Surrealism, Anthropology and Mental Health

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A Friend of Order – Rene Magritte (1964)

A few weeks ago, I found myself unable to determine with any real certainty the existence of either myself or the outside world. More specifically, I felt that I could not trust my memories. I have learned latterly that this is called “depersonalisation” or “derealisation”,  and it formed the anxious nadir of my generally-poor recent mental health. For an anthropologist and an ethnographer, losing trust in memory is deeply troubling. While I have books of field notes, my work calls upon my memories more than perhaps I would like, the ineffable qualia of the field fading the longer it has been since I returned. Memory is evidence for reality, and reality is, as some sort of scientist, what I am supposed to be studying. Not being able to trust that impression of reality is discomfiting. A certain absent-mindedness, or a problem forming short-term memories, is a byproduct of the constant fight-or-flight state in which the anxious brain resides. When one’s brain thinks it is within second of being eaten by a tiger, it seems dinner plans, for instance, are not filed as “important”. The derealisation, however, was a new and frightening development, that was set into motion by the tiniest of kinks in the order of things. I have learned since that it is a defense mechanism put into place by a brain under siege from cortisol, adrenaline and other stress chemicals, and not, happily, a sign of psychosis. I visited the doctor nonetheless.

I am relaying this because it is important for academics to write about the problems that they experience with mental health, being as a third of us will experience mental health problems over the course of our PhDs. It can often feel like we are going through our issues alone, or that they are some sort of personal failing, that we are “not cut out for this sort of work”. This is not the case, and writing about it brings us closer to an academic environment when the mental health record of its apprentices is not so poor. Ending the stigma associated with mental health issues in the academy is vital, however I have sat on this post for longer than any others out of concern for how this advertises me as an academic and an anthropologist.

Now safely being treated, I am left to ponder on what I should take from my experience with anxiety-induced derealisation. Reading James Clifford’s On Ethnographic Surrealism (1981) and revisiting my own fascination with the unreal in art seems to provide some level of insight as to what it might mean for my work. Unlike the reactionary nature of derealisation, surrealism was transgressive, and transformative, in its unreality, rebelling against the traumatic mechanism of the First World War to call for a new conceptual frame through which to look at the world. Clifford sums this up by quoting Walter Benjamin:

A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside that remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath the clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body (1969)

This feeling of trauma as a result of European degradation and barbarism seems to mirror a mind at constant war and tension with itself. Just as the human mind eventually detaches from the conventional assessment of reality, so too do the people in a broken continent eventually call for a reassessment of what constitutes “real”. In the surrealists’ Europe, this generation of Benjamin’s were hostage not to the events themselves, nor even to the trauma that they caused directly, but to the implications of the reality drawn up by the war, namely the fragility and brutality of so much of human existence.

In rejecting that reality, the surrealists were taking charge of their perceptions, rather than “checking out”, as a derealising mind does. The surrealist embraces unreality actively, rather than languishing in it passively. Seeking out unreality and luxuriating in its possibility, using the Other (in this case, the unreal) as a lens, surrealists are making decisions about reality. The valorisation of dreamscapes, as you might find in a Magritte painting, was an active decision to look somewhere else. Finding their fetish objets sauvages in “exotic” cultures, surrealists found unreality through the reification of a geographical, cultural Other, from browsing the Marché aux Puces, or from absconding to other places and directly using other cultures as tools for examining our own. The lines of similarity to ethnography are clear here, as are the clear orientalist assumptions that early 20th century scholarship is saturated with.

My own work in the field has done the job of “making the strange familiar and the familiar strange”, not least because it is anxiety over the writing up of findings that has lead to a temporary detachment from reality in the first place. But it takes a deeper and more autochthonic tone than this. Necessity leads me to adopt full-time work outside of academia, as it does for many of us, and the language used about it often takes the tone that I work “in the real world”, intensifying the unreality of the work I conduct in my spare time, the work to which I have “belonged” for so long. Does the implication that I only now work “in the real world” mean I belonged in the “unreal”? This is a scary thought, much like a derealisation experience.

We have, in true anthropological style, a Levi-Straussian dichotomy of the “real, mundane, profane ” work of the day to day, the humdrum, the nine-to-five, set against the “unreal, esoteric, sacred” work of the thesis*. One makes the other feel unreal. At no time is this clearer than now. I have just come back from a four-day excursion back to Cologne for a small conference, in which much to do with cultural mapping and decision making was discussed, and I had the privilege of taking part in some wonderful exchanges of ideas with people whom I enormously respect. Now that I have returned, the conference’s location a plane trip away from my day-to-day existence reinforces the feeling of “unreality”, and my desire to prove that it exists. Academic life for me is in a different country from the one in which I live; another place or, perhaps more correctly, an Other-place.

Like the surrealists, I too have been holding on to my own objets sauvages , totems and reminders of Other-places in which I have lived. The most mundane objects from Namibia: strings of beads I wore, a t-shirt long past its wearable state; even trash from Japan: a chopstick packet from my favourite pub, an unreadable stained fortune, a train ticket. They are proof that either the “reality” or the “unreality” of my life as an anthropologist exists, not to show others, but as evidence that what happened was somehow “real”, so far away does it feel. It is a tension that breeds great stress, as well as mono no aware, or the gentle sadness of things. The same drive that causes some to repair pots with gold leaf to celebrate the passage of time, causes me to hang on to the most mundane of items from the past as evidence for my own memories. However, by following the surrealists, and by actively embracing this feeling of unreality, by confronting and examining it, the question of “what is real?” becomes not an objective right or wrong one, but instead a choice. The question becomes not “do I belong in the real world?” but simply “where do I belong?”, a happy question because it is one of the few to which I know the answer.

Surrealism, perhaps, teaches us that by taking control of and critically examining both reality and unreality, we can deal with the inevitable breaking down that happens when our reality becomes somehow traumatic (even if we have suffered no explicit traumatic incident). Our world can certainly seem traumatic, but research on the media bubbles in which many of us ensconce ourselves shows that our realities as informed by our news media are becoming ever more polarised, and different from one another, making it hard to know what is “true”. When all of our information conflicts, it is difficult to insist upon an objective reality. Instead, we should take control of our collective and conflicting unrealities, and explore the edges and boundaries of them to find new insights. Reading the meta-message is how we now are supposed to know the news.

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Day and Night – MC Escher (1938)

Taking control is the primary drive in most anxiety-related behaviours. Frustration, irritability or even anger at a perceived lack of order is a manifestation of the will to control anything that one can in world perceived to be chaotic, disordered and untrustworthy. Escher seems to encapsulate this feeling in some ways. Even in nonsensical situations, such as in Day and Night, all feels ordered, everything fits. I always interpreted Escher not as hewing order from chaos but, like Franz Kafka, seeing the order in chaos and the illogicality and chaos that can be buried within order. The bureaucracy taken to its illogical conclusion expressed in The Trial seems to echo the inherent strangeness of the tessellations in Escher’s Day and Night and Encounter when they are brought out into the more “real” perspectives. Working now in something of a Kafkaesque situation, the order/chaos tension and harmony speaks to me even more profoundly than before.

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Encounter – MC Escher (1944)

Where am I going with all of this? The feeling of unreality one has upon returning from the field has been touched on before, but deeper in this is the question of how anthropologists think about how we relate to the world outside our discipline, and how we adapt to living in it. This has sometimes been a story of a failure to adapt, born of a desire to belong to something we conceptualise as “the real world”. This desire is, like most desires, misplaced, and the source of great suffering and anxiety. Interrogating the notion of order, control, and the desire for both, is part of dealing with this, and unreal art forms a wonderful lens through which to examine it. Tied up in all of this is the lesson which the surrealists have to teach us: that our perceptions of reality and unreality are shaped by the choices we make as well as our feelings and experiences. By embracing the feelings of unreality and critically and academically examining them, we can have a hand in shaping our own engagement with what happens to us. This is a valuable insight in a world in which “reality” feels more unpleasantly flexible than ever.

 

References

“On Ethnographic Surrealism”, James Clifford, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Oct., 1981), pp. 539-564

*Durkheim laughs at me once again as I even now refer to academia as “the Temple” and somehow sacred in arguments about the profit motive in university, annoying even those who agree with me in fiery wine-fuelled diatribes about the small minds of businessmen, and the casting of the moneychangers from the actual temple in Jerusalem (Matthew 21:12).

