There is much written about diasporic nostalgia for a lost homeland in literature, literary theory, and even media and cultural studies scholarship. As a first generation migrant from India to Australia, I also once longed for the smell of hot samosas on a rainy day, but that is only part of the tale.
At a BBQ for international students when I first arrived at the University of Adelaide, I was asked if I thought there was anything in common between my home and host countries. Young but still attuned to the power of clichés, I avoided the obvious answer (that is, cricket). Instead, I offered that I was born in the city of temples, and could almost see it resonated in the city of churches. ‘Interesting’, uttered my interlocutor, and turned away. I wondered if I hadn’t played the role of cultural informant that he was accustomed to. I also hoped that he could see that what I was alluding to had nothing to do with religion. Being an atheist, I wasn’t looking for the echo of Krishna in Christ. As a humanist, I was nostalgic for the possibility of inter-cultural connections that were personal, political, and poetic.
Over time, however, these longings became rather palimpsestic as I moved around Australia – I recall taking every opportunity to visit Adelaide when in Brisbane during my first proper academic stint, marvelling at my capacity for solitude in Brisbane when I moved to Wollongong for a job with more permanent prospects, and then missing the ability to walk to the beach after recently settling in the inner west of Sydney. In this new location, I am grateful to have better samosas at my doorstep than has been the case in over a decade of diasporic existence. More importantly, however, I cherish living amongst cafes, warehouses doubling as art galleries or breweries, music venues with strange names like ‘Camelot’, as well as a string of shop fronts selling everything from okra to cheap HDMI cables.
As my personal nostalgia for an affective belonging to an inter-cultural space begins to fill up, I wonder about others of my generation and those younger than me. Do they only encounter diversity in the shopping centre food court? Do kids of particular ethnic backgrounds implicitly seek their own kind in school backyards and uni lawns? Does the media they produce and consume give them knowledge of the ‘other’, but not understanding?
In the final week of semester, my colleague and I take the opportunity to introduce our students to the idea of ‘media in the city’. They talk about Vivid, and recount numerous stories of random conversations with strangers, if only at music festivals. I am relieved to be discussing engagement beyond any kind of mediated technology. This, according to Richard Sennett in The Fall of the Public Man, was the essence of the ‘cosmopolite’, or the man who moved comfortably in diversity in the 1700s. We may have lost that ‘comfort with discomfort’ with the advent of the industrial revolution and the accompanying unparalleled expansion of cities, but can it be recovered? In fact, isn’t this recovery integral to the revitalisation of the public sphere (in the offline sense), and a manifestation of diversity that goes beyond commoditisation and tokenism?
I feel sheepish, not just as a media studies scholar, but a millennial one at that, to be advocating for the radical potential of real-life rather than virtual conversations. Perhaps this nostalgia for the bygone art of urban encounters, and its contribution to citizenship and diversity, is itself characteristic of my generation. That would certainly explain our aesthetic obsession with vinyl, vintage fashion, and plastic cameras. We even have apps like ‘Hipstamatic’ that turn a digital picture into a square format artefact that looks like you scanned something that came out of your grandmother’s trunk.
However, the question remains if we can turn this nostalgia for the aesthetic of a lost era into something that also has a distinct ethical and political hue? I am certainly not suggesting a return to a time when sexism, racism, homophobia and class-based inequalities were socially and legally acceptable. Rather, I want to gesture towards a more considered look at mechanisms of protest and civic and public life that made social change possible.
Digital media platforms of the present day, and all of their incarnations that are still in incubation can certainly play a role in facilitating change and enabling encounters with diverse strangers. However, we often overemphasise the role of hashtags such as #illridewithyou (that trended in the aftermath of the Sydney siege) or viral YouTube videos like Kony 2012 in generating a sense of community. If we can’t talk to our neighbours, or show solidarity when someone is being racially abused on a train, then no number of Twitter or Instagram followers can help us feel at home.
I was reassured when I recently heard on the radio that a number of acclaimed museums such as MOMA had decided to ban the selfie stick, while still allowing patrons and visitors to take pictures with their phones and cameras. Their argument against it wasn’t necessarily ideological as they reasoned that these new contraptions could damage the artwork. Perhaps we need a similar approach to honour our memories of belonging whilst building a home in a new space and time – that is, share #nofilter photos of one’s current situation with those from the past, and use one’s archive of old places to connect to new sights and sounds. This may not always be a comforting set of tasks to balance, and you may not feel like the woman in the AirBnB commercial who can ‘belong anywhere’. But then, #discomfort may actually become the war dance that causes us to change, individually and collectively.
IMAGE: The author feels no obligation to add a filter this picture she took of Lake Hoan Kiem – a space for quiet and bonding in the middle of bustling Hanoi