Towards a Stained-Glass Home: Diaspora and the Goodness of WashU
WashU Student 1: Hi! What’s your name?
WashU Student 2: Hi! I’m (insert name here).
WashU Student 1: Cool! And where is home for you?
We’ve all experienced this routine exchange. It happens so often that we make jokes about half the world being from “a suburb of Chicago.” We all know the drill: WashU Student 2 responds with a location, and then WashU Student 1 says something like, “Oh, what high school did you go to? Do you know (insert name here)?” Or perhaps WashU Student 1 will say something like, “Oh, I’ve never been there before. What’s it like?” If there’s a sufficient spark between the two students, the conversation may meander through different topics before the two students are split back into their individual life paths by the numerous responsibilities that WashU so generously ladles out to all its students.
There’s a reason that our greetings all begin like this – our homes define us. Canadian geographer Edward Relph says in his book, Place and Placelessness:
“There is for virtually everyone a deep association with and consciousness of the places where we were born and grew up, where we live now, or where we have had particularly moving experiences. This association seems to constitute a vital source of both individual and cultural identity and security.”
Many of us have developed what psychologists call “place attachment,” or an emotional bond to a location that is wrapped up in the people, places, and memories that reside there. And yet, as WashU students, many of us have consciously chosen to move away from the places we once called home, which leaves us in a quite confusing stage of life. A 2016 study by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that over 70% of undergraduate students experience homesickness in their first year. We long for belonging and rest and security, and when that is stripped away from us, we are deeply uncomfortable.
Home is important. But for many of us, the concept of “home” is not so straightforward as the place where we grew up and where we now long to return. For instance, what happens if you are scattered from that home and you cannot go back?
The word “diaspora,” comes from the Greek διασπείρω meaning “to disperse” or “to scatter,” and it was first used around 250 BCE when the first five books of the Hebrew Bible were translated into Greek. Initially, it referred to the scattering of the Jewish people among the nations, and it remains heavily associated with the Babylonian exile. For almost 2000 years, the “Diaspora” strictly indexed the scattering of the Jewish people.However, after World War II, against a background of global decolonization and heightening transnationalism, “diaspora” broadened to include the forceful scattering of non-Jewish people groups. Notably, the “African Diaspora” as a lexical concept, in reference to the forceful removal, dispersal, and oppression of black bodies from Africa, has helped articulate transnational blackness and generational double consciousness. Moreover, while the word literally means “to scatter” from a homeland, it is often connoted with an “impossibility of return” to this homeland. Stuck in a foreign land, marginalized and culturally erased, diasporic people long for a seemingly mythic, ancestral homeland that defines who they have been. And because they now perpetually exist in a state of not-home, it defines them.
In more ways than one, this perpetual state of not-home defines WashU students. Many of us come from diasporic narratives rooted in our ethnic heritage and thus wonder if home is even achievable. Some of us have no intention of returning to the places that we would otherwise call home, leaving us in an awkward, “in-between-homes” stage of life. Some of us may simply resent the places that we are from, or perhaps we have lived in so many places that we do not have an attachment to any place at all. Regardless of our heritage, upbringing, or plans for the future, all of us have chosen to live in this unfamiliar university environment that is certainly not the environment in which we grew up (even if you grew up just a mile down the road). Nevertheless, whether or not we claim a home, don’t we all want a place that we can rest and belong?
Here’s the crux of my argument – I don’t think such a place exists. I don’t think a true, abiding home exists for any of us. Our generation is too multicultural, we hold too many different identities, we cling to too many different values, and we have too many diverse experiences for any one place to capture and define us. About our generation, travel writer Pico Iyer offers some insight:
“They have one home associated with their parents, but another associated with their partners, a third connected maybe with the place where they happen to be, a fourth connected with the place they dream of being, and many more besides. And their whole life will be spent taking pieces of many different places and putting them together into a stained-glass whole. Home for them is really a work in progress.”
Which is to say, home for us is continuously being defined and constructed. Diaspora, for some of us with a capital “D” and for others of us with a lowercase “d”, is part of the human experience. No matter how much we identify with the home of our past, people and experiences change us. Resultingly, our time at WashU may change us just enough so that our past home cannot capture us as it once did. In the same way, the future places that we choose to settle cannot completely capture our pasts. I imagine as we flit across locations throughout our lives, we will always wonder if there is deeper rest and deeper belonging to be had elsewhere.
Nevertheless, rather than despairing that we will never find a home, I assert that we should rejoice in the echoes of home that we discover along the way. In my four years at WashU, I have felt more “not-home” than I have ever felt in my life. But in my time here I have also experienced a fullness and conviction that I have never experienced before, and I want those parts to define my ever-evolving stained-glass home. So please excuse the meandering musings of a self-absorbed senior as I reflect on my four years at this institution. I hope that you might see yourself in parts of my story, and I hope that you would be encouraged to cling to those echoes of goodness when it is your turn to graduate and leave WashU.
If home is the place that we are from, then four years at WashU has made me wonder if I can ever belong in any one place. Being half Filipino and half white, I struggle to claim anywhere as my own. My hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee isn’t exactly a bastion of Filipino culture. Every time I return, I am reminded of how “other” I am and how different some of my values are. At the same time, it’s not as if I’m any less “other” in the Philippines, a country that I have only visited once. During summer 2016 RA training, I saw video footage of native Filipinos being displayed in an exhibit in Forest Park at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. I experienced a strange alienation—I felt shame for my paternal heritage as a white oppressor, and I also felt shame that my mother’s homeland was colonized. How can I find belonging in the white world of East Tennessee when the oppression of the Filipino people is ignored or entirely unknown? There, my “Filipino-ness” is reduced to “Asian-ness,” and thus a critical part of my identity is erased. Still, neither can I truly claim the oppression of the Filipino people as my own, for I do not live the nation’s current economic reality, and every time I talk with my cousins in Manila and see the disparity in our resources and opportunities, white guilt plagues me. How can I belong in either of these physical places?
If home is the place that we are from, then four years at WashU has given me a window into what this lasting home might look like. It may not be the place that I was born, but WashU has allowed me to more genuinely express my identities than any other place I’ve known: in the celebration of Asian culture through an Asian interest a cappella group; in the critical confrontation of white privilege through Residential Life and humanities classes; in the candid conversations with friends who may not understand what it means to be half-Filipino from East Tennessee, but at least they’re listening to me try to figure it out, and suddenly, I don’t feel so “other” anymore. Nor do I feel completely isolated, even though I am alone, during those 1:00 am study sessions in B Stacks, because I realize that half the university is still awake studying, and I think that maybe it’s not just me against the world, but at least it’s me and half of WashU against the world.
If home is found in the people that love and understand us, then four years at WashU has shown me that relationships are fleeting. Four years of separation from my family in Knoxville (and twenty-two years of separation from my family in Manila) adds up: a sister is emotionally neglected while I’m worrying about a Calculus II grade; a brother falls in and out and back in love while I’m bouncing back and forth between career fairs; Dad grieves the loss of both his parents while I’m complaining about how little sleep I’ve gotten the last three weeks. Family is always family, but sometimes I am afraid that I have missed too much to understand them – even worse, that I have missed too much to deserve them. For their part, I am afraid that I have experienced too much of a different world at WashU for my family to understand who I am anymore.
Sure, I have made friends here that understand me in ways that my family cannot—but how am I supposed to find rest and belonging, to find home, in relationships that may expire upon graduation? Already, many of my best friends have graduated years before me, leaving me behind at WashU. While those relationships haven’t terminated, they certainly have not been dependable enough for me to rest my heart in them. We are here at WashU for such an insignificant amount of time that many of us may be afraid to emotionally commit to the communities we find ourselves in. Because of this, friendships can sometimes feel painfully temporary.
If home is found in the people that love and understand us, then four years at WashU has shown me that community can arise around almost anything, and it has a curious way of reeling people in and making them belong. In residential halls, I have seen first-year students who are arbitrarily placed on the same floor develop rich, lasting friendships. In the same way, consider the cultural shows of Diwali, LNYF, Black Anthology or Carnaval. These productions are excellence embodied, beautiful mosaics of diverse individuals coming together to create something greater than themselves. I have found a deep level of peer-to-peer belonging in my little communities smattered around campus: in the 10:00 pm – midnight a cappella rehearsals, in the 1:30 am conversations with residents about political economy, in the pre-brunch Saturday morning Bible studies. Yes, communities may be temporary, and relationships may not last forever, but the goodness of the human nature behind them is permanent. It is permanent, and it is good, and it is woven deep into the DNA of WashU. Having received a taste of how powerful community can be, I cannot help but chase this feeling beyond graduation and hope that my true home might be defined by it.
If home is where the heart is, my heart has been troubled every single day of the last four years at the injustices that persist in this city and in this institution. My graduating class came to WashU in August of 2014, just weeks after the murder of Michael Brown on a street in Ferguson less than 20 minutes away from our campus. Most of us, myself included, barely batted an eyelid at this because we were so consumed with our WashU lives. Fast forward to the Stockley verdict of 2017 and it seems that little has changed in the city that we are supposed to call home for our undergraduate years. Moreover, the opportunity gaps between residents of different St. Louis neighborhoods is sobering. The Greater St. Louis area boasts some of the finest private schools in the nation, and the School District of Clayton is ranked the number four public school district in the nation. Meanwhile, St. Louis Public Schools lost its accreditation in 2007 because it was failing its students so badly and only regained its credentials in 2017. The Delmar Divide persists as one of the most striking examples of racial and socioeconomic division in the world. Not that injustice is isolated to the city that we live in — this past year, we’ve heard numerous members of our WashU community speak out against a bureaucratic and invalidating Title IX process that allows too many perpetrators of sexual violence to walk freely around our campus. How am I supposed to find a home in all of this? My heart is heavy just thinking about it all.
