Food & CultureLifestyle

Off To La La Land

By May 3, 2018 No Comments

This time, things were different.  I’m going to drive across the country to La La Land, and I don’t know when I’ll be back.

Thirty years ago, my parents left India and came to the states with nothing but eight dollars in their pocket and a dream.  Like so many immigrants, my parents felt the uncertainty and fear that comes with uprooting their entire world and setting off with little more than hope.

It was actually my father who came to America first. He wrote my mother love letters, asking her to leave behind centuries of traditions including the custom of arranged marriage so she would join him. I’d like to think maybe I inherited some of that sense of adventure!

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So I hopped in my tiny two-door Mitsubishi Eclipse stuffed to the brim with clothes and boxes of black-and-white headshots. I wave goodbye to my parents, who are both weep-crying. What was I thinking leaving a beautiful community in Chicago to make it as an actress in Los Angeles, California?  And I didn’t even know anyone!

I met Jacquelyn, the girl I would eventually room with, on a blind friend-date.  She was an editor about to move to LA. I was acting in a short film in Chicago, and the director of the film, Sean Jourdan, suggested I meet Jacquelyn – a potential roommate in LA. Remember at this point I still wasn’t planning to move to LA!  

A few days later, I found myself at Julius Meinl coffee shop on Southport to meet Jacquelyn. We hit it off immediately. I said to her, “I’m doing a sketch comedy show with Stir Friday Night this weekend. Do you want to come?” She did, and even accepted my invitation after the show to join my family for dinner. To my surprise, I found myself breaking the news to my parents, telling them I had decided to move to LA with this lovely, albeit random. stranger I had just met.  

Of course, my parents reacted calmly, “And risk everything?”

My reply, “I guess so”, tumbled out of my mouth with about as much conviction as a plastic mannequin standing in a store front window.

But the moment I made the decision to move to Hollywood, everything seemed to fall into place. A week later, Jacquelyn called me to explain that she had found this tiny 100-year-old house in Echo Park that could accommodate four people.  I felt like the universe was opening a door and all I had to do was step through it.  I spent the next few weeks snuggling with my family, preparing to say goodbye.

be unafraid, fear, Hollywood, I'm Home, Indian traditions, Off to La La Land, risktaking, Sunny side UpHonestly, I had never been away from my family for an extended period of time and worried about my uncertain future.  I had studied abroad in Rome for six months during college, but heading out of state to build my career was never a part of the plan.

For an actress who likes drama, saying goodbye was suddenly unappealing.  As I drove away in my car, I remember looking back in the rearview mirror thinking now it’s just me, a dream, and my Mitsubishi.  

I can’t help but think destiny was calling despite my fear. I left on Dhanteras, the first day of Diwali, which is the festival of lights. Diwali is an Indian holiday that celebrates lightness over darkness. Good over evil. Okay so maybe Hollywood wasn’t exactly an invitation for good to triumph over evil but I must admit, following my dream felt right.  

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There’s nothing like driving cross-country to start a new life. I felt strong knowing my parents had left India for a new world despite that little voice inside, beginning to doubt my decision to leave. About twelve hours into the drive, the rain poured so hard I was forced to stop in Oklahoma for the night. The free breakfast in the morning was a welcome sign but when I learned tornados had ripped through the state during the night, that doubt came back.

But I swept it aside and got behind the wheel before I could think too hard. I was back in the proverbial driver’s seat listening to my CDs when red lights flashed in my rear view mirror. I would have given anything to see my brother face instead of the police sirens screaming for me to pull over.

I chalked it up to my first out-of-state screen test: “Sir, I’m driving to Los Angeles to be an actress.”

“Oh wow! Have I seen you in anything?”

Destiny was calling. I escaped with only a warning and was back on my way to Hollywood.  Maybe this acting thing might work out after all.

Turning into the driveway, my new home and the place that will shape my hopes and fears for the next four years, I decide to run to the front door. Here’s what I remember most about that moment – the fear and the excitement: “Hi! I’m Sonal from Chicago!  It’s nice to meet you!” The girl who answered the door smiled back, “Let me help you with your bags.” And with those seven little words, I was home.

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Sonal Shah

Author Sonal Shah

Frequently dubbed a ray of sunshine, Sonal Shah is obsessed with making people laugh. Unabashedly charismatic and shamefully insecure, Sonal is an Indian-American actress, comedienne, and vegetarian. A Hollywood Hill-ite with roots from a big family in Chicago bursting with culture and tradition, her definition of success is raising the frequency of the planet by loving yourself and others in a constantly evolving journey. Sonal celebrates living life to the fullest. A warrior of amour, perpetual learner, and (self)certified badass, she seeks to inspire and be inspired by creative, authentic dreamers. Sonal is an alumnus of Second City Chicago and has appeared on such shows as Scrubs, New Girl, Spaced Out, The PTA, and Transparent. Currently, she recurs on animated shows, The Powerpuff Girls and Costume Quest (which has made her niece and nephew very happy.) She earned her BA in Theatre from Loyola University of Chicago and studied with The Moscow Art Theatre School at Harvard University, The Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade, and Improv Olympic. Sonal was selected to perform in the NBC Diversity Showcase and teaches acting at John Rosenfeld Studios. Also a standup, she has hosted such events as the Asian American Institute for Congressional Studies Gala where she welcomed President Barack Obama.

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