A few years ago when I was back in Dublin, visiting home from Chicago, I got into a mild altercation with an inebriate outside the Hairy Lemon pub on Stephen St. I was taking a photograph of the pub sign, being curious at the time about the large number of establishments in Dublin whose names referred to nature. The Stag’s Head, Cock Tavern, Red Parrot, Cat and Cage, The Greyhound Inn, The Swan Bar, The Bleeding Horse, The Boar’s Head, and so on. The drunk roused from the clumsy enjoyment of a cigarette, lurched towards me and asked, charmingly enough at first, if I was a CIA informant. I am not. Our conversation quickly descended into a request for royalty payments for the use of his image, a short sermon from him on trust, and then unpleasant accusations were made about how “yanks never pay for what they take”. I assured him I was not from the US. He looked me up and down a moment. I was wearing shorts, tee-shirt,and Birkenstock's — the international symbol of rootlessness — and had a Nikon on my shoulder. “Fooking Canadian,” he exclaimed.
I was a tourist in my hometown.
One metric of the geographical complexity of the age we are living in is how long it takes to answer the simple question: Where are you from? For years I would reply, quite simply, that I am from Dublin. Now I notice that I say I am “originally from Dublin” and then mutter something about having lived in Georgia for four years and have been in the Midwest for over a decade. The codicil communicates, I think, that if I am being honest I have been shaped by my long years in the United States, and that I do not quite belong in Ireland any more. More complex still is the case for my sons. One is born in Dublin, the other in Athens, Georgia. They have lived in Evanston, Illinois for longer than anywhere else. Where are they from? How long does it take them to explain?
In 2004 famed humanist geographer Yi-Fu Tuan was invited to talk to an international architecture conference in China. He had not returned to China since he left in 1941 at age ten. He is currently residing in Madison, Wisconsin. The invitation raised questions for him about where he was really from. “I have doubts”, he conceded, “about my identity and where I truly belong." Though he was accustomed, he said, to deflecting questions about his real home by claiming that he was from Earth, he recognized these interrogations about geographical origins are really about our deepest attachments, about where one is most comfortable. Compounding Tuan’s problem about his identity was the poor state of his spoken Chinese. He would have to deliver his talk in English with a translator. As a humanist, language is Tuan’s “working tool” — he should be at home in language. He felt ashamed of his deficits.