Where are you from?

About 15 years ago, I went to a local immigration office, to ask some questions.  The office was on the 3rd floor.  As a walk enthusiast, I just took the stairs.

Once out of the stair door, I saw a couple of security officers busy checking the visitors, who came from the elevators.

After being cleared, each visitor was taking a seat in the waiting area.  The stair door was located in the waiting area.  I was standing there, not sure what to do: should I go ahead and sit, or walk over to the end of the security check line?

One security officer came over to me, and asked: “Where are you from?”  I didn’t know how to answer it.  In an immigration office, I got to make sure I answered the question correctly.

Should I say China?  That’s where I originally came from.  Or should I say Columbus?  That’s where I worked, and was taking a break from work that morning.  Or should I say the suburban town where I actually lived?  Nervously, I told him the town I lived.

He was smiling, and clarified: “Oh, I was asking, through which door did you come to here?”  What a big relief to me.  I told him, I walked the stairs, and pointed to the stair door.  Obviously, I was an anomaly.  Not many people took stairs.  And the security didn’t bother to exclude the stair door out of the waiting area.

So, where are you from?  What a great question.

I relate this question to my hometowns.  Today, I’d like to share the stories about them.

Actually, I have two hometowns, one in China, and one in US.

The one in China is a village in Shan Xi province, about 250 miles southwest of Beijing.  I was born and grew up there.

The one in US is Ashland, Ohio.  It sits between Columbus and Cleveland.  That was my first stop after coming to US.

There is one old Chinese saying: “Even the moon is brighter and prettier in the hometown.”  A lot of Chinese poems and folk songs praise the hometowns:  how lovely, sweet, warm, and gracious the place and people are.  It could bring me to tears.  It’s similar in US.  Do you remember John Denver’s song “Take Me Home, Country Roads”?

The truth is:  it’s just a town.  It may be different in some way.  Simply because it used to be my home, I feel it special in many ways.

My hometown in China:

To the outsiders, the village is just a regular one in the northern part of China.  Not much to see or eat.  If you love to see the dusty roads, and dirty restaurants, that’s the right place.  No grass.  Quite a few trees.  When wind blows, the dust dances around in the air.  It makes me hard to breathe.

No matter how barren that place is, I still feel deeply connected to it.  After all, I lived there for close to 16 years.  My parents and relatives are still living there.  Many of my childhood friends including Jane are there, as well.

I don’t necessarily miss that place.  It’s always kind of conflicting feelings.  I want to see it.  But I don’t want to live there.  My family and friends were happy to see me back, each time I visited them.

But, deep in my heart, I don’t know if I belong to there anymore.  Having left it for 37 years, I’m more a stranger to them.  It’s kind of betrayal, if I tell them that, I don’t like that place anymore.  But, it is the truth.

Walking by the ruined school yard, I vividly remembered the time my friends and I spent in the primary school and middle school.  Now the weeds grow high, and the playground becomes a waste land.  I used to be young, not anymore.  Probably part of the reason I don’t want to go back is:  I don’t want to accept the reality of aging.

The moon in that village is not brighter or prettier.

My hometown in US:

Ashland, Ohio is a small college town.  It is called “the world headquarter of nice people” by the locals, and I agree.  People are really friendly, and are willing to help each other.  Strangers say hi to each other on the streets.  You seldom hear the car honking there.

When I lived there in mid 1990s, it was a very safe place.  People didn’t have to lock their cars, or the doors of the houses.  I was a graduate student at the college.  My classmates and I always walked on the streets during the nights, sometimes alone.  We never had any safety issues.

I guess it’s not that safe anymore as used to be.  The alleged notorious serial killings by Shawn Michael Grate happened there.  The gas station, where one of the alleged kidnappings happened, is on the East Main Street.  And I always stopped there for gas, before hitting the highway.  It is bone-chilling to hear about the case.

The population is around 20,000.  If someone could get hired by the college, that would be a good job.  There are some small factories.  Some people used to work in the nearby cities, like Mansfield, on the manufacturing jobs.  But, unfortunately, those jobs were gone.

Some Amish people lived in the nearby villages.  They came to Ashland to do the shopping.  I like their cute buggies.  Sitting high, the Amish people are not shy of looking forward, while keeping their own traditions.

During the last couple of decades, I saw the gradual decline of that town.  The sidewalks are deteriorating.  Those cute houses don’t look cute any more.  They are getting rusty, and the maintenance is way overdue.

The Chinese restaurant in the downtown is called Beijing.  But the word Bei (in Chinese) was peeled off years ago.  Now only half of the name “Jing” is displayed at the front of the building.  It doesn’t look pretty.  But it’s still open for business.

