A Sense of Place

When I was promoted to Associate at the investment bank I worked at, for the first time in years, I had leisure time. During these new reprieves I found myself cooking. I urgently wanted a taste of home. So, I attempted to cook my grandmother’s chicken curry for the first time. Much to my surprise, it came out almost perfect!  As I was relishing this taste of home, I reflected on what this modest accomplishment meant for me personally, and what such a feeling might mean to my peers, many of whom, like myself, were miles away from any place they might call home.

“I’m moving.” Words I often spoke to friends, family, and colleagues. Seattle, Vancouver, London, Mumbai, San Francisco, and New York: I have made many moves, because, like most young people, I was pursuing education, jobs and promotions to build a career. With every move I make and with every conversation I have with someone moving, I’m reminded of environmentalist Alan Durning’s book, This Place on Earth, in which he recounts traveling to the Philippines to interview members of a remote tribe about their land and livelihood. The matriarch of the tribe asks the author what his homeland is like. After a long pause, he answers, “In America, we have careers, not places.”

In coming to Wharton, I have found even more time to cook. In keeping with the spirit of trying to make Philly a place, I do my best to invite my fellow Wharton peers over to share these home cooked meals. As I revel in these dinners with friends and think through the beautiful relationships that food inspires, I think about how fleeting these nights are. After we all graduate, we will move to cities across the earth in pursuit of our careers. In undertaking these moves, we will almost never ask our friends how they will feel if we move far away. Perhaps we should. Not only do we damage any sense of place we had for ourselves when we move, but we also damage it for everyone in that place who loves us. While you don’t need to live close by to someone in order to be close to them, a meaningful place – a home – is built in the company of people.

This might be naive of me, but sometimes I think that many of the world’s problems, because they are global in scale, are the result of a lack of connection to one another. Corporate malfeasance, corruption, climate change, and innumerable other woes can be traced not to an inherent turpitude of the people who do these things, but rather, to a malfunction in their understanding of how their actions have downstream effects on their communities; a consequence, I believe, of people having an assortment of frayed connections, in lieu of a sense of place. Alan Durning continues in his book that a sense of “place was not only the anchor missing from my life but an anchor missing from others’ lives … an anchor that might turn the voracious efficiency of our industrial society to the ends of enduring longer rather than producing and consuming more.”

The night I cooked my Grandmother’s chicken, I packed some of it up and took it to work the next day. As I was walking to my desk, I noticed an exhausted MBA intern. I didn’t know her very well and didn’t want to disturb her as she feverishly pounded at her keyboard for our Managing Director’s inane request, but lunchtime was soon approaching, and I felt she might like a break, and one that wouldn’t involve yet another Seamless order. I approached her desk and invited her to share in this meal I had cooked the night before. Over the course of that summer and over a few more meals, she and many of the interns, slowly turned from transient peers to some my closest friends. Suddenly, their being there – being alive in the same place as me – helped to make something of a place, out of the grey, anonymous cubicles of the bullpen.