The In-betweener: Where Do I Belong
By Di Cui
Once upon a time, letters took weeks or even months to travel from town to town. Human settlements seemed so disperse since one could only travel so far via traditional modes of transportation. However, modern technology has greatly shortened the distance across the globe. In addition to instant communication, people can now even travel further and further in a more efficient manner. Therefore, one’s footprint throughout life is expanding. The definition of ‘home’ and one’s sense of belonging have been shaken as this new “nomadic” demographic has emerged, the “in-betweeners” who are born and raised in one place but who study, work, and live elsewhere, transgressing national boundaries.
In March 2018, the Shanghai municipal government in China commanded its citizens who obtained oversea permanent residency to revoke their local household registration, also known as the hukou (户口).(1) This order provoked immense controversy as it not only contradicted the city’s goal of attracting high-end international talents, but also struck as unjust to many. Maintaining local residency rights secures the citizens’ access to health care, their children’s admission to public education, and a wide array of social welfare.
The government eventually terminated this policy later in the month to appease the public outcry.(2) The order’s proper implementation required a clearer definition of “settling down abroad.” In the earlier iteration of the policy, the government held that anyone holding foreign green cards, purchasing property overseas or living outside home country for an extensive period of time could have a “permanent settlement”. Although immigrant workers around the world have generated unprecedented capital with their distinctive perspectives and skill sets, they are now increasingly faced with the dilemma of keeping fixed nationalities or having fluid cultural identities. Recent academic studies and media reports have widely covered the social and political implications of government ordinances similar to Shanghai’s moves. Now, more than ever, we need to zoom in on individual expats and their loosening ties to “home” to better understand the waning sense of belonging amongst diaspora.
Gerardo and Cristina
My neighbors Gerardo and Cristina are a Mexican couple who recently established a new life in New York City but who are unable to declare their official settlement in either the United States or in Mexico. Born and raised in Mexico City, Gerardo and Cristina first visited the United States when they were younger on family trips. Their quick glimpses of the country as tourists did not allow them to fully experience American culture so they returned to get their shot at the American dream. Currently pursuing their Master’s degrees in New York, the couple embrace the diversity and convenience of the metropolitan city, while also facing exorbitant costs of living, unfamiliar social relationships, and discrimination.
It was only when Cristina left home to begin this new adventure did she realize how much she had left behind in Mexico and how much she cherished her family. Back in Mexico, her father would wake up early to prepare fruit salads for the family every day except for Wednesday, when they would go grocery shopping and have sandwiches instead. Here in New York, Cristina continues the habit by having fruit salads for breakfast.
However, since she’s left home, her family and friends have also moved on and are quickly getting used to a life without her physical presence. So have Gerardo’s parents.
Four months after he started school in the United States, his parents moved out of the house that the family had lived in for six years. In the new house his family moved into, Gerardo was not given his own room nor his own bed. “You don’t feel like having a space in the house,” he said.
Although Cristina likes going back to Mexico, she does so less frequently these days. “Everyone just keeps moving on. I feel like a foreigner, instead of feeling at home.” In their new “home” in New York, Gerardo and Cristina are learning to live without their parents and also learning to live with each other. They speak Spanish in their apartment, cook Mexican food and hang out with their old friends all the time. The distance from Mexico has enabled the two to look at issues in Mexico more critically, and to even cultivate a more sincere concern for their nation.
In June 2017, my friend Victoria, an American permanent resident, left Minnesota for an MFA photography program in New York (another metropolitan city for her after having lived in Shenzhen, China for around 18 years and another half a year in Milan, Italy).
Like Gerardo and Cristina, Victoria first visited the United States with excitement and curiosity on a sightseeing trip in 2008. However, when she returned to attend college in the Twin Cities five years ago, she found shops closed by 8 p.m., and the miniature downtown she had moved to with limited entertainment and leisure choices completely shattered her grand illusions of the country.
As Midwest America unfolded before her, Victoria began to adopt a different lifestyle. It was a relaxing and comforting one but it was often a little too dull.
Unbeknownst to Victoria, however, she had absorbed a more progressive ideology despite being in a smaller city in the Midwest. She quickly found that this often clashed with the conservative mentality of her family and friends in China. It was then that she realized how much she had grown intellectually, and became deeply appreciative of her education and the openness of the American society as a whole.
For Victoria and other nomadic souls constantly on the move, the concept of home is fluid, abstract and sentimental.
Victoria does not ascribe the sense of belonging to any place that she has lived because she values the memory of places and the interactions with people more than physical locations. The supportive community at college, the caring host family in Italy, and the many people she has met along the way have kindled happiness and other positive emotions.
The only thing that continues to get in Victoria’s way and in the way of other in-betweeners is other people’s perception of their identities. “Where do you come from? I mean, ethnically, where are you from?”
I myself, starting off my sixth year away from home, resonate with Gerardo, Cristina, Victoria and many other in-betweeners. Since moving to New York for graduate school last year, I have continued to search for the right answer to the question, “Where are you from?”
Born and raised in Beijing, China, I naturally had an established network of friends and family in the city. Beijing helped shape my intellect, my hopes, my dreams, and my aspirations. However, as I travelled the world, I began to acquire new skills and absorb radical ideas. I have also met with people of diverse backgrounds, and I have come to find that the nationality declared on my passport no longer tells the complete narrative of who I am.
The idiom luoyeguigen (落叶归根 - when leaves fall down from the tree, they should go back to where the roots are) - symbolizing a return to the origin, has guided generations of Chinese people in making important life decisions. The idiom demonstrates the significance of one’s roots to one’s identity.
Home is the haven that people can always turn to, not simply to seek shelter in the physical form, but that also offers a supportive social network, a comfortable environment and a sense of belonging. In order to maintain this attachment to home, however, one must continually give contribution, energy and care.
Unfortunately for me, my ties to China continually loosen each time when I miss a family dinner on Chinese New Year’s eve, or find difficulty in delivering an academic presentation in Chinese.
At the same time, I can neither claim the American continent as home. Moving from place to place for education, employment, family, and better quality of life will prevail among young adults. These global citizens will continue to assimilate the ideology, language, custom, cuisine of their host environments, which deviate from those in their home countries. The absence at family gatherings, vague memory of the built fabric and outdated knowledge about culture and trends further weaken their ties to home countries. When Gerardo saw that he had no bed in his parents’ new home, when Cristina realized that she shared less commonality with old friends, and when New York disappointed Victoria, nostalgia, sadness and loneliness surface and persist. Digesting reverse culture shock and drifting between homes and temporary homes might require even more effort as in-betweeners constantly battle with the unfamiliar within familiarity.
Like many others, I am and will continue to be
in between China and the United States,
in between my rose-tinted childhood and restless adulthood,
and in between us and them.
Like many others, I am and will continue to be
a floating cloud, a rootless tree and a never-landing thornbird.
(1) Alice Yan, “Shanghai Orders Citizens to Give Up Their Local Residence Rights If They Have a Foreign Green Card,” South China Morning Post, last modified March 22, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/2138437/shanghai-orders-citizens-give-their-local-residence-rights-if.
(2) Alice Yan, “Shanghai U-turn After Outcry Over Revoking Residency,” South China Morning Post, last modified March 26, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/2138916/shanghai-u-turn-after-outcry-over-revoking-residency-rights.