Community

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Back in the vein of Random Musings, and partially prompted by the visits of numerous friends from China and elsewhere.

Two years ago, when I learned that my parents were considering moving from our beloved Philadelphia neighborhood to New York City, I was – to my surprise – utterly distraught. I found that I didn’t care if they moved away from their current house, the house in which I grew up (which was, and is, much too large for two people), but instead was upset about them leaving the community in which I was raised.

I was told this news over a long-distance phone call, which also included an exciting cocktail of news items which, having already been communicated to the rest of the extended family, were delivered in a tone whose patina, tarnished through many retellings, revealed them as having fallen into the category of “old news”: my father would be leaving his job to join an architectural office in Manhattan; our house, which we had worked for somewhere around ten years to renovate, would be sold; initially, my mother would remain in Philadelphia to complete her work and finalize house details while my father would rent in New York and commute to the comparative countryside of Philadelphia on weekends.

In the years prior to this, I had made it somewhat of a vocation to spend as much time away from Philadelphia as possible. Though, like nearly all natives, I frequently complained about the city – the crime, weather, sprawling suburbs, poor educational system – it wasn’t that I hated my hometown, or even that the famed Philly inferiority complex had drilled its way into my bones enough to make me want to leave. In fact, I often found myself (again, like many natives) in far-flung locales defending the city and its oddities. I had simply decided to spend time away from Philly because it was my hometown: the places and the communities in which I grew up were at once too confining and familiar. Much the awkward relative who, from a young age, decided that they had your identity and life direction pinned down, and, having completely figured you out, would treat you the same way from now into eternity, so it felt that living in Philadelphia was prescriptive: burdened by personal history and patterns of habituation, the place and community panoptically controlled my behavior and identity. “If you stay here,” the city seemed to say, “here is your life spreading out in featureless changelessness before you. That person who you have been: this is who you are and who you will be until the end of time.”

And so I departed, seeking places and communities rich and strange, exotic and distant enough that I felt, while absorbing their influence, that I could remake myself into the person I hoped to become. I hoped less to be remade in these communities’ image; rather, I simply wanted new easels of identity upon which to scrawl. And I was, to some degree, successful: during my seemingly random (and admittedly ongoing) sojourns, and more often than not through the powerful bondmaker of shared (mis)experience, I managed to not only find some of my most prized communities and closest friends, but also was able to make roads towards learning about myself (whatever that means).

However, I was able to do this only because of a strong base back home – no matter how much I hated to admit it. Though I may have been distant at times, the awareness that a warm, close community and loving family awaited me back home were always at the back of my mind, a solace during times of difficulty and loneliness. I would always be able to go back and wander the treelined streets of childhood, run in the Wissahickon, go shopping at the neighborhood co-op – and, everywhere, see friends and acquaintances from years past. I could always return home.

But when my parents called to tell me of their plans to move, I was profoundly upset – and couldn’t figure out why. Having gone through all the effort to remove and distance myself, I didn’t want to admit to myself that my home community actually still meant something to me. I knew that in New York, my family would not find the community of friends that had sustained them in Philadelphia for decades; that in the big city, they might find entertainment – they might be able to amuse themselves enough to distract them temporarily from their anonymous aloneness – but that any fulfillment and happiness gained would be fleeting and fictive. I worked to convince them that they needed the community of our Philadelphia neighborhood: that here, they were valued as individuals, integral community members with things and personalities and values and love to offer and share; and that, in the big city, they would be lost, friendless, alone and unvalued automatons running along the ridges of the giant cogwheel that is the city. But in the end, I was upset because – even in deepest China – I was the one who needed the community, the base, the place and people to which to come home; the proverbial and drastically overused and consequently deservedly maligned metaphoric roots.

Eventually (and abetted by my father’s dislike of his new job), it worked: after a couple of years of indecision, my family ended up staying in Philadelphia. But when this was told to me, I realized that I didn’t particularly care anymore. I felt attached to and invested in my parents’ decisions, for sure – but, having built my own strong communities, I felt more secure – and realized that their (and, by association, our) community in Philadelphia would remain with them wherever they went. At this point, I felt, I had several home communities. It remains great to come home to Philly, but it’s also great to come home to Qinghai and Maine and all of the other places I’ve lived. Who needs one home base when you can have several?

But, of course, everything is transient; people move, places change, and so our communities develop and change and morph into shapes unimagined even by Calvin and Hobbes’ Transmogrifier. And so I find myself in San Francisco, slowly attempting to find my community in a surprisingly anonymous and foreign place – and lucky, as I do, to have a number of communities around the world which, with no trace of irony, I can truly call home.

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