“Sometimes people say that anybody can make observations and write a book about a primitive people. Perhaps anybody can, but it may not be a contribution to anthropology.”
– Some Reminiscences and Reflections on Fieldwork, Sir E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1973)
If I had to pick a color to describe myself at this particular phase in my life, it would be blue. Daily Post’s ‘The Hue of You’ photo challenge this week has got me thinking about my particular position in life at this very moment. It feels like I am making huge leaps, but while airborne I can’t quite enjoy the view from above because I’m actually really worried about whether I will have a safe landing or not. What if I crash?
I was walking around Piccadilly Circus in London yesterday with my mother and brother and found these golden statues leaping from the edge of the roof of one of the buildings. This is how I feel:
My heart is not quite at ease. I am passing through my days here as if in a perpetual state of jet lag; every day feels like Monday, and even on weekends I can’t seem to unwind. There’s no end in sight (yet) for the Monday Blues rocking my days (and nights), and I’m trying to settle down but it’s taking longer than I thought it would.
I still find it simply unfathomable, and indeed bizarre, that I’d actually spent my entire life up to this point moving from one dot on the map to another, crossing borders and resettling again and again, always just when I thought I’d gotten comfortable. Approximately 87% of me is an introvert, which made moving to a new school always a challenge when I was growing up, but thankfully this didn’t seem to bear any negative effects on my academic performance; in fact, it served as a strong motivator to immerse myself in work rather than get hooked on social activities my parents would not have quite approved of. How did I survive this? Is it simply humans’ extraordinary capability to adapt that allowed me to live a normal life despite these constant ruptures in stability, or was I just fortunate that God made it easy for me (in which case alhamdulillah!)?
The thing is, after two decades of this life, I still find this moving business a challenge. Yet the challenges are always new, which makes it difficult to employ my past successful adaption strategies this time around. Here at Cambridge the challenge isn’t so much about finding friends or finding a grocery store or settling into a house, which thankfully was all sorted out before my arrival; the problem is simply rising up to Cambridge’s extraordinarily high expectations, something I somewhat foresaw but could not quite grasp until I arrived here and finally knew how intense things would be.
This is exacerbated by the fact that my colleagues are in many ways so much more advanced than I am, most of them having completed their MPhil in social anthropology as well in Cambridge — a huge advantage without a doubt considering the fact that it prepares them for the next stage and their level of expectation around here. Here, I honestly don’t know how to respond whenever I get the question, “Where did you do your Masters?” Actually, did I or did I not do my Masters? Is Honours even considered as a postgraduate course? I try to explain to my colleagues what Honours is (“It’s a one-year course we do after our BA, with exactly the same structure as a Masters degree but just with a different name”) but they would always respond, “Oh so you came here straight after you finished your undergrad,” to which I would reply with an I-guess-so “Yeah…” Honours was quite intense, but I found that it still didn’t quite prepare me for Cambridge. I guess those years of not doing my readings are finally coming back to bite me in the ass.
I think I didn’t quite expect the Pre-Fieldwork Course that we do in the first year to have so many seminars and readings, which takes time away from my own research. At the same time I cannot deny that this Pre-Fieldwork training is exactly what I need to prepare myself before I jump into the field in my second year, for that is when the real challenge begins. I quite envy my PhD colleagues in other disciplines, who don’t even know how many people there are in their cohort simply because they get to lunge into their chosen field of research as soon as they commence their course. To concentrate on nothing but one’s research — how blissful would that be?
The thing about doing research in social anthropology is that it is without a doubt a very taxing exercise that requires 110% of us to be fully engaged with what we do. The people we will meet, the conversations, debates and disagreements we will have with them, the languages and the lessons we will learn, the morals, values, and beliefs we might have to compromise — doing fieldwork as an anthropologist is not at all like putting on a lab coat before you pick up your dissecting knife, then putting it back on the hook behind the lab door when you’re done. It is like… a constant rearrangement of the contents of the baggage that we all carry with us wherever we go in this life. As our journey as future anthropologists progresses, we will add new memories and knowledge into our baggage, and perhaps take out a couple too that ceases to stay in our mind, simply because new sets of circumstances have called for more storage space for the new experiences we will save.
As soon as we’ve stepped foot into the field, our lives will change forever, as much as our presence in the field will transform those of our informants. It is often said that what you will take out of the field will depend heavily on what you bring into it. This is what this year is all about: it is my chance to right my intentions (what the hell am I doing this PhD for?) and my research directions (what am I trying to find out?) before the real deal begins.
This year is going to be tough, but I think these tough times will be a golden opportunity to stretch myself further, perhaps even to heights I never knew I could reach. Sometimes I think I don’t progress through life with goals in mind. Well maybe I do, but I see these goals more as an experiment than as objectives that must be achieved; this pertains to the major life-changing decisions I’ve made so far in my two decades of living, which includes applying for exchange to Sciences Po and then trying my hand at Oxbridge for graduate studies next. My parents have thankfully laid down a strong foundation for me to build my life, and from this point on, it is my time to make these calls on my own.
One thing is for sure: in every difficulty there is always an opportunity. As my people would always say — ‘Bersusah-susah dahulu, bersenang-senang kemudian.’