Mohan Zhang

The places that made me are the places I love 🗺

About Mohan

I’m a startup founder and technology executive based in Seattle, Portland, and Stockholm. I'm a lot of other things too, but no one's asking about those :)

Version 10.

The case blew wide open at age 33 when I realized that the “Where are you from?” dropdown I had struggled to fill in my entire life wasn’t a single-select, but rather a multi-select.

In the 10th edition of my website, I wanted to celebrate what it means to have many homes.

“What makes a home?”

I spent a lot of dollars and all of 2022 trying to answer this question, so humor me for a minute by letting me set it up properly, won’t you?

My hypothesis was that if I moved rapidly between many homes while also passing through places that were non-homes, I could intuit the answer to this question by noticing subtle patterns or differences.

To my surprise, this worked even better than I had anticipated.

Much like scents, places impress an initial “hello” that quickly fades into the background. And like scents, the notes of a place seem to register most clearly only during the overture.

Think of the first moment you catch a whiff of freshly baked cookies or a familiar perfume or cologne. It’s really only in that moment that you experience it fully. Once you’re past it, you need a reset before you can experience it fully again.

Turns out, cities and places are a lot like that.

What makes a home

Some 55,000 miles later, an insight: a home is a place where all the objects in your vicinity tell you the story of how they got there.1

There seems to be a subconscious channel where objects “speak” to you. If you want to be more scientific about it, I would describe it as a clustering of neurons that fire when your brain recognizes an object, and some of those neurons “echo out” into neighboring neurons—perhaps stories and memories associated with that object—and this creates some background chatter.

Our consciousness seems pretty good at tuning out that chatter as a matter of course, but I deduced its presence by first noticing its absence while staying in so many hotels and Airbnbs.

It was particularly interesting when taking over someone else’s cherished home for a bit. I could tell all the objects were there for a reason and they all had stories to tell, but they weren’t my stories. The imepdance mismatch was uncanny, and it was impossible to “unsee” it after I was able to name it.

Cities (and places generally) talk to you too on that subconscious channel. There’s the stone by the lake where you and your family would fish in the rain. There’s the intersection you were scared of when you walked to school. There’s the path you biked down on the way to your friend’s house.

It’s the story of how you got here, constantly told to you by the place you’re from.

And so finally, at the end of the journey, an essential truth: when that subconscious channel is saturated, you feel at home.

Love letters

Each place has a page on this site with some of my unstructured reflections evoking a particular side of me. All photographs on this site are entirely my own and are meant to show specifically what makes the places meaningful to me.

In short, these are my love letters to the places that made me.

And I hope you may find as much love for these places as these places found for me.

  1. Well yes, people too, but that one’s a bit more obvious. People will literally talk to you, so that’s why you can feel at home to a certain degree e.g. with your family no matter where you go.