I confess that I have not traveled overseas since I was a child, and the only places I have ever been are back to the humble villages and homes of where my parents grew up in the Philippines. Despite the differences in language, food, and culture, some of what I remember from those visits have made Beijing feel like a familiar place:
- Streets coming alive at 5 in the morning
- The hot sticky air
- Rickshaws and electric bicycles
- Dogs wandering the neighborhood
- An abundance of street food and vendors
- The mix of old and new, Eastern and Western
- A heightened awareness of my American-ness
These small things have helped ease my transition to a foreign place, comforting me while I continue to be challenged by a language barrier, distance from loved ones, and a lack of understanding of how things work — from crossing the street to going to the bathroom (e.g. squat toilets) to how government, health care, education, law enforcement, politics, and planning operate and function here.
The experience itself of feeling out of place is not new to me. I’ve grown accustomed to sticking out in a sea of white folks back in Portland, one of the whitest major cities in the U.S. At the very least I can read, write and speak the language, am part of an established community with my cohort at PSU, and hold a basic understanding of institutions and how to access services.
What Beijing has taught me in my first few weeks is what it feels like to be completely disconnected– lacking the basic knowledge, culture and socialization for participating in society. This is a taste of what it might have been like for my parents when they left the Philippines and moved to the U.S. It also provides me with insight into a broader human experience of transcontinental migration and globalization.
Whatever one’s reasons for moving across the globe, whether permanent or temporary, one thing I have realized was summed up sweetly by my colleague, travel buddy, and fellow reflective soul, Lorrie: “People just want to feel in place.” In addition to the comfort of distant memories from childhood trips to my parents’ homeland, I have also sought home and familiarity by spending time with fellow interns, visiting “hipster” cafes, attending mass, and going to live music shows featuring ex-pats singing my jams.
How is this experience even relevant to urban planning? Well.. according to the United Nations Population Division, more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities, and more people will continue to move into urban areas in this century. Whether people move from far away countries or nearby rural areas, will their new cities and nations provide urban migrants the chance to feel in place? How will they be received by their new city or nation? Will they be welcomed or turned away? Will they have access to safe, affordable, and healthy housing? Will they have access to education and income earning opportunities to become productive members of society and to support their families? Will they have access to the people, places, or things that make them feel at home, and if not, will they have the freedom to create it? I think that urban policy and planning touch on many of these questions, so how can urban planners work to create cities that are inviting and inclusive of people who seek to make a new home? And for the U.S. in particular, how do these issues intersect with the mounting tension over immigration policy reform?