Immersion and Isolation, part II

The best way to begin a dissertation in cultural anthropology is to immerse yourself in your data, my advisor said. And the best way to learn a new language is to immerse yourself in the culture.

How can I do both these things at once?

I once asked a friend, a former high school chemistry teacher who elected to stay home with her small children (except for one night class she would teach at the university every semester) if she ever got bored. Bored? No, she said, but isolated, yes.

Mothering small children in our society can be supremely isolating. Living in a foreign country can be isolating. And writing as a discipline and practice is by virtue isolating.

There is connectivity, as well, in each of these spheres – people here adore small children, and I’ve had many opportunities to practice speaking Albanian when strangers stop to admire my baby or stroke my daughter’s hair and then stay to strike up a conversation. They invariably compliment my language ability, which I find immensely flattering, although I have to remember that I am really just having the exact same conversation over and over again and if we were to talk about politics and current events instead I’d be lost. But it’s hard to get out of the house with the two little ones in tow, hard to muster up the energy to invite people over (especially when my innate shyness comes into the equation), so much more comfortable to stay in and play with the kids at home where I have more control over the environment and there are lots of books and toys.

Some days, when it’s late afternoon and I’m setting foot out the door for the first time that day, or we didn’t out out at all the day before, I walk out of the building and experience a little jolt. Yes, I really am in Albania. The language I’m hearing is Albanian, and the people walking around me are all going about their business concerned with matters that have nothing at all to do with me. I almost forget sometimes, at home, especially on the weekends when Gimli is here and we talk English all day, where we are. It’s an expat dilemma – you need a certain measure of the comforts of home (food, language, communication with friends and family back in your nation/s of origin), but if you are to make it long-term in the new context you also need to learn the local language, learn to eat the local foods, make new friends. Otherwise why go anywhere to begin with?

I grew up in an expat community in Peru, where many of my friends who spent 5, 10, 15 years in the country never really learned to speak Spanish. They didn’t have anyone to speak it with. We lived on a mission center in the jungle, went to an American school created just for us missionary kids, and because of security reasons in the ’80s and ’90s weren’t encouraged to leave the base very much. My mom is Peruvian, and my parents worked and lived away from the base at least six months of the year, so my sister and I did grow up bilingual and were immersed in Peruvian life a lot of the time. But many of my friend weren’t and didn’t, and I have a lot of stories of hurtful things they said or did (usually without really  meaning any harm) that my Peruvian heritage made me more sensitive to. So I hate it when expatriate communities become insular and disengaged from the local communities.

I want to live here – to really BE here – but sometimes it’s easier just to plug in to the computer or stay home with the kids and not be here, mentally. And then there’s the strange disjuncture that happens in my mind when I do get to work on my dissertation, that I wrote about in the previous post.

Aside from appropriating Hermione Granger’s time-turner, I’m not sure yet how I’m going to figure out the balance. And maybe there’s no such thing; maybe it’s an always evolving, always dynamic process full of tumbles and banged elbows and mistakes. And that’s life.

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2 Responses to “Immersion and Isolation, part II”

  1. slowmamma Says:

    I think you are absolutely right to want to BE there. It’s also true that you (like everyone, of course) NEED to connect with people. And, as wonderful as it is, sometimes you need to connect beyond a few friendly words on the street.

    Are there other expats (not necessarily American or Peruvian but English or Spanish-speaking) or, even better, Albanians who are fluent in English with whom you can connect? Perhaps through the university or the diplomatic sector?

    • Elizabeth Says:

      I recently joked to my husband about “the three Albanians I talk to…” which would be 1) our nanny (who is a sanity-saver in more ways than child care), 2) my language teacher (another sanity saver), and… Hm. I suppose this one woman at church, a mom I see in the nurseries on Sundays, although her very strict beliefs are a little off-putting to me! Though it’s strangely easier for me to tolerate that kind of difference when it’s an Albanian than a fellow American.

      I could be more proactive about connecting with some of my husband’s coworkers (nearly all Albanian), although they’re just as busy as he is and I hesitate to “bother” them on weekends. But I should.

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