Prior to the proverbial mirror being placed in front of us, we are what we see. Wherever we set foot, we are local. Politically this can be problematic. Metaphysically this is transcendent.
Growing up there were plenty of days when I would look up at a blaring blue sky and wonder where I was. Or who I was. Whether the world would move on and leave me here. Below me were mounds of dirt, remnants of an industrial past scattered around, the active imaginary of an expanding child’s mind. But those moments were all that were. Later the place acquired a name and geo location that I could use to categorize both the place and my identity among the many in the world. It was Northern California. Not to be too exact, but somewhere around 37.8236° N, 122.3706° W. That is where my grandparents first met at the World’s Fair. That story made me belong. As do the coordinates. That made me local.
It’s all abstract, but less so than the wandering and wondering child’s mind.
Even with these personalized stories superimposed upon coordinates, I never felt that naming a region or even a surname could help me much with finding myself. Locating myself. There were too many minuscule differences between individual characters to justify a claim that I was the same as —or related to—another.
It wasn’t until meeting someone from Portugal in a circle of international intellectuals in Cuba who interrogated me about the deeds of ‘Americans’ did I really register that there are even more categories than I had perceived. There are tangibles that make identity less abstract, and they are usually weighted. Things we could marvel at like color and gender, but, like sexuality, are far too often misguided into social plagues. I carried a weight for that Portuguese man in Havana. And even a responsibility for this newly found identity. This was my first time setting foot outside what suddenly became clear was the boundary of ‘my’ country.
This time a local identity was thrust upon me. Someone else made it up for me and handed it over. It was less a discovery and more of a burden.
Decades on, living in Berlin with children, I discovered another culture of becoming local. A parent inevitably lives vicariously through the lives of their children. With them, I simultaneously inhabit the streets, bedrooms, museums, and conversations through a lens that was both mine and theirs, but always appears singular. Singular it seems, but probably never is.
I am my perspective that grew out of my own childhood perceptions. Probably the rawest sense of self. I am then also those perspectives that I witness evolve as the reality of my own children. It did not occur to me the moment they were born, that I am becoming them—or exchanging with them what it is to belong. No, my identity as an individual did not morph only in the moment they were born, this understanding came later on, in intervals, as they emerge as their own selves. My children inherit the habits of this place. Next to them, I layer up on my versions of normal. What I see as real keeps negotiating between what I already knew and what I learn alongside them.
A parent inevitably lives vicariously through the lives of their children. With them, I simultaneously inhabit the streets, bedrooms, museums, and conversations through a lens that was both mine and theirs, but always appears singular.
As I mature in some form, some words smell funny. Or I feel reluctant to have them handed over to me. ‘They just don’t resonate,’ as they say. References to the word ‘Expat’ is a good example. It described some degree of reluctance to be in a place. A holding on to an imagined camaraderie of another place. I’m too unsure about my allegiance to the places of my childhood to form allegiance to an amorphous group in a new place. The reality of loving, trusting, making sense of and belonging to people and places is a process both refined and awkward. That process comes in no smooth order. It is the process of becoming local.
I straddle the layers of rules and imagery from my own childhood and step over as a parent into a parallel reality through my vicarious ride into the kaleidoscopic world of my children. I live simultaneously with the codes of engagement that I inherited from the places my grandparents planted seeds—both through copulation and in building homes—into a new land where they never encountered or bore children in this lifetime. I contain both and move fluidly back and forth between them.
This is being translocal.
Witnessing the hop scotch of accompanying children as they form concepts of the planet through their own micro-emotions and that pre-parent individual. And to use a remembered reference: double-dutching across an evolving life between countries. Existing as—and between—two full identities at once.
Claiming that moniker, translocal, is a way to not have to reject or resist or engage in that ‘Ausländer’ or ‘Expat’ category. It’s more post-national or pre-national or holy.