Enkouji

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For about three or four years, I have known about, read about, and occasionally engaged in the Japanese practice of zazen, or “just sitting”. My discipline has varied, but originally inspired by the slightly more conversational tone of Soto Zen master (and former Zero Defects Bassist) Brad Warner in his book Sit Down and Shut Up, I have found something of an affinity for sitting and doing absolutely nothing, which is a lot harder than it sounds, and quite strange.

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Brad Warner’s books look like this.

My field informants in my second village in Namibia avoided me for days when I started sitting there as unfortunately the position in which you sit to sit zazen looks quite a lot like a witching trance used to curse people. After assuring people that I had no idea how magic worked and was instead doing my best to think of nothing, a few enquired about my “Japanese religious practice”, but none fancied trying it. I used to sit every day in the field, a hallmark of the increased attention span and more ready ability to concentrate that living without wifi and screens seems to conjure, but have been less disciplined when back in Europe.

Keen to keep up some sort of reading on the subject, which is fascinating, and doesn’t ask for you to believe anything, I had a go at getting stuck into Master Dogen’s Shobogenzoa foundational text in Soto-shu and quite readable in English with a decent translation, provided you try and picture yourself in a Japan circa 1200. I nevertheless have not necessarily got that far. It doesn’t help that in the UK and in Germany Zen Buddhism manages to not only be a fringe minority religion but also to be considered a mess of the sort of cheesy think-positive Facebook reposts that your orientalist hippie friend loves sharing. Worse, people interested in Zen inevitably end up being asked whether we are trying to find enlightenment, or connect with “the astral plane”, or whatever vaguely “Eastern Wisdom” pastiche nonsense has unfortunately been filtered down from the sadly misinformed “believe in yourself” credulous types busy trying to work out the healing power of crystals in between consulting mediums (media?).

I am an awkwardly resistant practitioner of zazen, it is safe to say, probably because of the connotations of being a white Brit into Buddhism. I am fascinated by it, particularly the benefits of a mind-body integrative practice upon mental health disorders (a cool literature review from an actual journal in evidence-based medicine is here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22700446), and I have found, anecdotally, that it seems to work for at least one person. I am also fascinated by the concept of an entirely materialistic spirituality. More correctly I suppose, my reading into Zen literature and my words with practitioners lead me to the conclusion that the question of whether Zen is materialistic is a little bit unimportant. They are concerned with the here and now, flesh and blood reality, or, as they would put it: mu, nothing.

Zazen is also very normal in Japan. I was invited some weeks ago to sit with one of my friends at the Enkouji Temple, a stunning 400-year-old complex to the North of the city of Kyoto, which contains the temple itself, an array of immaculate Zen gardens and a graveyard, notable for containing, among its Buddhist inhabitants, the grave of a Muslim exchange student from Malaysia, Syed Omar, who perished in the atomic bomb in Hiroshima in 1945.

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Enkouji Zazendo (room in which we sit) in the temple garden.

It is a beautiful place, although one upon my first visit I saw very little of, as it was still dark, and about half past five in the morning. Zen people seem like the consummate trolls (the fun kind, not the ones of 2017) in their tendency to mess with you. Morning meditation begins at 0600, which given the distance to the temple and the fact that I must travel there on a bicycle, means that my Sunday morning alarm goes off at 0445. Zazen is not, apparently, for the faint-hearted. Nor the cold-averse. It is inescapably February in Japan, a country known less for its forgiving winters than its avid snowsports scene, and not only is the Zazendo unheated but zazen is conducted with the doors and windows thrust wide open to take in the environment.At 0545, we take our seats on cushions designed to keep your bum a few centimetres from the ground, allowing one in theory to sit comfortably in the lotus position, which looks like this:

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This is not me at the Zazendo. This is me after a bath in the hot springs (hence the getup). I am not this warm, awake or relaxed at the Zazendo.

I still have trouble with my freakishly-long and bizarrely inflexible lower limbs over the whole Zazen period, but I am getting better. All set out in lines, the cushions allow for us to be close enough to others that we feel we are doing this together, but far enough away so we are not disturbed by one another. At 0600, Osho-san (the monk running the temple) rings the giant bell outside, comes inside, lights the incense, and so begins the first phase of the zazen. We sit for roughly 20 minutes, or as long as it takes for the incense to burn down to nothing.

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Zazendo in the light after meditation is done.

20 minutes is quite a long time just to sit still, and one finds the “monkey mind” (as the former president of the Buddhist society at Edinburgh University used to put it) swinging from tree to tree, chasing thoughts this way and that. In Zen, there are strategies to combat this. Breathe slowly, and count your breaths from one to ten. If you lose count, or your thoughts wander off, simply start again. With no distractions, the lights off and your eyes half closed and pointed to a spot two metres in front of you on the floor, it is incredibly hard to get to ten. This is no problem, though. All you have to do is return to counting your breaths. You might get to ten next time. If you do? Start again. If you breathe properly, you can also bypass your body’s shivering reflex. Zazen is very uncomfortable at times, and comfortable at others. It is boring at times, and interesting at others. Zazen is just like reality because that is all that it is. You’re sitting in a building with the windows open.

Here is the key point: Zazen has no objective. Osho-san, as well as all of the Zen people I have read, are very clear about this. If you think you have found enlightenment, you haven’t. If you come to the Zazendo wanting to find enlightenment, you might as well go home, because you will not find what you are looking for. The clue is in the name: Za-zen: Just sitting. The point is to sit, and you are sitting, so you are achieving your point. Just to be in the room, without disappearing off on some mental journey, is surprisingly hard. When I had the Rain-Man-like concentration of my fieldwork self, I could occasionally drift away from counting the breaths to just being there, but that is not something that comes very often to me. The slow counting of your breaths, in and out, is the anchor to come back to in the moment. It is something tangible, in which you can inhabit nothing more than the room that you are in. It sounds super mystical, but in reality is the polar opposite of mystical. There is nothing there that is not real. The mind will take you on flights of fancy (usually about firesides and hot baths, damn it was cold) but you must instead return your thoughts back to the breath, which is real. It is simultaneously very simple and very difficult to do.

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Pictured: Cold. This is normally where you wash your hands.

After 20 minutes, a small bell is rung, and we proceed to the walking meditation, a swift speed-walk around and around the Zazendo for roughly ten minutes, keeping eyes focused on the ground just in front of the feet, and hands held up at chest level, palms about five centimetres from the breast. My numb legs and freezing toes are more than grateful for the opportunity to move by this point, although forcing my feet into tiny Japanese sandals for the walk (I abandon my boatlike leather shoes at the door) is less than fun. Thankfully, nobody apart from my feet on the cold stone seem to mind me going barefoot. We then return to sitting as quickly as possible, and sit for a further 20 minutes (or one incense stick). Towards the end, Osho-san, as is tradition, walks slowly around the Zazendo holding a large wooden stick, which, if you bow to him as he passes, he will hit you four times with on the back, relatively hard. My friends tell me that the harder he hits you, the better he thinks you are doing, as he thinks you do not mind being hit harder. I still have no real idea why he does this, but as a method of keeping one “in the moment” I suppose it works.

Zazen done, we proceed to what I suppose is the equivalent of the”church hall” of the temple, a mercifully-heated room in which we prepare rice porridge along with preserved plums, greens and horseradish, and sit down to breakfast and to listen to Osho-san, who is much funnier than his stern demeanour within zazen would seem to indicate. We read the Heart Sutra aloud before eating, a difficult task for me as while I can read Hiragana (one of the three character systems and the one used for the syllable-pronounciation guide next to the complex symbolic Kanji characters) I do so very slowly at the moment. Osho-San was very interested in where I had come from, and why I was familiar with the basics of zazen, and he seems pleased that I was able to sit in the cold without fidgeting and complaints. Happily, I was invited back, and have been attending every week since. Attending so early also means we can explore the temple grounds before they open to the public (they are famously beautiful) and see the view of Kyoto.

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A really nice place to be on a Sunday morning.

In addition to being invited back for zazen, I was touched and very honoured this morning (Monday) to have been invited out of the blue to a tea ceremony hosted by Osho-san, along with his sensei (teacher of the tea ceremony. It takes months to learn), in the special tea room attached to his house within the temple grounds. This tea ceremony began at the relatively-late hour of 0830, and so it was a leisurely morning cycle ride up to Enkouji rather than a freezing, dark slog to attempt to wake and warm up as it is usually every Sunday.

