Space, place and identity

“Inhabiting is an act of incorporation; it is a situation of active, essential acquisition. Incorporation is the initiative of the active body, embracing and assimilating a certain sphere of foreign reality to its own body. In this sense, incorporation is essentially the movement from the strange to the familiar, which forms a central dialectic of human existence, is instituted and embodied in our dwelling, our home. The home is the intimate hollow we have carved out of the anonymous, the alien. Everything has been transmuted in the home; things have truly become annexed to our body, and incorporated.”[1]

The body is both a part of ourselves and our container: the home of the soul, it protects and contains us, it is the first inhabited space, it is the bridge to the outer space. It is an essential part of our identity and plays a crucial role in transforming a space into our place: what is alien to us becomes familiar when we feel that we inhabit it. We live in it, we resemble to it. We human beings project our sense of self onto our surroundings once we feel that they are ours but, also, in order to make them ours: our home on the first place, but also our quarter and our city can reflect who we are as individuals or as a group.

Places carry the marks of the people who inhabit them; they are shaped by human activities, buildings and feelings. Feelings involve a connection with both one’s body and society because, “the individuality is socially produced while the feelings are the phenomenological experience of states of the body-brain system as we act in the world. We are always feeling something and we do it in a physical way because the feelings are fundamentally not symbolic: they disclose the world through our flesh.”[2]

The connection between body, place and identity enables us to read a place as well as the people who inhabit it and, as long as we can read, we shall be able to understand.

For an Italian who arrives to Prato from via Pistoiese, the first impact with the city takes the shape of a shock. The incapability to read the place according to the familiar parameters of Tuscanity, the unfamiliarity of both built and human environment makes the first impact difficult. Surprisingly, you are in Italy but you do not feel at home: the smells and the sights are not Italian. Walking among all these Chinese people who go so fast, who seem so busy and stare at you with apparent hostility, feels uncomfortable, almost scary. And you quickly realise that you are in “their” place. A storm of feelings follows that realization: feelings of stolen land, invasion, injustice together with an incredible anger and mistrust. And then comes the compassion, for the Italian citizens in Prato who have owned their city for centuries and now they are losing it.

The sense of invasion and loss is a shared feeling among the Italian people in the street. “They infiltrated themselves in our place” or “Little by little they are taking over the city; they are even menacing the historical centre” are common statements among the Italians who use a war lexicon to describe the situation.

I walked in the China town of Prato for a few days in May. I was there with my husband Neil and four students from Webster University: Elisah from Zimbabwe, Mohamed from Egypt, Rowena from Switzerland and Ireland, and Saman from Iran and USA. I was the only Italian in the group but we shared the same reaction and feelings while we observed the area and tried to talk to people. We shared the same difficulty in reading the place and walked in puzzlement: how could be possible that those building and those streets, which had clearly been built by Italians and which had Italian shapes, did not look Italian at all? There was incongruence between the build environment and the way it was inhabited. No flowers on the balconies, no chatting in the bars, red lanterns and porcelain cats in the shops, expensive cars on run down streets, garbage everywhere and walls full of numbers: it was difficult to insert these elements in a coherent whole. And the children: where were the Chinese children?

In the following days something started to change. We were able to talk and interact with two or three Chinese people and with several Italians. We understood that the numbers on the walls were phone numbers related to job ads; that the expensive cars are an important status symbol for the Chinese community in Prato; that some children go to school but many go back to China to stay with the grandparents because their parents have no free time left from work and cannot take care of them; that teenagers go to work as soon as possible and this explains the high percentage of school dropouts among Chinese students in Prato after eighth grade. We began to make sense of what we were observing and felt some empathy…

The more we walked in the streets and talked to people, the more our attitude changed. We got used to be stared at and to be treated as if we were invisible. This was thanks to Valentina, a well integrated Chinese accountant, who explained to us that most Chinese in Prato fear how Italians and Italian authorities are going to treat them. The Chinese in Prato do not feel “invaders”: they have worked very hard to get where they are. They have paid their houses more than the market price, and they put a lot of time and effort in improving their financial situation.

The accountant office was the first place where we observed the presence of both Italians and Chinese. We then noticed a pharmacy, a centre for cultural mediation, and an Italian bar which offered a gambling corner for the Chinese customers. A feeling of possible interaction was modifying the initial perception: if it is true that Italians and Chinese seem to live in two distinct sections of Prato –the Italians in the historical centre or in the residential suburbs, the Chinese in via Pistoiese and via Filzi- it is also visible a slow movement towards intersection-interaction and future integration.

In the transition from hostility to understanding we learned that as long as we looked at the Chinese community in Prato as a group, we felt a sort of reciprocal mistrust. Then, in interacting with individuals from both communities, we started our process of understanding and bonding. Analysis brings separation when disconnected from relationship.

Betty Sacco

[1] Richard Lang, The Dwelling Door, in D.Seamon and R. Mugerauer, Dwelling, Place and Environment, Dordrecht/Boston/Lancaster, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1985, page 202,

[2] John Cromby, Loughborough University, UK, Feeling the Social Body, lecture at the congress of “Critical Thinking in Health Psychology”, University of Lausanne, July 2009.

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