When I am not out on the streets…or reading…I spend time on the internet on some of the www.couchsurfing.com forums discussing historical, political and cultural issues with members from all over the world…and in the process I am learning something about myself.
I have discovered recently that the word “nomad” is a bad word in China and Central Asia. It means you have no “roots.” That you are “empty.” In other words you don’t have an identity…maybe you are not even a person! I remember that when I was in China I wanted to have a T-shirt made with LaughingNomad printed in Mandarin on the back. The vendor screwed up his face and said he didn’t like it in Mandarin.
Then a woman on couchsurfing from Uzbekistan, in Central Asia, described the word “nomad” in her language. I asked what was wrong with having “no roots” but never got an answer. I have a sneaking suspicion that it has something to do with an attitude of looking down at the “shepherd”…the “peasant” in relationship to more “civilized” people. But what do I know.
In my language “nomad” does not have a pejorative connotation…in fact I think it is quite a romantic notion. Even Bilbao Baggins claims that “All Who Wonder Are Not Lost.”
Then a Swiss woman on couchsurfing describes life in her country:
I and my descendant will be forever citizens of one village, despite the fact that no one has lived there for three generations and my family jumped language barriers. I could ask to become a citizen of Geneva, but I see no reason to do so, since we are in the same country and only 300 km apart.
This sense of belonging – because this is what it is, has a reason: If you should ever become destitute in the world, in another continent or in the next village, your place of origin is requested to repatriate you and care for you until the end of your days. You may never have seen your place of origins, but if Bob Lutz (former CEO of General Motors) would become destitute [he he ] his village of Rheineck, would have to pay for his upkeep until the end of his life.
So it is not about no moving and discovering the world. It is about having roots. And what mobility – economically a good thing – does to it.
So I thought about this some more and this is more or less what I explained to her:
The United States was settled by fiercely independent people. My mother’s parents and grandmother immigrated from Poland in the late 1890′s to escape the Germans and work in the mines in Illinois. They sent the two oldest of 10 children on ahead by themselves by ship at the age of 17 and 18 to scout out living arrangements for the family who followed. But they were really farmers so when they saved up enough money from the mines they leased farms in Iowa and after the Homestead Act of 1903 they migrated to Montana.
My father’s ancestors started out in NYC>NJ>Ohio>Kansas>Oregon all in the space of two generations. So “roots” however defined were left behind. Most people then were farmers and looking to homestead land as it opened up westward. What took my grandparents from Kansas to Oregon was the availability of water. Most people migrated across the country in groups and whole communities resettled together.
Studying genealogy has become popular in the States with a certain segment of an older generation interested in migration routes…looking to find out “where they came from.” I have boxes and boxes of pictures, census data, copies of birth certificates etc etc. My kids,36-42 now living in Las Vegas, Hong Kong and Thailand, have not one iota of interest in all this and when I die it will probably all get thrown out in big black garbage bags.
My mother hated the isolated ranch in Montana (so isolated that they only got telephone land line service less than 10 years ago) so at the age of 12 her parents let her go to Miles City Montana and be a nanny. She was a telegrapher for the railroad in isolated stations in Idaho for 10 years. After her marriage she ended up in Oregon. Distances were great and money scarce and I remember visiting my maternal grandparents only once before they died. My father’s parents died before I was born. Aunts, uncles and cousins are scattered to the wind. The distance from one state to another is often farther than one country from another in Europe. You can put all of Europe in the state of Texas and still have room left over.
After a house fire that took my mother’s first 4 children, I was born later and was raised as an only child on a sheep ranch in SE Oregon. Education was my parent’s priority and as there was slight chance of my qualifying for college after attending country schools, at the age of 12 I was sent to a prep school in another city where I lived with an extended Mexican family. Many of the girls went to boarding schools in Portland Oregon and the boys, mostly Irish sheep ranch kids, went to boarding schools in San Francisco.
Roots? What roots!
Why do I travel so much and am now an expat in Oaxaca Mexico? Because it is BORING where I came from. There is no family in Oregon where I lived most of my life and I often “threaten” my son in Las Vegas that I am going to go live with him lol. I have more in common with travelers and expats in spirit as well as in practice. So that is why, for me, home is where the heart is. And it is true for my kids too. Even my husband who I am separated from is retired in Thailand now.
What to do when I am “old.” My son’s Thai wife says “Mom, I take care of you!” Well, I would never saddle her with that but she could arrange a nice apartment with a live-in Thai caretaker for me near Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok Thailand where they have great respect for elders. My hope is that my kids never put me in a nursing home in the States!
Besides, “family” members are often only related by virtue of blood. No guarantee that they are close at all! Statistics show that most domestic violence in the states occurs at Christmas time!
I really think there may be something true about “wandering” being in our DNA. I read an article recently that researchers have discovered a place in the brain that is related to novelty.
However, finally, at the age of 65 I think I REALLY know now what it means to be American and I am American all the way down to my “roots.”