Shopping My Way to Belonging: The Cost of Fitting In

A Michigan beer flight — one of many in the past several months

I knew that moving to Ann Arbor from Chicago would be difficult, but I hadn’t anticipated that ordering a beer would be so hard. When my husband Eric and I went out for drinks for the first time in our new city, I skimmed the list for my go-to Chicago drafts: Revolution Anti-Hero, Temperance Gatecrasher, something from Goose Island. Instead I found an unfamiliar crop of beers in what seemed like a different language, and felt even more lost.

Even after I’d unpacked, I didn’t feel settled in Ann Arbor. I spent most days feeling slightly off balance. Looking for something to help me take root, I fixated on food.

The differences in Michigan didn’t stop at the bar. Eric and I stood in the chip aisle of our grocery store for ten minutes, looking for our favorite tortilla chips. Apparently the company doesn’t ship to non-wholesalers out of Illinois. Next, it was the cheap chorizo we used to pick up at Jewel around the corner. Then it was doughnuts, an occasional treat that I could find all over my old neighborhood and almost nowhere in Ann Arbor.

Making common purchases felt like trying to lean back against a wall that wasn’t there.

When I first moved to Chicago, I had felt similarly disoriented. The city finally felt like home when I had opinions on all the local breweries and could always tell when I was facing north. A couple months after our move, still lost, a friend hosted a birthday party at the Ann Arbor Distilling Company. It was the definition of local. I looked around while I sipped my cocktail. I would become a regular, I decided. I would come so often they would think I lived there. I would eat and drink my way through Ann Arbor in order to settle in.

I made a point of buying locally roasted coffee. Look at me, I thought, fitting in. I stocked my fridge with beers from breweries around Kalamazoo. I started buying meat from the local butcher shop, hoping the women behind the counter would start to recognize me.

At the same time, I was navigating a new workplace, learning coworker’s names, and figuring out how to completely mess up coffee in the office kitchen. (They had to put up a sign for my benefit.) I emailed colleagues using lingo from my last job and tried to enter eight digit codes into six digit boxes. Everything was familiar, but slightly off. I grumbled and considered spending $8 on dried Michigan cherries.

I was buying myself pieces of Ann Arbor, trying to carve out something of my own in a new place. Interacting with the town through commerce was the lowest-stakes way of putting down roots. I could become a regular at a coffee shop through blunt repetition, whereas joining clubs or introducing myself to strangers at events required more energy and risk. I was trying to prove to myself that, as an east coast transplant with a love for big cities, I belonged and would be happy here. I wanted to replace the things I felt I’d lost, even the intangible ones.

Searching for Ann Arbor’s best dumplings

It’s been about five months since I moved here. Recently, Eric and I met for happy hour at a wine bar downtown. “Isn’t this the white wine you picked up for dinner last week?” I asked, pointing out a Traverse City vineyard on the menu. “No wonder I liked it. They make the chardonnay that I loved the last time we were here.” Favorite local winery — done. I have a favorite regular coffee shop and a favorite splurge coffee shop. I know my go-to lunch spots. I started to figure out my favorite Michigan breweries around the same time as the bartenders stopped carding me.

I still haven’t found better tortilla chips.

Laura Chanoux works in higher education in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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