homes away from home

Home is where you make it, I guess? (The Goldfish Market in Kowloon)

Recently, it occurred to me that, to the (very limited*) extent that I believe in human goodness, I have encountered it most when I am traveling, especially when I am traveling abroad.  Whether in the form of serendipitous connections with other visitors who are following similar itineraries or the helpful local who comes to my aid as I am puzzling over a public transit map, most of my trips have been animated-and occasionally saved from ruin-by the kindness of strangers.  Of course, it hasn’t all been roses (thinking here of the guy in the Old City of Jerusalem who tried, in the span of about seven minutes, both to steal my wallet and persuade me to marry him in exchange for a whole heap of shekels).  And I’m sure I’ve given offense innumerable times through bumbling ignorance.

But in reflecting on my best experiences, and struggling to categorize the wash of feelings they elicit (relief, gratitude, even joy), I’m beginning to wonder if they provide a tiny peek into what it feels like to receive hospitality, which I’ve been thinking about more intently for the last few months, particularly because it figures in this paper I’m hashing out.

Drawing extensively from Judeo-Christian traditions of kindness to strangers and the imperative to share one’s home and resources with them, as well as a Kantian approach to cosmopolitanism rooted in the finite roundness of the earth, hospitality is an openness to others that forms the core of any ethics of responsiveness to them.  (Derrida contends that the notion of an ‘ethic of hospitality’ is redundant to the point of being “tautologous.”[i])  Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou argue that “The ethics and politics of hospitality … require, dispossession: the dispossession of the home … and the dispossession of the owner’s identity as master of the home.”[ii]  Hospitality is, in short, a radical willingness to share my stuff with strangers.

On the other side, a need for hospitality is a vulnerability rooted in placelessness: a need for somewhere to sleep, something to eat, someone to be kind when I am displaced from my usual circuits for accessing those things.  Of course, I have only encountered these needs in small, temporary, and privileged ways as a volitional traveler.  I don’t / can’t know how desperation would change the experience of receiving hospitality, whether it would amplify or subsume the positive feelings that such shows of generosity or compassion elicit.  And despite hospitality’s fundamental orientation toward otherness, we don’t hear much in the scholarship from the others at whom hospitality is directed. Even in the original parable of the Good Samaritan, which provides a fundamental template for hospitality, we don’t hear anything at all from the man who receives his help.

Of course, I’m not sure what value or effect such knowledge would have.  And it’s possible that the pleasure that we might derive from the knowledge that our hospitality made someone else feel better, profoundly and elementally, might incentivize (and thus undermine) hospitality by making its exercise self-interested.  On the other hand, perhaps a lack of curiosity about how hospitality feels to its beneficiaries evinces a lack of concern with them, or an expectation that they will be happy for whatever they get.

For my part,  my micro-experiences of hospitality have heightened my appreciation of its stakes, the outsized impact that even a small expression of generosity can have.  I find it bewildering when someone, particularly a stranger, is kinder to me than they have to be. And maybe that astonishment is a merciful wage of the precariousness of finding oneself far from home.

*With apologies to my yoga teachers for my recalcitrance on this front … it’s not you, it’s me.

[i] Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes (New York: Routledge, 2002), 16.

[ii] Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou, “Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), 161.