I come from nowhere. This is a rather overdramatic statement, but it kinda has depth. Let’s unpack this a bit.
I didn’t grow up in a place that had cultural significance. I grew up in the “respectable working class” suburbs of a large but fairly nondescript city in the non-region that is the East Midlands. Occasionally you meet people who have some passion for the city (Nottingham), but it is rare, and it doesn’t have the cultural oomph of, say, growing up in Liverpool, Glasgow, the East End of London or (for that matter) Surrey (which elevates dullness to a culture). I find it strange when people have a really meaningful link to a place where they grew up—even a place that they haven’t lived in for years. I used to work with someone who, despite living elsewhere for the last 30 years, strongly identified with the Scottish borders where he grew up as his home, and regarded this as important. I can’t say that I do, or perhaps could attribute this to where I grew up.
I grew up without a religion, but with a vague dash of woo. This specifically isn’t to say that I grew up in a hardline atheist environment. I grew up in a family/culture that sat in the vaguely something-out-there, vaguely-agnostic, vaguely culturally-christian kind of nonreligion.
I grew up as an only child in a family that was distant, on both sides, from their extended family. This leaves me with a peculiar, and probably vastly overidealised, notion of a large extended family. For example, I am loosely envious of people who have large, extended (both in terms of family size and length of meeting) family Christmasses—in my family, Christmas has been a few hours on the 25th December with my parents, and by the evening it is back to normal. I understand, though, that people who have this more-or-less uniformly hate it and regard it as a tedious obligation.
I grew up in a “class gap”. I can’t do the “I grew up eating gravel” that some of my proper working class contemporaries can do; equally, I was sufficiently distant (e.g. in terms of cultural capital) from the genuine middle classes. My parents clearly believed themselves to be working class, though we were frequently seen as “posh” by by schoolmates, largely as a result of living in a detached house on the edge of the council estate rather than in one of the council houses.
The importance of gender has always been a mystery to me. I don’t regard gender as being all that important, outside of areas where it is immediately relevant. I’ve always interacted with lots of people both male and female without really noticing. I find the idea of social groups based on gender to be weird—occasionally, I’ll get invited to go along to an event that is male-only and I always refuse these, I can’t understand what people would get from such a group. Similarly with regard to race and ethnicity.
This isn’t to say that I would want to have a strong background, but I sometimes think that it would be good to have something to push against—when I read a book review about (to give a recent example) the difficulties of growing as a lesbian in Jewish North London, I feel that my situation doesn’t give me something to move outward from. I might want to reject my background, but at least I’d like some background to reject.
When I explain this to friends, I often get a reaction that is trying to convince me that I do come from somewhere, e.g. by explaining that I have a community in the form of my academic discipline. This isn’t really about where I come from, though, but about where I have ended up.
That said, I don’t care too much about this. I am vaguely jealous of people who appear to come from somewhere, it adds depth in some indefinable way. Nonetheless, I feel that it conveys an interesting perspective on the world. For example, I find territorial political/religious disputes (Northern Ireland, the Falkland Islands, the middle-east) rather incomprehensible. Why not just come to a pragmatic solution and agree some kind of division? Of course I am not really that naive: I understand rationally, but nonetheless try as I might I cannot emotionally grok the feelings of someone who really believes in this sort of cause. Why, in the end, is it really that important? What must it feel like to really come from somewhere and care about it?
My perspective on such disputes leaves me with an oddly contradictory feeling. On one hand, I feel remarkably naive, like some 5-year old saying “why can’t they just all sort it out”. On the other hand, I feel remarkably mature, like a teacher who is looking down on a class of children having a fight and apportioning equal blame to all with jaded indifference. When I was a kid, I was morally outraged at some of the teachers’ decisions—their lack of interest in trying to explore the reasons why we were e.g. fighting seemed outrageous—but, in retrospect I can see how it looks when you take a perspective that views playground politics as trivial.
Similarly on various kinds of prejudice in society, I feel that I am getting a lack of prejudice “for free”, which feels odd somehow. I like this situation, but I feel that people who have had to work hard to not be racist or sexist somehow have a greater depth of engagement with the issues, whereas I’ve just swanned in without any of these prejudices in the first place.
I wonder what it feels like to really come from somewhere in this sense?