Each winter for the past six years, I’ve made my pilgrimage back home. Most years look like the others, and I see moments from them now in my mind almost like snapshot footage projected from a film reel: me and my friends from high school cruising down the streets we’ve driven since we first learned how to drive a car; me and my parents around the dinner table on Christmas Eve, the table set with a feast of galbi and banchan. In both instances, the faces of these people I love seem to glow softly — our joy and love untouched by the time and distance that have separated us until this moment.
Isn’t it strange that as we settle into new cities and towns, we still call the places we grew up “home”? I’ve heard that home is the place you become yourself, and I’ve become myself in Baltimore as much as I have in Bethlehem. But it still feels foreign and strange on my tongue to not say that going back to Bethlehem is “going back home” — after all, I became myself for nine years in Bethlehem, while Baltimore trails behind with six years to claim for my becoming.
There’s family and there’s chosen family, and in my mind that’s how I view these two cities that are so close to my heart. I chose Baltimore as my home — it’s my chosen family. I see the city as a reflection of who I want to be and become. But I didn’t choose Bethlehem, with its quirks and idiosyncrasies and flaws, as my hometown. This town that feels like an ecosystem of our ever-polarizing, melting-pot America: the lawns that are checkerboarded with Biden-Harris and Trump-Pence signs alike, this diverse place that white, black, Latinx, Asian, immigrant, LGBTQ folks alike call home. This town that lives in the shadow of a rusty, abandoned steel factory that once produced a majority of military equipment for World War II. Bethlehem is my hometown.
Each winter for the past six years, I’ve made the pilgrimage back home — but this year is different.
Sitting here in my childhood bedroom for the last time, I can feel my heartbeat, knotted and rattling in my chest. My parents move to New Jersey next month. Most of my house sits in boxes. Who am I without the well-worn cadences of shuttling from Baltimore, to home, and then back to Baltimore? How will it feel next winter to say I’m “going back home” about New Jersey, the armpit of America? (I kid, but we all know that it’s the butt of most jokes that people make about U.S. states.)
I’m not sure if I know. But I do know that Bethlehem raised me. Here, my friends who’ve loved me and known me the longest walked across countless stages with me — our musical theater performances, the embarrassing phases and changes of adolescence, our high school graduation. Here, my parents — who after moving time after time after time — found a way to ease their rootlessness and bought their first home here, giving me everything they could. And I raised myself here too: sitting in my childhood bedroom now, I’m comforted by knowing that I’ve done this thousands of time across these nine years, finding and creating myself through the humbling clarity of writing.
It’s hard to know what home means to me and how it shapes my identity. I’ve read so many books by Korean and Asian American authors this year, trying to reach back through time. I want to understand my family, my history, and who I am, and slot together more pieces of the puzzle. But Bethlehem, you’ve known me at my cringiest, my angstiest, my free-est, my most-intense-feelings-of-being-trapped-est. When I cried the hardest I ever did during my sophomore year of high school, here I was. When I felt the most carefree I ever did the summer after graduation, here I was. As a town of duality and complexity, you’ve mirrored my own complexities back to me. And for that, I’m grateful.