Technically, I can lay claim to either two hometowns.
Fuzhou—sweltering subtropical "small city" of 8 million, surrounded by foggy mountains and close to the ocean—is where I was born, and where I learned to talk and walk and read. Its smells and tastes and experiences are the ones that are imprinted on my lizard brain. Because of that I claim it eagerly, territorially, even though I don't truly know it at all.
Columbus—impossibly flat Midwestern city that is all gray sky and subdivisions and football tailgates—is where I spent the decade between when my family moved to the US, and when I finally escaped to college on the East Coast. It's where I did most of my growing up, but I never really had a chance to explore it or understand it. I have become fonder of it as an adult, but I still don't feel a thing when I go back.
What does it matter, where one's hometown is? In some cases, it is a signal—about what your experiences might have been, how you were raised, whence your odd pronunciations or food idiosyncrasies. It is a conversation starter to find common ground—in shared experiences, mutual acquaintances, sportsball teams, words used to describe carbonated water. But at a personal level, if you are lucky, it is also a familiar place you can return to, that lovingly stores your formative memories like a backup hard drive, that reminds you of who you were and are and what the difference is.
Through no fault of their own, neither of my hometowns can actually serve the function of a hometown for me. Instead, I realized abruptly this week during a visit, it's Somerville and Cambridge that really fills that role. The streets I can still navigate without paying attention are piled thick with memories and the wisdom I earned from them. Breathing and thinking are easier, as if the place lends invisible support to my brain and lungs. I found myself thinking that if a big life decision still felt sound when I was here, then I had obviously made a good choice after all. As if the place itself were a loving authority figure whose approval I can trust, and who I can turn to in important moments for clarity. Who can welcome me home.