February 25, 2014

JOHN | Home Is Wherever You Rest Your Head

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By REBECCA JOHN

As a child, I spent a lot of time in airport terminals, passing time in between layovers. As unsettling as it was to be so unsettled, to move across time zones faster than my body could adapt, I grew used to feeling ungrounded. Home was a transient place. As an immigrant, home is something that is always in the process of being recreated. There are familiar things you can take with you anywhere: You can hang up the same picture wherever you are. You can make the same cup of tea and even drink it beneath the 8 a.m. sun gleaming through a window just like your mom did. Eventually, migration feels normal; this state of placelessness feels natural.There is great serendipity to the way the world around us is created. I am not here  totally by accident or intention.

These days, we often romanticize this kind placelessness, and we leave our migration stories devoid of any sort of history. However, there are more profound narratives behind how we got where we are. Migration can often be understood in terms of displacement; it is forced movement away from one unwelcoming place to another. It is militarized borders. It is the safe and maneuvered movement of capital and the precarious movement of people. And it is easily facilitated by the state for some and heavily restricted and dangerous for others.

The question I am most interested in considering is this: How did I get here? That story is way more complicated and interesting than any singular voyage outward that I can imagine. The answer incorporates displacement after displacement and choices that were made within constraints –– and constraints that limited choices. This begs another unanswerable question: Where do we actually belong? Where is home?

How we get to be where we are isn’t entirely coincidental, nor is it entirely the intentional result of hard work, as “bootstrap” narratives would like us to believe. Some pro-immigration reform posters feature gorgeous butterflies and the tagline, “Migration is beautiful.” While I would like to believe this, the fact is –– in most ways –– migrating in today’s world is far from beautiful.

Still, I feel the urge to keep moving, though I’m not certain to where. I know that I am a particle of dust in this huge world, and I know that somehow it doesn’t feel quite as huge when I come back home. Indian author and journalist Amitava Kumar once questioned our tendency to see the local and the global as separate, distinct places: “Where is Indonesia but in the sole of your shoe?” And American novelist James Baldwin once noted, “Perhaps home is not a place, but an irrevocable condition.” I come back to these quotations frequently to remember that there is great serendipity to the way the world around us is created. I am not here totally by accident or intention. So while I used to be obsessed with the idea of home, now I just feel like I want to move. After all, in our current age of globalization, we can’t forget that we are never really placeless at all.

Rebecca John is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at rj224@cornell.edu. Mushroom Rage appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

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