What does it mean ‘to belong’?

Street art in the car park of the No Frills supermarket off St Clair Ave W, Toronto

Yesterday morning I squeezed myself onto a busy bus and headed to an immigration symposium hosted by York University in downtown Toronto.

Wherever I am in the world I find public transport fascinating. All those people with whom you share a (sometimes rather too intimate) space and about whom you know absolutely nothing but into whose worlds you sometimes have a fleeting glance…a young Russian woman standing on the subway platform talking to a grainy image of an elderly woman (her mother?), another angrily typing messages into her phone to a man (her partner, brother, son?). On a bus or a train everyone is heading in the same direction with a collective sense of purpose but people’s motivations,  aspirations and experiences of the journey are rarely the same.

For some reason this particular journey made me think about what it means ‘to belong’ and it was less to do with the event to which I was heading than the context in which the journey was taking place.

Toronto is the most linguistically diverse city with around 200 different languages spoken: a babbling brook of Cantonese, Italian, Spanish, Tagalog, Tamil, Mandarin and Portuguese. Yet the fact that I can communicate in my native (and, typically for a Brit, only) language means that although I only arrived in Toronto on Tuesday night I’ve very quickly felt ‘at home’.  For anyone familiar with migration and integration research this will come as no surprise: language is generally accepted to be a critical part of the process of integrating into a new society.

But integration is more than language and language is only one form of communication.

I live my life between the UK, Italy and various other countries where I travel for work, and, occasionally, play. People like David Goodhart, whose work I despise so intensely I refuse to even provide a link to it,  would describe me as an ‘anywhere’…footloose, often urban, socially liberal and university educated. He would also assume that as an ‘anywhere’ I don’t feel a need to belong, to feel connected to the place in which I live and/or work.

He couldn’t be more wrong.

The need ‘to belong’ is a fundamental characteristic of what it means to be human – forming social bonds, connecting with other human beings,  provides us with security but is also a mirror to understanding who we are. But forming social bonds does not rely upon language alone. My Italian is still poor and yet I feel intimately connected to my friends in Piedmonte.  I travel to places in which I am completely unable to communicate verbally but with which I still feel an intimate sense of connection, sometimes as a result of the kindness of strangers, sometimes through the food, the landscape, the music, or for reasons I can’t explain. Not being able to communicate linguistically sharpens the senses in other ways, forces different forms of communication and connection, some of which can be more meaningful and more intense than words alone.

But ‘belonging’ is a two-way process. In order ‘to belong’ others have to want to form relationships with you. This is where it gets complicated.  I am white and highly privileged.  I’m also pretty outgoing, sociable, if you like. It’s not the same for everyone. Plenty of people are not welcomed in the way that I am.

And it wasn’t always the same for me.

I grew up in the remote hills of North Wales the daughter of a hippy family from England at a time when Welsh nationalism was rife.  As a teenager during the 1980s, Meibion Glyndwr carried out 228 arson attacks on English-owned homes in and around the area where I lived. I vividly remember seeing graffiti telling me to ‘go home’ on the way to school. Things weren’t much better when I arrived in the classroom – my unconventional upbringing, poverty and unusual name meant that I was regularly called a ‘pikey’, a ‘gypo’ and worse.

Whilst the idea of ‘belonging’ has undoubtedly become more complex, my point is that is was never easy or straightforward. Different people, categorized in different ways, have always been excluded or ostracized or told that they don’t belong. Society’s need to construct what Stanley Cohen has famously, and wonderfully, written about as folk devils in his book of the same name, was as true in the 1970s as it is now.

The difference now is that people like David Goodhart play to an anti-immigration audience in ways that imply that those who are interested, through choice or otherwise, in finding ways ‘to belong’ that go beyond nationality, or ethnicity, or language are somehow ‘letting the side down’ or undermining a sense of ‘belonging’ rooted primarily in specific and particular geographical place.

But there are other ways ‘to belong’.

Because relationships and social bonds are central to what it means ‘to belong’, my own personal sense of ‘belonging’ changes depending on the context in which I am living/staying and the people that I am with. That is because, like everyone else on the planet, I cannot be reduced to a single aspect of my identity – I am many things, some of which I choose to foreground at particular times or in particular places, some of which are foregrounded by others to include or exclude me in different ways. Does that make me an ‘anywhere’? No. It means I am always ‘somewhere’ because the very thing that makes us human – our desire to connect – travels with me.

“Maybe your country is only a place you make up in your own mind. Something you dream about and sing about. Maybe it’s not a place on the map at all, but just a story full of people you meet and places you visit, full of books and films you’ve been to. I’m not afraid of being homesick and having no language to live in. I don’t have to be like anyone else. I’m walking on the wall and nobody can stop me.”
 Hugo Hamilton, The Speckled People: A Memoir of a Half-Irish Childhood

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