Identities Lost & Found in a Global Age

Sunday, November 9, 2014
First Aired: 
Sunday, July 1, 2012

What Is It

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? What psychological effects do emigrants, exiles, and expatriates endure? What happens to the importance of place when community membership can be based on common interests among people linked by email and facebook? John and Ken situate themselves with UC Berkeley English Professor Bharati Mukherjee, author of Miss New India and other novels exploring migration, alienation, and identity.

Listening Notes


Ken thinks that America represents change, that identity is mutable in the face of many horizons of possibility. John thinks it sounds like Ken’s been reading Heidegger; we don’t have that kind of freedom in assigning ourselves identity. As will be revealed, Ken also has a much deeper commitment to the notion of cultural legacy – John and our guest seem to think that some things need not be preserved (or, they should be put in a museum).

Out guest was born in Calcutta, India, and came to Europe at age 8 (she knew no English at the time). She came to America to get an M.F.A. at the University of Iowa, where she met her future husband. Her work has focused on the role of identity in a globalized world. Her first note is an ironic one: her native tongue Bengali has no exact translation of ‘identity’; only in our language is there such concern with identity ‘politics’ or ‘crisis’.

Mukherjee begins by comparing American to a “basement full of clothes”, where one discover and exchange identity. She recognizes that this phenomenon is much less the case with ‘ghetto’ identities, such as Indian communities around San Jose; one has less room to negotiate, as one is more quickly stereotyped.

John spots a paradox: we may reject an old identity in favor of a new one, but isn’t there some identity that chooses to make the switch? Ken rearticulates as: even if we see ourselves differently, there is a frame or a facticity that remains? Mukherjee sees facticity in color, race, and mother tongue – and recognizes again that being a novelist in Berkeley gives more freedom than would be elsewhere allowed.

An audience member follows this point, that cosmopolitanism and universalism have historically been reserved for wealthy Europeans. Ken agrees, asking about people who are ‘stuck’ with certain identities. Our guest thinks the ascription of identity is a politicization, that education will solve these issues, and that American elite should direct their philanthropy towards the inner-city.

Ken thinks there is greater substance to the notion of a cultural ‘home’. He feels that freedom can be dizzying, as well as exhilarating; Mukherjee is ‘in favor of forgetting, as much as possible’. Mukherjee understands this cost, but welcomes it as the price of admission. John thinks we might be ‘admitting’ ourselves to a homogenous ‘Americanization’. An audience member asks, ‘Will we all end up looking like Tiger Woods?’. Mukherjee recognizes this trend, but sees it not as homogenization but ‘mongrelization’ (Ken laughs, and confirms she is ‘appropriating’ the term).

The discussion concludes with stories from audience members. One talks about the purported importance of multiculturalism in Canada; Mukherjee, who lived there, describes Canadian multiculturalism was a “bureaucracy created in the 1970s”. Another argues that African-Americans have had their identities stripped in every sense (kidnapped, separated and converted), yet retain race as a locus of identity.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 5:46): Caitlin Esch looks into the trend of immigrant children returning to their parents’ native land. The Chinese-American woman Caitlin interviews reports that, while her father sees the move as a step backwards, she feels closer to her roots and to her parents, with whom she can now speak fluently.
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (seek to 49:33): Ian Shoales knows that his identity is frozen, but he can’t pin it down. It mostly reveals itself to him as precisely what he isn’t (as in, he’s “not a Mustang guy”)