004-2005 campaign, his second year with the club. He continued to impress and cement himself into team manager Arsene Wenger’s starting 11. Early in the 2008 season, he became team captain at age 20.
In the summer of 2010, rumors intensified that Futbol Club Barcelona was keen on signing the world champion. Fábregas returned home to rejoin team he had once played for as youth under the leadership of his idol, Pep Guardiola.
While his homecoming was popular with fans and players, his three years in Barcelona produced mixed results. Guardiola and his successors required technically gifted players who were quick with the ball and who stayed in position. While Cesc was considered one of the world's best in his position of center midfielder, he had a tendency to roam high up the pitch (away from his assigned terrain), leaving gaps in the midfield and the defense exposed.
Fábregas was an anarchic player playing in orderly system. This was in contrast to his time at Arsenal, where he'd been given the liberty to play up high, knowing that his teammates would cover for his absence. Cesc was a round hole in Barça’s square peg. He may have been born in Barcelona and had Barça in his DNA but his playing style had been forged in London and he no longer fit the Barça mold.
Cesc’s stay in Barcelona ended this past June, when manager Jose Mourinho brought him to the Chelsea Football Club for a fee of 33 million euros. The Portuguese coach observed that Cesc “was the missing piece to the Chelsea engine.” And unlike Guardiola or the other Barça managers who didn't know how to use the talents of Cesc and tried him out in different roles, Mourinho knew exactly just where to use his new #4, as he told the Guardian: “For Barça he was the fake nine, the number ten and winger but I know and he knows what is his best position so he is giving exactly what we need. Quick thinking in midfield. He brings people in the same direction. I am really happy.”
Cesc’s homecoming did not have a fairytale ending and he wound up leaving home again. The trouble with going home is that it’s may not end up meeting expections. Someone's been changed by life, adventures at school, work or travel. He expects to go back and see that his city has changed, too. But that’s not always the case.
When I returned home to Modesto, Calif., after graduating from San Diego State University in 2010, I expected to arrive and show everyone I had grown and now was ready to contribute. After all, isn’t that what someone does after graduating? But the trouble was that the city had not changed.
I had changed. And as Kareem Adbul-Jabbar pointed out in a July piece in Time, “In our disillusioned mind, 'home' becomes a romanticized symbol of our innocence, in which we dreamed limitlessly and were loved unconditionally. But that home, too, has changed because of our absence.”
As was the case for Fábregas, I found the romanticism of returning home soon made way for a frustrating reality. It was painful and hard to realize, but I wasn’t a fit for Modesto. The city was economically conservative, with established industries and a certain way of doing things. My ideas and ambitions about entrepreneurship, technology and leadership were like checkers pieces on a Monopoly game board. They did not fit or make sense. Had I been gung ho about real estate, law enforcement or agriculture, I would have been a great fit. But my ideas about work and life had been indelibly marked by years spent outside the city and outside the country.
My optimism and hope for my hometown were soon buried under a sense of resentment and anger. In addition to its conservative economic values, Modesto and neighboring communities took a big hit from the Great Recession. Businesses were closing, jobs weren’t materializing and it seemed like I was going to get stuck in a cycle of underemployment and unemployment.
It was painful -- not just because of the economic hard times that my family and I along with scores of other people were going through. What also hurt was that my homecoming wasn’t going to work out. I loved my hometown wanted to be a part of its fabric. I had the 209 area code in my DNA.
Modesto was the city that believed in me yet impeded my progress. It wanted me to succeed but didn’t have anything to offer me. Similarly, I couldn’t sacrifice my hard work and ambitions to fit into the city’s system. It was as if I were Cesc Fábregas and Modesto were Futbol Club Barcelona.
And Modesto will always fill the concept of “home” for me. But with my travels and goals, home nowadays seems to be elsewhere. As Thomas Wolfe so eloquently wrote in his aptly named You Can’t Go Home Again (also referenced by Abdul-Jabbar in his brilliant essay), the protagonist "was never so assured of his purpose as when he was going somewhere on a train. And he never had the sense of home so much as when he felt that he was going there. It was only when he got there that his homelessness began.”
The paradox of my leaving home again in 2012 (having already left once for college) was that I would not be where I am now (working for technology company Waze in New York City) had it not been for the values and lessons instilled in me during my 19 or so years of growing up in California's Central Valley.
It's a situation that many recent graduates also find themselves in. As a number of them move back home to cut back on costs or get themselves established, they may find that their new experiences, lessons and skill sets are out of sync with the norms of their hometown.
That means that in my case, while I will visit Modesto every chance I get, I understand this: I can never really go home again.