When I was younger I never really considered how weird it is that children pick up and move thousands of miles away from their friends and family. Historically speaking it is thought that most people living in non-nomadic societies never travelled more than 20 miles from the place they were born. This is a stunning thing if we think about it. Yes, the modern motor means that 20 miles is a lot smaller today than it used to be, but 20 miles is such a limited slice of this planet. I can not imagine how limiting that can be. On the other had, the people living these lives must have really known their 20 miles: everything in them, and everybody in them. Their bond to the place must have been paramount, and its association with the people there must have been to an extreme that we cannot appreciate in these times. I am interested in that bond.
I am from New York City. Which is a lot bigger than 20 miles. It is also a very fluid place: it can change dramatically from day to day. Comparing it to an isolated farming village of old will never be easy. Still, New York City has a fixed culture and pulse about it, maybe because it is just so big. I also believe that the change a necessary component of the fixity that makes New York City New York City. Because New York is my home it is the geographic center of my family life as well as my friend group. Though I have lived in many other places, my social network is still strongest in New York because that is where I have spent the most time. It also attracts many people, including those who I met in other places, so it gains as time goes on. Given that my social life is so bonded to this place, why leave?
In today’s culture, it is assumed that you should leave your hometown, at least for a little while. College is usually the obvious outlet for this wonderlust. It is also the perfect venue for it. Many college student bodies have serious elements of self-selection, so you are cramming lots of young people tasting the most freedom they’ve ever had into a confined space, and odds are there will be many people any individual student has lots in common with. Every student feels alienation, especially during the first year, because they are away from their old social safety net. But the college set up is about as perfect as can be when it comes to introducing a way to buffer students from the weirdness of just leaving everyone you know behind.
The United States takes it further than that. As far as I know going out into the world (read country) to “try your luck,” is an American tradition with roots stretching farther back than one hundred years. In the current climate a graduate who comes home after school gets scorned, being able to set up your life in a new place with your new skills is something praiseworthy! In the space of less than six years a student will develop their final friend set from high school in their hometown, make friend in their college town and then go on to their first job in a new location and need to make new set of friends there.
This requires young adults to experience the alienation of being a stranger in a strange land twice in as short as half a decade. These are stressful experiences for most people. The time and distance spent away from old friends also fray those bonds, no matter what. I know about the upsides of this approach. Alone, individualized, the student and then young adult have greater latitude to explore the self and self-select new friends to reflect the new you. And this can be great! The people you spend your time with reflect who you are, and also help determine who you will be. By getting new chances to make new friends, we allow Americans to remake themselves, pretty much an entitlement in this culture, as they see fit.
I am not saying this is bad, I am saying this is weird. Such a social system is radically new on the human timeline. It is just so different from the life-long ties to your geography and its people, or before that, your hunter-gatherer kinship group. Technology has made the distances that separate us smaller, the loneliness less enveloping, but it never takes that all away.
Of course the scenario I just talked about is not the common experience, it is just one I am familiar in my life. Most people, even Americans, do not go to college, and many people that go to college do not go far from home, if they even do that. At the same time, the phenomenon of spending one’s whole life within 20 miles, in our time a better measurement might be an hour drive, of the place where you were raised is rare. Many people will come back to their hometown after some time, but not until they’ve spent time elsewhere. The reasons we come back are predictable. We have the strongest, deepest, most fundamental ties to where we were born, not just in our memories but because that’s where our lifelong friends are and that’s where our family is. People come back to flex networks for jobs, or to take care of parents, or because of a bias towards the lifestyle they had as a child moves them to raise their children in the same place.
I am writing this because I have the feeling that for the rest of the week home is moving a little bit closer. In a literal sense this is false. What is happening is that a friend from college is coming to see me. I did not know her until I was 21, so I have no association with her to my childhood or that aspect of my conception of ‘home.’ I do not associate her with New York City at all, so my geographical sense of home is not triggered. She is intricately tied in my mind to an individual who at one time evoked the ‘home is where the heart is’ vision of home in me, but that time is passed.
For some reason merely having a friend over is making me feel like home is moving closer, I’m less isolated. Maybe that is because I will have one more friend at my disposal these days. Maybe it is because I will have to host, and I love hosting, and one hosts at a home.
In the end I cannot say, but, I am excited and happy, which is all I can ask for.