For the better part of those angst-filled teenage years and during summers spent at home in Pennsylvania's Coal Region, between college years, I found myself saying, "God, I can't wait to get out of Tamaqua."
Now, having lived in China for three years among Beijing's nearly 20 million people, three million autos and its domineering buildings and dirty streets, the hypocrite in me now says, "God, I can't wait to go home," not indefinitely, but certainly as a short respite from my busy city life.
I get the chance to come home about once a year, during China's Spring Festival. In China, the festival is a time for family and food. Some one billion people migrate from the developed east coastal region to their sleepy, simple hometowns across the nation. I also like to spend this time with family, and so I make the 13-hour flight home. This year I was home for two weeks in late January. I've since come back to China.
In that month and a half since my last trip home, I've realized one thing: I miss home, a lot. Or at least a lot more than I thought I did. Not enough to give up the life abroad - it's way too much fun and exciting, and the chance to travel Asia is just too alluring - but to the point now that getting back on that Beijing bound plane has me asking myself "Do I really want to do this?" And of course, I get on the plane.
The reason I moved to Beijing in the first place was because of the chance to live in the capital of one of the fastest growing nations in the world. Gross Domestic Product aside, China is undergoing an industrial and urban revolution unparalleled in human history. Construction cranes are ubiquitous across the nation as buildings take to the skies. On the ground, people who a decade ago couldn't afford luxury items now walk around with iPhones and iPads.
In the time I've lived in Beijing, the city has changed, for the better but also the worst.
In the last year and a half, the smog has become unbearable. I've developed this constant cough and my airways feel clogged by the pollutants. Blowing my nose produces little black specks in addition to the expected boogers - a double gross out. Food scandals make it impossible to eat anywhere with confidence without first contemplating whether the beef or pork I'm eating has been cooked in gutter oil (it's exactly what it sounds like), or if that beef or pork is free of steroids, or whether that beef or pork is indeed beef or pork. My favorite eateries in the city's tiny, ancient hutong or storefront shopping areas are vanishing as malls or larger upscale shopping complexes take shape.
But that's just how China is. Decision-makers in China have this entrenched belief in quantity over quality. It's one of the reasons that the apartments and department stores being built, albeit in an insanely timely manner, aren't built to last; it's how food safety issues continue to go on unaddressed; and it's why the prevailing "out with the old, in with the new" mentality is having its way with ancient Beijing's dwindling neighborhoods. It's all in the name of progress, I'm told.
For the most part, I support progress. It means that one day, political and social changes could make China a more reasonable member of the global community. Progress means that a new subway line makes it easier to get to my favorite drinking spot; it also means that my favorite drinking spot could get knocked down to make way for a mall. Progress means change, and in China that means change at an astronomical speed.
In three years, Beijing has changed faster than I've gotten to know it. It's one of the reasons I've found myself longing for home, because in Tamaqua, well, in Tamaqua things don't change as quickly - and I wouldn't want it any other way.
During my last visit home, the only major change I noticed was that Sean's Pet Supplies was closed and a Dunkin Donut had sprouted up at Fegley's Mini Mart. But sandwiches from the Broad Street Deli still tasted delicious, and Guers Iced Tea still had entirely too much sugar to be considered tea, and that's just the way I like it. Some neighborhood friends still live in town, and the few I got to see talked about their future plans as we cracked jokes about our younger years. My parents' cooking - highlighted by classics like macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, beef pot roast and broccoli casserole was still amazing. And my brother still takes stuff out of my room without asking.
When I talk about Tamaqua, I usually say it's this sleepy, little place, a former mining and railroad town, nestled between two hills that seems to be frozen in time. My urbanite friends and other city dwellers might call this a lack of "progress," but I see it as a blessing.
Beijing is great most of the time, but those two or three weeks when I visit home are special. I don't have to worry about whether a favorite restaurant will be replaced by a cell phone store, or if another one million cars will actually blot out the sky in smog. When I visit home, I can anticipate one thing: that things will be relatively the same.
Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. Read Brandon's blog at http://www.btay200.blogspot.com/ . He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .