The plane descends for landing, and an insuppressible smile breaks out on my face. I left Tampa about a year ago and am excited to be back. In the early morning’s sky, the corporate buildings that make up Tampa’s skyline stare back at me through the window.
The planes doors open and I dart into the terminal to catch the first monorail to luggage claim. After happily reuniting with my family, we wait around the carousel, watching the identical black suitcases roll by. I yawn in a futile attempt to pop my ears and scan the sea of faces.
I wonder if I will spot someone I know. Though the greater Tampa area has about two million people, it feels small to me. As a native, it’s almost impossible to not run into someone I know. Countless times, I’ve been dancing in some club or another and have felt a tap on my shoulder. “Hey, remember me from 4th grade?”
A loop around the airport’s giant roundabout dumps us onto 275, one of the three main arteries running through the city. The highway gleams with fresh puddles left from the night’s thunderstorm.
A black Escalade on 22s swerves past us, all four passengers decked out in long, thick silver chains, fitted hats, and oversized shirts. A pair of freshly licensed suburban teens in a pimped out Honda fly by at 90 mph. The system, blaring a song by Lil Wayne that’s been chopped and screwed, rattles their trunk.
In the right lane, an aged Toyota pickup cruises along 10 miles under the speed limit. Its driver wears a hideous camouflage hat. A sticker on the back window depicts a cartoon character peeing on the name of a rival football team.
We drive past International Plaza, a mall that caters to Tampa’s big spenders and brand addicts. The perfectly manicured lawns and shiny cars in the expansive parking lot look like alien territory compared to the Southeast Asian countryside I’d driven through weeks earlier.
While I was overseas, my parents moved to South Tampa, a trendy, posh part of the city that houses Tampa’s young, wealthy professionals and local sports players. A series of tanning salons, nutrition supplement stores, Starbucks, strip clubs, sports bars, consignment shops, beauty salons, fast food chains, and franchise pharmacies smile and wink unabashedly at unsuspecting consumers passing by.
My dad touches a button on his car’s visor and the garage door opens obediently. An overly tanned girl in tight leggings jogs in front of the car, the leash in her hand attached to a Chihuahua scampering to keep up. I heave my backpack out of the trunk and enter the chic three-story condo. After staying in $5 a night guesthouses for months, the house feels like a 5-star resort.
I climb the stairs to the second story and stand on the balcony, checking out the new neighborhood. The surface perfection of the US glares back at me. I take in the meticulously cut lawns, the perfectly paved streets, and the brand new cars that make up part of the American dream. I giggle at the thought of the shock a home owner’s association official would get walking down a typical Asian block.
The air is thick with the humidity Florida is notorious for. I step inside to the air-conditioned comfort, wondering where my next trip will take me.