Growing Where You Are

I recently came across an interesting article entitled ‘Growing Where You Are’ in The Chronicle. It’s a welcome that I’m not the only one who wonders about such personal issues. Even though I am tempted to reserve my personal thoughts about this debatable issue I am yet at the same time tempted to believe that where you were born and raised can significantly shape your character, vision, culture, human communication, and expectations in life! So while one should appreciate and embrace diversity, one should also acknowledge one other blunt reality: you can not alter your finger print! You can partially adapt, but not fully.

Reflecting on my own professional experience, I was confident that I will settle swiftly to Turkey. Afterall I was an English-Turkish bilingual and my parents were of Turkish origin, and very much accustomed to the Turkish culture while I was raised in London. After my move, however, I became aware that travelling to Turkey for holiday purpose (which was my only experience!) and actually living and working here was completely distinct from each other! So, literally speaking, I can label this as ‘cultural shock’, as I came to realise that a large part of my identity was British, even though I am very much proud of my Turkish identity! I can give examples about this in many domains and will share my thoughts in due course, so watch this space! Otherwise, my experience was a very positive one as it has enabled me to discover myself and improve my adaptation skills! Turkey is an amazingly unique country!

Having said all that, I would like to share this thought provoking article before I return with my own personal thoughts and reflections. The burning question in this article, in my opinion, is the following: To what extent can you grow where you are?

Growing Where You Are

By Thomas H. Benton

Frederick Jackson Turner famously argued that the American character has been shaped by our history of continually rebuilding civilization along a steadily advancing frontier line. Perhaps the character of many academics is shaped by the necessity of continually rebuilding their lives in new and unfamiliar locations?

Academic life in many fields often requires distant relocations in pursuit of graduate fellowships, postdocs, visiting positions, and, if you are extremely lucky, a tenure-track professorship, quite possibly in a completely unfamiliar place, maybe even another country.

Of course, academics are not alone in that experience; the push-pull of social and economic change is a longstanding condition of modern life. Like almost everyone, we are torn between our desire for opportunity and the arguably natural human impulse to be connected deeply to places and people.

A new position in an unfamiliar place presents a perennial dilemma: Should you put down roots or remain self-contained—a kind of potted plant—in anticipation of the next relocation?

I have been living in West Michigan for almost nine years now, after living in Miami for two years and Boston for seven. Before that, I lived in Philadelphia with my parents for almost 20 years. And while I’ve enjoyed many things about the places I’ve lived, Philadelphia—and, more broadly, the space between New York and Washington, D.C.—will always, I suspect, feel more like “home” than anywhere else, including where I live now.

I sometimes wonder whether I have been imprinted by the place where I grew up—urban, working-class, multiethnic, and mostly Catholic—more powerfully than people who were raised among transient families in the recently constructed suburbs. For a long time, it seemed that people just didn’t leave our neighborhood. The emphasis was on maintaining extended family connections; children attended the same parochial schools their parents had. I remember nuns chiding students for exhibiting the same youthful misbehaviors as their forebears. Outsiders did not gain acceptance easily, particularly if they looked different, or had an unfamiliar name.

But there were external pressures that preserved membership in such communities, too. To this day, I don’t think I can speak 50 words—outside of the place where I grew up—without being seen as somehow, vaguely different, and out of place in academe. It goes beyond the local accent I have not completely shed; it includes the cadence of sentences, and a vocabulary of unconscious facial expressions, gestures, and posture. After 11 years of higher education, the way I address the world still is based mostly on the experience of having grown up in a particular place and time.

As Yi-Fu Tuan notes in Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values, children’s experiences of place define what is normal for them, permanently. Our adaptability weakens with age, and we look to the familiar, controllable past—though checkered with negative experiences—with more affection than the uncertain future.

There were plenty of people I knew in graduate school who said they would never consider living in “flyover country.” I used to privately scoff at would-be academics who claimed that they had to live in New York, where they could “get a decent bagel,” or whatever. Such people were limiting their chances for employment in a tight labor market. But I get it now. A small thing can take on a large significance when it’s multiplied by thousands. The decent bagel represents a whole legacy of cultural capital and experiences stretching back for generations. It’s about feeling at home.

