April 1, 2010

The visible “placeless”

Some call them expats, some refugees, some global nomads. In The New York Times article “The Struggle of the Global Placeless”, Anand Giridharadas calls them the “global placeless”. The term encompasses anyone living away from home, from refugees and migrants to professional workers and expats. It even includes President Barack Obama, himself a multicultural third culture kid with roots on three continents.

The author begins with globalization and its long history, despite opinions that it’s a new phenomenon. But who hasn’t heard of the Silk Road or the Viking voyages or the spread of the Roman Empire? Cultures and civilizations have been mixing since their beginnings, because there have always been wanderers, nomads and explorers among us.

But now, there is more attention placed on the “placeless”. The norm may be to be rooted, but some among us will always refuse to lay down those roots. And perhaps, the author suggests, the balance is shifting. “Placelessness” is possibly becoming not only the norm, but also a “virtue”. Or perhaps it’s only a fad. It continues to clash with society’s expectation that we be rooted in one geographic location.

He goes on to describe the traits characterizing the “placeless”, and focuses on the challenges of those less privileged “placeless”, who are often not recognized or given the rights of those they live and work among.

The privileged placeless are those of economic means; expats on assignment or those who choose a new home because we can. In this, I recognize myself. I am a global nomad and TCK. And as such, I had to laugh as I read the following excerpt, which describes me to a T:

“But the problem is not just external. The placeless often also suffer a gnawing tension within, a love-hate relationship with roots.

They find that their connections can run worldwide but only an inch deep. They may find it easier to ask friends in five countries for a favor than to ask a neighbor for sugar. They may know something of the foods of every continent but be unable to cook expertly in any one cuisine. They may have visited a greater fraction of the 10 largest cities in the world than of the neighborhoods of their own city.

“Placeless” souls of means have a way out. They find ways of splitting the difference, living rootlessly and yet making space for roots.”

The “placeless” struggle with an inherent dichotomy – wanting to set down roots but being unable to do so. Because rootlessness is their essence. They will always be outsiders if not externally, then internally. Their experience of “placelessness” means their world view isn’t like that of someone rooted. They know that part of their identity will always belong elsewhere.