The Other Mirror

Another culture. One of the reasons why “the other” is dangerous: It can serve as a mirror, reflecting your own image in ways leading you to recognize more of yourself.

Recently, my time has been very interesting:

On the one hand, last weekend, I realized one more reason why, in anthropological fieldwork, your private life is sometimes referred to as “the shadow side.”
The obvious (?) reason is that it is supposed to remain hidden. You go out in the field to live there, get to know the group/culture you live with, find out what you ventured out for, but not get too involved. (Of course, I’m also here to teach, to live, not strictly for fieldwork, so who cares?)
And, naturally, we are human. Many of the postmodern influences in anthropology – seeing anthropological writing as not much more than fiction, telling more about the author than about the purported research question – are of rather questionable value. They tended to let anthropological writing devolve into novelistic fables, more navel-gazing and literary artifact than even good travel writing is. Yet, there is value in having had this critique remind us that we are human. We cannot prevent being alive as a human being; not scientific instruments which just measure objectively, but persons with character and emotions, thought and feeling.

So, being human, I felt rather “in the shadow” last weekend. Emotional turmoil. I knew some of the reasons – mainly, a nagging feeling of loneliness – but still couldn’t quite understand what it was.

On the other hand, after the weekend, things started to look up.
Already on the weekend, I went to play table tennis. Probably for the first time in twenty years, if I ever really played before. Went and played basketball with some of them. Got out of the apartment… which, stupid as that sounds, is just too big right now. Took the chances I got for chatting with my students, which leads to them practicing German, me practicing Chinese, and everybody noticing that the other is actually open to socializing. Thought not about what will be, but what I was doing in the moment… and it’s not as if there weren’t enough to do… exams are coming up, winter break is a chance for either a nervous break-down, or chances to travel, write, do photography, and look forward to all of that.

In the spirit of “the other as mirror,” I noticed something:
Culture is, as we anthropologists (should) understand, oftentimes also hidden in the shadows, the crags and crevices of our consciousness.
German speakers, and especially around Vienna, have made an art form out of the complaint. People do not only go to pubs to drink, but also to complain. About the politicians, the weather, the economy, stupid people (which tends to be, everyone but the in-group), and so on, and so forth. It’s a form of socializing.
Bring that into a different context – like me feeling gloomy, living in China – and you get an interesting situation: I wake up with a smile because I’m here, feel that it’s the right place to be, am learning something new every day… but must have given some people a very strange impression when I first complained about the trouble I’ve been in, and then told them how much I like it here…

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  1. i gain a lot every time i read ur blog ,although i dont quite understand what anthropologist should do ~~

  2. ellis

    ah, you nailed that feeling of lonely satisfaction. china is at once a very alienating and welcoming place for a foreigner. but i loved your comment about perfecting the art of the complaint. there’s always something to complain about, even if you’re mostly satisfied. but if you had nothing to complain about, you would have nothing to work at improving, and then what would be the point of life? for me at least, working towards something maintains my sanity.

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