Everything about the tea ceremony was ritualised. We must sit (or kneel really) on the floor after entering through a tiny hatch, designed so that everyone, rich or poor, no matter their status, would have to bow upon entry. This is by design. Also by design is that it is small enough that you cannot go through while wearing a katana, thus encouraging the ceremony’s ancient and more, well, violent practitioners to solve their differences with the tongue rather than the blade. Therefore, no matter my violation of protocol, I could at least be sure that I would not be cloven in two by any of my companions. It is not, incidentally, something I was particularly worried about, but the assurance is nice I guess.

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The kettle is in the middle and the pink and white things are delicious biscuits. Top right is an ungainly giant losing feeling in his lower limbs.

The tea room is warm thanks to the fire in a small pit in the centre, and I watched keenly for all the times that I was expected to bow, accept tea, admire the bowl, drink the tea, thank Osho-San for pouring it, and laughing along with him and the others when sensei admonished him for doing occasional things wrong. She intimated that it was impossible to stop learning how to do the tea ceremony, because you can always get better. She explained and we appreciated the fact that this was the only time when we would be having tea exactly in this way, which caused us to think of the time of year we were having it, how many times we had all had it, and the things that we would talk about. It was a very enjoyable experience, though painful, as sitting on my heels like that is not something that I have much practice in.

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Osho-san pours tea, I listen to Sensei talk about all the aspects of the ceremony.

It didn’t feel too formal, either, for a highly ritualised ceremony. This was the day after my third week sitting at the temple, and so I feel very welcome here. I think my persistence in the face of the icy mornings is noteworthy for those others attending, but I would hardly be much of a Scot if I was bothered by a little cold. We laughed and talked (through an endlessly-patient friend and translator) about where I came from, what I was doing in Japan, and when I would come back. To be invited to such an intimate gathering as this was a very great show of hospitality, and as they have managed to do every week, the people of Enkouji have made me feel not at all odd for turning up and joining in, however ham-fisted my attempts with my beginner-level Japanese can be.

This is a beautiful place to be, and to attend not only zazen but a tea ceremony, two of the things I was most keen to do while here in Japan, at the same temple with the same welcoming people, was an experience I shall not forget.

I will also not forget the feeling of my feet in tiny tiny shoes when trying to walk after kneeling for an hour.

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Life is suffering, I guess. Buddhism.

 

ありがとうございます, さようなら!

(Thank you very much, Goodbye!)

 

 

Spirited Away

Thanks to my PhD presentation, in which I attempted to justify my being invited to Japan by the African Studies department in the first place, and about which I was duly quite nervous, I’ve neglecting posting for a week or two. It went fairly well, though. It almost feels like I know what I am talking about.

Japan, or Kyoto at least, definitely feels like home now. I seem to fit in quite well here, and not just for the obvious reasons that everything seems to, well, work. I decided to test this by making a short trip the week before last to Osaka, Japan’s second largest city and centre for (so I was told) even nicer food and even friendlier people than in Kyoto.

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The author attempting to make sense of giant walls of advertising.

Osaka is mental. In truth, it is how I imagined Japan to be before coming. In contrast to the height-restricted ancient capital of Kyoto, a relatively small and sleepy place in comparison, and in which you do not have to go far in order to find yourself down a quiet back street of wooden buildings and bicycles, downtown Osaka has crowds of hundreds of people making their way through tunnels of advertising in between the skyscrapers. Accompanied by a Scottish colleague, I was always reminded of the fictional cities inspired by the unique organised chaos of the large Japanese city, in Blade Runner and The Fifth Element, for example. Thankfully, Osaka’s streets are for now merely two-dimensional. Street food vendors tried (and succeeded) in attracting our attention, so much so in fact that actually finding a place to sit down and eat come dinner time was almost out of the question. The readiness of the vendors to speak English was also a surprise, though a welcome one.

It’s hard to make sense of, but in contrast to the unmitigated wall of experience that I have seen in large Indian cities, it feels crowded but somehow ordered, gridlike and concrete. There is not as much green space in downtown Osaka as there seems to be in Kyoto. We had a few hours to wander round and soak up the experience, managing to immediately off the train wander into the seediest part of town for some reason. Perhaps it was the anthropological sixth sense for weirdness, but immediately from the subway we found ourselves among some strange-looking hotels my compatriot informed were in fact examples of the Japanese phenomenon of “Love Hotels”, rooms you rent by vending machine to, erm, enable interaction of a private nature with those you might not want to bring home to meet Mum and Dad.

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Everything is done by vending machine in Japan. I’ve ordered ramen at a machine, receiving a ticket redeemable in the kitchen. I suppose it saves on front-of-house staff, but my Hiragana-reading isn’t much better than it was before I came, so I eat a lot of surprises.

I was under no illusions, however, as to the freshness of fish at a Chinese restaurant we passed:

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Which one do you want?

We specifically came to Osaka to go to the theatre, however.

We had come to see the Japanese art form of Bunraku, or puppet theatre. This is not the comedic puppets-on-strings you are picturing. Three puppeteers, two masked, one bare-faced, control beautiful hand-made and hand-dressed puppets. One controls the legs, one the left hand, and the lead controls the head and right hand. It is an intricate process, and requires an almost symbiotic level of teamwork between the three who control each puppet. Three are assigned per puppet, and do not seem to change to others. So natural are the movements that the lifeless objects seem to become people themselves, and no longer can you even see the puppeteers as they go about their work. The characters seem to manifest on the stage.

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A puppet of Osome, one of the characters in the play we saw

All of the costumes are stunning, and the puppets changed costumes in the half-hour interval of the play.

There is no dialogue as I would normally see in a play. Instead, a narrator describes what goes on in the minds of the characters, and does all of the voices of the characters, which sounds much more natural than you would think. His voice would change in pitch and intensity in keeping with the mood onstage. He would be accompanied by Shamisen player, whose musical texture added even more emotion and urgency to the characters’ actions and motivations. Occasionally, a different narrator (or narrators) and player would be brought in for a certain part of the play, and always introduced onstage.

Thanks to a earpiece in which English translations were offered subtly enough that I could still hear the narrator’s artful voicings, I can say that the play we went to see was called, rather cheerily, The Love Suicide of Osome and Hisamatsu, a tale of star-cross’d lovers reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. You can find a summary of the story here. There is comic relief, mainly in the first act, culminating in a rather funny Bunraku-within-a-Bunraku Hamlet-style featuring a puppet playing air-Shamisen with a broom handle. The story, however, is painfully sad, and rooted in the shame culture associated with defying a betrothal and falling in love with the wrong person. A lot of suicide, and talk of suicide, normal for the sixteen-year-olds who were the protagonists I am sure, but rather shockingly not corrected or addressed by the adults. Perhaps in Meiji-era (19th Century) Japan suicide was an acceptable solution to a social problem.

It didn’t sound like a fun place to live.

Sadly, I have no pictures from the play, which we saw at the National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka as part of their New Years’ celebrations, as attendees were requested not to take pictures of the performance itself. Nonetheless, as a Shakespeare fan I would definitely recommend checking out the older Bunraku plays. It gives a bit of a flavour as to what living in Japan many years ago would have been like. The music and narration were particularly worth listening to, and I am searching out Youtube videos of Shamisen players to this day. My musical-instrument kleptomania also means I want a Shamisen, but that is fairly normal for me. If you are also interested, here is a more modern rocky take on the Shamisen featuring the The Yoshida Brothers.

 Osaka, then, is an absolutely fantastic place to visit, for the culture and the food, for the people and the experience of being in a huge Japanese city. I am, however, rather glad I live in Kyoto. I had a nice day last weekend, and I got to visit a place that I am very, very lucky to have on my doorstep.

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Kinkaku-ji. Yes that is gold. And yes I know it is another temple. I never get sick of these.

At the other side of Kyoto, merely a twenty-minute cycle ride away from my door, is this stunningly-beautiful Buddhist temple covered in gold. As it was a nice day, my intention to visit and see the sun reflected from it was shared by the entirety of the population of Japan, seemingly. Nevertheless, my freakishly-proportioned (for East Asia) body meant that I could take pictures over the heads of about 90% of the other visitors, even with their selfie sticks.

