CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS — On a deck in Boston, seven friends recently gathered for dinner. At the table was a white American man; his wife, an Italian woman he met in Switzerland; a Swiss citizen raised in Kenya; a German of Korean origin; a woman with Haitian, Chinese and European ancestry; the son of a black American and a German Jew; and an American with Indian blood.
It took a while to get through the where-are-you-fromming, as it often can these days.
There is a modern myth that globalization is new. But the world has integrated before, disintegrated in war, and integrated fitfully again. Goods and peoplehave swirled for a long time, and in the 17th, 18th or 19th century you might have found on any ship a crew and passengers made up of slaves, traders, cooks, officers, colonizers and pilgrims more diverse than our dinner table.
What is arguably new is the influence of the placeless and the elevation of placelessness, in some quarters at least, to a virtue.
The placeless are no longer just the flotsam and jetsam of empires and colonies. They are the president of the United States now; they are among our leading thinkers and bankers, philanthropists and public servants.
Placelessness — variously defined, at varying levels of privilege — might even be seen as becoming the center of gravity of the human condition. Millions now live in one country and work in another, some crossing a border on foot each day, others putting on fake accents and telemarketers’ headsets, migrating by pretense. Millions are pouring out of their villages and into deracinating cities, with human civilization recently becoming urban in majority for the first time. Millions are being raised in a language their ancestors never spoke.
And yet the placeless still find themselves colliding with a place-bound world.
For the placeless person of privilege, it may be no worse than wrestling with the question “Where are you from?” You wonder every time: Do they want the five-second pick-one-identity answer, or the 30-second geography-biography, or the five-minute story?
But for the more vulnerable, the stakes are higher. Mexican laborers are encouraged to work in the United States but chased away by armed vigilantes. In India, northern migrants to coastal, cosmopolitan Mumbai are beaten by armed cadres of a sons-of-the-soil political movement. In China, untold millions of rural dwellers have been drawn to the city to make the roads and buildings to fuel the country’s boom. But, under the reigning hukou system of residency permits, they find themselves without the rights of locals in the big city, without guaranteed access to education and medical care, vulnerable at any time to being sent back to the village.
Officialdom struggles to process people without a place. Census forms don’t understand them. Commercial television and cinema create few characters in their image. Tax collectors insist that they choose one of their many countries as the real one. Politicians represent particular places, not ideas or industries or genders, and so if you are a Somalian-born American working in Paris for Nissan, you live in a democracy but without meaningful representation, with no public servants driven to take up your battles.
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. They travel far from home to study, but then major in the study of their own race or culture or language. Or, in the case of someone like the artist Youngjoo Cho, a native of South Korea who studied in Paris and divides her time between Berlin and Seoul, they use art to soothe the unease of not belonging.
In a mixed-media piece of hers called “Motherland Visiting,” the detritus of a visit to her native country is springing out of a suitcase after the trip. The work is meant to suggest “the relationship of the placeless to localness,” her Web site says, “a relationship that is becoming more complex in an increasingly mobile world.”
Barack Obama, that politician of so many places, has shown a similar interest in roots. A child of many homes, with parents from different races and continents, he has built an adult life more rooted. He traveled in search of his African roots, wrote a book about his quest, worked at the grass roots of community organizing in Chicago, married a woman long rooted there, and built the kind of grounded family that his own childhood had lacked. Indeed, for many placeless people, it is romantic partnership more than a specific patch of earth that gives roots.
These days, it is often placeless people who flock to restaurants peddling their rootedness in place: restaurants like Blue Hill in New York, whose Web site talks of “local food” and “nearby farms” and “producers who respect artisanal techniques.” It is the placeless who seem most to loathe the McDonald’s vision of food that scholars have called the “placeless foodscape.”
In a recent lecture at Princeton University, Sudhir Kakar, a prominent Indian psychoanalyst and cultural writer, suggested that this longing for place can be buried or denied or suppressed in the placeless, but that it will never truly go away.
The postmodern notion of “multiple identities” has become fashionable, he said, with its notion that “migration is an opportunity to reinvent one’s identity.” But this vision, though liberating, denies the role of place in forming consciousness, particularly in childhood, he argued.
The placeless dream has the “danger of underplaying if not denying the psychic pain of the migration process and the persistence of the past in the present,” said Mr. Kakar. “The emphasis on multiplicity can divert attention from what is enduring in the person.”