Laojia: A Place to Call Home

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Laojia: A Place to Call Home

The autumn clematis smelled like vanilla and twined across the bare wood table. I’d clipped the white-flowered vines when I was picking the last of the tomatoes. They were perfect in the center of the table. Now the napkins – where were the green napkins?

I had taken the train up from New York that afternoon. It was just a kid who was coming, I knew that, but there are certain things that count. We had to have proper napkins, even if that meant digging them out of the basket of unfolded laundry that had lingered since I left the house.

The Chinese girl had been seated next to me at a dinner in Manhattan the week before, after an event at the United Nations with the secretary general and the ambassador. I’d been pulled into one of the photos with them, the blonde in a line-up of Asian VIPs. It was always festive and disorganized with the Chinese and I loved the bustle. We trailed out through the long covered walkway, past the weary security guards, and walked west to a Chinese restaurant where someone had booked a big private room.

We were swiftly divided between two round tables, one for people who spoke no English and the other a mixed group of English speakers. A Chinese girl in her twenties was seated beside me. She introduced herself as Lydia and explained that she had finished a master’s program in Atlanta and was now looking for one of the traineeships that US visas generally allowed. I liked her lively air and her English was good. She had driven across the whole United States. “I wanted to see it,” she said simply.

Lydia was the relative of a friend of a close friend of my long-time boyfriend – almost family, in Chinese terms – and now she was coming to stay in my home for a couple of days and talk about perhaps working for me.

This might be her first time in an American home, and her first time in a small town and I was impressed that she wanted to go somewhere other than the big city. Everyone else I knew from Beijing or Shanghai thought the countryside was for peasants, and it was impossible to convince them that 21st-century rural life in America was not quite the same as rural life in China.

But it was new for them, modern consumerism and the surge of goods and technology of the past ten years. After a while, they would start to feel nostalgic for the village life that had given them a sense of connection and community over the centuries. A couple years earlier, I’d become friends with a man known as China’s first blogger and he was so taken with Great Barrington on a weekend visit in the depths of winter that he brought his wife and 4-year-old daughter back in May.

I hadn’t known as much about China then, but now I could see how it must have blown them away to see me running a global business from a tiny town nestled in mountains covered with a mixed-forest patchwork of lime and chartreuse and rosy pink. Isaac was excited to hear all about the town. As we walked on Main Street, after dropping his daughter off for a visit to the local coop nursery, we talked about the importance of civic life and how children need to learn about the natural world.

I thought Lydia might have some of the same curiosity.

When she arrived, the sun had set, but she would have time to see the town in the morning. She seemed very slight next to the big Audi sedan. There was a turquoise rental sticker on the bumper and I was impressed that she was so independent. Her parents must be providing the money, but she’d learned to drive, rented a car, and navigated into the wilds of the Berkshires.

There had been two avocados ripening on the windowsill, so I made a favorite pasta dish. It happened to be vegan but we liked it anyway. I knew how much most Chinese people dislike American food and thought the combination of tomatoes and the familiar flavors of chili and coriander from the garden would appeal to a Chinese palate.

I dished the noodles onto warmed plates. “Have you tasted avocado before?” I asked.

“Yes, I did. In sushi,” she said, looking around the room, and cautiously picking at her plate. I wondered if she had stopped to eat along the way. I’d once cooked a dinner in New York that our guests had tasted cautiously, then tucked into with great enthusiasm. As they said good-bye they confessed that they’d made plans to eat elsewhere afterward because they’d been so nervous, but they were calling to cancel the reservation.

“How was the drive?” I asked Lydia. She’d come from the south, a better approach, I thought, even though it was harder to navigate than the drive from Boston. Driving to the Berkshires from Boston was a piece of cake once you extracted yourself from what I was sure was deliberately misleading Beantown signage. You just get on the Mass Pike, the Massachusetts Turnpike, and drive west. But once you get past the Springfield exit, it feels like you’re driving into the back of beyond, as the Berkshire range rises, rounded peaks blanketed with forest, purple against the western sky. I sometimes wince, it seems so wild and lonely.

But Lydia had just driven up through the suburban towns and rural outposts of Westchester and Dutchess counties. “The GPS was fine,” she said, “no problem.” We talked about plans for the next day. She took a second serving of salad. I went to get a map, and when I came back she was looking at the framed photographs on top of the piano. She glanced around the room, and gestured at the big windows glittering against the darkness. “So this is your home?” she asked.

She’d met me in Manhattan, with my long-time boyfriend, in glamorous surroundings. Now we were in a house build in 1868 in a New England town, up the hill from a traditional Main Street, in a room lined with shelves of books and vinyl records, comfortable armchairs with needlepoint pillows, and an old pine dining table with legs that had been scratching posts for our cats.

“Yes, this is my house,” I said.

“And it is your home?” she said, motioning towards the photographs, which included some of friends as well as my children and Steve.

“Oh, no, it isn’t,” I said, realizing that she meant was it my laojia, my “old home,” the place where my family came from, the place where I grew up, the village where my ancestors were buried. “I’m actually from California. Well, from the Midwest, but then the Silicon Valley. And I moved here from London.”

She stood looking at me with an expression I took to mean that I had given her an answer that made no sense. She was puzzled and I wondered what I could say.

I remembered a Chinese boy on the train one Friday afternoon. He’d been part of a group of teenagers, students from one of the private schools, heading done to New York for the weekend. He had been dressed just like the others, very American, his hair spiked with gel. They pushed against one another as they crowded through the door, tumbling into the turquoise vinyl seats as the train began to move. They threw backpacks onto the narrow racks. The girls took one pair of seats, facing two-by-two, and leaned together as they sorted coats and bags and knees. In unison, they leaned back and pulled their phones out. The boys fanned out into other seats, and as the train whistled a warning and picked up speed through the woods, they began to arrange themselves.

The girls whispered. The boys talked and pushed each other. Some would be taking the same subway once they got to New York. There were exams coming up and they all would have to do some reading over the weekend. The Chinese boy treated the occasion like a networking event, asking everyone in turn what they had planned for the weekend and where their family lived.

“Well, my mom lives on 83rd Street, but my dad just moved to LA,” said one boy, “I went to school in Connecticut before.”

Then came something different, “Where is the hometown?” he asked.

I could see the girls leaning together, hoping he would go away. The other kids would say, “Well, my family lives in Westchester,” or “My dad lives in New York and my mom and my stepfather are in Philly.”

“But which is the hometown?” he would ask. When a boy turned the tables by asking roughly, “Well, where’s your hometown?” he gave the name of a small city, “near Shanghai.” A girl with sleek blond hair rolled her eyes. I leaned against the window watching the late afternoon sun slant through the leafless woods, gleaming darkly on icy streams winding through the verges and meadows. The only green in sight was the unfurling tips of the skunk cabbage, but the willow bark had turned golden and there were cherry-pink tassels on some of the maple trees.

The other kids thought he was “being weird,” but he was asking a fundamental question. Where is your laojia 老家, your ancestral home, the place your family comes from and where your ancestors are buried. Their answers made no sense to him.

And mine made no sense to Lydia.

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