The Mobile Age - Part Two: Globalism

We’ve become mobile in new ways, challenging conventional ideas about home and community. In the first of three essays, Timothy Taylor introduced four mobility archetypes of the modern era: the nomad and the settler, for whom the degree of movement is established by preference; and the refugee and the prisoner, for whom movement is determined by forces beyond their control. In this second essay, he explores how these archetypes have evolved and hybridized.
I move around a fair bit with my work. And while I love encountering new places and, especially, meeting the people who make up those places and have been shaped by them in turn, I can’t deny that I generally also dislike leaving home. As a result, my attitude towards travel is conflicted. Indeed, it often gives rise to moments of inner turbulence.
On one level, this is the joint cultural inheritance I received from my parents. I’m the product of a mother and a father who had very different modern-era experiences of mobility, and who then adapted to these experiences with equivalently different survival techniques.
My father felt imprisoned by his provincial hometown, post-war Toronto. He reacted with a bid to be independent and free, which manifested itself in a strongly nomadic tendency has persisted until only quite recently. My mother, a half-Jew in wartime Germany, found herself homeless at the age of 12 and a refugee after the war. Her survival instinct, opposite to my father’s, was a powerful impulse to settle that lasted throughout her life.
The cross currents set up here certainly shaped the home dynamics of my childhood. My favourite illustration of this would be the highly eclectic Taylor household cuisine. My mother cooked pure “settler”, by which I mean we ate the stuff of her confiscated German childhood: spaetzle, rouladen, pickled herring and pumpernickel. My father meanwhile contributed impulse purchases, postcards from remembered places, from more nomadic times. I remember pomegranates, yams, chili peppers, eggplant, mangos. This was before the foodie era, remember. So it was notable that my mother took the ten pounds of fresh prawns he produced one weekend and turned them into an Ecuadorian ceviche, a dish from the place they had met, the house scoured out for days with an effluvial mist of onion, lime and Tabasco.
That was the hybrid household in which I was raised, settler and nomad impulses entirely blurred. And I guess you could say, based on this background, that my own mixed reactions to travel are easily enough explained.
As I reflect on it in the context of these essays on human mobility, however, it seems to me that that my modern-era family was in fact part of something going on much more widely. As we have shifted from the “modern” to the “globalized” era, the entire Western experience of movement and stability, and the related sense of what is “home” and “away”, has radically changed. My parents were only doing what millions of others were doing across the West as a matter of human reflex, struggling to release themselves from involuntary settings. But pushing towards self-determination, these people also naturally tended towards new ways of living that compensated for the specific lack of freedom they had experienced. Thus the refugee and her dreamed-of roots. The prisoner and his vision of movement, space, wind in the hair.
Over the course of the late twentieth century in the West, meanwhile – and this is true in North America, Western Europe and Australia – we have been the destination of choice for wave after wave of nomads and refugees seeking to act out their self-determination in settings most amenable to that mindset. Some of these migrants we have produced ourselves internally – the Second World War is a pretty good example of that phenomenon. Many have also entered from other parts of the world.
But my point here is that in aggregate these refugees and nomads pouring into the democracies of the West have carried with them the adaptive techniques to which they owed their survival. The refugee’s new celebration of roots was the reason for her thriving, just as the prisoner found identity and direction in his embrace of movement. Those strategies, to speak of it in evolutionary terms, were selected. They were the behavioral adaptations that had been proven successful. And in the West, they have become legacy qualities, mingled in the cultural genetics.
So has globalization given birth to a new mobility archetype, a hybrid nomad/settler which, in keeping with the four archetypes of mobility we’ve established in this series, you could model as follows:
There will be hardly a person who reads this – particularly among those who do so mid-flight – for whom the characterization won’t be immediately familiar in their own life. We blend home and away to meet our various needs, so much so that home and away seem almost contiguous spaces. Travelers on business voyage far afield, some of you for epic stretches of time I know. Accumulated professional person years are spent in place-less locations of transition: airports, hotel conference rooms and the like. But come the weekend, there is our road warrior in his or her backyard, barbecuing something nice picked up at the weekend farmer’s market, chatting with friends about new restaurants in Dubai or wherever they’ve been. There is no huge culture shock in this, for either the one who’s been away or the one who has stayed home. We know and live these patterns. We assume them. Tourism may offer the even more strident proof, where the heroic has become almost routine. Traffic jams on the way up to Macchu Pichu. Wait lists at Everest. And, in either cases, summit experiences that may well include a phone call home.
