The Ties that Stretch and Bind


A few days ago, I talked via Skype with a Peruvian friend who, two weeks after I last saw him in his hometown, was settling in for a master’s programme in Europe.  He seemed to be finding his feet, though rather lamenting the lack of ingredients to do Peruvian cooking.  To add some turbulence to his first days in this strange new setting, he was being urged by his girlfriend of the last two years–a graduate of an élite American university–to stay abroad after his degree rather than going back to Peru.  Either America or Europe, but nowhere else, would be quite acceptable for the sort of future that her own experiences suggested would be best for him.

In ways that I might have expected, my friend was quite unhappy with such a prospect.  He has always had a strong sense of mission and social obligation.  It was no surprise to hear him say that his first impression of Europe was that, compared to Peru, it had no need of him.  He could do far more good by going back to his hometown after finishing his degree a year and a half from now.  For him, even if not for most people in his situation, the comforts of the developed world would never outweigh that.

The pull of his family was also crucial.  I have long known his many relatives–so many that his grandmother did not know right away when I asked her over dinner last month how many grandchildren she now had.  They are one generation removed from the impoverished countryside.  Through all that recent decades have thrown at them, including killings and disappearances during the civil war of the 1980s and 1990s, they have shown a genuine decency and resilience.  They have gone from mud huts to professional jobs, keeping the old integrity of the village along the way.  Many a time, I have seen my friend doting on his little seven-year-old half brother, picking him up from school, cooking for him, and keeping his classmates’ junk food at bay.  Staying abroad and settling into some sort of upwardly mobile immigrant comfort would go against the grain.  He insisted that his family needed not only his financial support, and that quite desperately, but also his presence and his affection.  It would hardly do to weaken those ties now and suddenly choose a different future.

A few days before talking with this friend, I had another conversation filled with the same sensibilities.  I was passing through America and, as part of catching up with people, dined with an Iraqi I have known for nearly a decade.  He left Iraq even before Saddam fell, and has since been working as an engineer in New Jersey.  He makes a decent enough living, but I know that most of it has gone to supporting his relatives, including his mother and younger brother after they took refuge in Syria.  They have written off the idea of going back to Iraq, despite a comfortable and distinguished background there.  One of his brothers-in-law narrowly escaped being torn to shreds by flying glass when a truck bomb went off at the UN headquarters in Baghdad in 2003; he happened to be retrieving a box from under his desk at that instant.  A cousin was kidnapped and, even after a ransom payment, was murdered by some of the thugs that Saddam had released from prison right before the invasion.

My Iraqi friend updated me on the last few months.  He had finally put a down payment on a house, and was spending his thirsty early evenings during Ramadan re-sealing the decaying driveway in the late summer heat.  Perhaps as well he had had the foresight to buy the house, because his relatives had got their refugee applications accepted and had joined him at last.  He now had eight people living with him, crammed into the rooms he was trying to fix up.  Much like his years of sacrifice before, this was for him just the natural and decent thing to do.  I could tell he was exhausted, but that he was determined to make this work.  He had already made clear to his younger brother that he would not hear of him taking less than challenging classes at the local high school.

My Peruvian and Iraqi friends do live out many of the virtues and commitments that come up often in Porch discussions.  Their experiences of poverty, civil war, tyranny, and occupation fall out of the usual range of comfort in today’s America, to be sure.  But there is much to recognise in their outlook.

They are worth meeting for more than just that reason, however.  Perhaps because of the summer travel season, in which many Americans head out on the road to visit relatives, FPR has lately had some lively debates over family ties, loyalty, and distance, starting with the piece by Jason Peters on the hypermobility that deprives children of grandparents and other extended family.  Fortuitously, I got to reading such essays and the comments they provoked at the same time I was talking with my friends from elsewhere in the world about the pressures they face.

That these challenges arise on an intercontinental scale is obvious.  That the sense of obligation to extended family is stronger, on average, in places like Peru and Iraq than in suburban (or even rural) America will probably surprise few of us either.  How my friends think about it, and the solutions that people like them devise over these even vaster differences, may be instructive nonetheless.

For one thing, neither of these very long moves was for the reasons that get indicted so often, and so rightly, on FPR.  Neither of these two friends moved abroad for narrow career advancement or for some sort of self-absorbed itinerant experience.  They were not trying to escape the ties that bind.  One moved to get out of a Baathist hellhole and to pave the way for getting his family out too.  The other moved, for a definite period, to gain a tool kit that he is determined to put to use where he came from.  There is something hearteningly unmodern about both of them.

At the same time, what drives most of their choices does suggest that Porchers often frame the problem of modern uprootedness rather too narrowly, as an abandonment of place.  This is perhaps understandable.  A front porch is a place, after all.  If there is less going on on front porches than a couple of generations ago, then one obvious reason is that too many people have walked away from porches on which they might be sitting, drinking lemonade, and talking.

But we should be careful not to reduce the problem to place and movement.  Scratch the surface, and I think for both my friends, one would find that loyalty to place is not the core issue.  While they have never yet been to any of the same countries, I could well imagine them meeting, somewhere, sometime, down the road.  My Iraqi friend is fairly widely travelled, speaks three languages, and has other relatives scattered over Europe and elsewhere.  He is settled in America now, and grateful for the refuge it has provided him, but I could see him moving elsewhere in future.  My Peruvian friend does want to go back to his hometown, to be sure.  He has a deep sense of his roots there and in the nearby countryside.  His mother and grandmother make a point of speaking Quechua to the children, even though urban Peruvians are more likely than not to disdain them for doing so.  But things are more complicated than just a sense of loyalty to a place and a culture.  My friend’s mission is ultimately about creating a more just society.  I sense that he would want to do that anywhere, as a human calling, and as circumstances and possibilities dictated.  Going back to where he came from is a natural choice simply because it is somewhere in dire need of help and because he is well situated to have an impact there.

