An illustration of a van for an article about the film Nomadland and nomadic living. (Illustration by Julie Chow, University of California, Berkeley)

‘Nomadland’ Challenges Important Social Norms and the Meaning of Life

Chloé Zhao’s awarding winning film makes viewers question what’s truly valuable to them.
April 5, 2021
6 mins read

Have you ever had the inclination to escape from your current environment and go on an “aimless” journey by yourself? Could you imagine a life of wandering across a desert and living in a van? How about one without the interruption of cell phones and social media, with only nature as your companion? Well, a recent film titled “Nomadland” may feed your imagination and help you better picture all the scenes mentioned above.

“Nomadland” portrays the journey of a woman named Fern who leaves her hometown and travels around the country in a van after her husband passes away and the sole industry of her hometown closes down. Director Chloé Zhao won best director at the 78th Golden Globe Awards thanks to her dedication to the piece, making her the first Asian woman to attain this landmark achievement.

The film is heavily focused on the interactions between Fern and the people she meets along her journey. After her husband passes away, she sells all her belongings and purchases a van. She works at an Amazon fulfillment center as a seasonal contractor and joins a camp for people like her in the desert.

The audience gradually comes to learn more about Fern’s past life and her worldview through her conversations with others. Through these heart-to-hearts, “Nomadland” motivates its audience to reflect on modern human society and some fundamental life values.

“Nomadland” encourages people to rethink social norms by debating the significance of housing. Housing seems to be one of the most important aspects of our lives, and people are even willing to take on a substantial amount of debt to buy a home. So, why does housing matter to people psychologically and sociologically?

From the perspective of natural selection, since the moment we gained the consciousness to do so, human beings have been inherently driven to acquire as many resources as possible to enhance the possibility of survival. Housing, which functions as shelter from the external environment, could be an important symbol of security and thus a critical possession. The absolute sense of autonomy a homeowner feels within the space of their own house, as well as the freedom to move and act without explicit or invisible discipline from others, further reinforces the dignity of a house.

However, does this feeling still matter that much to us, especially in the current era? Fern’s nomadic life is an example that allows us to contemplate this question.

In a conversation between Fern and a young girl at a supermarket, when the young girl asks her whether she is “homeless,” Fern firmly replies that she is not “homeless,” just “houseless.” The word “homeless” may normally symbolize a lack of the basic necessities of survival and security as well as a life full of uncertainty. Fern defies the view of “houselessness” as “homelessness” and implies that her nomadic life is actually more fulfilling than the young girl might think.

This exchange touches on the debate on the difference between the house, which is traditionally defined by society, and a shelter in motion. It encourages me to think that “house” might merely be a socially constructed concept originating from the past that might not carry as much weight in our current era if we can find a desired “home” space internally.

The nomadic lifestyle, one of the primary themes of “Nomadland,” also tries to persuade us to reconsider what really matters in our lives. People living in the nomad camp seem to enjoy their lives and radiate pure satisfaction, even without owning many material belongings. The film seems to display the idea that without intense material pursuits, people can still live well and lead a fulfilling life.

The themes of “Nomadland” might make you start to wonder why we are urged to make “progress” if a simple life like Fern’s seems to be satisfying enough. Why are we still anxious about failing and losing something that doesn’t seem to be that “significant” in life, if our ultimate pursuit is happiness?

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In one of the scenes where Fern is intensely debating with her sister’s husband about the validity of her nomadic lifestyle, Fern’s sister describes her as a pioneer, someone whose courage allows others to consider the adequacy of their desires and needs in life.

Similarly, Fern’s conversation with Swankie, a woman who was diagnosed with cancer but would rather spend time seeking and savoring happiness on the road than in the hospital, prompts us to think about the importance of each passing moment in our lives. Do we live because we want to live longer or because we want to live a more quality life? Would we rather spend time worrying about our lives or would we rather just focus on making the most of each moment?

Swankie obviously has chosen the latter option. Her decision also strongly resonates with one of the last few scenes of the film: During an open-heart conversation with an old man who lost his son a few years prior, Fern says she has spent too much of her time just remembering her husband.

“Nomadland” flows at a reasonably slow pace and seems to provide ample room for the audience to reflect on each seemingly peaceful yet significant conversation or event. The film ends with a statement that leaves audiences with countless space to form their own impressions and interpretations: “To the ones who have to depart, see you down on the road.”

Benjamin Chen, Columbia University

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Xiaobin (Benjamin) Chen

Columbia University
Economics and Psychology

Benjamin Chen is an economics and psychology student at Columbia University. He is always motivated to innovate and change the world for the better. He is driven and guided by values, principles and love.

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