I’m sure, Ashland is not alone.  Like many of the midwest small towns, people over there are struggling.  And the drug problem makes the situation even worse.  It’s sad to see the town going down the hill.

I still love Ashland, both the town and the college.  That’s where I started my journey in US over 20 years ago.  Every year, I try to go back, and trace some of my memories there.  When one of my best friends came over from China, I proudly showed her Ashland, my hometown.  Yes, that is my home.

I hope that, the economy in Ashland will re-bounce in some way. Not sure if it will ever happen.

Back to our readers:  where are you from?  How do you feel about your hometown?

Take a look at my eBook, a mini-memoir on Amazon: “DAD’S BICYCLE: Journey of A Chinese Family”.

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12 Responses

  1. Georgy Rock says:

    I was born in “The City of the Angels.” Somehow, that always gives me a giggle because I don’t seem angelic at all.
    The City of the Angels is primarily known as Los Angeles, California. I was born in the middle of last century. The hospital i was born in was once called “Olmstead Memorial.” It was named after a gentleman who designed great spaces for people to enjoy. Now that hospital is called Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital . . . things change. I like the way you mentioned aging . . . I rarely think about it – now you mention it, it brings the matter up for me to consider. – Now I am living in Saint Louis, MO. I have lived here a looong time and still don’t feel “at home.” Isn’t that odd? I have a strong desire to live in Scotland, I don’t know why. I used to think I was going there to meet a friend i didn’t know, yet. Now I always hope, whoever that friend is, they are well, happy and enjoying life. Thank you for sharing with us. I enjoy your writing.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      From Los Angeles to St Louis, that’s quite a move. The “feeling at home” may not be determined by the number of years we lived there. In my situation, I lived in my Chinese hometown for 15+ years, and lived in Ashland Ohio for only 1 year. But I feel Ashland is my home, probably because that’s the hometown of my choice.

      I hope your dream about living in Scotland comes true someday. Good luck. Thanks a lot for sharing your story.

  2. Caroline says:

    Hi Helen, Welcome back:)
    Just like you, I have mixed feelings about my home town, the one were I lived for the first 16 years of my life. I miss it but I can’t see myself living there now. My brothers, sister and my entire family still live there and I try to visit at least once every two years but I am not connected the way I use to be. I lived in a couple other places before I landed in Canada but have been here for 30 years now and it is my home:)

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Thank you, Caroline. When you first left the home town, it must be hard, as your entire family was there. It took a lot of courage to leave the familiar place, and adventure to a totally unknown one. On the other hand, changing is exciting. Living in a different country, embracing the new culture, and choosing it to be the new home is fun and rewarding.

  3. Joe says:

    Very nice post. You’re a very good writer.
    My family moved around every few years when I was young so I don’t really have a hometown.
    Chiang Mai, Thailand is as close as it gets. I spent about 5 years there when I was little. It changed so much now, though. Also, I forgot how to speak the northern dialect. It’s strange to go back.

    In the US, the longest I spent in one place growing up was in Newbury Park, CA. I think it was 3 years or so. I’m not attached to it at all. I have more attachment to my college town – Santa Barbara. I grew up a lot in college and had a much better time than in high school. 🙂

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Thanks a lot for the encouragement, Joe. From the Google map, it looks Chiang Mai is a very beautiful place. I’m sure you’ll get chance to spend some time, and reconnect with your relatives there.

      I went to the college in Beijing. Yeah, I also feel the connection with the college city. I started as a kid, and came out of the college as a real adult. I miss the college life, and my college buddies.

  4. Steve says:

    Welcome back Helen !

    I agree with Joe, you are a very good writer. I am boring and am 4th generation that has lived on Vancouver Island. I have traveled extensively but Vancouver Island is home.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Thanks a lot, Steve. You must have deep roots on Vancouver Island, that’s cool. I know some who enjoy living at the same place. They know the city around much more than I do. I have lived in Columbus Ohio for 18 years, and some areas like downtown are still new to me, as I tried to avoid the crowds.

  5. GYM says:

    I agree as well! Your storytelling abilities are astounding! Welcome back!

    I am also boring and call Vancouver my home, but lately, I don’t feel as attached to it. I think the city is changing and people seem snobbish here, and it isn’t the Vancouver that I knew it to be.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi GYM,
      I’m happy to be back. Yeah, sometimes the changes of the city could be unsettling. The skyrocketing house prices could drive people out of the city, and attract some who have bags of money. But at the end of the day, money should not be a huge factor for people to decide where they want to live.

  6. Lingyun says:


    • Retire Early Helen says:


      Hello, my dear college classmate, so good to hear from you. Thank you very much for your encouragement. I’m so happy to share the thought and emotions with you and all the readers. Enjoy the beautiful spring!

      – Helen

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