Returning To America : Place As Cultural Experience

Returning To America : Place As Cultural Experience September 26, 2013

Each time I return from abroad, I am struck by just how different things are here in ‘Murica.  Spaces are large, cars move fast, and people are pointy.  Life in the U.S. is like an oil painting, with layered color, defined texture, and not-so-subtle edges.  Contrast this with the watercolor world that is Ireland, where I have lived for the past three years, and suddenly the two cultures, though shaped and influenced by shared or similar values and forces, appear at polar ends of a cultural spectrum.  On one end you have collectivist culture that values the group over the individual, and on the other end you have individualist culture that emphasizes personal achievement above group goals.

This spectrum is also found when considering what Place means, to both individuals and to academics.  Within some academic disciplines, a sense of place refers to the group experience, or to those symbols that help shape cultural meaning.  To others, it refers to a very personal experience of a specific landscape, or setting.  Even within these categories, or ways of understanding and relating to place, there are different ways to connect: biographical (birth place), spiritual (intangible sense of belonging), ideological (moral/ethical), narrative (mythical), commodified (self-selected based on lifestyle preference), and dependent (constrained due to lack of choice or ability).

As a human-person, I may experience my place in any number of values or combinations along these two different spectra, both in terms of my personal preference and of my cultural understanding.  My sense of place, of ‘home’ versus ‘elsewhere’, or ‘us’ and ‘them’, arises through my mobility, or potential of mobility–it is activated by my movement through my landscape.  Our scale of mobility, in a postmodern world, has changed dramatically.  Just 50 years ago, the notion that I could wake-up in Cork and go to sleep in Boston was alien and out of reach for most people.

At one time, human settlement was shaped by the landscape.  Now, we shape the landscape to fit our human settlements.  That shaping is determined, in large part, by our cultural connection, or relationship, with place.  I believe the modern world is experiencing a bit of an identity crisis.  Our technology has so removed us from a sensual experience of our environment–an experience that is vital for health and wellbeing–that we have forgotten, or lost touch with, an embodied sense of place.  Our rediscovery of place, as a centre of felt value reflective of the aspirations of a people, is paramount, for environmental, social, and personal reasons.

I am still learning a lot about what place means to me, and what is personally important to my own sense of place.  One thing Ireland taught me is the importance of relationship, and connection, with other human-persons.  I always thought myself a bit of a hermit, and I am to some extent.  I’m very happy to sit at home for days on end, with no outside contact.  Yet, I need substantive relationships, with other human-persons, that are within reach when I need them.  The human part was a key, and new, insight.

My unique upbringing (a sense of having been reared by nature, not parents) led me to believe humans were not my favorites.  I still prefer sitting in the arms of my Blackthorn friend than around a table with many humans, but my experience in Ireland reminded me of our social natures.  We need each other.  We are relational beings, and there is no getting away from that.

The pull of relationship is what brought me to Boston, where I am staying for the next several weeks supporting a friend with her first baby.  While I am here, I have the opportunity to test culture and place.  Massachusetts may be part of the U.S., but it has a distinct cultural expression; and though this neighborhood is part of Boston, it offers a unique experience of place.

To connect with these spaces, I am using the same techniques I employ when connecting with any city (of which I have spoken on this blog), though I have added relationship building with the house itself, because my friend is quite literally building her ‘home’.   So far, my experience of Boston is of a fast moving river in a narrow bank.  It’s a little daunting!  My experience of this neighborhood, in particular, is of a hedge–a dividing line between places.  I look forward to seeing what the coming weeks hold, and how my experience and perception of America changes.

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