It’s a part of our modern existence, but continually changing our address actually changes us.
Many people move in the summer months, but not everyone realises that moving starts a process of identity transformation that never really stops.
I first noticed something about place changing a person when I moved to Canada. While Canada and Australia share many similarities, there were still significant differences. The clothes worn were one, and occasionally a phrase would seem unfamiliar. I was teased for saying “queue” instead of “line up”, and “no worries” instead of “no problem”.
When I moved back to Australia, to tropical Cairns, I found myself in a world that moved on “tropical time”. It could hardly have been more different from the fast-paced world of North America. I had to adapt.
Identities are created and evolve in places. Places can be physical, geographical areas and can also be places inhabited virtually, including online games, forums and blogs, or in discourse, such as books and magazines. These places continually shape our identities, changing as we live our lives day by day.
When we move to a new house, especially if it’s a big move such as from city to country or from one country to another, the process of moving inevitably changes us. For a start, we are now a newcomer and the “locals” will speak of us that way. That shapes how we are perceived and perhaps even whether and how we are accepted socially. The norms and mores of the new community may influence us in other ways, even prescribing how we are “supposed” to act in the new area.
“City girls” and “country girls”
In my recent research into how media affect lifestyle migrants in rural Queensland, I looked at how place changes people. Many of the women I spoke to described themselves as a “city girl” or a “country girl”. These women framed their identity in relation to their location.
The women who called themselves a “city girl” often chose activities that took them to places where they felt they could relate more—such as the shops, galleries and other amenities of the city. Their identification with the city resulted in weaker bonds locally and sometimes meant that they chose to return to the city. Certainly, they were less satisfied with country life.
On the other hand, women who identified as a “country girl” engaged in activities accessible in their rural locations, including crafts, cooking, gardening and outdoor activities. Their free time reinforced their emplaced nature and strengthened their ties to their place and the people in it. They adapted to being in the country and were happy with where they lived.
How do you adapt to your new life?
Knowing what to do in certain places is a form of capital, as Pierre Bourdieu outlines. Capital describes the knowledge needed to play the game in a particular place.
There are different types of capital, including cultural, economic and educational. Knowing how to act when working at a major company, for example, is different from knowing how to get on when unemployed. These are different fields, which require different capitals. One requires corporate smarts, the other stipulates smarts in various other areas.
Even if our fields don’t change as dramatically as described above, we still use differing capitals when at work, at home, with friends and as a parent.
The way we learn how to act, or adapt, is achieved through the expansion of what’s called habitus.
To expand our habitus, we need to see new ways of doing things and imagine these for ourselves. This could happen by watching TV shows, reading books, travelling to other parts of the world or seeing someone else do something differently. It’s hard to change habitus, because we need to be open to new ideas that permeate our reality and we need to like them enough to decide to adopt them and let them become a part of us. Habitus is the stuff we do without thinking—the beliefs, norms and ways of doing things that are a part of us. If we were in a witness protection program, these are the things that would trip us up and lead the bad guys to us. It’s simple stuff, like ordering coffee a certain way, or bigger things like thinking about the world through a particular framework or liking blue or living in the city.
When we move, we are changing the field we occupy. To adapt to this, we watch how other people play the game and, to fit in, we most likely adopt these ideas within our habitus and change a bit. At the same time, we might influence the people around us, changing them a little bit too. It works dynamically.
So, yes, moving countries or to the country from the city is an identity-altering project, and the more the fields are different, the more we have to adapt.