Friday, July 8, 2011

What does it mean to “live somewhere”?

                Someone recently asked me “where have you lived?” That is a difficult question to answer.

                How does one define “living somewhere”? There’s a certain point on which everyone seems to agree: signing apartment leases, spending the majority of the year there, having bank accounts and regular supermarket runs and transport cards and such.

                By that initial definition, I’ve lived in three places: New York City, Westchester County, and Chicago. While some very strict definers might take issue with my inclusion of Chicago, here’s my argument:
1.        I spend at least 60% of the year there.
2.        I make supermarket runs, pharmacy runs, day-excursions, etc. out of Chicago like any normal resident, and I’ve done that for ten months. My flights are round-trips from Chicago.
3.        My checking account, credit card, organizational memberships, and so forth are aligned to my Chicago address.
4.        I filed my federal taxes from Chicago.
5.        My official registration with at least two governmental organizations for my address is my dorm: the IRS for the US, and the South African government’s registry of citizens abroad (I have dual citizenship).
Most importantly:
6.        I’ve started thinking of Chicago as my current definition of “home.”
I live in Chicago.

NYC and Westchester are pretty non-controversial. I lived in New York for seven years and the suburbs for over ten years. That’s not up for argument.

But then there’s this definition used by many entities:
A person with a home, house, place of abode, place of habitation, dwelling or place where one actually lived for a consecutive period of thirty (30) days or more prior to the date of application. (This particular definition is for Idaho medical assistance.)

I have spent a consecutive period of 30 days in a place of abode in two more places: Berkeley, CA and Shanghai, China.  (I’ve also done a homestay program in Beijing, but that was 27 days.)

I’ve come to consider these places as “living, but.” It was temporary – a few weeks – but I did normal living things there: I made market runs in Shanghai with my host family and I had a Chinese cell phone; I got a temporary gym membership with my Berkeley address and became known for my order (small decaf and toasted blueberry muffin) at a local coffeeshop. I was registered as a “resident” with the Shanghai Police. But it was still quite temporary. But I guess I’ve lived in Shanghai and Berkeley.

My mother has the oddest definition. “It’s when I become blasé about the local dairy packaging.” I remember when we moved to the suburbs, my mother was really excited about the new branding on the milk. (She’s lived in Johannesburg, five or six cities in Israel, New Jersey, New York City, and Westchester by all conventional definitions, and if you use this packaging thing, add Amsterdam). But it works for her! It doesn’t work for me. I am blasé about food packaging in general.

This is my definition:   
I have a continuous, full, rich psychological definition of a patch of land at least seven acres in size, in which I know basically every nook and cranny, in which I can navigate blind, in which I feel extremely comfortable. In New York, it’s a patch of the Upper West Side that has since gentrified enormously (the Palestinian grocers got replaced by a pricy fusion place, the sketchy diner is now a Yuppie Thai place). In the town my family is in, it’s my block, the blocks surrounding and my walk to the high school (almost half a square mile). In Chicago, it’s the southeastern corner of Hyde Park and campus. In Berkeley, it’s a patch between Durant on the north and Dwight on the south, College on the east and Telegraph on the west. In Shanghai, it’s a small neighborhood just south of Hongqiao Airport. The definition includes the culture to an extent (but it takes decades to learn a culture), but also includes the creation of a psychological normalcy in that place: it’s not a hotel and its transience, it’s a bedroom and a kettle and the light through the window at 6:30am.

I’ve lived-lived in New York, Scarsdale, and Chicago. I’ve “lived, but” in Berkeley and Shanghai. I’ve marked those five cities on my Google Plus account.

Other friends of mine have “lived, but” in places too. My friend Hillel is “living, but” in Santiago, Chile (and has lived on both sides of the equator!).  A friend of mine has “lived, but” several times in four countries; another friend, Lizzy, “lived, but” in Pune, India (and lists that as her Skype hometown!)

In the end, I told this person: “New York, Westchester, Chicago by most definitions; the Bay Area and Shanghai by some.” They stared at me like a blank deer. Alas.

Living places is a spectrum of experience. A house for six weeks can be a home forever, an apartment of twenty years can be a morbid exile. Someone I know called her Moroccan host family’s house “my home in Morocco;” a Cuban exile I once met said “I live in Havana, but I’m temporarily stuck in Miami.” It’s how you work it.

So, I ask: how do you define living somewhere?

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