Throughout human history, people have tended to live and die in the place they're born. Place is an important part of identity. But what happens when people are deprived of this sense of place?
In this week’s show, we’re thinking about the role place and culture play in shaping identity. There was a time when identities were much more tied to geography than they are now. Most people in the world spent their entire lives living in or close to the place in which they were born. Take the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, for example, who in 79 years of life, never strayed further than a few miles outside his hometown of Königsberg!
Now that we’ve entered the so-called “Global Age,” where planes, trains, and automobiles have made traveling great distances so easy, it would be difficult to find someone like Kant. Of course, it's also true that people have been moving around the globe for many thousands of years, but the numbers we’ve seen for mass migration in the 20th and 21st centuries have been unprecedented. And this has changed the way in which place shapes identity.
Even within the US, a country I have called home for eighteen years, many people move around so much that they’re not sure exactly how to answer the question, “Where are you from?” Perhaps you’re one of those people whose mother is from one place, your father from another, and maybe you were born in a third place, which may or may not be where you grew up, you moved somewhere else to attend school, and are now living in another place entirely! Does that describe you?
All this moving around from place to place has made the question of identity more complicated. Before, when people tended to live in the same place as their parents and grandparents, identities were more narrowly defined. People had fewer choices in who or what to become because their options were, in large part, dictated by the geography and culture of the place they were born, as well as by their social and economic status there.
But now we’re exposed to an incredible diversity of landscapes and ideas, whether that be from living in multi-ethnic communities, traveling to different countries, or just learning about other cultures from books, TV, and the internet. Barriers are being broken down and cultural distinctions are becoming more and more blurred. So, with all the choices available to us now, the questions, “Who am I? And who should I become?” change dramatically in the Global Age.
We’re all familiar with the “American Dream,” an idea so powerful, it has lured millions of people from all over the world to migrate to the USA. The theory is that if you work hard enough, you can become whomever you want. You can construct whatever identity you envision for yourself. It’s a romantic idea, no doubt. But there’s something to it that seems to make sense of the immigrant experience here. If you’re born into a particular culture and spend your whole life exposed only to that culture, there are choices in life that you might never know are available to you. But if you uproot to a new place, like the USA, with very different opportunities, a vast horizon of possibilities opens up to you. You see the world with new eyes and discover options you might otherwise never have seen. And this gives you many choices you never had before.
Of course, the reality is that most immigrants who come to the US also face all sorts of challenges that limit their choices too. For one, they have to figure out new relationships to the unfamiliar culture they find themselves in, and to the familiar culture of their forsaken homeland. How much of their old traditions should they hold onto, and how much should they let go of? Should they maintain a distinct ethnic or religious identity, or should they try to assimilate into "American culture" (whatever that is!)? And what should they want for their children who are growing up in a very different place?
Part of the problem with the rhetoric around the “American Dream” is that it gives the impression that it’s possible to just decide to construct an identity for yourself, as if merely shifting geographical locations suddenly gives you magical abilities to change who you are as a person. The simplicity of the dream obscures the messiness of the reality.
Immigrants don’t arrive into a void of unlimited possibilities. Imagine the experience of a well-educated, affluent English man who immigrates to the US. His experience here is going to be very different from that of an uneducated, poor Mexican woman’s. And neither of them have much control over how they're received once they get here. So the "vast horizon of possibilities” that opens up to immigrants sounds like a fiction. Moreover, how each immigrant responds to their new circumstances depends on who they already are as a person, and, unless they come here as a child, that identity is probably fairly well-formed. So, the idea that you can just decide to become whatever you want seems very unrealistic.
But that’s not to say that identities are fixed and immutable. I know from my own experience that moving to a faraway country can bring about radical transformation in the self. But the question remains whether changing location is either necessary or sufficient for such radical transformation. And, can we decide who to become in a new place, or is the new identity something that just happens to us? Which raises broader questions about place and identity. Are identities ever something we freely, autonomously choose, or are we just "thrown” into them, as Heidegger claimed? To what degree do place and culture shape or determine identity? And what happens when we lose our connection to place? Who do we become then?
Our guest this week is UC Berkeley’s Bharati Mukherjee, author of Miss New India and other novels that explore migration, alienation, and identity. Prof. Mukherjee was born and raised in India and came to the US as a young woman to study writing. She met and married an American man of Canadian origin, and since then has lived in both the US and Canada. She now makes the San Francisco Bay Area her home.