If home is where the heart is, these last four years tell me that home is being surrounded by passionate, convicted people who fight against injustices, no matter the consequences. What drives students to protest racial injustices in the DUC, in BD, and on the streets of the Delmar Loop? What drives students to pursue careers that might begin to untangle the systems of oppression that make St. Louis (and other cities across the nation) such an inequitable place to live? What drives graduating seniors to take a final stand against the Title IX process by wearing red tape on their caps as they walk across stage to receive their diplomas? There are students at WashU who have convictions, who have visceral beliefs about justice that demand action no matter the consequences. Surely such conviction is worth investigating, and surely I want my home to be defined by those people who fight against what is wrong in the world. I have seen this in my peers at WashU. Just as I cannot unsee it, I must also seek it, even as I leave the very place where I was awakened to it.
I hope you can see enough of yourself in my musings that you agree with me when I say that WashU is not our home. We exist in a place where we work and wander, wondering when we might truly rest. We are scattered from our homes, stuck in a foreign land, children of diaspora; sometimes I fear that we have been separated from our true home for so long that return is impossible. Even still, do we not feel the longing for rest and belonging in our hearts? What are we to make of that?
It seems that the best we can do right now is to follow Pico Iyer’s advice and piece together our own stained-glass homes, constructed from the goodness we experience in the various places that we pass through. But what if, just maybe, each of those pieces of goodness are echoes of a lasting home?
In the Christian narrative, God promises to one day “make new” all the brokenness that we experience in the world today. He promises to establish a kingdom, a home, where we might finally find rest and belonging. That renewal process began thousands of years ago with this person named Jesus, and as followers of Jesus, we can take part in the renewal of the world. C.S. Lewis said in his apologetic tract Mere Christianity, “If you find yourself with a desire that no experience in this world can satisfy, then the most probable explanation is that you were made for another world.” I long for a true home where I can rest and belong in a deep, abiding way that enfolds and transcends all my identities, experiences, values, and relationships. I haven’t found that yet, but I long for it with all my heart. While I may never find it in my lifetime, I can fight to renew the broken homes that I do find myself in, and I can take the pieces of goodness I experience with me. In doing so, I approach the home that God promises will be. Let’s not ignore the echoes of God’s heart that reverberate throughout this place. They just might be signposts to a true home.
Lord, thank you for revealing Your heart to me through WashU. Let me not rest until I rest in You.
“Now we know that if the early tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling […] so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” – 2 Corinthians 5:1-2, 4
1 Relph, E. (1976). Place and Placelessness. Northwestern University: Pion, p.43.
2 Chow, Kenny, and Mick Healey. 2008. “Place Attachment And Place Identity: First-Year Undergraduates Making The Transition From Home To University”. Journal Of Environmental Psychology 28 (4): 362- 372. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2008.02.011.
3 Abigail, Bates, and Bourke Patrick. 2016. “2016 Your First College Year Survey”. Higher Education Research Institute At UCLA, no. November 2016.
4 Kenny, Kevin. 2013. “10 Things To Understand About Diaspora”. Oupblog. https://blog.oup.com/2013/06/10-facts-about-diaspora/.
5 Kenny, Kevin.
6 Williams, Piper Kendrix. 2006. “The Impossibility Of Return: Black Women’s Migrations To Africa”. Frontiers: A Journal Of Women Studies 27 (2): 54-86. doi:10.1353/fro.2007.0009.
7 Iyer, Pico. 2013. “Transcript Of “Where Is Home?””. Ted.Com. https://www.ted.com/talks/pico_iyer_where_is_home/transcript?referrer=playlist-.
8 “2018 Best School Districts in America.” Niche. Accessed May 22, 2018. https://www.niche.com/k12/search/best-school-districts/.
9 Taketa, Kristen. “St. Louis Public Schools Fully Accredited Once Again.” Stltoday.com. January 11, 2017. Accessed May 22, 2018. http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/education/st-louis-public-schools-fully-accredited-once-again/article_adac0d40-d05b-55e6-9b3d- 6d6680509128.html.Tags: academia, apologetics, belonging, college, colonialism, CS Lewis, culture, despair, diaspora, education, Edward Relph, family, friendship, home, homesickness, hope, identity, injustice, justice, millenial, Pico Iyer, privilege, rest, The Delmar Divide, university, Washington University in St Louis, WashU