I suppose for me, the bagel would instead be a soft pretzel, encrusted with kosher salt, sold on a street corner, five for a dollar, in a brown paper bag. You can’t get them anywhere but Philadelphia.

Tuan says that removal from one’s “home and neighborhood is to be stripped of a sheathing, which in its familiarity protects the human being from the bewilderments of the outside world.” Many of us in academe live without the basic anchors of existence that have reassured the vast majority of human beings for millennia. How could we not find ourselves, at least for a time, living in a state of emotional and spiritual brokenness, in the aftermath of repeated dislocations?

Sometimes, when I have the luxury of some self-indulgent melancholy, I use Google Earth to browse the streets of places where I used to live—particularly the three blocks where I used to walk to elementary school and the city park where I used to play. And sometimes I look at the job listings in my field, hoping to find an appropriate opportunity that might lead me back home.

It is mostly a dream, since jobs in my field are rare, moving at midcareer is difficult, and there are hundreds of people competing for every available position. The current economic climate has made such hopes even more unrealizable for the foreseeable future.

I have nothing to complain about. I’m tenured. I’m doing well enough, probably better than I had any reason to expect. But there is always a feeling that it doesn’t really mean as much as it might if I were back home.

An immigrant from Scotland, Andrew Carnegie promised his mother that one day he’d be rich, and then they’d ride in a fancy coach. She said, “What good would that do if the people in Dunferm-line can’t see us?”

What would it be like to come home, having made good? I’ll never know.

After being away from Philadelphia for almost 20 years, there isn’t a lot for me or my spouse (also from that city) to return to: Our remaining close relatives have either died or moved away. We’ve lost contact with most of our friends, and we’ve grown too far apart from those few who remain to re-establish contact easily. Even the physical landscape has changed. With the rise and fall of real-estate speculation, houses have been renovated almost beyond recognition. Familiar stores are gone, and many public buildings have been torn down and rebuilt.

Of course, it is not just that the place has changed; I have changed, too, and, from my present distance, I see the place through a lens of nostalgia. It never was what I think it was. And when I lived there, I fantasized about getting away with even greater intensity than I now long for a restoration of my former life.

Ultimately, it seems, you can fantasize about returning to a place that no longer exists, or you can set about joining the community where you live. At what point do we finally forget the past, lose the desire to return home, and begin to make steps toward living the best life we can where we are?

I am sure that no one is a perfect “fit” for the place where they teach, but I think I’ve grown toward my institution in many ways. I’m a better fit now than when I first arrived. I have, however, been less engaged with the life of my community than I might have been. I’ve held back reflexively.

Apart from my colleagues at the college, I have made hardly any local friends. My family and I belong to a church, but I’ve avoided getting involved in service activities. We have a stake in things like zoning laws and building permits, but I don’t go to the county meetings. Outside of the college, I am almost entirely disengaged: Work and home constitute 99 percent of my life. I can count the conversations I’ve had with my immediate neighbors on one hand.

But there are two powerful experiences that have deepened my ties to the place where I live. The first was relocation of my parents to West Michigan, following me as their only child and wanting to be near their grandchildren. My father died within a couple years of that relocation, and we chose a local veterans’ cemetery for his burial with the promise that my mother would rest there also.

The second experience is being the parent of three young children: Two were born in West Michigan, and our oldest has no memory of any other place. They are beginning to make friends, and they come to our house, and, with them, come their parents, whom I get to know as “so-and-so’s dad.” My spouse has been more involved in that way than I have, but it does change one’s identity to be asked to share in the supervision of other people’s children in a new place. It signifies acceptance.

We also know that, for our three daughters, we are already home, and any relocation would mean a traumatic disruption of their lives. The house we live in—and the acres of farmland around us—are imprinting them as powerfully as the concrete driveways and rowhouses of Philadelphia imprinted us.

The father of the family who last lived in our home—they raised six children—died just last fall. I saw his obituary in the local paper. I wonder if he or any of his children ever drove by and paused to look at the house? I wonder if they approved of what we’ve done with it: the yellow paint with green trim? I wonder if they grieved over the windmill and well house that we removed?

But there were at least two families that lived here before them. I wonder where they went and whether their descendants remember this place at all?

At some point you must decide to grow where you are and give up yearning for whatever it is that you have lost and can no longer regain. I think I’ve reached that point.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich.



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