Immersion and Isolation, part I

So I guess I could write a post about what a struggle it has been to write, read, work, or engage with my online community this week… but I started something along those lines and bored myself.

In any case, I have been trying to write out some thoughts I have on the tangled tensions I feel trying to balance the different forces at work in my life right now – dissertation writing, mothering, living in a foreign country. Here is a beginning, but the second half is still very raw and not quite what I want to say, so I’m going to work over that for a bit before posting it.


I’m sitting in an outdoor café watching the clock and the pedestrians and the other patrons at tables nearby, drinking water “pa gaz” (still, not sparkling) as the foamy residue dries in my empty macchiato cup. I’m just half a block from our apartment building, where my children are being cared for by our Albanian nanny.

It’s been a struggle to get any traction in my dissertation writing. Who am I kidding – I’m not even close to beginning writing. I have just begun to sort through the ethnographic material I gathered last year in the US, interviews and observations of public events and piles and piles of flyers and brochures and other print data. I didn’t even start that process until January. Technically I’m on parental leave anyway, so I gave myself until the new year to get myself and our children settled in and acclimated to a new country and a new childcare provider. And in January, I logged exactly two work days. And those aren’t even full days, but a few hours stolen during nap times.

My advisor told me I need to immerse myself in the data “until it follows you to the bathroom,” until it follows me into my dreams at night as my subconscious mind sorts out theoretical questions and problems. But how, when, am I to achieve this kind of immersion?


Some months after my daughter was born, we were driving either to or from Ithaca, NY, at night; I could see the tension stiffening my husband’s neck in the uneven lights of passing cars on I-81 from where I sat in the backseat next to the baby. He was in the midst of applying for contract renewal and promotion at the university where he teaches sociology and international development (and, one year, environmental chemistry) and was feeling beaten down, disrespected, and belittled by the unnecessarily grueling process. This was a job and community we had chosen to stay with because of the community and church orientation of the school, as well as our family connections in the area. In fact, we had turned down a much more prestigious (and better-paying) job offer at a much bigger university in DC in order to stay here, so it felt like an even deeper betrayal; we had sacrificed for this university, but they seemed to be refusing to value that sacrifice or the other kinds of contributions my husband makes.

In any case, I could see clearly his need to get away for a while. So I told him, “when I get to the dissertation stage of my program, we can go wherever you want.” And so, when he was due a sabbatical at the same time as I was finishing my field research, we decided to move. He found a job in his field in the Balkans, in a country that I was curious about and intrigued by, and so we came here two months after our second child was born, a son.


After spending an hour or two reading intently, transcribing field notes, or otherwise doing dissertation work I come out of the work in a sort of mental fog. I can’t remember a word of Albanian – or rather, I can understand everything I hear but I can’t produce a single phrase to save my life.

I’m in a translocated bubble when I’m working; a tiny sphere inside my head outside of which is everything Albanian – people, language, movement, food, color, sound. Inside, there’s just me and the Shenandoah Valley and the voices in my head code-switching in Mexican-accented Spanish and Valley-accented English kneading over material on identity, language, ethnicity, Latinidad.

When I’m traveling or talking with Albanians, on the other hand, my dissertation work feels very far away. I still remember the conversation I had with another expatriate shortly after moving here; she asked me what my dissertation topic was and I couldn’t remember. I said something about Latino immigrant youth and she asked me for more specifics and I couldn’t produce anything.

This nesting of spheres is rendering me mute.

[to be continued…]


6 Responses to “Immersion and Isolation, part I”

  1. happygoluckytireegal Says:

    Wow! Brilliantly written and intense! I have no bright ideas except perhaps getting on a regular writing schedule?… The macchiatta reminds me that’s what we drank all the time at the many outdoor cafes in Croatia. Aah…. But dealing with two completely different cultures – well three counting your own, and acknowledging that one seems to live solely in your head. Very hard. Good luck. I really felt I was getting to know you more in this post. Thank you:)

    • eep6 Says:

      I do, oh I do, need a more regular schedule. And I intend to write about that too – why it’s been hard to carve out the time.

      Thanks for the encouraging words.

  2. slowmamma Says:

    I don’t know anything about your dissertation so this may sound very stupid but, if you actually haven’t started yet, what about switching topics to something related to Albania? I know that means beginning again but, perhaps, it could come with a lot more actual stimulation to move forward.

    Like I said, I don’t know what I’m talking about. My dissertation was in the sciences. Whatever you do, I wish you luck striking the necessary balance.

    • eep6 Says:

      I have actually thought about doing that! One of my friends has changed her research topic four times since starting our program, the most recent just as she was leaving for the field. So it’s not unheard of…. but it WOULD mean a looooot more work.

      Part of me would also very much like to change my project to something about body politics, self-representation, and the world of infertility blogging… (huh! I wonder why?!) but I don’t know what my advisor would think. And again, it would mean basically starting over from scratch in terms of the background literature I would need to read.

      Thanks for the good wishes! I’m not ruling anything out!

  3. Tara Says:

    it seems like you are experiencing part of what you are hoping to document- when you talked about your dissertation earlier you described how you wanted to study youth who had 3 cultural identities that they were trying to manage. I don’t know if that’s helpful to you, but perhaps by writing about your own tension you can find similar themes in your data.
    Or there’s my approach to writing my dissertation: drink enough red wine to get buzzed, write “i can’t do this/ this is sh**” for several pages until you get passed or bored with the internal critic and can write about other stuff.

    • eep6 Says:

      Yes, exactly – and I think that’s one of the reasons I decided to put time and focus into writing about these feelings. Luckily for me anthropology has become a very reflexive discipline in the past couple decades and self-reflection is to some degree expected on the researcher’s part so I hope to include some of this stuff in the dissertation eventually. If nothing else, I do know that I have to write it out, or write through, all the angst to get to a place where I can produce something a bit more academic eventually.

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