Finding the place where we belong in a world in which boundaries are fading

The search to find the “place” where the “real” you feels welcome and comfortable can reach across thousands of miles and centuries of inherited experience.

Moving to a place that is new to us can wake up new aspects of our identities that might have remained dormant if we hadn’t moved to the new environment. The interesting aspect of these stories is that the new places these people have chosen to move to are rich with environmental and cultural cues that awaken the experience of aspects of their inherited identities they had previously felt a need to suppress.

The government of Ghana has launched a marketing campaign to proactively encourage Americans with African roots to come back to rediscover their “true” identities and true home. A small, but increasing number of Americans are taking Ghana up on this offer and while creating a new self and a new life in Ghana comes with it’s own set of problems, it also comes with certain benefits that come with fitting in with the majority. Their experience of themselves in relation to their surroundings seems to start to change literally from the moment they to through immigration to enter a country in which black people are the majority. (link to TTBOOK feature on the return to Africa included below)

I recently heard a similar story about Taiwanese Americans explaining their decision to move “back” to Taiwan. The interviewees said they felt more comfortable walking along streets where everyone else looked more or less like themselves; they enjoyed the anonymity of looking like members of the ethnic majority. (link to NPR story included below)

This sort of story becomes even more complicated for people of mixed heritage. To what place does one belong when one’s heritage includes parents and ancestors from a diverse set of places?

Philosopher Bruce Janz argues that Watsuji Tetsuro’s concepts of ‘fudo’ (風土 / climate, milieu or cultural landscape) and ‘ningen sonzai’ (人間存在 / our existence as interconnected beings) allow us to view the world in a connected fashion, opening our minds to ethical concern for an ever-expanding range of people and things. Janz suggests that in combination with the thinking of Gilles Deleuze, Watsuji’s concept of fudo can help us realize that our lives as individuals take shape through a web of inter-connected, inter-dependent relationships in an emerging, evolving “place” called Earth.

As an American man married to a Japanese woman, I have spent the past 35 years living, working and raising a family across cultural and geographical boundaries. My family inherits much from the cultural landscapes of both the United States and Japan. When I move back-and-forth between the USA and Japan I feel like I am simultaneously moving “away from” AND “back to” the place where I belong.

As the world evolves, so evolve ideas. As places import ideas and people from other places, those places also change. Over a century ago, when the author of “Bushido: The Soul of Japan” Nitobe Inazo married American Mary Elkinton, inter-cultural and inter-racial marriages were exceedingly rare. Until the latter part of the 20th century, such mixing was not only frowned upon but literally illegal in some places.

The world has changed significantly. When I was in graduate school in Hawaii around the year 2000, I was told that the majority of the children born in Hawaii were of mixed heritage. Hawaii is still an outlier in this respect, but if anything it seems to be on the leading edge of a fundamental change in our view of diversity and identity the “place” where we each feel we belong.

As people move around and mix in myriad ways, we are becoming increasingly aware that the choices we make influence where we belong and who else feels a sense of belonging when they share a place with us.

© Dana Cogan, 2024, all rights reserved.

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