My PhD started as an examination of a community, over time, who used their cultural and social capital to negotiate their socio-economic status. I use oral histories and memoirs as data to explore the change in status and the underlying strategies used in building capital. As I continue the data collection process, my thesis adapts in response to new understanding or ideas I may discover. I hope to use this blog to explore some of the changes within my topic, but also to understand my own sense of identity and belonging to the community I study. In Border Country, Williams describes the return ‘home’ of Matthew Price, an academic, from a Welsh, working class background. The book details the internal sense of ‘exile’ that Matthew feels and his disconnectedness from the rhythms of life in the village and from his parents and old friends. On reading the book, it struck me that the experience of a working class boy from a small village in rural Wales, going off to university in England echoed both my experiences as a student, going from an Asian to a Western city for university and that of the informants in my PhD study, leaving a small town for the large cities and foreign countries, where their culture and appearance marked them distinct. Identity and belonging become mutable, as you travel further away from the world you know, carrying the weight of family and community aspirations and the inheritance of their memories and constructed identities.
Crossing borders requires a continuous re-negotiation of identity and an acceptance of a position as an exile. I spent seventeen years as Said’s exotic, oriental ‘other’ in a predominantly White society, balancing the difference between my inheritance of cultural norms and values with the new and alien of my adopted home. My skin colour, name and religion defined my difference, yet my language, education and manners allowed me to fit in. As a great grand child of migrants and as a migrant myself, this inheritance is a complex one as there is the nostalgia and longing for the culture, society and identity I hold in my place of birth as well as in the imagined homeland of my ancestors. I inscribe my sense of identity as a dialectical narrative of belonging between the construct of ‘home’ and ‘not home,’ creating a new position of ‘sometimes home.’ In September 2010, after seventeen years, I returned home, or at least to my imagined idea of home, looking forward to belonging without the constant attention and conciliation of my identity. Like Dorothy, I believed “there’s no place like home” sufficient to allow a return to ‘my’ world. Yet as Rushdie wrote, “the imagined world became the actual world, as it does for us all, because the truth is that once we have left our childhood places and started out to make our own lives, armed only with what we have and are, we understand that the real secret of the ruby slippers is not that “there’s no place like home,” but rather that there is no longer such a place as home: except, of course, for the homes we make, or the homes that are made for us, in Oz, which is anywhere and everywhere, except the place from which we began.”
Learning or re-learning how to fit in took time, and my rusty Malay returned as did my ability to appropriate the right social language and mores in the different groups of people I mixed with. I continued to feel much like that proverbial square peg with old school-friends. In contrast, from the beginning, with my family, while I had changed, it seemed that my place and identity within the family had altered to accommodate the ‘new’ me without apparent effort. In beginning my PhD research, I’ve found another place where fitting in is not a challenge. The community my research focuses on negotiate belonging and identity fluidly and are able to return despite years of exile. As a ‘legacy’ of the community and despite years of living abroad, they welcomed me and actively engaged with my research, offering themselves as subjects and putting me in contact with others who could help. In Border Country, Matthew finds his ‘return’ to be complicated and flawed. The ‘myth of return’ featured in much of diaspora and/or migrant literature I read. For the Indian diaspora, lately the debate emerged in the form of an article in the New York Times and the response by Chetan Bhagat, a writer. Return is problematic due to expectations, and this desire of return to our idea of what ‘home’ was and therefore, to our exiled selves, what it should be. Perhaps the answer of why some can go back and many can’t is in our management of our expectations and willingness to continue in flux, negotiating our hybridised identities to suit time, place and people. Alternatively, it may relate to the amount of cultural capital or ‘habitus’ that some retain in contrast to assimilation in the new society they now belong to. Thinking about all of this means some changes to my methodology and having to draft up questions for semi-structured interviews but it potentially may add to the knowledge in my thesis and it will definitely make it more interesting to read. I am too early on in the process of PhDing to know if this will end up in the thesis but it is making the research process more personally enriching. If you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend Border Country, not just for thesis purposes but because it was a book I found hard to put down.