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On Home, Locality & Identity

Wood 1 by Agnes Martin (1965). Private Collection, New York. Image via Artsy.

Home is a feeling, warm like the sun, inside everyone needs a safe place to run, run to the morning, faster than the sun, someone is there waiting, yes, she''s the one. - Home is a Feeling by Ride

The saying goes, ‘home is a feeling, not a place’, but what if it’s both?

London is not where I grew up, but it’s where I feel I was made. It’s where I found refuge, where the version of myself I always reached for finally had the chance to bloom. It’s where I became myself in a sense I hadn’t felt before. It’s that version of me that exists, mostly, today and the one I take forward with me to every subsequent place I have lived.

Being asked where I’m from, as a white westerner, is not a problematic question for me. Over my years of living in Australia, my accent has morphed, imbued with an Aussie twang, but when my British accent asserts its dominance, I’m always a little delighted when someone picks up on it and asks me, ‘where are you from?’

The essential difference is that the question when posed to me is not so much ‘why are you here’ or ‘where do you really belong’ and more ‘I know where you’re from, and I want to talk about my experiences of your country’.

For many of my friends, this is not the case. The question is a micro-aggression because the person asking is making assumptions about culture and heritage and genuinely don’t know. It’s othering disguised as curiosity.

How do we tackle this question, change it to become one that accepts and acknowledges that we are all human beings?

Where Are You Local?

I recently came across the Ted Talk from writer Taiye Selasi. When reflecting on the ‘where are you from?’ question, she says we need to ask what are we really seeking when we ask where someone comes from and what are we really seeing when we hear the answer?

Selasi proposes a new way of thinking about people who live and move around the world as “multi-local” people. People who feel at home in the town where they grew up, the city they live in now and maybe another place or two.

She says that instead of asking ‘where are you from?’ we should ask ‘where are you local?’. This would tell us so much more about who and how similar we are:

“All experience is local; all identity is experience. What makes America home for me is not my passport or accent, but very particular experiences and the places they occur.”

What a wonderfull way to shape this! Enquiring about locality over nationality invites a story. It acknowledges and broaches the topic of who we are — taking the places we have existed into account — as one of identity and experience, not simply the country our passport or citizenship certificate denotes.

Our experiences shape us in far more ways than the geographical locations we attach to our names. The experiences we have in those places add to the richness of our identities and who we are — they can’t be denied or removed. Place certainly still has a role, but the question ‘where are you from’ is reductive of this reality.

Defining Your Locality

Salesi advises she has developed a three-step test to help anyone determine their sense of locality and define the places that can help them answer ‘where are you local?’ She calls it the Three Rs:

1. Rituals

We all have rituals in our lives, even if we might not be conscious of it. For some, this can be spiritual, but for others, it might simply be where you get your coffee, where you take your walks, the bakery you visit every Sunday. It could be removing your shoes at the door or the seat you always take on the train. Rituals can be based at home, work or elsewhere.

Salesi says to reflect and ask yourself what are your rituals and where do they occur?

2. Relationships

This isn’t just face-to-face, and Salesi advises to be discerning. Relationships mean the people who shape your days. Who do you speak to at least once a week, and who is shaping your emotional experiences? Who do you turn to when you’re happy, sad, lost, grieving?

Relationships are home.

3. Restrictions

The least sexy of the three, restrictions play a role in how and why we determine our locality’s. Restrictions can involve things like passports and visas, but it’s also comfort. Consider where are you able to live and why? Where do you feel comfortable living? Where do you feel safe to call home, without fear, racism or judgement? Where are you economically safe?

Salesi says these questions are vital as they take you past where you are now and explore why you aren’t somewhere else.

Embracing Experience as the Foundation

Salesi hit it home for me when she says:

“The difference between where are you from and where are you a local isn’t the specificity of the answer; it’s the intention of the question. Replacing the language of nationally to one of locality asks us to shift our focus to where real life occurs.”

This month marks three years since I’ve returned to England, the places that made me and where I grew up. I postponed two trips in 2019 and then cancelled a trip in March 2020, as borders everywhere closed. I’ve been thinking a lot about how place shapes who I was, am and am becoming.

I know in the later years of my life, I will speak of living in Australia with pride, and everything I have experienced here will shape my identity in ways I can’t quite yet fathom. A part of me longs for home and the places that made me feel local, and it’s a shift to remind myself that the places I currently am will, at some point, be viewed in the same way.

I’m learning that, as Salesi so eloquently puts it: “Where I’m from becomes everywhere I go.”


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