Home and Identity

Relationships across geographical borders

by Kali Place, guest writer


Over spring break, I accompanied my friend Hillary on the 6U bus to uptown Minneapolis. We had been best friends since we were five, so when she told me that she and her boyfriend, Aaron, were considering moving to Colorado, I was all for it. She shared my excitement but feared what implications the move could have for her relationship: 

“Almost all of my family is in Colorado, but Aaron has no one there. What if he feels alone? I’m worried that it could cause distance between us, but he doesn’t seem concerned about it. I don’t think that he’s taken the time to consider all of the potential complications. He just wants to go for it…” 

Her anxiety was not unprecedented. Close relationships often function more seamlessly when both people share a common home. When the dynamic shifts and one enters another’s home, the relationship can become fragile. Although Hillary and Aaron are possibly the happiest couple I know, the move could change their relationship. Hillary had family in Colorado, and she would be moving to her second home. Aaron, on the other hand, lacked the roots that his girlfriend had in the state. Therefore, their move could resemble a visit. He would enter an area that was familiar to her, yet unknown to him. 

Crossing onto another’s turf can be an invasive act. In his article, “Home and Identity,” scholar Madan Sarup explains that home “seems to be tied in some way to the notion of identity—the story we tell ourselves and which is also the story that others tell of us.” Geographical location can be key, as “identities are not free-floating; they are limited by borders and boundaries.” The connection between one’s home and one’s sense of self can be exacerbated when the home changes location. Most college students know the challenge of being uprooted from their place of origin and starting a new life somewhere else. The majority of students arrive at CC without pre-established social groups. Lacking the usual support systems, new students can feel unstable, which can account for all those black-out drunk nights during first-year, as well as the tendency to bounce between friend groups. Eva Hoffman, a Polish writer and academic, immigrated to the United States in 1959. In her autobiography, “Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language,” she writes, “It’s a problem of identity. Many Americans feel they don’t have enough of it. They often feel worthless, or they don’t know how they feel?... maybe it’s because everyone’s always on the move and undergoing enormous changes, so they lose track of who they’ve been and have to keep tabs on who they’re becoming all the time.” When one leaves a familiar place, one can lose self-assurance. 

Earlier this semester, my old friend, Jonah, called me to inform me that he was coming to visit Colorado College. He did not ask for my permission, yet assumed I would welcome him with open arms. He justified his visit by claiming that he was coming to see me. Throughout his entire stay, however, I couldn’t shake the sense that he was not here for me at all. His words did not coincide with his behavior. The fact that our relationship was rocky before the visit only complicated the issue. Jonah had been romantically interested in me, but I had not reciprocated his sentiments. Despite my efforts to openly communicate my feelings to him, he interpreted my interests in other men as a personal attack against him. 

In Colorado, I tried to neglect the knot in the pit of my stomach whenever I saw him. I knew he was not happy with his life, and I felt an obligation towards him. But his behavior was intrusive.  He began an intimate relationship with one of my best friends at CC. She and I were entangled in a conflict that resonated between us even after he returned to Minneapolis. 

I did not understand my anger with Jonah until my therapist gave me insight into the significance of his behavior. I had struggled through the alienation offirst-year when I didn’t know where I belonged. I didn’t know who to trust. Towards the end of my sophomore year, I felt at home at CC. I was happy. Jonah came into my space, appropriating my home as his own. He did not respect the efforts I made to incorporate CC into my identity. His actions diminished the trust that our friendship was built upon.

On the other hand, guests can be vulnerable when they come into others’ homes. Social norms vary from place to place, and visitors can be ignorant of community expectations. For this reason, residents might feel offended by strangers who come to visit, and may even act out against them. Sarup explains that “in a sense, the foreigner is a ‘symptom’: psychologically, s/he signifies the difficulty we have of living as an other and with others.” Visitors who do not comply with social norms seem to call those norms into question. Residents may punish visitors’ deviations in order to uphold the supremacy of their own way of life. 

In 1973, my mom experienced alienation as a visitor. She was 18 and wanted to get out of Minnesota as soon as possible. Her older sister, Sonia, had established a home in Key West, Florida. My mom moved in with her for the summer and was thrown into her sister’s social circle. Sonia’s friends were considerably older than my mom. They ridiculed my mother for rejecting their offers to smoke weed and take other drugs, and probably felt that my mother undermined their lifestyle with her healthy habits. In response, her sister's friends offered her a brownie, which she consumed only because she did not realize there was weed in it. 

When I asked her about this experience, she explained to me that “I didn’t want to do drugs, but I couldn’t stand up for myself, either. I didn’t really work through it, and it stuck with me. I didn’t know how to handle the situation, so I didn’t handle it.” Her sister’s response only made her Key West experience worse. Sonia didn’t call her friends out for drugging my mom. My mom said that “It was all just a game…It planted a little seed of resentment in me towards my sister. It was a precursor to other experiences with her where she doesn’t want to talk about conflict.” Sonia was her only potential source of familiarity and comfort, but she did nothing to give my mother a safe experience. Visitors can be targets of residents and may not have the tools to cope with unexpected conflicts. 

As long as individuals understand the fragile nature of relationships as geographical borders are transgressed, visits can actually be beneficial for both people involved. When my mom visited me at CC last year, she finally grasped why I had moved so far away from home. She gained an appreciation for the direction in which my life was heading and was able to fully endorse my decisions. The experience fostered trust between us and reinforced our personal bond. As long as people respect the personal boundaries of their hosts and consciously work to comfort their guests, personal visits can strengthen relationships. 

I understand that Hillary and Aaron may have the chance for a positive future in Colorado. But because she has connections here and he does not, their move will create interpersonal dynamics similar to those of a visit. This challenge will test the strength of their relationship and their ability to foster a mutual home together in Colorado.