What does it mean to be out of place?

Citizenship ceremony, 1960

Citizenship ceremony, 1960 (Photo credit: Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center)

What does it mean to be ‘out of place’? Perhaps that we are tied to certain places; we can trace ourselves back to certain places. And more than that, it means that other places do not suit us like those we are tied to. So, to be unsuited to a place is to be, in a sense, out of place.

Blogger Nika Likes Maps describes a place-of-origin by saying, “You know how to exist there.” Otherwise, you are “the other”. Knowing how to exist somewhere means that you have some knowledge about the ways things are done in a certain place: the customs and traditions, the rules of interaction, how to walk&talk. Being born and raised in one place pretty much guarantees that you have an understanding of this. What about, however, when you move somewhere else, or visit a place you’ve never been? Surely, you will be out of place. But is this permanent? Can we learn how to exist in any place, provided we have the time and the social know-how? Maybe there are places that we can never learn to exist in — places that will never suit us. So, on the one hand, we can expand our identities through cultural learning, but on the other, we are likely to have some personal limits. What are these? Try to think about all the places you could go. Are there any places you think you could never feel at home in? What types of places are these?

But just because you’ve learnt the customs doesn’t mean you belong. In my last post, “Citizenship and Belonging,” I talked about the idea of belonging as being given, rather than claimed for oneself. This is especially true in a legal sense of belonging, namely citizenship. Political scientist Ralpf Dahrendorf speaks about citizenship as creating a “community under law,” or in other words, “not a community of common and organic bonds, but a society of artificial ties created by the legal establishment” (see Robert Alejandro’s book, Hermeneutics, Citizenship, and the Public Sphere). These artificial ties are the ones you can’t claim for yourself; they have to be bestowed.

In this way, it’s possible to feel out of place in the place you’re “from,” if you haven’t been declared an official citizen — if you don’t belong there. But what if you create your own place, one that you can claim to be a proper citizen of? On Peak Moment TV, host Janaia Donaldson interviews the Jonboy Hawkes of “Dignity Village”. 

It is a community founded by and for the homeless, located in Portland, OR. It is a place where the citizens, or residents, of that community can say they really do belong. It was created because of a feeling of being ‘out of place’ elsewhere.

So, if you are feeling out of place, you have some options: (1) You can, like Nika is doing, try to learn how to exist in that place; (2) You can create your own place where you feel welcome, like Jonboy of Dignity Village did; (3) You can try to live with the feeling, accepting your personal limits; or (4) You can leave, and go to the place where you feel ‘in place’.

Have you felt out of place? What was this like and how did you deal with it? If you’d like to share, send your story by email (thecommunitytalks@gmail.com), or post it in the comments!

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One thought on “What does it mean to be out of place?

  1. I feel out of place in my country of origin. I don’t think it has to do with the number of years that I’ve been away from it. It is a combination of multiple factors – not sure which one is more important than the other. I feel connected to the arts, music, painting, sculpture but there are many parts of my native culture, i.e that I consciously decided to let go. I carry the marks of being born in a poor country with a distinct history but the scars became ornaments and beautiful designs.

    I consider Boston home even though I’ve lived in a few other places. I don’t know if I belong here but it is the place where I became a woman. This is the place that I returned to when I needed to root myself. There is a part of myself that became alive here after almost following into despair. It is here that I choose to stay.

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