Summer Postcards 2018

Summer Postcard: Hometown Changes

CARY, N.C.—After coming back home after my last spring-semester final exam, my friend and I drove to a Lowes Foods-anchored strip mall and ordered bubble tea, mine taro flavor with nata jelly and red bean, hers green tea snow cream. We sat on stone benches outside of a State Farm and talked about our college lives.

Before moving away from Cary, I used to instead satisfy my bubble tea cravings by buying the pearls and tea bags from our local Asian food market and brewing it in pots on the stove. I’d never gone out and purchased bubble tea with a friend; I didn’t have the option to. But now, I can, and I did—at Kung Fu Tea, the second bubble tea joint in my hometown, a chain that, after two semesters of going to college in the Boston area, I recognized.

And, in Cary, it’s not only bubble tea that’s new. When I went home I saw countless restaurants on Yelp that I hadn’t even heard of before. I drove on streets that didn’t previously exist and bought groceries at new supermarkets. I saw kombucha sold in Cary for the first time, and fewer and fewer parking spots at the gym my family goes to.

But this feeling—a feeling of coming home to constant change—is familiar. Beginning when I was in late elementary school, my family and I would take summer trips to China to see family, trips that were three or four years apart. I separate these trips in my head by the new things in China each time: In 2008, there was my first trip back and the Olympics; in 2014, there was the new high-speed train system that eliminated the need for 30-hour long sleeper car train rides to my mom’s hometown; in 2017, there were mobile payments and bike sharing. But just as I saw China change in four-year periods, I am now seeing Cary change in periods of three or four months between short college breaks; I just didn’t notice it before when I lived there year-round. Every time I go back, there is something different, something else I have to learn about the town.

The phrase “coming home” has a connotation of something familiar and stable, like a soft couch you sit in after a long and full day, where you get to eat all your parents’ food that you miss, see old friends, and go back to familiar places to let all the memories wash over you. I love coming home for these reasons, but city-wise, it feels like home is the one that is changing, while Cambridge—specifically Harvard—feels like the static, stable place that I come back to. In this way, for me, the roles of hometown and college town are reversed, and I can’t tell whether it’s good or bad, because it’s just different.


I was in Cary for two weeks at the beginning of the summer. I’m away now, and when I go back home in two months, maybe there’ll be something new I’ll have to learn.

Alicia M. Chen ’21, a Crimson Magazine editor, lives in Eliot House.