Too many houses for a home: Narrating the house in the Chinese diaspora
The scale and extent of human mobility in contemporary times has added a new inflection to a question that has long pre-occupied scholars: this being the matter of ‘what is home?’ or, more precisely and following Agnes Heller (1995), ‘where are we at home?’. These questions are both minor and major. They implicate something as ordinary as ‘the house’ and as extraordinary as our sense of belonging. Martin Heidegger’s well known essay from 1951, ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’, provides one starting point for thinking about how a building like a house is attached to an experience like dwelling (Heidegger 1975). He investigates how dwelling requires building (as a process and as a thing) and how, in turn, building helps constitute our sense of dwelling. Heidegger draws at one point on the example of a farmhouse in the Black Forest, which he uses to illustrate how building both cultivates and expresses dwelling. His conception of ‘proper dwelling’ relies, then, on the example of a house that is embedded in its place of origin -- where building and dwelling and location are co-constitutive. Through an architectural diagnostic, a dwelling such as Heidegger’s farmhouse might occupy the category of ‘the vernacular’. Through a sociological diagnostic, we might think of it as a type of ‘ancestral home’. Such models of ‘proper’ dwelling are being radically transformed in contemporary times. Not least, current levels of mobility act as a force of compromise. Mobility compels our lives to be full of radical open-ness, proliferating differences and multiplying loyalties. It produces flows of information, people and things that do away with, or render residual, what might be thought of as monogamous modes of dwelling. Within this restructured world, both vernacular architectures and ancestral homes come to assume new positions and are sutured into our modes of dwelling in quite different ways.