A Japanese garden completed the serene picture. Even with the crowds, it still represented a beautiful reprieve from the city. Thanks to some of my Japanese friends, in addition to my observations at some of Kyoto’s 1600 temples, I know worship etiquette confidently enough to have lit incense, made an offering and bowed to the altar of one of Japanese Buddhism’s many Bodhisattvas and deities. I felt a bit self-conscious the first time I did this, aware as I am of cultural appropriation, but the Japanese seem remarkably casual about this, and in fact I have been encouraged on multiple occasions to take part in the rather comforting rituals associated with visiting temples here. Nobody looks at me twice for doing so. The power of ritual activity in calming the mind is evident, and the notion of “believing in” a deity is merely incidental. The offering of ritual practice is what is important, and it is quite enjoyable. It goes without saying, of course, that my money made in offering is quite as good as anybody else’s, and along with UNESCO goes towards the upkeep of these outstanding places. Making offerings at Shinto shrines is similarly encouraged for foreigners, too. At one of the bigger shrines, the devotional practice of offering, bowing twice, clapping twice (or ringing the temple bell) then bowing once more, is clearly enscribed in Chinese, Korean and English in addition to Japanese.

Shrines, or jinja, are open-air and available for anyone to go to 24 hours a day, however I would probably caution against travelling through them on a moonless night, as I found myself doing with one of my friends as a shortcut back from the pub to our home district of Okazaki. It was Chinese New Years’ Eve, a day important for many in Japan, too. So, just after midnight in the first few hours of the year of the rooster, we were wandering through the dark and wooded areas around Yoshida jinja. I know enough about Shinto spirits to know that their influence is especially powerful in the shrines, and that not all of them were supposed to be the benevolent characters of Spirited Away. I am not culturally Shinto, however I will certainly admit to feeling a sense of unease as we ascended the lamp-lit steps through the orange gate to bow to the altar there. I put it like this: I might be an atheist, but I do not make a habit of camping in graveyards either. I managed to twist my ankle rather nastily earlier on, however I will not pin that particular mishap on the spirits. I am rather clumsy. I felt better after exiting, at which point we bowed once again upon leaving. It was a rather good shortcut, spitting us out right next to my street.

Aside from temples and theatres, another Japanese cultural event that I have taken part in was to visit a traditional bathhouse, which was something of an epiphany. I am afraid that for obvious reasons you will have to rely on my description rather than my photography to learn about it. I’d been intrigued by the Japanese custom of public bathing since I heard about it, and since my professor noted that if I was disappointed with my small bathroom I should go and visit the public baths instead, as they are much nicer. The idea of public bathing not as an event but as simply the way that you bathe, was very interesting. Very Roman, I thought.

I entered an ancient-looking wooden building, complete with plants and trees in the courtyard, upon its opening at 3pm, joining the queue outside. They were a mixed bunch. A family, clearly tourists, looking to experience the cultural aspect, as I was, were directly in front of me, along with several elders who were clearly regulars, and a bunch of lads about my age for whom going was a social event. Fortunately, I had googled Japanese bathing custom before my going there, so I knew most of the etiquette. After removing my shoes at the door (normal for Japan), I paid the paltry sum of 450 yen (about €4), and was directed to the men’s changing room. From this point on, the baths were completely gender-segregated. You remove your clothes and store them in a locker, taking the waterproof key with you along with your towel and your soap.

Swimsuits are forbidden, so I simply had to get used to public nudity. Fortunately, I have spent the last few years in Germany as a regular gym attendee, and so my British prudishness around the human body was very much on the back burner. Brits are a little backward in that respect. Nobody was phased, which helped. I simply imitated the others as I went into the steamy second room, in which a row of low showers were provided for me to wash myself before entering the water (an absolute must for everyone). This done, I had the pick of any number of pool-sized baths, some very hot indeed, one freezing cold, several with jacuzzi-style bubbles and one that was electrified, with a big sign saying not to enter if one had “problems of the heart”. I assume this was more to do with pacemakers than a rough breakup, but as neither were an issue I entered and was electrified for a few minutes.

Also attached is a sauna, which was terrifyingly hot but, as I am constantly told by Scandinavians, very good for me. I resolved to drink a lot of water when I left the baths. I had also heard of the Scandinavian tradition of sitting in a sauna and then rolling in the snow. I decided to see what all the fuss about this was by jumping from the sauna into the cold pool.

This was a mistake. I think my heart stopped. It was like swimming in Scotland.

By far my favourite place there was the wooden hot pool that was in the outside courtyard surrounded by a koi-filled pond and trees. If that is what bathing is like here then I shall never take a shower here again. What a pale imitation of cleanliness. Upon leaving I realised that I was about as relaxed as I had ever been without the aid of chemicals. Heartily, heartily recommend, and I am privately wondering why such public bathing places are not so common in the UK. I know better than to enter any place marked “sauna” in Edinburgh, though. The police raid them regularly.

Fans of Studio Ghibli will also be reassured to know that I did not let in any no-faced monsters to the bathhouse, and I did not meet a river spirit at all.

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Do not let him in. He hogs all the water tokens and eats people, and Haku will be really upset.

Apart from these events, a good deal of my socialising has revolved around food. There are a number of reasons for this. My lovely Japanese friends love food almost as much as I do, and the food here is utterly stellar. Drinking is almost always accompanied with food. It is odd to do one without the other, with the happy side effect that I never get that drunk, and I have tried so many interesting different types of food. My favourite is undoubtedly tako, or octopus. I cannot get enough. I hope it features on more menus in the UK in the future. We are missing out by not eating it much. There is odd stuff as well though. I pride myself on never turning down perfectly good food, and trying anything once. This is occasionally tested. I went for yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) recently, and they use every part of the chicken. Hearts I can get behind, as they taste really good, but liver I struggle with. I think it is the texture and flavour combination. Almost starchy, but it tastes like black pudding (blutwurst, for German readers). Odd, as I like liver pate.

And then, well… And then there is shirako.

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Pictured: Weird with a capital W.

What do you think it is? If you thought “brains”, then I can see why, but no. It isn’t brains. It’s fish sperm. Unfortunately, I knew what it was before eating it. As it was, the flavour was not at all bad, although someone had told me offhand what it was before I tried it, which was not ideal. I couldn’t get out of my head what it was while eating it, which sort of ruined the experience.

Jellyfish? Bring it on. Squid sashimi? Go for it. Chicken hearts? Yum. Pufferfish? Pass it along, but shirako? I like fish, don’t get me wrong, but no-one likes fish that much. Shame. If I didn’t know I might have quite liked it. It is, however, the only food I really would say that I do not like here. Everything else is amazing, and I hardly miss European food at all.

So it has been an eventful couple of weeks, and I feel very much like I fit in here in Japan. It would be easy, after learning the language, to live here I think. I like the way things are done, and almost everything that is strange is strange in ways that I like. I even recognise more Hiragana characters than I used to, and read a menu item for the first time last night without asking for a translation, which did feel like a milestone.

I like Japan, and Japan, so far, seems to like me. Sayounara!

Synowto

The past and the future seem to combine endlessly in Kyoto. The streets are almost unsettlingly clean, public transport is everywhere, you can buy almost anything, at any time, I’ve never had better internet connectivity and while shopping for a mobile phone simcard I was interrupted by a robot asking if it could help.

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Deeply, deeply unsettling for those of us who have seen Doctor Who.

My bicycle even has a certificate of roadworthiness. And yet: Houses are made of wood here. So much so, in fact, that the “disaster assembly points” I had taken for symbols of the unstable nature of the Pacific Rim are mainly due to the imminent danger of fire. I’ve spent most of my time outside the office or my apartment enjoying the peace and quiet of Kyoto’s many ancient temples. History is woven into the fabric of the city, unfettered by the centuries spent as a backwater during the Dark Ages that plagued Northern and Western Europe.

They still don’t grit the roads though. It makes me think it doesn’t snow that often. Just before the real weather started, I took the opportunity to climb Daimonjiyama with a couple of friends. It’s a steep but short hill, the base of which is not ten minutes’ cycle ride from my house. It was a hot climb from the effort but the wind was like knives. We got a short period of being able to see the skyscrapers of the impressive Osaka 40km away before it closed in fully, and we sheltered in the Buddhist shrine on top to drink tea and venture out for photo opportunities.

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You’ll have to take my word for it that Kyoto lies behind us.

There is an enormous character 大 burnt into the hillside, which means “big” or “great”. Every August it is set on fire, in what has to be a warmer ceremony than standing on the top in January with the wind. We made it about fifteen minutes before returning to the slope down.

