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My Homecoming

I will be home soon. A relative statement, to be sure, but, when compared with the lives that have come before me and those that will come after, I am already home. I am first going to spend some time with my parents in their needlessly large home in one of those developments that disrupt the rural New Jersey region in which I grew up. I will speak some Japanese and they will hug me with their eyes, after their arms get tired, and everything will be different for about three days.

Then, the first twenty years of my life will shine through the gleamy top layer that came about over this past half year. Change comes gradually. Small moves. After long trips like this, I can say after only limited experience, you return eager and ready for change, but you do return to the person you once were, save for whatever new knowledge or self-awareness can manage to fight the tide of decades of habit.

But, oh, how good it will be to be home. In my mind I am awaiting the green Sussex County I left in August, but, of course, I am going to find it in a deadened winter. Sadly, that isn’t all that will have changed when I return.

I will eat American food and maybe find an old American friend or two, regale them with some stories of the Orient. I am looking forward to smoking a cigar or two in my pickup truck with a close friend whom I haven’t seen in a time too long for someone of my age to not see a close friend.

It will be a review of my life thus far. I will go back to the home of my childhood and escape the exhaustion I have accumulated here in Tokyo by bicycling through the city and beyond. Then, in between my returning to Northwest Jersey for holiday celebrations with a family to whom I have managed to feel closer since traveling 15,000 miles away, I will make it back to Philadelphia, city of my nascent adulthood.

In trying to rectify my two devout allegiances to where I grew up and where I live (and grow up even more), I think I have settled on an explanation. Sussex County, a place of rural memory and suburban expansion, like so much of the United States, is my sister, something I love without question and without end. Whether I had little or no choice in growing up with her doesn’t much matter, I know so much that I love and, particularly now that I am away, I can’t quite think of anything I couldn’t love about her.

Philadelphia. Philadelphia is, contrary to unconditional and unquestioned familial love, a love I have acquired through time, by choice, though without ready explanation. I am confronted regularly with her faults, with her disastrous and seemingly needless shortcomings. I am told too often that she isn’t as exciting as New York City or as smart as Seattle or as unique as Chicago or as funny as Boston, but she is mine, and, really, who else has the Liberty Bell?

My Philadelphia is, has been, in a state of defeatism, a collective distaste of even the citizens of the city for the city. The newspaper that has so long defined it, the Philadelphia Inquirer, which is the third oldest surviving daily in the country, is crumbling, if only in the eyes of the people who most need to remember what it means to the city. The mass transit system, SEPTA, gets picked on, sometimes without reason, too often with it. The Phillies, the 76ers, the Eagles, the Flyers: all franchises of power in the past have since fallen from grace. These are the things that are supposed to make an American city a world-class city.

The “bad” neighborhoods seem to outnumber the “good” ones, every mayoral election since the 1980s seems to have been run on ethical reform, and the murder count is added up by people too terrified to do anything but laugh at its absurdity. This is the single most important historical city in the most powerful country in the world. What terrible faults, but I love her anyway.

I can list these, all of the complaints most would have, but it is harder for me to tell you what I love about her, beyond the shallow and pedestrian: the greasy kiss of a cheese steak, the simplicity of the Penn Tower skyline, the elegant majesty of City Hall, the intricacies of hundreds of neighborhoods, those ubiquitous SEPTA buses. I am too young to know much, but, if I were asked, I would say that that is what love is. To find it easier to point out the flaws of someone than her perfections, but to still want nothing more than to be there, with her. Philadelphia, you have a suitor.

Still, it occurred to me that I have found myself in a womb of security here in Tokyo. I will soon go back to everyday-life Philadelphia, not into West Fairmount Park or City Hall, but into a crummy apartment in a troubled neighborhood. A friend emailed me to tell me that he had been mugged the other day. Not an “Oh no, I’ve been mugged!” way, but more sullen, more distressed.

When I first came to Philadelphia, I was an admitted country kid going to an unquestioned urban center, a school in North Philadelphia, often said to be plagued with too much poverty and drugs and violence. I can remember showing off to my friends, as if living on the border between gentrified and ghetto-fied made me a man. I like to think that I have grown a lot. In three years, Philadelphia has gone from a ghetto-theme park to a home for me. I am distraught when a friend tells me about having a gun in his back or when my apartment-mate tells me that there was a robbery outside of our window. That isn’t a distress out of self-serving fear; it is a distress that stems from my being unconvinced that Philadelphia is changing for the good, unconvinced that it is becoming the world’s next great city, as National Geographic labeled it last October. Unconvinced that she is deserving of my unyielding admiration, respect, and awe, of my passionate love.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was laughing about my habit of carrying two wallets when I was out back home in Philadelphia, one to offer if I was ever robbed. I am suddenly worried that Tokyo has made me a little softer in my four or five months here. Danger alerts us, but security deafens us. There is no questioning that I am a different person in Tokyo than I was, and soon will be, in Philadelphia.

With all that said, how happy I am to be returning to Sussex County, a fledgling bastion of mid-Atlantic American agriculture, and Philadelphia, the most historically important and fifth most populous city in the United States. How happy I am to be returning home.

Jaa ne,

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