The Great Vancouver Exodus: Why I'm almost ready to leave the city

Dec 20 2017, 4:06 am

Submitted to Vancity Buzz by Grace Pacifica Chen

It was one of those Sundays in early January when you wake up to bright, stark sunlight streaming through your blinds.

My fellow Vancouverites might know the one. It’s been grey and dreary for months. You open your curtains to a brave new world and see, with sudden, startling clarity, all of the dust that had gathered in the cracks of your life while you had been hibernating through the long winter.

Every year, on this particular day in January, I find myself wandering around the city alone in an unsettled daze – one hand on this first pulse of summer, wondering how, with all of the dust and cracks, I can keep on pushing forward.

It was freezing out, being January and a cloudless day, but I needed to get out of the house.

At that point, I had been “home” in Vancouver for a month after spending half a year in Europe.

In that month, I spent a lot of time with my head between my hands complaining to friends about how torn I was between feeling the need to put my adult life together and wanting to get on a plane back to Europe as soon as I can afford being jobless for another few months.

My best girlfriend, a.k.a. The One That I Complain To Most, said to me, “Get away from the city. Go for a walk. Go to Stanley Park, wander into the forest and think about it. What do you really want? What makes you happy? Don’t think about what society says you should be doing. Think about what you should be doing.”

“But it’s coooooold,” I said.

“Oh princess,” she said. “Suck it up, bundle up, and thank me later.”

And so, on that particular day in January, I dug out my warmest clothes, which, either ironically or coincidentally, looked very Pacific Northwest – red plaid flannel shirt, TNA Sea-To-Sky sweater (that one every girl in the city owns), dark jeans, brown combat boots, fur-lined parka, knit gloves, and white toque.

I packed my fancy but compact travel camera as well. I thought that if I tried to look at my own city through the eyes of a traveler, I might find new perspectives that I hadn’t been able to see before.

I walked to the SkyTrain and rode towards the glass towers rising out of Vancouver’s downtown core. I passed the offices of the central business district (CBD) where all lights had been switched off for the weekend, to the far end of the downtown peninsula and to Stanley Park.

Camera in hand, I meandered into the park. West Georgia turned into Lost Lagoon into a forest trail where the light got darker and the trees thicker with every step I took.

In the month that I had been “home,” I had come across a lot of questions, which were driving me to bouts of insomnia, frenzies of SkyTrain platform pacing, and uncharacteristically melodramatic speech.

Away from the bustle of the city and my nine to five job in the hectic CBD, I was able to start working through these questions.

“Am I meant to settle down in this city, or is my home to be elsewhere in the world?”

“Should I start putting my life in order and live the adulthood society approves of, or should I continue chasing freedom to distant and foreign horizons, wherever those may be?”

“Do I want to build a home and take my belongings out of boxes, or do I want to take those boxes of belongings to the market and sell it all so I can keep on moving?”

“Is it wiser for me to lay the foundations for my future in Vancouver, or should I start digging elsewhere?”

“If I am meant to stay, do I have the courage to do so?”

“If I am meant to leave, do I have the courage to do so?

As I wandered deeper into Stanley Park, the din of traffic from the Lions Gate Bridge fading into a cacophony of crows in the trees and my breath misty puffs in the crisp January air, I found my answers.

And it broke my heart.

I don’t belong in this city.

I have to go.

And I’m not coming back for a long, long time.

This city is not meant to be my home. I don’t belong in the Pacific Northwest.

Logically speaking, it adds up.

Firstly, my parents chose this city, not me. If it had been up to me, I probably would have stayed in California where I was born.

I’m not a big fan of the great Canadian outdoors. Sure, I enjoy hiking or skiing when dragged by friends but I never feel the urge to seek it out myself. I usually turn down invitations to go camping.

I’d rather go to a museum or chat with foreigners (or locals if I’m the foreigner) at a bar where I don’t recognize any of the beers on tap and the bartender has no idea what I’m trying to order.

I like art, architecture, cities, culture, languages, and history.

When I was in Europe, I said to every European I met, “I’m so jealous of you people! You can hop on a train and in four hours you’re in a different country with a different culture, language, and history! In Canada, we don’t really have any trains, so you get into a car and drive for four hours in any direction and you’re in a forest.”

Or if you live in the prairies and drive four hours in any direction, everything still looks exactly the same and you still haven’t come across any human civilization.

Speaking of the prairies, you’ve probably heard the joke that Saskatchewan is so flat you can watch your dog run away for three days.

In Europe, if your dog runs away, it will likely turn down an ancient cobblestone alley within a minute and be lost somewhere in history forever.

There is an interesting phenomenon that has been occurring at an increasingly rapid pace over the past number of years.

You know the one. If you’re from this part of the world, you’ve either seen numerous articles about it or are yourself caught up in it.

Yes, it’s the “Exodus of Millennials,” or, as I like to put it “The Great Vancouver Exodus.” 

There is an affordability crisis in this city. Vancouver is ranked the 3rd least affordable housing market in the world next to Hong Kong and Sydney. Considering what it costs to live in places like New York or London, our dilemma here should be quite apparent.

Housing prices have grown at an alarming rate. As of 2016, 91% of single-family homes are valued at over $1 million. Our salaries have not grown to match.

