My 11 months in Washington, D.C. was nothing short of magical.
It started in September. Hanna picked me up in Philadelphia bright and early with a trunk full of the boxes I stored at her house over the summer. I had that first-day-of-school feeling. I kept joking that it felt like she was dropping me off at sleep away camp. I didn’t have a lot of things and I pretty much finished unpacking by the time she arrived back in Philly.
I didn’t start working until a week after I got there so that first week was mostly me watching Netflix in bed and eating maggi. I was too jet lagged to do anything most of the time. But I had google mapped 14th St long before I got to D.C., and was itching to see it for real so one morning, I decided to get out of the apartment and walk 10 mins down to Trader Joe’s to start stocking up my empty kitchen cabinets. There’s something about using the keys to your own apartment for the first time that feels like staking a claim. And there’s something special about walking down your street for the first time that feels like a ribbon cutting ceremony in the privacy your own mind. It was hot, but not too. It was a moment. I had a bit of a strut in my step. I felt good. Instantly.
It was never like that in Philly. There, I took many timid steps and tentative trips for years. I resisted making it feel like home somehow. But in my senior year, I don’t know, something changed. I think I’ve said that on here before. I just felt like whatever anchor I was dragging for a long time was cut loose. I regretted not loving it there more, or not trying harder to love it. When I was just about to graduate college, I desperately felt like I wanted a bit more time. A bit of a do-over.
And that was partly why I could jump in so wholeheartedly into life in D.C. It was like my second chance. Even back in October I had gotten that sense… it was like I came back to the U.S. after spending the summer after senior year in Malaysia with a voice in my head that said “okay, go again, and love it this time.” And I did.
And nothing has ever fit like a glove the way Washington, D.C. did.
I learned which route on the Metro I liked taking best. I frequented old and new favourite coffee shops around this new city (to me, it was a sign of Mercy that La Colombe—a Philly fav of mine—on Florida Ave was only a 5 min walk from my apartment). I started going to restaurants and ice cream shops with the wonderful people in my intern class. I went through the annoying process of getting health insurance on the D.C. exchange and paying for it myself every month. I learned the roads, the rivers, the suburbs. There was always a wholesome activity to do, whether it was the museums or walking in Rock Creek Park, kayaking on the Potomac, watching movies with MoviePass, or watching The Moth or a comedy show. With the help of my former NPR colleagues, I advocated for myself for a job at D.C.’s NPR member station, WAMU, when my NPR internship ended.
And that was other thing. Both of my jobs were a huge part of why D.C. was so special. Back in April, when I found out I got a summer internship with How I Built This, I realised there was a little bit of a wrinkle in my plan. I knew I would have to apply for a post-college work visa. I didn’t realise when I applied that it wouldn’t come through in time for the internship (if it came through at all). So I had to call my would-be supervisor, Jeff, to tell him about my sticky little situation. He had every right to just revoke the opportunity from me, or tell me to reapply. But instead, he deferred me to the Fall internship, which ended up working better for me because I was then able to spend raya at home—it was going to be my sister Aida’s last raya at home in Malaysia for a while, so that was a big deal. In the end if the visa situation wasn’t an issue and I didn’t get deferred, I would’ve had to go 17 months without going back to Malaysia. I would’ve had to spend raya in D.C. before I really got to form any roots. I wouldn’t have gotten to work with Benjamin, who has been one of the biggest joys from the past year. In hindsight, it feels like a pure act of divine intervention. A miracle.
When my stint at NPR was coming to an end in January, I was mired with quite a bit of apprehension about being unemployed. On my visa, you’re not allowed to be unemployed for a certain amount of time and I really didn’t want to eat into that time. And it’s kinda hard to get a job in radio/media. I wasn’t restricting myself to that necessarily, but it was definitely difficult to find a job at all. My time at NPR was ending on the 26th of January. I was introduced to someone at WAMU just one or two weeks before that and just happened to have someone on their team leaving on the 26th. The timing worked perfectly. It was for a job on The Kojo Nnamdi Show, a daily talk-show about local goings-on—in politics, health, culture, transportation, the schools, the environment. It was very intimidating because everything about it was both difficult and unfamiliar for me. I didn’t know D.C. very well (other than where my favourite restaurants and spots were) and I had no experience producing a daily show that was live.
It took me quite some time to settle into a rhythm there but once I did, it just made me love the city 50 times more. When I started learning about the graduation rates, new healthcare policies, elections and the history of the city for the job, I just felt so much more acquainted with it and so much more connected to where I lived. I could walk around with an awareness of what was going on in the neighbourhoods and spheres that I had no personal stake in. I felt integrated and involved, like a real adult who lived in this real city. I loved getting into a Lyft in D.C. and hearing people listen to WAMU—once I even got in and someone was listening to a show I produced! And because Kojo is a local show, people have a much stronger connection to it. I was proud and happy that I was helping people get their stories told and I got a deeper appreciation for local journalism that I had never really thought about before.
So, living in D.C. wasn’t just fun because it was fun. It was fun because I felt like I grew up here. I was invested. I had to swim or I might’ve sunk.
But that isn’t to say that living in D.C. wasn’t fun. It was so, so, so much fun. It’s a great place to be in your early 20s. I loved where I lived. The apartment was so lovely. It’s a little intimidating to move into an apartment with someone you found on Craigslist and only spoke to over Google Hangouts for like 15 minutes. But I really enjoyed living with my roommate so much—a bonus was that she was pescatarian (!) and didn’t eat meat so I never had to worry about bacon/pork/sharing pots etc, haha.
Plus, I loved the friends I made. They are some of the most amazing people I know. A lot of people move to a new city and have trouble growing roots but coming into D.C. with an intern class of 50-60 people was so much fun. Having a group of Malaysians in D.C. to have home-cooked dinner with every few weeks really made me feel comforted. And when my friend Clare who I knew from Penn moved to D.C., it just kept getting better. It was also nice to have people who I could say to people in D.C., “I knew them from before.” (I also liked that in D.C., I had a “before.” I came from somewhere in the U.S., and I had a history.) Plus, people were always visiting D.C. and I loved getting to see my friends like Busra, Jamie and Cristina as they passed through town.
And the neighbourhoods are so wonderful. I can’t even fully say how much. D.C. is so small and so dense but it is built of so many distinct neighbourhoods. With a 30 min walk within D.C., you can feel like you’re in a whole other city because each area is so different. And the neighbourhoods all push against each other and they’re always changing and growing. Something is always happening. There is always something to discover and rediscover.
I also love that most tourists come for the weekend and they don’t see much other than the Mall and the monuments. And maybe they go downtown. Or they venture to U Street. But not everyone knows the amazing scrappy little restaurants in Columbia Heights or Petworth. Or the more sterile Tenleytown. Or historic Shaw. It’s like there’s D.C. the government city, the capital. And then there’s a little Narnia cupboard that you walk through if you live here and it’s D.C., a real, vibrant city.
My life in D.C. is hard to walk away from. I wouldn’t have made that choice had I had a choice. It’s funny how something can fit easily like a glove but can difficult to remove.
As I write this, I’m at the Doha airport and I don’t know how many more of these 24-hour journeys are ahead of me, but by the time you read this, I would probably have braved the entirety of my day-long journey. I will probably be home in my childhood bedroom, with its lavender walls, zoo-animal-themed ceiling light and finger-painted bathroom door. I have absolutely no idea what’s ahead of me, and I know I must resist the urge to keep looking back. But the one thing I know for sure at this point is that that when I do glance backwards, the image in the rear view mirror will be full of magic.