Sink or Swim

There was a time, I imagine, when doing field work in developing countries was legitimately scary.  Anthropologists studying remote islands or indigenous tribes might be cut off from contact with their home countries for years.  Without the internet or television, their immersion in their place of study was total and non-stop, even in the worst depths of frustration and homesickness.  Health care could be spotty and diseases unfamiliar and dangerous.  Lest I sound like I’m romanticizing old school anthropology too much, I should add that researchers could also be endangered, largely thanks to their close association with colonialism.

Of course, as a masters student preparing to go for a mere nine weeks to a modern—if poor—country, with Western restaurants and hospitals and internet cafes, where certainly thousands have gone before to do research, I have nothing to be afraid of.

But shit, I am so scared right now.

Of course, there are some practical worries.  It’d be nice to know that there’s going to be readily available vegetarian food, but I’m expecting to subsist off of bananas.  I’m generally a pretty carefree traveler, but seeing Orellana Province on the state department travel advisory list and reading about the abundance of muggings in Quito has me a bit concerned.  There are all manner of tropical diseases and motor accidents that could occupy my brain, if I weren’t so busy stressing about where I’m actually going to live and who I’m going to talk to.  But, really, these are just practicalities, and I know I can handle them.

Chalk part of my fear up to language.  I’m not sure what the worst mistake I’ve ever made in my life is, but right now, dropping Spanish my sophomore year feels like a strong contender.  I’ve been practicing frantically the last few months, but I know that my ability to hold a conversation in my head is very different from being able to communicate about complex ideas with an actual person.  I’m spending my first two weeks in Ecuador taking intensive language classes, but 40 hours of one-on-one training does not make one fluent.

My mediocore Spanish, though, is, in my brain, symbolic of the broader insanity of this project and, maybe, research in general.  Somehow, I’m supposed to go to a country which I’ve never even visited, talk to people for a few weeks, and, at the end, produce “knowledge.” There is, I think, a certain uncomfortable arrogance to it: the idea that I, Westerner, Oxonian, can offer something that hundreds of other academics can’t.  I make these things harder for myself, too, be obsessing not just over whether I will be able to write a good thesis—all our department really cares about—but whether I can do so ethically, respectfully, and in a way that does enough good for the communities that help me to justify it.  It’s a tall order, and one that I wonder if I managed to fulfill in my previous work with the freegans (and they spoke English!).

And, my fears get even more abstract.  If I can’t make it as a research this summer, how can I ever make a career of it?  If I’m so afraid of talking people, scared of being rejected in requests for interviews or laughed at for cultural faux-paus, why am I so interested in a field where the currency is human interaction?  If I’m this paralyzed preparing for nine weeks, how would I feel before leaving for a year or two to do a dissertation?

Yesterday, I went to the hospital to get my arm looked at.  As they took x-rays, I half dreamed that they would discover some bizarre new fracture which would, for some reason, prevent me from going.  I had a moment where I thought about another summer spent living with my phenomenal housemates, a year to brush up on Spanish and figure out how to make it where I am without throwing myself into someplace new.

But, of course, that’s all nonsense.  The cast is gone, and there’s no turning back now.  Sink or swim.

– – – – –

Jukebox: Rise Against – Survive

One thought on “Sink or Swim

  1. Amen. You just summed up all of my fears as well.
    That said, have a great time! I know you will have a worthwhile trip.

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