This is an old post from February 2008, from my previous blog. I had been living in Australia for 1 month. I am posting this for my best friend, B, because she loves it and loves to share the post with others when they are blaming their problems on their place in the world, and endeavouring to solve those problems simply by changing their location on the map.
I am beginning to wonder if I will hear it no matter where I move in the world: “Why did you come here?” I hear this every time I move to a new place, as well as frequently when I travel, and each time, the people asking the questions seem genuinely puzzled. Whether it is aesthetics like bad architecture or weather, environmental concerns like urban sprawl and air pollution, or any number of “isms” (e.g., elitism, classism, racism, etc.), people just cannot seem to understand why anyone would want to come to their hometown.
I would ask the same thing if someone were to move to Temperance or Ida, where I went to primary school, or Marysville or Port Huron, where I spent my teenage years. Whenever I met someone who moved to that town I would ask, “Why in the hell would you want to come here?” Sometimes they would point to things about the town with which I flat out disagreed, but other times they would point to things that I was taking for granted. For instance, Port Huron and Marysville are on the water, and though I saw it as the centre of chemical valley, there are plenty of tourists that visit the town each year for the natural amenity. I grew up in a state surrounded by the largest freshwater supply in the world; yet still when I meet people anywhere in the world that say they love Michigan, I look at them like they are insane.
It is no different in Perth. I have met several people from all walks of life that look at me like I am insane when I tell them I have travelled to the exact opposite spot on the globe to live and work here. This is just human nature. It is so easy to feel the weight of a city’s problems when you are immersed in them for most of your life. Plus, for those who grew up in Perth, they have seen developers change the face of the land. For Australians in general, they have seen their government make mistake after mistake. They have seen their culture usurp some of the worst American ideologies. They have watched their neighbours in Southeast Asia suffer as Western governments prosper. In short, they suffer from many of the same problems that the US and other Western nations do, which leads them to dissatisfaction and disgust. Sometimes that contempt is directed within, sometimes it is directed to the broader culture/community at large, and sometimes it is directed to the immediate community in which they live.
Amongst all this, it becomes easier and easier to invest hope in somewhere else, wherever that “somewhere” may be. Also, while no one likes to see other human beings suffer, for those who are more socially aware, there are moments in which the suffering seems to be in every corner. They can only rail against this suffering for so long before frustration sends them on a search for an alternate explanation.
The easiest explanation, often, is to fault the place in which we live. It fits so seamlessly into our life narratives. It becomes “this place” that is somehow the cause of great and small ills, from boredom to persecution. This fascination with place distracts from the broader paradigm. Subsequently, as we focus on problems of place, we begin to fetishise “somewhere else”. Often, this somewhere else is really just an insular community of like-minded individuals. This is only natural. We all need to find that sense of place where we feel comfortable. In a broad sense, it is a sense of “home” that these other places offer, even though we do not always see it as such. For many people, especially people who tend to see themselves as outside mainstream culture, this sense of home is difficult to find. It is therefore only natural to grip tightly to a place that supports our ideologies and sees the world through a similar lens. It makes us feel just a little less insane and a little less isolated.
However, I find the idea that things are better “somewhere else” problematic. It is a mental trap. In many ways, it is simply another form of the classic “anywhere but here” or “the grass is always greener” mentality. Worse yet, people who believe that things really are better somewhere else often operate under the assumption that their lives will be better in another place where the solutions lie in wait. On some level, they believe they can leave their problems (or the problems of society at large) behind, when in fact these problems will inevitably follow them. The idea that one can simply wipe the slate clean is a romantic notion, and one that I wish I could believe, but it is a fallacy. It is what I would refer to as “the problem of place”.
The problem of place also leads us to believe that being surrounded by like-minded individuals is the best thing for us. This is completely understandable. Living in a place where no one seems to share your beliefs (I am a vegan who has lived in America and Australia – I know all about this!) is generally frustrating and sometimes infuriating. In contrast, when we stumble across a community that supports us, rather than fights us, we finally feel comfortable. However, with that comfort, discourse can sometimes dissolve, and the change that happens when two opposing forces collide can come to an end.
I heard different versions of this problem of place time and again before I moved to Australia, and I have heard it since moving here as well. I will hear it many times more in my life. I find this frustrating in the first instance because my move to Australia had nothing to do with wiping the slate clean. I very much liked the slate I was working from. In the second and third instances, I find these comments frustrating because I know that I used to believe the same thing. It took a long time for me to realise what I was actually seeking. However, I have long since given up explaining why I believe this view to be problematic. I have also discarded the expectation that I can save people from years of grief by explaining to them the underlying issues at hand. This is, after all, simply my perspective, not an absolute truth, no matter how passionately I believe it. More importantly, I believe that it is only through experience that people can come to understand the actual source of their dissatisfaction with their lives and/or with society in general. I do not think it is possible to show people through words what they can learn through action – namely, that places do not make people happy, and they do not make people miserable either. There’s much more to it than that.
Recently, I had an interesting discussion with my boss that prompted me to broaden my own way of thinking on this issue. “Every community is unique,” she said, “but they are 95-99 percent the same.” And that’s just it: every community does have a unique “feel,” but ultimately they share more in common than they are separated by difference. Some people may find the notion that they are not unique offensive. Of course we would all like to feel like “beautiful and unique snowflakes”. But I would argue that my boss’ sentiment is not offensive at all. It is, in essence, the recognition that societies are comprised of people. (Yes, there are limitless non-human elements of society as well, I realise that.) And people are driven by similar motives, make decisions based on rational thought, and act with intention no matter where they reside. Of course there are countless different views of the world and visions of the future. There are limitless factors that influence the way in which society operates, but it all comes back to the same premise: societies are comprised of people.
The sooner we recognise that, the sooner we can shift the focus from place to people. Port Huron, Perth, or any other place is not the problem. For those of us who want real change for everyone, rather than a mere change of scenery for ourselves, we have to shift our train of thought. Otherwise we are just providing comfort for ourselves, instead of the providing a better quality of life for everyone.