To put it in terms that they might not use themselves, I suspect that their deeply held commitments–and the virtues that come out in their choices–are less about loyalty to place than they are about loyalty to people and, for at least one of them, a sense of mission.

This does put in a rather different light the sensibilities about loyalty, belonging, and extended family that so many Porchers rightly hold.  For many, perhaps most, people, those sensibilities are properly bound up with place, with community in the usual sense.  But they need not always be so, or at least not in the same way.  My Iraqi friend’s loyalty to his family has very little to do with Iraq as a place.  Even my Peruvian friend, all else being equal, would probably be content to move his closest relatives elsewhere if circumstances required it.  I am sure his mother would insist on speaking Quechua to her children in Europe, too.

I know that in framing this as a matter of ties to people rather than places, I may invite scepticism.  It might seem I would say just such a thing, given my own habits.  I was amused, and perhaps tweaked a bit, by Barron YoungSmith’s piece at Slate on why social responsibility is at odds with long distance relationships.  I have been told I have a shameful carbon footprint because of my now six years of seeing my very patient better half, a bit more than a quarter of the time on average, on three (soon to be four) continents.  Matt Weber’s comment on the Peters essay, in which he suggested that the hypermobile move their parents, also struck a chord.  My now retired mother spends about a third of the year in China with me.  One of my American colleagues apparently thinks this arrangement odd.  More than once, he ran into her here in our building and exclaimed in a rather sour tone, “What? Are you here again?!”  I wonder why we must live in an age in which such is a natural reaction.

The challenges of keeping up one’s personal ties across vast distances are not few.  They require imagination and sacrifice, as my Peruvian and Iraqi friends could explain equally well.  No doubt there are better and worse ways of doing so.  But there are real virtues involved, which we perhaps lose sight of how to cultivate if we only lament the weakening of ties to place.

The conditions for doing so are no straightforward matter, either.  It requires some financial resources, though fewer than critics might assume.  Advances in technology also cut both ways.  One of Sigmund Freud’s most remembered quotes has nothing to do with warped psychology.  It has to do with how the modern world gives and takes away at the same time.  “If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice; if travelling across the ocean by ship had not been introduced, my friend would not have embarked on his sea-voyage and I should not need a cable to relieve my anxiety about him.”

Just as my Peruvian friend can update me through Skype on the travails of the moment, he can also keep in daily contact with his brother and swiftly solve problems such as the wilful little creature’s refusal one day to go to school.  When it comes to being physically present, one might make a case that the effect of technology is U-shaped.  Two hundred years ago, the problem of mobility barely arose for most people.  Later, railways and steamships may have made it worse.  It would have been nearly impossible fifty years ago to keep up a six year long distance relationship, or to have my mother with me in China for a third of the year.  Indeed, when my mother briefly entertained the idea of going to Australia in her twenties, the distance from my grandmother, who surely would not have emigrated with her, stopped the idea.  Steamships and relatively cheap flights represent different eras, with different implications for what is possible.  This is not to downplay the difficulties and tradeoffs.  But we should be careful not to associate virtues with place alone, and in doing so neglect how one can best deal with distance.

Now in putting things this way, I do not want to suggest that place is unimportant.  I might venture that for most people, most of the time, in a well ordered society, these challenges should not arise.  Place, identity, and belonging–with all the distinct virtues that attend them–would go together.  Moreover, a place-based sense of community of the sort that most Porchers embrace does have one advantage.  It allows for more random, less selective, perhaps even more diverse encounters with neighbours in all walks of life.  I am sure if I were living two generations ago, in a small rural setting in England or America, I might have much more sustained familiarity with a normal range of people.  How one gets to know plain folk on the ground, during one’s wanderings, has a lot to do with how one approaches the matter.  I should like to think that, with the right effort, I can do that in better rather than worse ways here in Nanjing, or in the Peruvian villages I know, or elsewhere.  But I am also the first to admit that that familiarity lacks some dimensions that can only come with being somewhere year-round, and year after year.  That is a loss that I can only regret, whatever I might partly gain in other ways and other settings.

But there is more than one mode of flourishing, even in traditional societies as we look back centuries.  Perhaps long distance ties to people were rather rarefied most of the time.  Perhaps only a minority of people, like the clerics of old, had callings that demanded mobility more than, or along with, roots.  The horizons, and virtues, associated with an attachment to people and a calling were real enough, however.  How might we fit them together with what we more often discuss?  To neglect them, by conflating them with the uprooted self-absorption that all too often prevails in today’s society, will merely make a proper cultivation of those virtues even less likely among the nomads of our time.

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Adam K. Webb grew up in England, Spain, and the United States. He is now Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Hopkins-Nanjing Centre, an overseas campus of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He has authored three books, including Beyond the Global Culture War (2006), A Path of Our Own: An Andean Village and Tomorrow's Economy of Values (2009), and Deep Cosmopolis: Rethinking World Politics and Globalisation (2015). His interests range broadly across political thought, and efforts to recreate room for traditions and liberty on the emerging global landscape. He divides his time among urban China, rural England, and other corners of the world.

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