Bilingual Blues

A few days ago, I was thrilled at how things were progressing here.  I had scored a few helpful interviews, found a few restaurants with decent vegetarian food, and—most importantly—progressed in my Spanish enough to be able to make my self understood, albeit in a broken and grammatically incorrect fashion.

Half a week later, not much has changed, and I guess that is the problem.  I don’t quite know what, exactly, I expected the learning curve for a foreign language to be, but it’s a bit dispiriting to be making the same errors, and to continue to have to strain and struggle to understand even the most basic questions and comments.  Listening to myself on interview recordings is truly painful: every single mispronounciation, failed conjugation, and mismatched article is digitally commemorated, and acts as a glaring reminder of the fact that I don’t really know what I am doing here.  What is more, I feel like the snowball of contacts and interviews I put into motion last week has stopped rolling—and I can’t help but think it’s thanks to some horrible grammatical error, cut and pasted into a dozen different e-mails.

Research is, of course, supposed to be difficult.  But it’s supposed to be difficult because of other people.  We’re supposed to be held back by incompetent bureaucrats and cultural idiosyncracies and stomach infections—not our own lack of know-how.  Perhaps the most dispiriting realization I’ve had is that my best case scenario for my time here is to achieve what nearly all of my classmates started with—a basic level of comprehension and fluency.  I had, for a short moment, a vision of returning to Oxford head held high, feeling like I had distinguished myself for something other than being loud and unhinged.  At this moment, though, it’s hard to see that happening, given that I lack the most important baseline of research: the ability to understand and be understood.  It’s almost humilitating to tell people here that I’m here doing research, because I can see their skepticism in their faces: “What do you think you can learn if you can’t even hold a conversation?”

And so goes the rollercoaster.  I have enough self-knowledge at this point in my life to know that these moments of despondency inevitably pass; I just have to hope, though, that it passes sometime before the plane ride home, because I have a lot of work to do, bilingual or not.

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.

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Jukebox: Rise Against – Survive

Americans Abroad

Alia caught in the act of trying to take a normal photograph. I'll show you!

Well, I finally did it: I had a proper spring break trip.

Never mind that I waited until I was a graduate student to do it, or that I wound up in Barcelona, not Cancun, and that it barely got above sixty degrees.  All the parts were in place: there were messy nights at overcrowded clubs, bottles of 83 euro-cent wine, a million-and-one pictures of smiling friends mimicking great (at least, that’s what they tell me) sculptures pieces of artwork, and even a slightly-too-cold-but-at-least-we-have-a-beach day of sunbathing.

Real men eat baguettes and drink .83 euro wine.

It wasn’t quite how I envisioned it (nothing really is).  At some point last year, I had grand delusions of spending my breaks couch-surfing across Europe, hitch-hiking and living off scraps the “freegan” way. Just two weeks ago, I was doing research on Barcelona’s world-famous okupas (squats) and making plans for a little bit of anarcho-tourism.  At the very least, I hoped that I would meet some locals and have a chance to practice my Spanish in anticipation for thesis research this summer (yes, I know they speak Catalan).

Hey! We're Americans! We act dumb in restaurants!

In the end, though, I took the beaten path, which—endless guilt complex aside—felt comfortable and, well, the most like an actual vacation. I didn’t practice my Spanish much beyond asking vendors at the market to not give me plastic bags.  While I looked on disapprovingly at the mindless partiers from the U.S. and U.K. in Thailand, having returned from Spain without meeting a single Spanish person, I suppose I now have no room to judge.  And I never made it to the okupas, though I did get some great pictures of them.  Couch-surfing and activist-center hopping might be cheap, but it needs an awful lot of planning, and by the time break rolled around, I was just burned out.  All in all, the yawning gap between my purported identity as a radical—as doing things “differently”—and the reality of my life as an Oxford student has never felt so apparent.


Brain dump about the perils of being a “normal” tourist / person aside, though, I had an amazing time.  There’s not much point in offering a blow-by-blow account, especially since the highpoints were many but not easily captured.  I particularly loved walking along the Mediterranean at midnight, running up to a castle overlooking the Olympic grounds, and buying fresh produce at La Boqueria. It felt great to read a book about development without a pen in hand, soaking in knowledge for its own sake.  And—more than anything—I loved sitting in our apartment chatting, realizing that, six months into graduate school, I do have people I can call friends. It’s kind of absurd to go to school in England, then travel to Spain, only to make friends with a handful of Americans, but if that’s what it takes, I’m all in.

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Jukebox: Yann Tierson – Les Jours Tristes

Frauds and Peaks

I don’t want to believe that my life is ever going to “peak,” and I especially don’t want to believe that it “peaked” one year ago today.

I should state upfront, as a disclaimer, that this is a very self-involved post.  Talking about an award I received a year ago is a bit pathetic, but since Princeton’s campus newspaper still seems to be talking about it, I’m going to consider it fair game.