That shrinking of the distances will be fairly obvious to most of us. But the hybrid experience of mobility also points to a more significant evolution in the way we experience movement and cultural variation. During the modern era, our nomads and refugees crossed a world on which culture was associated with particular places. Culture might be thought of as having been painted onto the landscape itself. For those in motion, these cultural colors changed (the nomadic ideal). For those stationary, the cultural color was stable (the holy grail of settlement).
In the hybrid settler/nomad experience, however, that relationship between culture and geographic location has been largely de-coupled. Yes we combine a more fluid sense of what is home and what is away. But we also do so in an environment where the culture we experience in moving place to place is as unrooted as we are. So we can carry “home” with us when we go “away”, but so to can the away find us more readily in our homes and change our experiences there.
It’s as if a new dimension has been added to the set of possible mobility experiences. It can be visualized easily by approaching our model of mobility types from a different angle.
Here we see that within the hybrid nomad/settler experience, where elements of home and away are continually blended, there are in fact distinct variant experiences possible. Four potential combinations of cultural variance (high or low) and physical mobility (high or low). High cultural variance and high mobility. High cultural variance with low mobility. Low cultural variance with low mobility. And low cultural variance with high mobility. Four blends, in other words, of the cultural sense of being home or away and the physical reality of whether you are or not.
You probably won’t have to look very far to illustrate these variants. My own life tends to deal up them up in steady rotation. A travel experience – walking barley fields in the Wicklow hills recently, for example – delivers up a genuine sense of having journeyed far away from home, away from the culturally familiar. But these experiences are followed within days by the sense of being almost entirely at home, in this case having traveled just 30 minutes north to the city of Dublin.
Returning home to the the West Coast, meanwhile, my sense of home and away immediately wheel around to the inverse side of this equation. As is my normal pattern, I’m at first overwhelmed with the sense of home, capable suddenly of rhapsodic lyricism on the topic of cherry trees, salty sea breezes, the smell of fir and pine. All of which transitions in a couple of days back to  thinking of the far away, planning for that fall trip to Shanghai.
This cycle will repeat itself, of course. We yo-yo back and forth from home, our feelings about where we are yo-yo-ing some half-cycle lag behind us. That’s the pattern of contemporary life, the experience of being who we are now. But the way this idea is brought home to me more frequently is in observing how in each different place, you may now encounter all four of these same experiences simultaneously.
I can illustrate this with another trip I took recently, which in keeping with the notion here, took me very far away while not traveling very far away at all. I found myself out in Richmond on the Number Three Road, the other day. This part of Vancouver, known as the “Golden Village” is rarely recommended in the guidebooks, but should be. Vancouver’s new Chinatown, outstripping by many orders of magnitude the size and commercial zeal of the old one.
Although “Chinatown” is actually not quite the right word for it. The area is more like an “Asiatown”, a trading pit of Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese and Filipino retail activity. A district of people who have carried their sense of home to this new place, which would have been very “away” to them when they arrived, and which has since been refashioned into a new “home”. All the while the air is full of new arrivals, the sky glinting aluminum as the underbellies of Jumbos and 767s streak overhead, inbound for YVR.
Here, as my father would have done before me, I was soon seeking out my culinary souvenirs. Dumplings, I fixed upon mentally. And dumplings I did find. Shanghainese, Singaporean. Dim sum, duk pukki, wonton, gyoza. I brought home a Pan-Asian Parliament of dumplings that were then boiled and steamed and microwaved according to the instructions on the back of each package.
And then we sat down to feed, my boy and I. Happy nomads in the heart of our own household. Home at home. Away at home. Either way, tucked in at the diningroom table. Chive shrimp (Chinese) I believe to be the winner. I chopsticked one of these into a mixture of soy and rice vinegar, green onion and sesame oil, then held it across the table for my son to eat.
“Well?” I said. “Tell me. What do you think of that?”
But he didn’t answer. He was back to eating his own dumplings. He was eating Shanghainese pork dumplings as if he had been born to do so.
Posted: Monday, Aug. 6, 2007 10:00pm