A hill seemingly right in the middle of town is something that reminds me of Edinburgh, actually, a comparison forcibly placed into my mind thanks to the hills, the castle, the old streets and the posters advertising art, theatre, dance and traditional Japanese cultural activities. Perhaps it is something about Kyoto being an old capital, as Edinburgh once was autonomously.

The climb was just in time. Waking up the next morning confronted me thusly:

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Unexpected.

This is actually the first snow I’ve experienced in what has to be years. A succession of warm winters in Scotland and Germany, not to mention my year in Namibia, has made this cold, white stuff thoroughly unfamiliar. Fortunately, my climb and conversation with Kazuki and Yuri means that I now know, after the coldest week imaginable, that air conditioners here in Japan not only cool rooms but heat them. I am in truth kicking myself, and thanks to the heater I can now actually feel it. My nights in at home are a lot more pleasant now, and while I enjoy working in my new office I do not feel the same desire to remain there as long as humanly possible in the evenings.

Snow or no, I was determined to spend my Sunday exploring a bit, busy as I am with work I know that I do not have as much time as maybe I would like to to see this wonderful city. I decided to take my bicycle, which, thanks to the lack of grit, was perhaps a mistake. It was blizzarding, freezing and dangerously icy on my way into a new part of town. I was hoping the hills would not be too steep. A climb would be fine, but stopping on a descent, even with my feet, would have been a challenge.

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Pictured: A challenge.

A narrow wooden-building-lined alley is exactly what I pictured of Kyoto before coming, albeit not in the snow. The whole street above was lined with shops selling almost anything Japanese you could imagine, including my first sight of one of the inimitable Studio Ghibli shops, commonplace in Japan of course but as a recent and geeky addition to the country I was distracted here for some time.

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Snowtoro!

Nonetheless, I found myself quite soon at the fabulous Kiyomizu-dera, a temple originally built in the eighth century and dedicated mainly to Kannon, a Bodhisattva associated with compassion. Her temple is quite something in the snow, even if I managed to arrive at exactly the same time as at least three busloads of Chinese tourists (making it feel even more like Edinburgh).

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I fell over twice on the steps up. I was not alone.

In the inside of the temple, at the pre-requisite “no photographs here, please” bit, I was directed to some stairs that led down into complete darkness. After removing my shoes, I curiously followed the Buddhist mantra beads affixed to the wall and rounded a corner at the bottom of the stairs, relinquishing the use of my eyes and trusting in Japanese level flooring.

The rationale behind such a devotional practice is to make the worshipper vulnerable, to rob them of the sense by which they normally navigate and get them instead to trust in, well, their ability to follow instructions and keep hold of the beaded handrail. Around several corners I was guided. It was the sort of darkness in which I could not see my hand in front of my face. This is meant to symbolise the womb of the Bodhisattva, and my trust in her. I walked slowly, nonetheless. At the end a low light off to my right in the winding temple corridor illuminated gently a large, round stone, upon which I was instructed beforehand to place my hand and make a wish. If sincere enough, it would be granted.

I may be one of nature’s own skeptics, but, just in case, I asked to have completed my PhD by the end of the year anyway. I definitely sincerely want that. To leave the corridor was to be reborn into the world, and perhaps it was the age of the temple or the practice but it certainly felt good to pass into darkness and then light. Perhaps the mysticism of the event was clouded somewhat by being bumped into from behind by about four other tourists. It was, on reflection, rather funny, considering that the only words I know in Mandarin are “hello” and “thankyou”, neither of which are particularly appropriate in the context.

Kannon was not the only figure to whom areas in the temple were dedicated. I found many people lighting incense for a god of (I think) prosperity in business, to whom as nobody seemed to object I also lit incense for on behalf of Alison’s catering company.

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Does this mean she can’t claim credit for success, now? I hope not.

I rather like these temples, having been to a few. I think the main reason for this is the fact that even though tourists are welcome (after a donation, of course) you will still see many people offering worship and visiting deities and spirits in the midst of people taking photographs (where it is permitted). This is the essence of the past and the present melding together here. One does not have to lose the past to live in the present. Or, in the case of Japan’s level of technology and infrastructure, one does not have to lose the past in order to live five to ten years in the future. Culture does not, to contradict Indiana Jones entirely, belong in a museum.

I returned, through more freezing ice and snow, not to mention more than one altercation with a bus, to find my flat under guard, thanks to the children who live opposite.

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Even the snowmen are neat here.

This not only did the job of clearing all the snow from the alley, but meant that I jumped about a foot in the air when I parked my bike and turned around to see it behind me.

It is warming up slightly as I write this, with the snow turning to rain on all but the highest of the surrounding hills. It was a nice snowy weekend, but I’m grateful more still for the ability to traverse the city at speed without my heart in my throat and my hands on the brakes.

Sayounara!

 

 

 

 

Settling in, and Exploring

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Pontocho-dori, Kyoto

It’s been five days now since my arrival in Kyoto, enough to get settled in reasonably well at the African Studies Center. I write from my desk in the postgrad office, a thankfully-modern and centrally-heated building, unlike my flat, in which my breath steams in the mornings.

It turns out that I was using the kotatsu, or heated table, completely wrong. As I sat underneath it’s space-heater warmth, while I felt not unlike one trapped in a toaster I noticed the leaking of heat from the open sides of the table firstly did nothing to heat up the frigid room and secondly meant that only about ten square centimetres of me was warm at any one time.

In frustration, I took everything off the table in an effort to lift it onto its back, thinking that at least I could have a look and see if it had a higher setting. Upon attempting this, the loose top came off in my hands, revealing the frame. After a minute of thinking I’d broken it, I remembered the extra, though bizarrely square, duvet that sat folded up in the cupboard.

Behold, a correctly-used kotatsu:

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I live here now.

It is warmer, and I still have a table. The only downside is my reluctance to ever leave its warm embrace. I have never sat on the floor so much in my life. You may recall I was going to ask about a space heater, however my googling about the kotatsu found that in Japan houses are rarely well insulated, and central heating is by no means normal. My “When In Rome” anthropologist programming has taken over, and I am determined that to use anything else for warmth would make me weak.

On the occasion that I can actually extricate myself from the floor, I have mainly been exploring some of the many temples and shrines that Kyoto is famous for. I won’t see all of them. I couldn’t in a year: there are 1600 of them.

I had heard, however, that there was a Shinto shrine and garden just opposite my house, so on my first day exploring I endeavoured to find it. Having seen shrines by the side of the road, lovely little boxes with offerings to the spirits who live everywhere, I was expecting something similar. Hidden behind a wall and a line of trees, however, I found something a little different.

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Pictured: A very big box on the roadside.

Heian Shrine is in fact a miniature (Ha!) copy of the Kyoto Imperial Palace just up the road, and is a holy place considered highly important to followers of Shinto across Japan. It extends back for hundreds of metres,  a fine gravel floor on the inside. Worshippers washed their hands with small bowls on sticks outside before proceeding in. I wasn’t quite sure what I should do, however as nothing was stopping me from entering I did so. The worshippers (along with the curious author) proceeded to the far side at which time photography became expressly forbidden, so you will have to take my word for it when I say that the inside was stunningly beautiful.

An offering was made of coins into a large grille, the devotee would bow, clap twice, bow once more, then step away. They seemed content to do so with my observing, and in fact hardly seemed to notice, despite it being relatively quiet. I would feel rather self-conscious doing so.

Behind the shrine is a Japanese garden, the first one I had in fact seen, and my first glimpse into the fact that gardening in Japan is considered an art quite as much as painting or calligraphy. Even in January, it is a beautiful place:

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Everything is immaculate here.

I think the main takeaway from the gardens is how stunningly quiet they are, even positioned as they are in the middle of the city. Once you step inside, you could be in a garden anywhere. It’s fairly new, too, founded in 1895 to commemorate 1100 years since the establishment of Kyoto as the once-capital of the Empire. Perhaps that is the reason the engines of the cars on the road seem so well blocked out by the thoughtfully-placed walls and trees.

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This is exactly as peaceful as you think it is.

It made for a rather contemplative first morning, and a wander through Nishiki market (where you can “get anything”, according to Lonely Planet) was a bit of a surprising change. Nonetheless, it got me to somewhere I could experience one of the things about Japan that I had been looking forward to the most: Food.

