I am reading Dignity by Chris Arnade, a non-fiction book about the people who live in back row America. Poor, stigmatized neighborhoods in large cities. Small towns once thriving and now crippled by factory shutdowns and drugs. This is a part of America I know only from my reading and brief incursions. This is a part of America I don’t know.
Why am I reading this book? Because I am curious and I would like to grasp what these people’s life is like. While I feel respect for them I also have a strong sense that they have been dealt a bad hand. I feel they are stuck with a profoundly undesirable life they surely wish they could escape.
Then it strikes me I have missed an entire dimension of their reality, as I read the answer of a woman from dilapidated Cairo in southern Illinois when the author asks why she has stayed: “You can’t just abandon people you grow up with.”
I grew up in a medium-sized city in France. My hometown is still dear to me and it is in many ways a good place to live, but I never really considered it as a possibility for me after I came of age. I wanted to study in Paris. I wanted to work abroad. And so I did. Like countless middle and upper-class people, including Appa, I saw moving away as one of the essential things that would make my life richer and worth living.
I still see value in that but I now understand it does not mean there is no value in staying put. My long-held belief that moving to a larger city or to another country is objectively desirable is just that, a belief. It has taken me a long time to realize that many people around the world, not only poor or otherwise underprivileged people, simply do not share this aspiration.
I know such people in my hometown, in the village of my grandparents, in the village of Appa’s grandparents, or in our leafy corner of Cleveland. I now see they have something we don’t have: a perennial sense of home; physical closeness to their relatives (a mere ripple in our thoughts when we were young, now very much on our mind); a meaningful tethering. They have not left behind the people they grew up with.
Our life choices have been different. They reflect our ambition and our curiosity, but also our individualism and our unquestioning acceptance of values shared by many of our fellow “citizens of the world” at the turn of this century. We have gained a lot from our choices, but we have lost some too. I guess it took living for us to understand that…