Belonging: on creating a sense of place

Posted by | January 16, 2014

Cat PleskaPlease welcome guest author Cat Pleska. Pleska is a sixth generation West Virginian. She is a regular writer for Wonderful West Virginia magazine and is an essayist on West Virginia Public Radio, with 40 essays aired since 2007. She teaches English/writing at West Virginia State University. The following essay was featured on the January 4 edition of Inside Appalachia, and is reprinted here with permission.


Recently, a friend wrote to me and asked, “How does it feel to be so deeply rooted in your Appalachian community, to know that you belong from the past, and forward?” This was not an idle question for her.  Born in Korea, adopted by Americans, and brought to the United States as a child, she moved often around the South. When she married, she moved due to jobs. Now she’s arrived at yet another address. In an effort to belong, and to reach back to her roots, she has approached both Korean, and Korean-American groups in her area. But after so long, she feels she might not fit within either.

Answering my friend is difficult, as a sense of belonging is individual, but one way I feel I am comfortable in this region is through language. She tells me she is attempting to improve her skills in her native language.  Without language that is familiar and shared, we feel as an outsider, our identities unsure.

In fact, many of us in Appalachia often defend our speech patterns to those outside our region. While we can wish no one judged us by our dialect, it is a fact that many do.

Despite my occasional grumblings and wishes West Virginia or Appalachia was this or that, this rumpled land is my first love.  I feel a deep connection to my welcoming hills and its spirited, friendly people.

This is still a land rich with stories, and storytelling is a long-honored tradition to pass along family history, and the region’s tales and legends.  I am the recipient of many family stories, not unlike the stories of other families throughout Appalachia. Sharing experiences creates a strong bond, and deepens our sense of personal history in one place.

In this way, we know who we are, and where, and who, we come from.  Perhaps my friend can find an audience for her stories, and maybe begin with what she remembers of Korea.

I understand her strong desire to feel rooted and settled, but the truth is, even if you are from a place of many generations, each of us has to learn to fit.  Perhaps belonging is a willful sense, an emotion for which we must constantly work.  I hope her communities reach out to let her know she has truly come home.  If not, then the niche we carve for ourselves in any area must be the beginning of a new history, collecting our stories of experience on into the future.

Maybe we are the ones who create the place where we feel we belong.

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