In Praise of Mobility

This past year, my experience with COVID has taught me the importance of mobility. I realize I had taken for granted going out and getting around, and having access to work, stores, and face-to-face church services. Perhaps like me, you only discovered this when your ability to leave home, go to school or work, go shopping, and worship in person was suddenly taken away due to forces beyond your control. You found yourself homebound, purchasing groceries on-line, taking or teaching classes on Zoom, and not able to have face-to-face contact with family and friends. You became immobile.

Mobility is a crucial part of life, but how much do we think about or value it? Mobility consists of physical mobility or motility—the ability to move around, to access buildings and spaces, and utilize various modes of transportation, both public and private. It also embraces what I term sociocultural mobility, that is to say, the ability to have access to education, to pursue career choices, to experience social and family life, to enjoy entertainment and leisure activities, and to exercise political franchise. It is tied up in such inalienable rights articulated in democratic societies as “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness,” where the former suggests the freedom to act and do—the antithesis of immobility—and the latter connotes the capacity to follow or go after something. Acting, doing, following, and going are action verbs, and the latter two are motion verbs specifically, they convey both motility and sociocultural mobility. These are active, not passive rights, as are such freedoms as those associated with assembly and speech.

Events of the last twelve months also teach us that mobility is not enjoyed equally by all. Beyond the constraints imposed by the pandemic, people of color have faced hatred and bigotry that remind us that the fight for equality of mobility is an ongoing endeavor. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s fought for access and motility for African Americans through lunch counter sit-ins, bus strikes, and freedom rides. Calls for desegregation of schools and workplaces sought to remove longstanding barriers to sociocultural mobility. For Asian Americans, the immobility of race-based immigration policies left many early immigrants from China detained for long periods of time and treated abusively on Angel Island. Racial profiling led to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, marking the radical constraint of mobility of all types. The recent hatred and violence against our Black and Asian American sisters and brothers reminds us that while we have made progress in the last seven decades, we still have far to go before the autonomy, agency, and empowerment mobility brings can be enjoyed by all.

In my own research, I have learned from the works of Chinese writers from the first half of the twentieth century who identified constraints on mobility faced by women in a modernizing China. Traditional values, doctrines, and social orders imposed a double standard on women that limited their access to education, employment, and choice in marriage and thus foreclosed routes to greater sociocultural mobility. Restrictions on movement dictated that women could not travel outside the home unchaperoned by men, thus limiting their motility. The woman writer Ling Shuhua brought this to the fore in her short story “Embroidered Pillows” (Xiuzhen) in which the unmarried daughter of a wealthy traditional family, known simply as Young Miss, is depicted in her room devoting countless hours embroidering elaborate pillow covers. She does this to demonstrate her traditional womanly skills to help win the favors of a well-to-do suitor. Ling constructed her story to stress Young Miss’s isolation by narrating it from an omniscient point of view and limiting the protagonist to only a few lines of dialogue. She is largely silent throughout the story. The bulk of the conversation is delivered by her female servants, who ironically enjoy greater mobility than the woman they serve since they can converse freely and come and go from her room and the home as they please. Just hours after they are delivered, the pillowcases are soiled and discarded by the potential groom’s family, who see no value in traditional womanly pursuits and seek a modern bride for their son. It is only a year later that Young Miss, still isolated in her bedroom, discovers the fate of the pillow covers and in turn her fate in a world where her traditional upbring now proves a deficit and assures her limited agency and autonomy in a changing China. Ling, who herself grew up in an extremely traditional family, captures the utter lack of physical and sociocultural mobility of Young Miss and the thousands of women like her.

In “The Merchant’s Wife,” male author Xu Dishan recounts the story of an illiterate woman from rural China, Xiguan, who makes a life for herself after her husband sells her to an Indian merchant to become one of his wives. Xu traces Xiguan’s growth as she first learns to read Bengali and Arabic from one of her sister wives, and then flees the home to seek her liberty after her Indian husband’s death. She sells the symbol of her oppressive second marriage—a diamond nose ring—and uses it to buy a house in which she can live independently. With support from a Christian woman neighbor she goes to a nearby city to attend school and receive an education, returning a few years later to work as a teacher, the final step in her emancipation. Unlike Young Miss, Xiguan travels far and wide as she pursues her journey of liberation, leaving China, traveling to Singapore, Madras, to the nearby village of Chinglepet, and ending with a second trip to Singapore. She becomes literate, receives an education, establishes a career, buys a home, and travels for pleasure, enjoying full sociocultural mobility. The male narrator who begins the story comes to admire her for her persistence in the face of adversity and her independence. It is Xiguan herself who tells her own tale when the narrator steps back and she takes charge, just as she has done with her life. She represents a new kind of woman that frees herself from the constraints of traditional Chinese oppression of woman, one who travels far both literally and figuratively.

Mobility offers agency, autonomy, and hope as it removes barriers and creates possibilities. It empowers people by removing fetters that limit motility and unlock opportunity to learn, work, build social relationships, and enjoy leisure. Women, people of color, individuals with disabilities, all people can benefit from it as we remove barriers and eliminate discrimination and hatred, a crucial lesson we can take from our own experiences with isolation and immobility of the past year. This is the type of society that Paul described in Ephesians 2:19 when he wrote, “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God.” As we come together, our individual differences give way to our common fellowship, discipleship, and spiritual sisterhood and brotherhood that unimpeded mobility fosters. Unity of faith and purpose will result in the Zion society envisioned in Moses 7: 18 in which people are of one heart and one mind, live together in righteousness, and have no poor among them. In a season in which we celebrate Black History Month, Women’s History Month, and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we need to take time to praise mobility in all its forms and for all people.

This post was written by Steve Riep, Humanities Center Faculty Fellow. 

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