At a small family-owned wooden restaurant just off the main market plaza, I asked, with the help of my ever-present phrasebook, for something they recommended. I was not disappointed:

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Left to right: Miso, rice, black beans, beetroot, fruit I don’t know, Tofu with fish-flakes on, egg roll, pickled ginger, salmon, and green tea. The green tea is nearly always free.

I paid between five and six euros for that lot. Not bad. I’ve decided, food-wise, to throw myself in at the deep and and eat local food as much as possible, partly because I love it anyway, and partly because the total absence of bread, cakes and cheese (had none since I got here) has got to be doing me some sort of good after Christmas. In Germany I live on bread and cheese.

I’m noticing in my diet a slowdown on meat consumption, too. I’ve eaten a bit, but where I am eating, admittedly more budget sort of places, along with the student canteen, it seems to be much smaller portions than I eat elsewhere, and more often than not tends to be fish, which I am really enjoying. I cooked some beef myself at home to put in my ramen, and there was some pork in a Chinese-style tofu dish I ate for lunch at the student canteen, but other than that for the last five days it has been fish, vegetables and either rice or noodles. The umami flavour receptors are having a wee party, I can tell you. Salt seems to be the main problem: I get the feeling I’m eating too much of it. Other than that I feel pretty good. Christmas food is nice, but getting away from the winter European diet has got to be good for me. Barring the occasional pizza craving (determined as I am not to satisfy it) I am happy with it, too.

The green tea is, as you might expect, bloody amazing, and in most food places free and unlimited. Also very high in caffeine. I am being careful as a result, and laying off coffee. One cup a day, then green tea, seems to be the ticket, and I am awake but thankfully not climbing the walls as I used to with the office percolator making half a litre of espresso for three people back in Germany.

Probably contributing to feeling good is the amazing fact that I now have my very own way to get around Kyoto:

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This is what freedom looks like.

Courtesy of the University of Kyoto in their generosity, I now have two wheels upon which to get around. I went to the bicycle shop and asked for “the biggest bike you have”. In truth, this one is still a little small for me. The saddle is held just above the “Maximum” point, and my freakishly long (for Japan) legs do still bend at the bottom of the pedal rotation but no matter. It’s comfy enough, and comes with a stand, lock and dynamo, and is my first step-through frame dutch bike. I honestly don’t think I’ll go back, they’re so convenient. Gendered assumptions about bicycles be damned, I can stop and step off this one with a load on the back at a moment’s notice.

The only thing it needs now is a name. Suggestions welcome, although in keeping with tradition since Japanese money bought the bike I think that a Japanese name would be fitting, although it has to be a rare enough one that I won’t encounter someone bearing the name later on, thus making it odd.

My days at the moment seem to consist of an hour or two’s cycling around and sightseeing in the morning, followed by working in the afternoon. I’ve not forgotten why I’m here, and it is now merely thirteen days until my presentation is in fact due to be presented on the 26th January. Fortunately, I have come up with a plan. I’ve never spoken for more than about twenty minutes on the subject of my thesis, especially in its unfinished state as it is, but it is surprising how much more I have than I thought I did. This “writing a bit, putting things away and forgetting about them” strategy means that I am happily doing more editing than actual writing next week to construct my hour-and-twenty-or-so seminar talk. I shall not be confident until it is fully written, though.

As I settle into the rhythm of living and working here in a new and unfamiliar place, I shall say, for now, sayounara!

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Kennin-ji Rinzai Zen Temple. One of the oldest Zen temples in Japan.

Japan! Travelling, Arrival and Adventures in Guesswork.

Ohayoo gozaimasu! Good morning world from my first 24 hours in Japan after a very long trip and about 12 hours of sleep to get rid of the jetlag.

Much like when I first arrived in Germany, I feel like absolutely everything is worth writing about because it is all so different and strange to me.

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My bird in a freezing cold and snowy München flughafen.

I boarded in the mid afternoon in Munich for a direct, 11 and a half hour flight to Tokyo Haneda. Having a look around at the other passengers they were a mixed lot, from families going home, holidaymakers and businessmen. Trying not to be too self-conscious about being an excited 20-something white man on his first trip to Japan, I took my seat next to a German aquarium-owner who was on his way to the North Island to select the next batch of Koi carp for resale in Hamburg. I was full of aspiration to sleep the whole way only to wake up refreshed in Tokyo, however the timing of the flight meant that I felt sleepy just as they were waking everyone up, and proceeded to instead watch trashy movies the whole way instead. I would come to regret this later, however at the time my waking state meant that I got a rather stunning view of Moscow from 30 thousand feet or so.

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Moscow is flipping HUGE and rather beautiful a day or two after Orthodox Christmas

Ulaanbaatar is another pretty one, although sadly the pictures didn’t come out so well. What I learned by staring out the window in the slow bits of Jason Bourne movies and the 1960 version of the Magnificent Seven is that on the flight path between Moscow and Tokyo there is what is technically termed MMBA (miles and miles of not a lot) which gives me a sort of horizontal vertigo. We would fly for over an hour in clear skies and I’d see barely a light on the surface. Forget the old west: I think the Russians might have a monopoly on what you might cal “frontier territory”.  We took a bit of a wiggly line after exiting Russian and then Chinese airspace to avoid the somewhat problematic (and heavily armed) hole in time that the DPRK sits in to pass over the metropolis of Seoul just after dawn. I was greeted to my first sight of Japan not long after.

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On reflection, the active snowsports scene in Japan makes so much sense now.

My excitement began to manifest about then, along with the lack of sleep catching up to me as my body clock said “Hey it’s 2am go to bed you nutcase” while the environment outside the window said “Wake up and go to work”. The nice Lufthansa staff seemed to be content to compromise on the whole situation by simply handing out bad food and worse coffee and smiling a lot. Joking aside, I’d definitely fly Lufthansa again. Being asked if I want a top-up in three languages is lots of fun, and them settling on German as the best one for me as I reply in it automatically is even better.

Tokyo Haneda beckoned, and I start to experience the strange and disorienting feeling of losing the ability to readIt is truly humbling. At the airport, fortunately, English is the go-to subsitute, but when speaking to literally anyone who isn’t speaking English I have this urge to speak German at them as my brain goes “use the FOREIGN one, the one that isn’t English, ja genau, können Sie mich Helfen, bitte, das ist Japanesisch, oder?” 

I wisely decided to remove the Yubisashi point-and-say phrasebook from my bag and have remained glued to it ever since. I feel armed and ready for Japan with it in my hand. It is a godsend (or more correctly, an Amazon-send).

The helpfully-translated signs in the toilet upon landing, the toilet which SPOKE TO ME IN A ROBOT VOICE, reassured me that I was in safe hands.

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Alright, calm down Japan, I’m trying to flush the loo not decommission a nuclear submarine.

 

I had, upon my presence in Japan for no more than 2o minutes, managed to fill in or receive four discrete forms and certificates. One was my landing card, then my customs declaration, then my additional bag check-in customs certificate (for the domestic flight, to be kept with but not confused for my boarding card, which was seperate), and my security certificate. These were all paper and were required to be kept on me at all times and NOT LOST OR GOD HELP YOU, and the latter two had no English on at all.  I did not photograph them. They may have personal identity information on them, whether or not I understand it. I wouldn’t know which bits to blur.

Japan, as a nation, please allow me to present you with an award: You have managed to out-form Germany. Not an easy task when the judge has worked for the German government for the last three years.

Nonetheless, everything ran smoothly. The way to get to domestic departures from customs in Tokyo Haneda is to get a bus, and while everything is signposted fairly well, in sometimes confusing but utterly forgivable English, I was a little perplexed until I was automatically helped by a member of the pubic, a friendly Russian businessman (yes, definitely Russian, definitely friendly) and the airline staff. The Japanese people I met at the airport were very kind and understanding, as the situation must happen a lot.

I felt like a giant on the bus, a giant in a tiny world. Not, you must understand, for the reason I expected. People in Japan are much the same size as people anywhere else in the world, but all the spaces people are are smaller. I struggled to squeeze into my bus seat without taking up two, and while I’ve had what I would call a Very Good Christmas (Dear God I’ve eaten so much lately) I wouldn’t have thought I was a two-bus-seat sort of man. I noticed with even more confusion that a Japanese fellow considerably stouter than I apparently used quantum tunelling to sit in the seat opposite with no trouble. On the upside, tiny buses are adorable.