Last year, when my parents decided to notify our friends, family, and my high school about my receipt of Princeton’s Pyne Prize, I received an e-mail from an extremely wise former history teacher.  He told me not to obsess over whether I could ever ‘out-do’ myself again, and that I shouldn’t worry that some award in college was going to be the pinnacle of my existence.  At the time, I wasn’t too worried.  I was extremely happy with where I was: after a few years of drifting, I had found a community in which I felt like I could be myself, carved out an activist niche in which I felt like I was making real progress, and even come upon an academic project about which I was truly passionate.  What’s more, I had Oxford to get excited about.  It seemed like my trajectory could be only upwards.

Of course, there were always detractors.  I unfortunately lack the mental fortitude not to read online comments, so I knew that some segment of the campus population though I was a complete fraud, and that I received the award only because I had a Mohawk and the university wanted an ‘alternative-looking’ face to put on the homepage.  When I looked at the achievements of my co-recipient, Andy Chen, I couldn’t help but think there was some validity to these claims.  Still, though, I felt confident that – even if there was some truth to what they were saying – I had laid the groundwork to prove them wrong.   At some point in the future, I would show the world that I was deserving because I can have an impact.

One year on, it’s tough not to think that the ‘haters’ were right.  This year’s winner—Conner Diemand-Yaumen, the infinitely likeable Student Government president—has done an astonishing amount to improve Princeton.  By contrast, the few projects I worked on—the Animal Welfare Society and come to mind—have more-or-less fallen apart.  It’s not looking backwards that bothers me, though, but looking forwards.  Last week, I got back my first actual grade from Oxford, and it was joltingly mediocre.  It was almost a metaphor for how I feel here: average, faceless, and small, an insignificant part of a giant academic machine.

I suppose I could try to replicate what I did at Princeton: shave a Mohawk and try to earn a reputation as a campus crazy-man.  Aside from the fact that this would almost certainly not work at a huge university like Oxford, though, I just don’t want to follow that path anymore.  I want to earn my stripes, to show that I really can have an impact in tangible ways.  I’m getting involved with all sorts of causes here—the Vegetarian Society, Food Justice, Anti-War Action, to name a few—but I’m realizing how few organizational or inter-personal skills I actually have as an activist.  It’s a lot easier to project an identity as a ‘change-maker’ than to actually be one.

To end on a higher note, I will just say that last year, this weekend was a ‘peak’ – it was a high point of the phase of my life where people would give me an easy pat on the back and endless positive reinforcement just for being who I am.  While I’m not sure when and where they will come, though, I think my real accomplishments are still in front of me.

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Jukebox: Bomb the Music Industry! – You Still Believe in Me?

Going back

Hey sports fans.  Sorry I haven’t posted in a while, but it would seem that my life is decidedly less interesting when I’m no longer in mind-blowingly messed-up third world countries.  Looking over my old journal and the blog I kept in high school, I’ve realized that I used to share practically everything with the world online – ranging from teenage relationship drama to frustration with my mock trial team.  It’s something I’ve tried to avoid here.  Nonetheless, in the spirit of my seventeen-year-old self, I give you some thoughts on my life at the moment – no politics, no academics, just life.

I’m flying back to Princeton tomorrow.  I’ve tried to frame the week I’m about to spend in Princeton in a variety of different ways.  I’ve told people that the tri-state area is more-or-less between Portland and England, so there’s no loss having a quick stop over. I’ve added the excuse that I have some “work” to do in Princeton.  I suppose that claim, at least, is fairly legitimate.  I’m working on publishing my thesis as a book, and my busy adviser is meeting me for something like 10 minutes next Friday to talk about publication.  I have a solid 35 books to read before I get to Oxford, and so far as I can tell Firestone is the only library to which I have access where I can get them.  I even have some mop-up to do from my adventures in Uganda.  On top of it all, there’s Princeton’s rematch against the Citadel, a key moment for the band to defend it’s honor.  I have to admit, though, that even this explanation for why I’m going to Princeton is a bit of a sham.

I’m going back because I miss Princeton.  I had been expecting graduation to be a big, challenging emotional rollercoaster for me.  After all, my first year at Princeton was by-and-large a disaster precisely because I had such a hard time dealing with graduating from high school.  And yet, graduating from college felt like a bit of a non-event.  There were some tough moments – my final gig with the band chief among them – but basically, I got my diploma, said my goodbyes, and got in a (barely functioning) car and left.  This summer has been full of distractions, be it sophomoric games and fire (Flagstaff), sleepless weeks and ass-maggots (Uganda), or adventures in middle America (New Jersey –> California).  Ironically, I’m not sure it has really hit me that I’ve graduated until tonight, the night before I go back.

And it’s hitting me hard right now.  Now that I’m gone, it’s been surprising how quickly scars heal and bad memories disappear.  A wise person once told me that you inevitably only enjoy something for the last 1/4th of the time that you’re doing it, and it couldn’t have been more true for my college experience.  By the end of my senior year, things had really fallen into place, and I felt like I had a place.  Just as with high school, it’s tough to go from somewhere where you have friends, a comfortable niche, and a degree of success, and erase all of that.  I think toughest of all, though, is that I’m going to go back, I’m going to see all my old friends, and try to do some of my old activities – but I will always know that I don’t really belong.  Perhaps I’m returning to Princeton for so long so that this inescapable truth will really set in, so that I will be forced to realize that it really is over.

“Going back, going back, going back to Nassau Hall.  Going back, going back, to the best damn place of all…”