One of my best friends is a realtor. For years, she has been saying, “Get into the market as soon as you can.”

The rest of us who are less educated in real estate would talk about waiting for the real estate bubble to burst.

I somehow ended up in the industry myself recently and began paying attention to trends and numbers. Vancouver’s bubble isn’t going to burst anytime soon. It’s either get in as soon as possible, or get out of town.

It’s ridiculous, really.

Let me put it this way.

For four years, I worked full-time. One of my offices was on Burrard where the rent per square foot is the second highest in Canada. One of my other offices was a block away and I had an unobstructed view of the Olympic Cauldron. I spent a lot of time ordering people around.

You’d think I was doing pretty well for myself.

In those four years, I first lived in a 300 square feet apartment that cost 1/3 of my salary and was located on Drake between the noisy Granville and Burrard Bridges. I then moved to Commercial Drive and lived in an unremarkable one-bedroom walk-up that hadn’t been updated since the ’70s. Every so often, I’d come across a stray silverfish.

I didn’t try too hard, but I did try to save for a down payment. Four years of saving later, all I could afford was a single-roomed shoe box facing East Hastings.

It was then that I decided it wasn’t worth spending my hard-earned money on a shoe box that I’ll nevertheless be paying off for 20 years. So I bought myself a one-way ticket to Europe instead.

Note: the person I used to share the apartment on Commercial with now lives up the street. He pays $850 a month for a 75 square foot bedroom in a 100-year-old house shared with some 10 people. The house is so old it appears impossible to keep clean, every stair is caving in the centre, and the floorboards are obnoxiously squeaky. It recently sold for $1.4 million.

Over the past few years, I have found myself at increasingly more going-away parties.

“My start-up got funded in New York,” says one departee (yes, I made that word up).

“I just got promoted to head office in Toronto,” says another.

And every one of them says things like, “I’m moving to San Francisco, London, Berlin, Madrid, Paris, Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, whatever, because I just can’t be here anymore.”

For the most part, my core group of about five friends remained unaffected. However, having spoken (read: complained) at length to them recently, I realized that they are all seriously considering joining the Exodus.

They all started thinking about it at the same time. Their timelines for leaving fall within the same year. Their reasons for leaving are similar. My consideration of the aspects of my own Exodus line up perfectly with theirs.

In fact, in the month that I’ve been “home,” one of my closest friends has already made it to San Francisco.

My best girlfriend, a.k.a. The One That I Complain To Most, is in the process of saving to move somewhere tropical with her husband so they can work as diving instructors.

Even the realtor, who has been making a killing off of our real estate market, is ready to go.

“I’m going to London next year to get my Master’s,” she said. “We are so secluded here and I feel like there’s a lot more I could be doing for both myself and the world.”

She’s been doing a lot of volunteering abroad and, after everything she’s seen, feels compelled to get involved in international peacekeeping.

I’ve seen the outrageous amounts of money realtors pull in. She has all of the makings of a realtor – smart, driven, ambitious, organized, well-spoken, well-dressed, attractive, and trustworthy – and she is good at it.

For someone like her want to give up a real estate market like Vancouver is saying something.

When it comes to business, Vancouver is a satellite city. I dare even say that Canada is a satellite country.

As a marketer who often works cross-border with the U.S., I have always been miffed at the huge discrepancy between marketing budgets allotted to the U.S. versus Canada.

“There just isn’t enough of a market in Canada,” I’m always told.

Fun fact: the entire population of Canada can fit into the State of California.

When it comes to international business, Canada usually concedes to the decisions of the U.S. division. When it comes to national business, Vancouver usually concedes to Toronto.

If you’ve never experienced this, allow me to tell you that it is frustrating to have to follow directions from a voice over a phone located three time zones away and in a completely different part of the country.

Therefore, everyone is leaving. Those of the ambitious, career-oriented kind are all fleeing for greener (and more affordable) pastures elsewhere. This is happening so rapidly and thoroughly that the entire future of the Vancouver economy is being threatened.

Twenty-five countries later, I still think Vancouver is one of, if not the most beautiful cities in the world.

But it is precariously poised to become a ghost town and I am far from ready for the afterlife.

And so, all reason is pointing me to join the Exodus.

I’m not sure where I’ll end up, but for now, Europe is calling.

By this point, I had wandered from the north end of Stanley Park to the south end.

I sat down on a bench by the water somewhere between Second and Third Beach facing the sunset.

I was terrified. Is it really true that I am meant to leave everything familiar to chase horizons?

And yet my head was clear.

“Thank you,” I mouthed silently to my best girlfriend.

Really, take her advice: if you ever need clarity, go for a long walk alone.

I had been torn since before my Euro trip last year, which was essentially a six month stroll across Europe. What I learned then, plus what I learned during my Pacific Northwest walk gave me this resounding conclusion:

I need to get out of town.

My walk ended at the stone-stacked, iconic Inukshuk at the far end of English Bay.

I stood there for a while, watching the last orange rays of sunset disappear behind the mountains and shivering in the winter chill.

I realized I was saying goodbye.

It’s almost time to join the Exodus.


Grace is a Vancouver-based marketing consultant, brand manager, travel blogger, and creative writer. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @pacificachen.

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