Domestic departures has much less English signage, and I had a gate change, but I didn’t even need to ask before an ANA representative came over and told me where to go to get my plane. I’d say I narrowly got the flight but to be honest all it meant was that I was waiting by the gate for about five minutes before boarding a massive (and very empty) 777 to take a hour-long flight to Osaka Itami, a flight which I spent in a drunk-feeling sleep-deprived haze.

I was picked up by the worlds nicest driver and boarded a Toyota taxi along with another couple to drive to Kyoto and the African Studies Center. I wish I could remember the drive. I remember hovering between sleep and waking, head nodding about like I was at an Opeth concert, and seeing beautiful Kyoto temples for the hour the drive took. Takada-san (my professor and contact at the University of Kyoto) was waiting for me outside the centre, and seeing a familiar face was a real joy. I bowed my thanks to the driver (arigatou gozaimasu) and the final journey, to the letting agent and the flat, was thankfully only a minute, although the taxi driver did alarm me slightly by having his dashboard television showing a gameshow for the entire distance.

It was very amusing. The contestant did not win.

It turns out that I have paid what is a thoroughly reasonable city centre rate in Europe for a one-room studio in the absolute dead-centre of Kyoto, next to the university, in an area I thought would be totally out of consideration in somewhere as purportedly-overpopulated as Japan. The first thing I did upon entry was to remove my shoes so as not to get any of the torrential rain on the lovely traditional tatami mat floor, and turn on the kotatsu under-table heater so that when I sat on the floor at the low table my feet would be cosy and warm.

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I apologise (mainly to my mother) for the unmade bed. Sorry Mum.

While there is an air-conditioner above the window, there is single-glazing and no central heating, which is not ideal for January. I am, in truth, cold at night although a cheap space heater (especially considering my bills are paid in advance by the University) should cover that. I will consult them before I buy it, as they eat power.

There is a gas ring and sink in the hall-cum kitchen, and the world’s tiniest (but still perfectly functional) bathroom which they have somehow managed to get a bath into, and I have both a back and front porch, as my kitchen door leads right to the first-floor outside landing, and I have a small balcony outside the above curtains. I am surrounded by buildings in a tetris-like way, as I expected, although my balcony faces a primary school, much like my first flat in Germany, actually, so I needn’t worry about being late for work.

What you see on the bed there is the results of my very first adventure: My supply mission.

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Mystery Snacks! I know what most of these things are.

Armed with my phrasebook and both an empty rucksack and an empty stomach, I followed the recently-left Takada-san’s advice and headed East towards one of Japan’s famous 7/11 convenience stores, which was like a supermarket in miniature. I spent at least five minutes marvelling, and enjoying the upbeat Japanese pop music, before attempting to shop.

Not being able to ask for help is one thing, but not being able to read is quite another. I mainly went by sight and picked up things that either I recognised or that I knew by sight. Hence for dinner was Ramen noodle soup (definitely) with soy (almost definitely) and pepper (definitely, English on the label)-fried beef (probably, actually definitely after opening) and eggs (hopefully chicken). I even got what I think are those delicious crackers always labelled as Japanese rice crackers in Europe, and those chocolate stick things because of course I did this is Japan come on jeez. The coffee, biscuits and satsumas (probably) are breakfast, being as I could not find any bread. I’m set there for at least two days provided I get lunch out, which I will when exploring. That lot cost me the equivalent of about €20, although the olive oil, nice-looking ground coffee (never instant, eugh) and the soy sauce was a big part of that, I think.

Ramen requires chopsticks (of which there are loads, and I mean loads of disposable ones under the sink) and a spoon, upon which I saw this face for the millionth time in less than 24 hours.

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There is no escape. Look at it’s kawaii little face. Look at it. Bow down before the Lord of All. BOW BEFORE YOUR MASTER.

Continuing in the theme of local Gods, there is a shrine just over the road, one of hundreds across Kyoto. I have a Lonely Planet guide, a paper map, and my phrasebook. Today is a national holiday in Japan, which means that everything is open as usual apparently, and so today is for exploring.

I’ve been instructed by Dave, my friend and a previous visitor to Japan, to find takoyaki (octopus balls) for lunch, because, and I quote, “they are nicer than they sound”.

I have a mission! Even better, it is food-related. So Japan, thanks for the warm welcome, let’s see what you’ve got. And to you readers, I will provide another update soon to The Anthropologist (Not In) Cologne.

Kyoto beckons. Sayounara!

An Anthropologist Not In Cologne

*Blows dust from the gears and levers of An Anthropologist in Cologne*

I’m still paying for this domain, aren’t I?

Well, that’s convenient. Eighteen months’ hiatus while I wrestle with the writing of my actual PhD, and find the German environment increasingly comfortable, even as the Western world seems to crumble around me, have put the kibosh somewhat on interesting cultural observations and immigrant tales.

No longer. We’re firing up the generators once again just in time for the Anthropologist in Cologne to, er, not be in Cologne. The cycle of the travelling academic, must, it seems, go on. I’m a little closer than I was to finishing the PhD, though nowhere near where I would like to be, but sadly the ever-benevolent Landesamt für Besoldung und Versorgung Nordrhein-Westfalen, my benefactors, have as promised ended my contract with the close of 2016.

This means many things. I have said goodbye to my faithful bicycle Gretel, now passed on to another recent immigrant, who has promised to keep calling her by her name. I am leaving my wonderful flat, and saying goodbye to flatmates who have become like family to me. I have cleared out my office, spent at least half an hour tearing my hair out about why books weigh so damn much, and my tickets are all lined up to fly home for the holidays.

Once again, I find myself saying goodbye.

Outrageously, the end of my contract also means that I must find gainful employment while I complete my magnum opus, almost as if I was a normal human being, rather than being employed as a civil servant here in das Vaterland in order to pursue my education.

Gainful employment for the months of January and February has made itself known in the form of time spent as a visiting academic at the Center for African Area Studies at the University of Kyoto, Kyoto, Japan, a placement I have taken the greatest pleasure of accepting.

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Artists’ impression of the author in Kyoto courtesy of Enid Guene.

It seems that immigrant tales and amusing anecdotes of my faux pas will be in vogue again, and it seems fitting to record my outrageous cultural transgressions in an entirely new context. The language, I was recently informed by one of my new colleagues at Kyoto, has around 30,000 characters, depending on how you count them. Most primary school children, he reassured me, only have to learn 1,000. I have, let us say, given up on the prospect of reading.

Nevertheless, my goal in two months is to be able to shop without a chaperone or a translator, as pathetic-sounding a goal as it will be difficult. It took me roughly two months to do that in Germany. German, incidentally, seems like an easy-to-learn and rule-free language by comparison.

I shall record here some of my preliminary expectations and thoughts about visiting a country I have wanted to visit for many years, but about which I know little. I think it will be interesting to see how wrong I am.

I shall begin my travels to Japan from Edinburgh on the 6th January, and barring any further industrial action from Lufthansa[1] I should arrive on the 8th to begin my new life as an ignorant gaijin. Rest assured that I have been watching anime with subtitles rather than dubbing, and provided that Japan features handy subtitling of any and all conversations, street signs, and swordfights in which I avenge my father, I should be absolutely fine. I am, however, somewhat concerned that my hair is neither blue, purple or red, and that I do not know any giant flying robots.

Almost the entirety of my knowledge about Japan, having never been there, comes from pop culture, the most fun but hardly the most reliable of lenses through which to view an incredibly rich and complex civilisation. Fortunately, I also have this:

Oh yes. Memes.

Japan seems to occupy an interesting place in the popular psyche. Aside from being told to “enjoy my holiday” (you know who you are) many of my friends and colleagues seem to think I shall be visiting a giant shopping mall filled with wonders. Do not worry, I shall return with gifts, and will admit to no small amount of stereotyping when I get excited to the point of mental breakdown at the possibility of visiting certain places.

I am also expecting tatami mats, taking my shoes off, and meditating a lot, though I find these quite a lot more likely given that my flat was advertised as having the first, so I shall want to do the second, and that Kyoto has a ridiculous number of temples in which I can continue the meditation I practice anyway. I am also expecting to eat a lot of fish, and given that I have been living a long way from the sea for a long time, I am also unreasonably excited about this.

