Defining the Local

On Being and (Not) Belonging

The act, or at least the assumption, of being local is a defining element of human identity. Unlike other animals, we characterise ourselves not so much by where we are, but by where we might belong. Being local is about limits instead or exceptions, probabilities instead of possibilities. I grew up on the coast of Queensland in northern Australia, but the locals never forgave me for the audacity of birth in Victoria on the southern coast. My two youngest children were born in Hong Kong, but can never hold Hong Kong passports. One day they may become permanent residents, but never citizens – the Basic Law limits that privilege to ethnic Chinese.

You know, the locals.

Why is it so hard to fit in, to become a local? Language and culture play their roles, but something else is at work. We’re often told that globalisation is redefining the distinctions between the common and the specific, and we even have ludicrous terms like glocal to delineate the interactions between global pressures and local resistance. Seen as a system of competing influences, the world becomes a series of sites at which universal values are reshaped and re-prioritised deep down in the dirt around the grass roots. But beyond that rhetoric of change, insularity is still the norm.

The very notion of being local denies the significance of all else. Location, a more purely physical distinction, speaks of possibility – where something might yet be placed, where something is already placed to create a certain effect and derive certain benefits; in short, a vantage point. You could say that the migrant seeks a new location because the old is no longer substantial, or hospitable. But to be local is to identify that location as a centre, a locus, as the middle of everything immediately important, past, present and in all possible futures.

Milan Kundera once wrote that the substance of life is elsewhere, and he may well have been accurate in describing the lot of the sojourner always looking to return home, wherever else that might be. But what of us who intend no such return, who can’t be local even though we’ve chosen a new location? Where is life for us if it can’t be here, where we are?

It’s a truly puzzling world.

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