Migration: A 'My Nation' Fixation
A global tossing, running, kicking, and circulation of people and place
This is the last week of winter. Next week I’ll start writing about cartography. Today’s post just may whet your appetite. All of the dislocation maps resulting from the war in Ukraine got me thinking about a pervasive human behavior; the ultimate interaction of people and place – migration.
As interactors, you’re special individuals self-selected to be a part of an evolutionary journey. You’re also members of an attentive community so I welcome your participation.
Please leave your comments below or email me directly.
Now let’s go…
BOWLING FOR BALLERS
I was on a walk last weekend and as I approached an Indian restaurant I noticed two families gathered a car in the parking lot. The parents were saying their goodbyes as the kids tussled about impatiently. Just then a perfectly spherical white ball of wadded up paper came rolling down the parking lot entrance and on to the sidewalk in front of me. Chasing behind was boy, maybe thirteen years old, with his shirt untucked, coat half on, and out of breath. He glanced at me, swopped up the ball, swiveled around, and threw it back toward his family like a skilled cricket bowler.
A generation ago this would have been a rare sight. More likely it would have been a boy, probably White, winding up and pitching like his favorite pitcher on a baseball mound. I did a bit of pitching when I was that kid’s age. I was taller than most at that age and could throw pretty hard. So they put me on the mound. I threw hard alright, but batters trembled with fear. I had a control issues.
Give me a glove today and I’ll spare you the fast ball, but I still throw a mean knuckle ball. I kept a couple gloves at Microsoft and would occasionally go out and play catch with anybody willing. It was fun introducing that sport to team members from other parts of the world. At some point we decided to introduce each other to our respective national sports. First up was India and cricket.
Guess who volunteered to be the bowler – or pitcher in baseball terms. Me. The guy who pitched as a kid, but also hit a fair number of them too. We played on a patch of artificial turf on the Microsoft soccer field. That field has since been torn up to make way for more buildings and an on-campus cricket pitch.
Cricket balls are quite hard and travel at great speeds so we decided a tennis ball would be best. I took to it pretty fast, according to my Indian teammate Deepak. The bowling motion is very different than a pitching motion, but he was a good coach. The arm is kept straight and is rotated around the shoulder joint. Much like Pete Townsend of The Who strumming his guitar.
I loved it. Until the next day...and the next. Ok, for a full week my arm, shoulder, and back were wondering what the hell I was thinking. That was the last of cricket. The next international sport came from a Dutch teammate, Martijn. It’s called Fierljeppen (or far-leaping). It’s basically pole vaulting over a canal. We had a nearby canal designated, but a proper pole never materialized. Probably for the best. I was pushing it on the liability front. Somebody was sure to end up in the water.
The would-be canal to be leapt was in Redmond, in the county’s biggest and oldest park, Marymoor Park. While Feirljeppen is unlikely to ever occur there, cricket soon will. Microsoft isn’t the only one building a cricket pitch in Redmond. Just a couple weeks ago the county approved a 20-acre Marymoor Cricket Community Park. Here’s what the King County Council Chair, Claudia Balducci, had to say,
“As our region grows, we see more interest in cricket, which is one of the most popular sports in the world. I can’t think of a better place for a world-class cricket pitch than East King County and especially Marymoor Park.”1
When she says ‘world-class’ she means it. The city of Redmond and the county are partnering with Major League Cricket (MLC) to build the facility. Construction is expected to start in 2023 and may one day host professional cricket, the U.S. National Team, and maybe even the World Cup. If you didn’t know, the Cricket World Cup is the most watched sporting event in the world. An estimated 2.2 billion people tuned in during the 2019 cup.
The first international cricket match was actually between the U.S. and Canada in 1844 and was played in New York City. It was contested at the St. George’s Club Bloomingdale Park in front of 20,000 people. That site is now the NYU Medical Center. A decade later baseball began displacing cricket as one of America’s favorite sports.
American football was hitting the scene then too. It eventually displaced rugby in popularity in the U.S. after the American’s won the first gold medals in Rugby in 1920 and 1924. But like cricket, that sport is also hugely popular outside of the U.S. But rugby is again gaining popularity in the United States. One survey claims participation grew 350% between 2004 and 2011. In 2018, over 100,000 fans showed up in San Francisco for the World Cup Sevens tournament. The United States is bidding to host the Rugby World Cup in 2027.
