On Being an Elsewherean

An elsewherean is a person who, regardless of current location, is originally from somewhere else. But how would that be possible? Please allow me to explain.

Some people move to a different city, a different state, a different country, and manage to maintain a firm cultural attachment to the place they came from. Whenever possible, they will eat the same food, read the same literature, follow the same news, speak the same language, do the same things they did before moving, and try to preserve and nurture their roots. At least subconsciously, home for them is not the place where they are now but the place where they came from. Their roots are simply too strong and will not be severed.

A few people, however, are affected differently. For them, once away from home, the new sights and sounds and tastes and thoughts are absorbed, by choice or not, with such interest and voracity that they immerse themselves in the local culture, not as a rejection of their own heritage but as an embrace of the new. And it’s not pure and simple acculturation or an automatic replacement of lifestyles, but a gradual enrichment by a process of learning, questioning, understanding, filtering, and finally picking and keeping the aspects they value or identify with.

But no matter how deep or how long the immersion, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a second (or third, or fourth) layer they are adding on top of the native one they brought from home. There is no escape from the condition of foreigner, which internally never goes away (and, more often than not, it’s also always there externally, as a different accent or mannerism, for example). They will always be, in some degree, apparent or not, from a different place.

When these cultural hybrids return to the place they used to call home, many of them discover that something has changed. They are back home but now home is not the same it used to be to them and they are not the same they used to be at home. They are now looking at familiar things in the same way they learned to do abroad, curiously and critically, with the eyes of a stranger. They are natives who feel like foreigners. They realize that for them there is no going back home. The old home is no more and there is no new home. They are no longer from there, wherever there is. They are elsewhereans.

When described this way, it may sound like elsewhereans have lost something valuable. And it may be so for some people. But, at least for me, what is gained in the process far surpasses what is left behind. Perhaps a prerequisite to elsewhereanism is a willingness to not have roots, together with a vast curiosity for and an acceptance of new things, and a strong sense of cosmopolitanism, so that when the transformation happens we are ready even if a bit surprised.

It can be a bit disconcerting when you realize you no longer have a strong sense of belonging to that place you were used to think as a part of your identity. But at the same time it’s fantastically liberating. Instead of one predominant bond you now have opened yourself to multiple enriching connections. And the idea that you don’t belong anywhere is replaced by the concept of belonging everywhere.

There’s a quick but great piece of dialogue in the movie The Man from Laramie, directed by Anthony Mann. Will Lockhart (played by James Stewart) is chatting with his new acquaintance and future love interest, Barbara Waggoman (played by Cathy O’Donnell).

“We came from Laramie.”
“Was that your home?”
“No, ma’m. No, I can’t rightly say any place is my home.”
“But everybody should have some place to remember and feel like they belong to.”
“Well, I always feel I belong where I am.”