Wednesday, January 03, 2007

I´m back, in more ways than one

Hi Everybody,

Well, I'm back after a long hiatus from this blog. I suppose I could
stress out and feel guilty about that, but I've decided not to—I don't
owe this blog anything. So I'm doing it now again because I feel like

I've spent the last couple months doing a lot of back-and-forthing
between the U.S. and Nicaragua. I went home to visit family for both
Thanksgiving and Christmas, two separate trips. During my first trip,
for Thanksgiving, I really had a hard time. That trip followed a
four-month stay in Nicaragua, and I was experiencing what I think of
as culture shock, (although I don't know if there is some sort of
clinical definition of culture shock. Lisa?) I felt really
emotionally fragile, and swung back and forth between loving and
hating the things that are different between the two places. I also
had a sort of disconnected feeling, as if the things that happened to
me (in either country) weren't really very real, and the books I read
and movies I saw were almost as real as my life. It was great to see
my family over Thanksgiving, and I was fine when I kept busy, but it
was tough when I stopped to think. However, I re-established some
stability when I was in Nica in the beginning of December, and ended
up having an enjoyable visit over Christmas, with no real problems.

I have been wondering whether all this back-and-forthing is a positive
or a negative thing for my research. I certainly think that many
anthropologists would say that it is a negative—that ethnography, as a
sort of intense, semi-mystical process of empathy—should be
uninterrupted (and, of course, should go on for at LEAST a full year).
They would, I think, probably argue that transitioning back and forth
between places is a problem because it interrupts the concentration of
the ethnographer in the process of becoming as much as possible like
the research subject.

However, I disagree with this. Even if I think about my job as
building this mystical empathy, an important part of that is being
able to communicate the results of that empathy at the end. My job is
to create communication between two different mindsets, and I can't do
that if I lose my sense of the contrasts between those mindsets. I
need to remember what they're both like, and immerse myself in the
contrasts. I need to remember that for a Unitedstatesean, a two-hour
period in which hot water is unavailable in the shower is outrageous
(as happens regularly, to the intense disgust of my sister-in-law A.,
in our slum-lord-owned apartment building in Brooklyn). And that for
a Nicaraguan, running water is only available to prosperous city
dwellers, and hot water in the taps is simply never available.

You know, another contrast I face is the complicated class identity
that I have. In Nicaragua, on the one hand, I have U.S. dollars, and
therefore can afford a prosperous life style (a house in the city, a
motorcycle, restaurant meals, etc). On the other hand, I voluntarily
have chosen not to do certain things which I probably could have
afforded (buy a television, acquire much furniture, hire domestic
help, etc). And to further complicate how I am seen here, I am
highly-educated but don't have a house, a job, or a car in the U.S.
Then there is my class identity in the U.S.. A daughter of an
upper-middle-class white family, with many upper-middle-class tastes
and attitudes, almost 30 and married for 6.5 years, but unlike many
friends at similar stages of life we're living in a not-so-great
neighborhood in Brooklyn where we are one of only 2 or 3 white
families in our building with more than 100 apartments. No car,
turning us into dependents whenever we visit family outside the city.
And sort of beyond the age when I might be expected to be backpacking,
but too young for a midlife crisis, and voluntarily separated from my
husband (with whom I nevertheless have a great relationship) and
living in some country that nobody's really quite sure where it is,
but is associated in the minds of many who read newspapers during the
1980s with a nasty war. So what class category does that put me in?
In Nicaragua? In the U.S.? No wonder I'm sometimes a little confused
and disoriented.

However, right now I'm feeling relaxed and excited to be embarking on
the last lap of this research—a solid two months of time when I'll be
focusing on systematically doing a more structured interview with
about 50 people in the rural community where I've been spending the
most time lately.

I wish everybody a joyful and peaceful new year!


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