I grew up in Amish Country, Pennsylvania, where Amish buggies and red barns dot patchwork quilts of corn and soybean fields. People there say “Fry-dee” instead of Friday. They say “Throw the cow over the fence some hay.” They eat shoo-fly pie, and they go to church. There are probably twenty churches in my hometown of five thousand people. Country roads wind on forever right below where the sky touches the earth, cows moo into the open windows of cars at stop signs. People work hard for a living. They complain about the government. They watch Fox News, own their own homes and inside, they collect mismatched antique furniture. They plant their own gardens, rake their own leaves, and shovel their own snow.
Growing up there taught me things. Based on smell alone, I can detect the difference between cow, chicken, and pig manure – and I know which one smells the worst. I know how to shoot all different kinds of guns. I know the meaning of “wind chill factor” in the wintertime, and the weight of humidity during the summertime. I know that it’s important to rush home with freshly-grown corn on the cob, and throw it in a pot while it’s still warm from the sun.
I’ve lived in San Francisco for the past six years. It’s concrete, homeless people, and tech companies, artisan sushi made by chefs who operate out of trucks with fancy logos plastered on the side. Trucks that run on fuel from organic-vegetable-oil gas stations. People plant community gardens and grow agave in their front yards, and have never driven in snow. They read the New York Times and buy homes that cost seven figures. They buy matching antique furniture from shops that require a down payment for one piece. They protest the government. They have been to more than seven countries, they speak more than four languages, and they never go to church.
In San Francisco, I’ve learned that it’s hard to track the passage of time, especially years, when you don’t have seasons. I’ve learned that you can make a life for yourself in a strange city, even if you have no friends, connections, or money to start with. That I wish I had spent more time with my parents as a teenager, because I can’t do it now. That the world is changing, that engineering and especially web is king. That Mexican food can actually taste good. That Californians do not understand sarcasm, and that New Yorkers are incredibly brash. That a very expensive plane ticket is worth it to fly home in time to see your grandfather before he dies.
Most of all, I have learned that having to fly on a plane just to see your dying grandfather, whom you lived near all your life, is a very unsettling thing.
I have two homes now: a home where my soul sits and a home where my body sits. For reasons that are too intricate to explain, I will never be able to to move back to Pennsylvania, my soul’s home, again. Its richness will be a friend to me for the rest of my life, but it will never be reality again. This other place is my home, and it has changed me despite how I’ve resisted being changed.
For example, I don’t feel heartbroken when I see homeless people – instead, they make me angry and resentful that the city puts up with them. And I am surprised when people from my hometown confuse China with Japan, and when I have to describe the borders of countries in Southeast Asia. (Yes, China borders India, I think, indignant. How can you not know this? Don’t you have any Chinese or Indian friends in Amish Country, Pennsylvania?) I am surprised that Americans are so incredibly fat. I’ve become just a little bit more uppity about where I buy my coffee, and just a little bit less tolerant of grocery stores that don’t carry organic Indian spices.
In other words, I have become a little bit like some of the people whom I find incredibly annoying. I wouldn’t fit in if I moved back to my hometown, or even possibly to anywhere in Pennsylvania. I am different now.
It was inevitable. After six years, the “country” in me is finally shifting to the west. I refused to accept it for as long as I could. However, inside, I still see myself as the girl I was, the girl who was dubbed “The Brown-Haired Virgin” at my restaurant job in Lancaster, and the girl who drove out into the country on summer nights just to look at the stars and smell the air. Who worked two jobs in high school, three in college, and never asked anyone for money. Because in some ways, I haven’t changed – I still am that person. I still like to shoot guns and eat corn on the cob, and I still love the smell of a summer night. My heart is still there, and I don’t think it will ever budge. California has my body, but my heart is firmly rooted somewhere near an oak tree, on a small plot of land at the top of a hill, across the road from an Amish farm. In California, I found the greatest love I’ve ever known, great friends, and a stable job market. It makes sense to be here, and I may be here for a long time. It’s home now because it has to be. I have to make it so.
I’m going back to Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving to see my parents, and it’s made me think about the idea of home. What does it mean, really? Does it mean the place where you live, or the place where your heart whispers when you aren’t thinking about anything in particular? I have an answer.
But that answer might be changing – it might have to.