Both rugby and cricket originated in England and spread throughout the world through colonization. Baseball also started in England and American football is a derivative of rugby. The forward pass was perfected and popularized by the Indigenous American Wa-Tho-Huk, or “Bright Path.” But he was named and baptized at birth as "Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe" – Jim Thorpe.
His father was half Irish and half Sac and Fox (two Great Lake area tribes forced to settle in Oklahoma) and his mother was half French and half Potawatomi. They were both practicing Catholics and so was their son until the day he died. Jim Thorpe and his Carlisle Indian Industrial School teammates are largely responsible for the style of American football you see today.2 Thorpe was also the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal and was a professional baseball player.
Baseball, cricket, and rugby – and it’s American Football derivative, originated in England but spread with White colonial settlers. Like a ball tossed from it’s origin to it’s destination. And now after generations of colonization, kids of parents born in those far away colonies – like the kid in that parking lot – will be tossing them to players with heritage as mixed as Jim Thorpe…on soil Bright Path’s Indigenous ancestors once called their own.
Colonization really did toss people as if they were balls. It very much was an origin and destination game. Slaves and indentured workers were pulled from their homes to imperial origins while White administrators and ‘adventure’ seekers were tossed to colonial outposts to ‘settle’ land and people. And then before long, in a postcolonial world, people from those extended territories began migrating to colonial origins.
It's what the Jamaican poet Louise Simone Bennett-Coverley or “Miss Lou” referred to in her poem as, Colonization in Reverse. The first stanza reads:
Wat a joyful news, Miss Mattie,
I feel like me heart gwine burs
Jamaica people colonizin
Englan in Reverse
HERE, THERE, EVERYWHERE
Much of social science has dwelled on this concept of migration being about people going from ‘here’ to ‘there’. This has drawn excessive attention to these locations and the effects of the movement of people from place to place. It leads some people to wonder what will happen to that place over ‘there’ when people leave? But even more people wonder what will become of this place ‘here’ as a result of them immigrating? Immigration is one of the most polarizing and thorny societal issues wrought with emotion and socio-political implications. People seem to be most concerned with the immediate situation and seek political near term solutions fearing their own lives and cultures may be threatened.
But there’s a growing number of postcolonial thinkers and researchers challenging the ‘here’ and ‘there’ obsession and the impulse to seek near-term solutions. One group of diverse cultural geographers assembled by the American Association of Geographers settled on two major themes of interrogation of postcolonial migrations. They relate to time and place:
Broaden the temporal lens. Before jumping to remedies aimed to cure local symptoms of migration, reach back to its colonization origins to better understand it’s roots.
Reassess the ‘here’. What is ‘here’ today is a product of the relationships it formed with ‘there’. The people and the land of colonizers have been shaped by the people and lands of those distance territories.3
Within this framework, ‘here’ and ‘there’ no longer exist or have lost their distinction. Centuries of colonization and migration have created a multi-faceted tapestry of trans-territorialism and mix-ethnicities in a beautiful, albeit complex, cross-cultural milieu.
This blurring and multiplicity is a very hard sell in a world that is becoming increasing polarized and nationalized. Nationalists would like a Hogwarts-style sorting hat from Harry Potter fame. They’d like to place this hat upon the head of every immigrant so they may be sorted into ‘here’ or ‘there’ categories. Many immigrants, if not most, feel the pressure to act, look, and speak in ways that reduce the chances of people wondering are they one of us or one of them? They’re forced to reduce their vibrant, complex heritage to fit a binary ‘here’ or ‘there’ dichotomy with questions of race intertwined.
Meanwhile, those Western colonizers who were sent or ventured to faraway lands absorbed, stole, interpreted, and profited from those distant cultures and traditions. Their kids went to school there, made friends, and maybe even stayed, married a local, and raised their own mix-ethnicity family. And of these countless families, many returned to their colonial homeland but few are asked to place the sorting hat upon their head. They then wrote books, told stories, and painted pictures of people and places of faraway lands – and still do – while the people of those lands are often denied entry to their country.
