“A place should help bring out what we see as our best self”

Rich Danker and Xixi Chen on our first home and moving away: 

Of all the localities we may possibly have in a lifetime, the one in which we grew up is the one in which we have the strongest roots. Usually that is our parents’ home. It is ironic to claim it as “ours,” because we don’t have any direct personal claim. Instead, that place took possession of us. We learned our first language there, not by choice. We were educated by its culture, not by choice. In short, we were shaped by a decision about place not made by us.

Our first home is also the place that we don’t understand until we leave. If we leave for good we go from insiders to outsiders in our hometown, a journey that upon completion can deliver a jolt of an epiphany. The Chinese-American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan wrote, “Things too close to us can be handled, smelled, and tasted, but they cannot be seen—at least not clearly.” It takes distance for us to see what sources contributed to shape the present self. That’s why You Can’t Go Home Again became a pop culture catchphrase.

Identity is then at stake when we move. Mobility signals our ability and effort to challenge the historical burden we’ve carried. When we try to change our identity, we begin constructing a new one retrofitted over the old. Americans have a habit of making this transition with a mix of idealism and practicality that allows them to put the concerns associated with this off to one side to be answered down the road. We usually migrate in a whirlwind and deal with the esoteric consequences later.

“How far should I live from my dream?” and “How far should I live from my hometown?” are twin questions. When we leave we go as far as it takes to get what we want, whether that is someplace far away or close enough to return to often. Either way we are gone and express pride in being able to move out and on with our life. But there’s also the melancholy of having to leave home and never being able to return the same way. It’s through that prism that we become the new person in the new place.

On the power of place:

Place can be the key to a fulfilling life: the incubator of successful relationships, career acceleration, and meaningful avocations. Happiness with where one lives is a quiet satisfaction propelled by everyday reminders. How do we find that if we don’t have it? It would be prudent to base the search not on a desired image makeover but rather on one’s sense of self. Choosing a place is choosing a living environment that refines the feelings and perceptions of who we are. A place should help bring out what we see as our best self and support our pursuit of what we find to be important. 

We can predict that Americans will embrace the search for home as they always have, and it will continue to be future-oriented rather than faithful to the past. Community ties will be ruptured and institutions weakened in the quest for matching self and place in a large and diverse country. A super-elite will remain above the fray of locality altogether. But the power of places to draw people in and shape their lives will remain a potent force in American life. Those who get to make this choice about where they live should need to answer the question Humphrey Bogart’s character in Casablanca asks of Ingrid Bergman’s in Paris: “Who are you, and who were you before?”

“The Meaning of Place in America: How and Why it Shapes Lives” (Public Discourse)


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