It’s about the reality of our imagination. We seriously engage more fully as a sensory being, than we do as patriots. There are of course differences that we acquire growing up and being schooled in a place. But there are ways to invest in living someplace that enables us to surpass that outsider category. When I was recently back in the Bay Area, in the proximity of those ‘coordinates of belonging,’ I met a man originally from India who had been living in the US for over 35 years. Surely he had some claim on being local that some cultural purist wouldn’t afford him due to his thick Indian English accent. ‘What English or German accent has absolute claim to place?’ I ask myself. We have always been to some degree in some state of migration as a species. Right?
The micro-politics of regulating what we do or don’t do based on purist definitions of a place might be universal. I ask myself this question now and again.
I sat in an administrative meeting at a Kindergarten a few years back to discuss the menu for our children’s first out-of-home eating environments. By the way, as foreign as it felt attending, this meeting alone seemed to afford me some claim to localness. We were asking for an upgrade: No low quality meat. There were plenty of parents in that Kindergarten that spoke Turkish and Arabic, but oddly none of them were invited to this particular meeting. The administrator, who worked remotely in Mitte [we can call this the financial city center] assured the group that this neighborhood demographic and demands were shifting. That the parents of migration background indeed wanted meat in their children’s diet. She stated that the new ‘intellectual’ classes moving into this neighborhood are presenting desires that aren’t the norm for migrants. That particular group of parents were mostly non-migrant German. They were many things astounding and mundane, but not purely befitting of that ‘intellectual’ category. This label somehow read as generically ‘too demanding’. A week later, I ran into a parent not invited to that meeting. She was born in Germany to Syrian parents. She sat at an idyllic lake in a forest on the outskirts of the city. Basking in the patches of sun, she shared that she was going to transfer her son from the kindergarten because she hoped for him to have more engagement with nature. She was interested in Waldorf pedagogy and felt that the daily program was far too limiting at the current kindergarten. This was a myth busting moment. Another case for questioning the purity of the process of becoming local.
We understand that being local cannot be a purist concept, really. Any observant dweller in the used-to-be affordable parts of cities like Brooklyn, Oakland, London or Berlin will notice some contention.
How do I belong in places where other people must flee to make space for me? Who is left to initiate you into that sense of belonging? What else is contained in me becoming local?
Being local requires me to invest in an experience. Like any intimate relationship, I have to be prepared to indulge as I commit to a certain responsibility. I take on the stories that belong to that place as an extension of my own. I bring with me my own tales and mythologies that will inevitably color that new environment, but reciprocation is the nature of my investment in that new place. This is the opposite of gentrification. The opposite of isolating from the whole narrative of a place. The opposite of urban renewal which means that earlier inhabitants are just thrown out onto the streets—for all we know—and I’m ok with it.
Identifying with location is political.
Relinquishing ties to place is, at the same time, freeing. Belonging everywhere and nowhere is transcendent and a luxury. Belonging is that ephemeral emotion I seek once I return to a place after being away for long. I want a place to make sense to me. For my identity to feel coherent.
Being local requires me to invest in an experience. Like any intimate relationship, I have to be prepared to indulge as I commit to a certain responsibility. I take on the stories that belong to that place as an extension of my own. I bring with me my own tales and mythologies that will inevitably color that new environment, but reciprocation is the nature of my investment in that new place.
Being translocal is about morphing values to a specific context. It both superimposes and distinguishes stories of place and identity. It invests (ideals, money, commitment) and relinquishes (ideals, expectations—and although I’m a strong believer in high expectation and universal dignity—the necessary entitlement that far too often comes at the expense of others). Being translocal allows for more honesty. To bring all of our multiplicities together. As travelers alongside our children, alongside many understandings of self. Transporting an empathy and belief that has to do with something bigger—yet more refined—than tradition, culture or nationalism. Relying on things that are universal to all species that inhabit any place on the planet. Things like sensibilities that have more to do with what the late and young poet Max Ritvo so brilliantly described as his vocation—a reliance on ‘the poet[ry] of faith—faith in the senses’.
All photos by Marcus Jolly; a Canadian photographer based between Mexico, LA and Vancouver, specializing in portraiture, landscape, and fashion photography | website | instagram | weddings