Identities Lost and Found in a Global Age

05 November 2014


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. 

Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

Comments (12)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, June 28, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Reminds me of a cute cartoon

Reminds me of a cute cartoon panel I saw several years ago. There were three dogs. The first had a thought balloon which read: Who am I? The second: What am I here for? The last: When's dinner?
Now, I don't mean to trivialize the implications of your post, but even with the superbly technological world we live in, it appears that many of us are looking no further ahead than dinner. Perhaps we are either too comfortable or gripped by hopelessness in spite of it all.

Guest's picture


Saturday, June 30, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

One does not always get to

One does not always get to choose one's identify. As a Jewish person, I know from history that Jews cannot chose to be Jewish or not for those around us define us. Hitler murdered many Jews who thought they were not Jewish. Once you are Jewish, you are always Jewish in the eyes of those around you when anti-semitism rears it's ugly head once again. If you want to learn more about Jews choosing their identities: Constantine's Sword tells the history of Jews in the Christian world.

Guest's picture


Tuesday, July 3, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Newman IS a curmudgeon, isn't

Newman IS a curmudgeon, isn't he? But I have to wonder if your guest has ever been "gripped by hopelessness"? If not, there must have been some other impetus for the book---perhaps ordinary education and ensuing opportunity. There have been many immigrants to Canada----many of Indian and Pakistani descent, as well as others from Europe and the former Sino-Soviet world. Well, I have rambled. If my point is not well made, well, sorry, then.

Gerald Fnord's picture

Gerald Fnord

Saturday, November 8, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

On the other hand, there have

On the other hand, there have been centuries in which we've lived alongside  non-Jews, maintained our own identity, and avoided the vices inherent in the use of force because it was denied us. The seeming agony of some white people and some Christians---often the same, petulant, claque---are very hard for some Jews to understand because (until only recently) there was nowhere we were in the majority, and at least some of us understand in our bones that you don't have to be in the majority to do decently or better...and that there's no connexion between believing you have cosmic truths and their being believed by anyone else. 
Of course when things really go off the rails in Prison Yard Earth, it's a really good idea to have a well-armed gang (a 'state') at your back.  Zionism became popular among Jews only after world events proved that when push came to shove none of the existing gangs gave enough of a damn to stop our being slaughtered. 
I read once that the Dalai Lama, betting that Thibetans will not have their own state for centuries hence, if eve, has investigated where and how we Israëlites of the Diaspora have done best....   

Gerald Fnord's picture

Gerald Fnord

Saturday, November 8, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

I meant to add after the

I meant to add after the 'Prison Yard Earth' paragraph:
But perhaps we can develop a world looking more like a civilisation than the prison yard it's been (and which gratifies its current wardens). 

mwsimon's picture


Monday, November 10, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

The global age has certainly

The global age has certainly been awful to the preservation of geography based communities, but it has also opened the door to also sorts of new cultures.  A lot of information spreads over the internet, and this results in types of cultures forming - people who unite over certain things (style, music, hobbies), but who dont live close to each other, can now be closer than neighbors are, in a cultural sense.  Even before the internet, cultures were forming that relied on people moving about.  The hippie movement was made of a lot of people who left their original homes to go elsewhere.  In a sense, communities like these have something that traditional communities don't: people choose to join them.  This might make them stronger, though they differ in other important regards from older cultures, and seem to be less stable.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Thursday, November 13, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

Nice point!

Nice point!

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Wednesday, November 19, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

From the Hitchhiker's Guide

From the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, summing up human history: "First they asked, 'how shall we eat?' then, 'What shall we eat?' and finally, 'Where shall we go for lunch?'" Somebody seems to have thought dogs sounded funnier. Where do we get this notion that identity derives from ethnicity? Is human character so provincial? My upbringing was saturated with efforts to convince me of all the answers that at a very early age I realized were inane. Hence philosophy. The energy of mind is the rigor by which it becomes recognized that rational forms are so incomplete that only a sweeping revision of one's convictions can nourish the lexical substance to keep thinking. It is a dialectical, not an analytical process. (Hence my discouragement with "Anglo-American" philosophy.) This, because it is a drama of lost conviction, not a retrenchment of conviction. The character of that rigor entailing that drama is what person is and the engine of identity. The drama as a process or progression profanes one's ethnicity rather than reverence it. Ethnic rights are one thing, and ethnic oppression is certainly a crime, but identity is quite another. Zionists would do well to take in the play God on Trial, and a book by Shlomo Sand called The Invention of the Jewish People.

Guest's picture


Monday, February 2, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

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Guest's picture


Tuesday, February 3, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

I love the humor your post

I love the humor your post has offered. I enjoyed this site a lot. Keep posting article like this. It is fun. Nice photography too! gaven til ham

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