Monday, October 21, 2019

Staying in place

The provincial joy of a sunset sky, Berkeley, CA

I read an article about acknowledgements in academic papers. Through the lens of the acknowledgement the article illustrates, and critiques, the kind of person held up as the ideal scholar (at least, in the social sciences) -- mobile, cosmopolitan and rootless.


When I go see an old professor I admire to ask for advice on maybe applying to graduate school, he tells me, Go live somewhere else for a year. Move to Afghanistan and learn Dari or something. Or Indonesia. Have you ever been to Indonesia?

No-oo, I say, feeling the failure of it hot in my veins.


In high school I travel a lot to give speeches at distant conferences, missing 53 days of class in senior year of high school. I like a line from the movie "Up in the Air," in which George Clooney plays the frequent flyer protagonist: "Tonight most people will be welcomed home by jumping dogs and squealing kids. Their spouses will ask about their day, and tonight they'll sleep. The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places; and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over."

The point of the movie is that the character is unhappy, but I try to use it for my senior quote in the yearbook anyway.

Sometimes I resent the traveling, like when I miss school dances, and other times I appreciate it, like when nobody asks me to the dance, or I can't work up the courage to ask someone. Why didn't you go to Tolo? I was in Denver. I was in New York. I was in --

It wreaks havoc on my AP Bio grades, but not being around means I don't have to do the work of being a person my age around others my age, which is both harder and more joyful than the speeches.


My friend flies in from New York to stay with us unexpectedly for a couple of days because of a memorial service for a schoolmate, whose passing has put us all in a morose and reflective mood on the subject of friendship and staying in touch.

The New York friend left the Bay for a plum job after college. He does a good job of Getting Out and meeting people but when I tell him about the acknowledgements article and the characterization of the ideal scholar, he says vehemently, That sounds depressing as hell.

Standing in the sylvan light filtering through the branches framing the kitchen window, musing on our respective locations, I think both of us wonder if we have made the right moves: his, to leave, mine, to stay.


Sometimes, I want to leave home for someplace far and difficult to reach to make people miss me, a petty desire. In truth I know people respond to people leaving the way quicksand does to perturbations: closing ranks, filling the space.


Do I know less because I've stayed in the same city for almost six years?


The old professor and I talk about how I don't really know what I want to research but would certainly depart from the subject of my undergraduate thesis because its research question interrogated something too -- I fish for the word for a moment -- proximate. Close to me.

Exactly, he says, and he jolts forward in his chair. You don't want to do proximate.

Proximate is clinical, euphemistic really. The word that haunts our conversation, my insecurities and his enthusiastic directives, is another 'P' one: provincial.


Why is it worse to study nearby things?


I wonder if it's a strange American predilection to dismiss what's proximate.

In the dimly lit Belgrade hostel den, a Canadian in John Lennon glasses and an Australian with her blonde hair pulled into a sporty ponytail talk about going to uni near where they'd grown up.

In the States you travel for school, don't you? they say, and I say yes, at first, but then disclaim that actually, the majority of people actually stay close to home, but there is a culture of applying to far away places in the upper socioeconomic strata, and among more competitive students...

I struggle with description here, not wanting to describe myself as a member of the privileged class while also facing the fact that I went to school states away from my childhood home, that I almost went to school on an opposite coast.


Without travel, how can we know that our own is not the only way to live?


The Mosuo minority people in China live in a matrilineal society and practice a form of polyandry known as the "walking marriage," in which men visit women's houses at night (at the women's invitation) and children are raised communally.

I learned this from a book or maybe an article I read online.


The Chinese girl from the hostel asks if she can join my morning of aggressively touring museums (two down by noon, followed by the sprawling National Museum). In the middle of the Ethnographic Museum, she asks Is your mother a military? which confuses me until she clarifies in Chinese, shaoshu minzu, and I say, A minority? Oh, no.

Because of the length of time we've spent together talking about our families, slogging through halls of paintings, and even painstakingly piecing together a puzzle of a vase of flowers in the National Museum, I think it appropriate to give her a hug goodbye. She seems nonchalant when we part. I realize later I never got her name.

The completed puzzle

I spend hours sitting around a wooden table with the others at the hostel, drinking cheap beer and lightly rebuffing the persistent offers of strong rakija, fruit brandy, from a beanie-wearing man with reddened eyes. Was he on something? the girls around the table ask after he's left.

When people start peeling off from the table one by one to go to sleep, I marvel at how nobody reacts by attempting to tether onto any means of connection that might outlast our conversation. There is no exchange of contact information on WhatsApp or WeChat or Facebook Messenger, no blithe "Come and visit me when you're in [city]!" only that kindly "Well, I'm going to bed. Have a good night!" I think, any of us could be gone as soon as the next morning (thank either geography or mortality). So be it: we live in the present. Whatever community we form that night is ephemeral.


"And what should they know of England who only England know?"

We resist provincialism to resist self-indulgence, self-obsession, self-centeredness. So much resistance against the imposition of the self.

But during that best performance of rootlessness and mobility -- travel -- I am hyper-conscious of my body, the placement of my limbs, the space I take up in a security line, the smell of my denuded feet as I step gingerly into the towering full body scanner, my belongings. At the gate I slouch into a protective huddle over my backpack, sitting on a hard black chair. Walking briskly over the paving near Republic Square fallen into disrepair I keep one hand close to my wallet.

At home, where I embrace friends and on some days loll around in easy communion with the grass, the trees, the stars, then those borders between my self and everything else begin to feel less solid.

There is no glamorous fellowship named after a rapacious colonialist or robber baron or wealthy technologist for staying where you are, for organizing groups of people to meet over snacks purloined from the work kitchen to talk about books together, for practicing what the anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing called in her book The Mushroom at the End of the World "the arts of noticing" as you walk down the wending path to your morning train, for stumbling through the woods of a nearby park and seeing for the first time what they look like in the dark.

All the same, can't that be a kind of intellectual journey, too?


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