Where I Come From

A Chinese student, a talented English major from a university in Hunan, China, asked me to describe my hometown.  This is what I wrote:

Smethport is very different from Chenzhou.  It is like a dream that I’m afraid will seem unreal or too abstract for you to realize.  Words alone are not enough to describe the beauty, wonder, and charm of my home town.  But I will try.

Right now it is a very special time of the year in which we celebrate the birth of our country, the Declaration of Independence and like your country, a revolution against Imperial tyranny.  Now the weather is much like Kunming in the autumn, winter or spring: everything is blue sky and very sunny.  The people ride their bikes, fish, boat, swim, garden, walk their dogs, tend their lawns and the upkeep of their homes, or just go for a country drive to enjoy the scenery.  Depending on the time of day you will smell fresh cut grass, sweet fresh air born upon a northerly breeze or the cooking smells of backyard barbecues that make your stomach growl.

A few puffy clouds hang in the blue sky like strange dreamlike castles or otherworldly sky galleons made of pure cotton.  These clouds look thick and solid enough to climb, walk or jump on, if only you can fly up to one.   All around there are green forested hills where you can hike or ride your horse on trails, and depending on the time of day, see wildlife such as deer, coyotes, foxes, and black bears.

In the morning before sunrise all the birds of the region hold congress.  Their commotion gently eases you out of sleep and negates any need for an alarm clock.  The starry night fades away as a silvery, lacey mist saunters through the valley leaving much of Smethport’s allure to the imagination.  Mourning doves croon to each other while brown cottontail rabbits with nervous ears nibble on blades of grass.  And as the sun rises, the mist shimmers slightly with a pink blush.

By mid morning the heat of the sun has pulled the clinging wisps of mist away to reveal a clear blue sky, Victorian mansions festooned with the red, white and blue of American flags, and an authentic Main Street modestly bustling and catering to residents and travelers alike.   Part of a great East-West road running from coast to coast, Main Street was once part of a major throughway for west bound migrants in quest of a better life.  But now serves travellers of a different stripe, each hoping to catch a glimpse of an older, traditional America.

During the day you will hear happy children home for summer vacation playing ball games in a nearby park, swimming at the town pool, or riding bicycles.  And in the late daytime hours before twilight, shadows grow long and stretch across golden fields and green lawns.  A blue river and a lake in the middle of our town glitter like diamonds in westering sun.  Older couples stroll around town for evening exercise while younger people walk briskly or go for an evening jog.  Still others visit the porches of their neighbors for gossip, a friendly debate about current events, or just to unwind and reflect on their day with a glass of wine or a cold beer.

In the darkness beyond Main Street enigmatic points of light blink in random patterns creating an ever-changing constellation.  After being away and living in a Chinese city for some time, it takes me a moment to realize that I am witnessing Smethport nightlife at its best: the miraculous bioluminescence of fireflies getting their groove on.

Except for the occasional bird singing to his lover, things quiet down at night – that is of course unless you live in my house.  The kitchen especially is a loud and noisy place.  Here our pet birds chirp and squawk incessantly like a discordant gallery of pipsqueaks as I chop vegetables fresh picked from the garden and prepare dinner for my family.   If it is too cool to eat dinner outside on the deck, then we will eat at the kitchen table where I share stories with my parents about teaching and traveling in China.

After dinner we watch television in the living room with our three cats.  There is Nikko, a small boisterous princess with glistening black fur, and lustrous green eyes who seems to have forgotten her humble origins in an Animal Shelter.  There is Storm, an old gentlemen who, when he’s not sniffing Nikko’s tail, lounges indigently around the house in a black tuxedo with one forepaw out and the other tucked neatly under his shoulder, and if you stare at him he’ll  stare right back, show some teeth, and bleat a note of indignation.  And there is Smokey, a goofy heavy weight grey with white boxing gloves, and who is always following the others around the house.  While we watch television the trio takes turns purring and crawling into our laps or grooming each other.   Then tiring of our attention, they chase each other around the house, up and down the steps, and room to room.  And this is probably the only reason why we bother to watch television in the first place.

That is just a snapshot of my hometown during the summertime.  It is very different in the autumn, winter and spring.  Each season colors the town in a unique way and has a rhythm of life that changes accordingly.  And our town – like many other towns scattered across America – is one of a kind.  Every person, family, house, shop, and street has a rich story to tell and a different way to tell it.  I hope my story helps you to see the town of Smethport through my eyes.