We don’t stand still anymore. We move our homes regularly, make frequent decisions about our future and are constantly seeking what’s next. Today, our lives are lived from one place to the next offering the ground to explore who we are and develop our identities through work, and play. We fall in love in unexpected ways, we have larger playgrounds for self-discovery and we develop strategic coping mechanisms that help us root, re-root, and foster our relationship building over time. We have careers that allow us the privilege of experiencing many new and exciting cultures and, in turn, fill our hearts, minds, and souls with a new kind of knowledge and understanding of who we are and what it means to live and connect with others.
Some may attribute the characteristics of this lifestyle to someone who has a sense of adventure, willingness for change, and who lives globally. But we don’t occupy space simultaneously. We can only move from locality to locality navigating ourselves through each new location. Transit systems, neighborhoods, food landscapes, politics, languages, all become measures of how well we know the communities we occupy. Using these metrics we would be better off defining living ‘globally’ as living ‘multi-locally’. Ensuring we are also looking through the lens of ‘local’ with an awareness of how our actions manifest globally.
Sociologist Erving Goffman uses the metaphor of the theater to explain human social interaction, because, more than ever, we have the space to explore who we are and present who we want to be to the world. Goffman describes the presentation of self in everyday life as follows “an actor performs on a setting which is constructed of a stage and a backstage; the props in both settings direct his action; he is being watched by an audience, but at the same time he is an audience for his viewers’ play.” Living multi-locally, we have different stages, different props, and new audiences that create new action. We experiment and play with particular aspects of our identities and personalities, building the pieces of ourselves that we like the most and leaving behind the pieces and props that don’t seem to fit.
This isn’t easy, there is more pressure to continue education, create a career that is fulfilling and live a happy life, but these things don’t necessarily happen in locations we are familiar with. So how do we equip ourselves with the tools to re-orient our lives when needed? How do we make sure that on our stages of life we never trip backward but instead, fall forward?
Multi-local living can be experienced on both a large scale (between countries or cities) and a small scale (between communities within one city). New York City, San Francisco, Barcelona, Belgium and Toronto are pieced together with multiple neighborhoods and cultures, sub-cultures living together, embodying and manifesting the identities of the participants who have set deep roots and built and shaped their community. The cultural differences between neighborhoods change the way we participate and interact with them, also allowing us the space to learn, experiment, and grow.
Take, for example, two different neighborhoods in New York City: the financial district and the Lower East Side. The financial district is, primarily, a place of business with minimal community. Everyone has somewhere to be, the perfect demographic for a grab-and-go culture. This environment sets a very different stage, with a particular kind of actor who doesn’t have the time to try on different props or experiment with his audience. Instead participants are performing for others, in offices and boardrooms and for a very select group of people. In contrast, the Lower East Side is vibrant, rich in community and creative culture. It’s the kind of place that embraces blurry edges and is open to spontaneity in the everyday. These places are performed on very different stages, but allow us the opportunity to experiment with who we are or who we think we want to be.
No matter the scale, living multi-locally affords us the opportunity to perform and practice aspects of ourselves. Because life is never on hold, re-orienting ourselves to our communities, our opportunities, and pushing away from the traditional paradigm of how our life is ‘supposed’ to go, will help us to have a realistic understanding of how life today is stitched together place to place, experience to experience.
This article appears in MISC Winter 2014, The Balance Issue