And what do we make of the effects of territories carved, fractured, and divvied up among Western imperialists? Susan P. Mains, a professor of Geography at Dundee University in Scotland, is the lead author on a 2013 paper Postcolonial Migrations. She quotes two historians writing on the partitioning of Indian and other South-Asian territories by the West. They write that,
“’...18 million [Indian refugees who] struggled to resettle themselves and the energies of at least two generations were expended in rebuilding lives shattered by the violent uprooting caused by the partition’.” Mains continues, “Displacement and ongoing territorial conflicts are the legacy of this fracture.”4
In 1947 the British divided the subcontinent into two independent states, India and Pakistan. The partition was largely along Muslim and non-Muslim lines. Those religious tensions and divisions have been reignited recently as India’s Prime Minister, a Hindu, has increasingly been blending his politics with his religion. His critics accuse him of being Islamophobic and say he’s guilty of igniting hate crimes against Muslims. Human rights watchdogs are seeing more evidence of this and warn it may get worse – especially in impoverished neighborhoods. The sorting hat, a British import, seems to have followed a well trodden path to India.
This current conflict will no doubt cause Muslims to migrate creating even more displacement and fracturing of family and friends. Again, the focus by most media and academics will be on where they are from and where they are going. Are those people over ‘there’ coming over ‘here’? But little attention will be given the diaspora within the sub-continent, the historic origins of conflict and violence by imperialists, and the impact on the individual human lives.
For many, the fear of where these migrants will land outweighs their concern for their well-being. This fear strips them of the curiosity needed to assess how their own actions, and those of their ancestors, contribute to the plight of the disenchanted, disowned, and dislocated.
GO WITH THE FLOW
In 1885, the Geographer and German immigrant to England, Ernst Georg Ravenstein published what he called “The Laws of Migration”. It was a paper that appeared in the Journal of Statistical Society. But, as my former Geography professor, Waldo Tobler, pointed out in 1995 (the 100 year anniversary of Ravenstein’s laws) Ravensein failed to provide a single mathematical equation to support his so-called laws.
It seems, like his contemporizes in Economics, he was seduced by the mathematical certainty of Physics. He sought laws to describe the migration patterns he observed in 19th century England, but forgot the math. Or perhaps he knew, like many economists, that human behavior lacks the certainty of physics and these laws were more suggestive than declarative. Either way, this lack of certainty and clarity doesn’t keep social scientists from continuing to borrow metaphors, research techniques, and language from physics.
For example, Tobler says,
“It is most curious that the literature on migration is replete with this kind of [fluid physics] terminology. We speak of "migration flows" and "migration streams" and "counter-currents", and refer to intellectual or cultural "backwaters", as if there were eddy currents. One can be "outside of the mainstream". And there are "waves of immigration", etc.”5
Tobler also found an 1885 map Ravenstein created for his paper that “seems to have been completely ignored by scholars, historians, and cartographers.” The map is titled, as expected, “Currents of Migration." Tobler was a pioneer in computer cartography, but even he admitted it would be “difficult to see how one could program a computer to produce this map using the kinds of statistics available [in 1995]. Certainly it would be a challenge.”6
Mapping migration continues to be a challenge for cartographers. As Putin seeks to reassemble a former Soviet Union partitioned into independent nation states in the early 1990s, he’s induced mass migration. Different media outlets use different ways to communicate these migrations with varying degrees of success.
James Chesire is Professor of Geographic Information and Cartography at University College London and he took to Twitter a couple weeks ago critiquing the BBC’s crude interpretation of the crisis. He wrote,
“It’s time to innovate the ways we show people fleeing war. 8 arrows for 874,026 human beings is not good enough.”
He goes on to illustrate how arrows imply ‘flow’ in a particular direction from ‘here’ to ‘there’. As you can see, even today, we seem to be stuck using centuries old flawed physics metaphors while continuing to emphasize place based abstractions that imply binary flows from one place to another. Lost are the heartbreaking stories, the historicity that lead to mass movement of people, and cultural and ethnic complexities that define the region.
One map he points to from 2016 is by the mapping company ESRI. It attempts to bridging the gap between stories, images, and cartography in communicating what they title, “The Uprooted: War, sectarian violence, and famine have forced more than 50 million people from their homes—the largest number of displaced people since World War II.”
But somehow it still portrays the movement of people solely as a crisis. People indeed are suffering crisis, but migrations and movement of humans, of all animals, doesn’t have to be articulated as perpetual crisis. We don’t have to keep focusing on the spatiality, the borders, the nations, the states, and the cascade of political and social hierarchies they instill. Migration is an artifact of human existence – of animal existence – whose fate can be reduce to arrows.
