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”.