Arrows typically show movement in one direction. What about migrants that return? Where are their arrows? In the Handbook of culture and migration Dr. Julia Pauli, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Hamburg, writes,
“In all regions of the world, state policies frame human migration by enabling, encouraging, restricting, punishing and hindering movement. Major events like the so-called ‘European refugee crisis’ have made this very visible…New policies and programs worldwide aim to encourage migrants to leave their host and destination countries and return to their original communities.”7
She cites other researchers who point out, “’there is a significant overlap between the latest surge of interest in return and efforts to remove unwanted immigrants from destination countries.’” And many countries are capitalizing on return migration. Citing Asia as an example, Pauli says “Countries like Vietnam perceive wealthy and well-educated migrants more and more as a resource that needs to be returned home.”
You can bet the state policies Pauli cites will include government sponsored technologies to track, trace, and true these flows of humanity. Trump is as crude as the wall he wants built. Meanwhile, Biden is as stealth as the cameras, drones, and biometric AI technologies he’s funding on the southern border of the United States. A report titled The Deadly Digital Border Wall was jointly created and published between Mijente, Just Futures Law, and the No Border Wall Coalition. They write,
“By exposing these technologies, this report aims to empower border activists, organizers, and residents to challenge the corporate tools used for border control and immigration enforcement by U.S. government agencies, and to more effectively advocate for a surveillance-free world.”8
It's striking that Ukraine had the second fastest declining population in the world in 2018. Russia’s birthrates climbed after the fall of the Soviet Union but they too have declining birthrates. Coupled with high mortality rates, especially among older men, from alcoholism, depression, accidents, homicides, and suicides most of the former Soviet Union states were barely holding on to citizens well before this war.9
Russia was offering families money to have two or more kids. Payments were not in cash, but in a ‘mother’s trust fund’. Women could draw from the fund at a later date to pay for a mortgage, education, and a small pension. Few found that offer attractive. Since 2014 Ukraine has been offering $1,500 cash over a 3-year period for every kid a woman births. Critics warned this may only lead to more orphaned kids as parents may prefer take the money and abandon the kids.10 Another potential dislocation migration story waiting to happen.
China’s birthrate dropped for the fifth year in a row last year despite their lifting of the ‘one child policy’ in 2015. It’s their lowest rate since 1949 and the birth of Communist China. Rising living expenses is the number one reason parents give for not having more kids. Two centuries ago, women in the U.S., China, Russia, and India all would have had five kids or more, but now they’re all clumped together around two births per woman – just below the world average of 2.44.11
Meanwhile low income countries are declining but average 4.34 children per woman. Many of these countries will also be the first to suffer the effects of climate change, war, and increased risks of poverty.
Nationalists around the world, including the more powerful U.S., China, Russia, and India, cling to a narrative that roots their feet in the ground of a given homeland, as if ordained by their God to take root. They then build border walls that restrict, repel, or release people based on their own delusions of righteousness. This grasping of false identity, yearning for elusive security, hungering for more land, money, and resources, and fretting over dwindling birthrates of their ‘chosen ones’ only makes them tighten their grip on faith, pump their inflated egos, and deepen their roots of nationalism.
Meanwhile, for a myriad of simple and complex reasons, people move. We like to draw lines to form borders and arrows on maps. Draw attention to binary origins and destinations – ‘here’ and ‘there’. But Susan Mains and her colleagues believe arrows are forms of “intellectual violence” and remind us that
“Lines do not determine boundedness of the communities from which folk came; or those to which folk are moving. Instead lines acknowledge that circulation, movement and cultural transfer have been integral to human populations, their cultures and society.”12
Cricket, rugby, baseball, and even Jim Thorpe’s American football are all demonstrations of circulation, movement, and cultural transfer. Even the passing glance between me, a middle-aged man of mixed European ethnicity and a boy likely of mixed sub-continental Indian ethnicity is an acknowledgement of cultural transfer. Our age difference broadens the temporal lens of our own colonial origins. Soon he’ll be playing on a cricket pitch in Redmond on colonized land shaped by the people of distance territories.
King County passes Motion of Support for Marymoor Cricket Community Park. Hannah Saunders. Redmond Reporter. February 2022.
Postcolonial migrations. Social & Cultural Geography, Vol. 14. Susan P. Mains, Mary Gilmartin, Declan Cullen, Robina Mohammad, Divya P. Tolia-Kelly, Parvati Raghuram & Jamie Winders. 2013.
The Deadly Digital Border Wall. Mijente, Just Futures Law, and the No Border Wall Coalition. 2022.
A geography of Russia and its neighbors. Mikhail S. Blinnikov. 2021.