On a more academic level, I shall be working in an African Studies centre, and I am sure that such a familiar environment will be something of a rock of certainty for me, as African Studies has been my common theme between all the places I have lived for the last three years. I can also take heart that most of my Japanese colleagues will be anthropologists, and so I should not worry too much about cultural misunderstandings. I suspect they are used to it.

Japanese ethnography has been consistently important and powerful as a tool for understanding life in Southern Africa at least since the 1970s and the work of Jiro Tanaka. It is through one of his former students[2] that I have received this kind invitation to work there. It is, without exaggeration, a great honour to be invited to work in the department at Kyoto. I hope that I justify my being invited there and am able to contribute to the department. I also hope that this will be the first of many trips to Japan.

I guess we will see how it goes.

Tschuß, Goodbye, and, I guess for now, Sayounara!

[1] Blame the bosses not the workers for strikes, folks. An injury to one is an injury to all.

[2]One of only two anthropologists to work long-term at Ekoka to my knowledge. The other is, well, writing this.

The Hippie and the Noble Savage

I’d like to share with you all something that was shared on my Facebook wall recently, and which I think encapsulates a lot of the problems that the people I work with, among others, face when dealing with people from industrialised societies. It’s to do with representation.

Here’s the post:

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I hate this hippy dippy bullshit.

“An anthropologist” Which one? When?

“African children” – Africa is huge. Soweto is in Africa. Cairo is also in Africa. Children in these two places have remarkably different cultures to grow up in. Are we supposed to believe they both think of “Ubuntu” simply because they were born on the same lump of land? It is one more to add to the tally of people thinking Africa is one big wild place full of mystical black people. It’s not. It’s a spot on the surface of the Earth. A damn big one.

Who are these people the story describes? Where are they? Are we expected to believe they have no concept of individualism? Give out sweets to kids on the field sites I have experience of and they clamour to be first. Like kids in many places. It may be a shock to the writer of this story but “African children” are not smiley examples of how the world is pretty. They are children. People.

“African concept of Ubuntu”. Does the article mean like the “European concept of dialectical materialism” or “European concept of capitalism”? What does that even mean? Do all Africans (the Pan African movement is interesting, and worth investigating, but is not entirely relevant to this) identify with Ubuntu? Are Africans more tuned into Ubuntu because they live on the same arbitrary lump of rock as the people who made this word and have this cultural concept? Am I more a Communist or a Capitalist because I’m European?

No. I’m more of those things (or less) because the culture I come from has shaped me towards or away from these things. There are so many cultures on the African continent and it is as meaningless to lump them together as it is to lump Japanese and Turkish people together as “Asians”.

It would be interesting to see a source for the story, if it exists at all. It sounds like something made up by a hippy to make the world seem like its full of sunshine and roses when it isn’t. Certainly not in Africa. If these “African children” are so full of Ubuntu where was it among the people of Rwanda in 1994? Where was it under Apartheid, committed by white people, yes, but white people who had been on this continent so long it would be meaningless to call them anything other than Africans.

Colonialism is one of the many reasons that the continent has many problems. Borders drawn by Europeans in Berlin in 1890, that bear no resemblance to tribal and ethnic lines. Violence, repression, genocide. Entire cultures sold into slavery in the Americas by my ancestors, the British. It’s not that “Africans” are too nice and full of Ubuntu to resist. This whitewashes the long and noble history of indigenous rebellion. I only know the Namibian history, but the resistance of the Hereros to German atrocities, the blood shed in the fight against apartheid, these were not nice people laying down and dying so that they could be picked over by “vultures”, as this story puts it. It is a “bless their noble savage hearts” attitude, the idea that people are not fit to engage with the modern world simply because they are African. It is disgusting, white supremacist, eurocentric bullshit, and moreover isn’t true.

The use of “vultures” as an image is doubly vile. It implies that Africa is a carcass, a dead thing, its people unwilling or unable to fight back, to resist, to make the world in their image as other cultures have done for centuries, and which people from Africa have done! Look at the pyramids, the magnificent Sudanese civilisations, who built monuments without writing a single word. The simple fact that almost all popular music is African in origin. The Symbolic Revolution, when we started making art, likely took place here. The rock art in Namibia is another example. Centuries of sophistication and deep culture. But to say that the entire continent is somehow dead, by using the metaphor of vultures, is thoughtless if unintended and racist if intended.

Ubuntu does in fact mean “I am because we are”. It is Swahili, though, a mixed-up language from many roots just like English, and is from Kenya, thousands of miles away from where !Xhosa (note the correct spelling, with a uvular click) is spoken, which is in South Africa. More evidence here, if it were needed, that the author of this piece just thinks Africa is one place full of smiling black kids.

“Ubuntu” does have another, rather amusing side, too. It roughly goes like this:

<Sitting in a shebeen after a long day>
Complete and utter stranger: Hey, man, buy me a beer!
Me, tired and crabby: What? Why?
CUS: I don’t have a beer.
Me: What makes you think I have the money?
CUS: *pointedly looks me up and down, and notes my foreign accent and whiteness* Come on man, we’re friends!
Me: Huh *buys beer out of exasperation*

I have no problem with this, but it’s not all smiles. You have, so I have. Fair enough, most of the time. If I claim to be a socialist, this is the reality of it.

Also what the hell is an “African website”!?

I’ve read this fake story before about a thousand times, and it makes me very angry. It’s because hippies don’t know that this holding up of a “Noble Savage” in this ideal “primitive” state is really really racist. They think they’re being nice, but they’re not. Also why are the children naked? This is symbolism. The Primitive, the Savage, the Undeveloped, the Human In His Primal State. Africa is not that! Africa is a continent, with people on it. People just like you, and me.

I think it’s important to debunk this stuff, even if I get really angry about it. I know it’s well-meaning, and I know it doesn’t come from a place of malice, but it’s harmful in a different way. If we are to engage with people from different cultures, and to focus on exploitation and one-sided geopolitical relations, we need to begin from a place of equality. We need to engage with people keeping the idea in mind that more than anything else the people we are talking to are people. It sounds so basic, but it’s not happening. These microaggressions and dehumanising representations add up, and actively work against the interests of the people they claim to want to learn from.

If debunking faulty or racist depictions of indigenous people that I come across is something that readers want to see, I might make a series of it. We shall see.

Tschuß!

Art, Science and Real Work, or: I have no idea what I’m doing.

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I’m back on fieldwork at a place just a shade north of the famous Namibian Red Line, a veterinary barrier that separates communally-worked farmland to the North, never conquered by colonial forces, and the more ordered and familiar farmland to the South, the former territory of Boers and Germans in years past. Despite being but two hours’ drive from where I sit now, in a hotel with an internet connection that I have previously called The Last Homely House of Elrond, the site feels more isolated than my last one. I have almost no mobile signal there, and trips back into the domain of Wi-Fi bring me up to speed with two weeks’ worth of news in a day, making me feel like the world is moving on very fast without me. It’s an odd feeling. I’m doing fairly well, though, and while I only have six weeks or so at this site, thanks to a much-needed trip back to Europe in May, and the increasingly pressing need to prepare for my participation at the Eleventh Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS) in Vienna in September.

I’m slated for an appearance on the panel “Research and Activism among the Kalahari San” and have submitted an abstract saying, thankfully vaguely, something about fresh field data from my work at Mangetti West and Ekoka. I have ten minutes plus a Q and A, and should probably say something mildly provocative to get remembered, though the thought of Richard Lee, Akira Takada and other Kalahari anthropologists I have been reading since first year undergrad questioning me on my fieldwork and its contribution to the field fills me with a mounting sense of awe and dread. Hopefully I won’t have to reference too much literature, given my focus on fieldwork and the conference’s enthusiasm for new researchers with mud on their boots, as it were. Given that the time between my leaving Namibia and speaking there is measured in weeks rather than months, is quite probably literally true. I leave on the 24th August, when my last visa runs out. I can’t come back until 2016, having used up my 90 day tourism allowance as well, and it’s going to feel very strange. That’s next month, now.

The three weeks of research at my second site in the Mangetti farms has yielded some interesting comparisons, I think, and I’m able to get a good deal more data in a shorter time. My translator is excellent, and knows or is related to almost everyone there, meaning that the two weeks of building up a trusting relationship that had to happen in the North was cut down hugely here. I’m camping right in the village, and it means I’ve been able to get involved in events as they happen, the “participant observation” part of my work, and data-gathering is by comparison to my other site, effortless.

I even accidentally adopted a puppy, who in fact belongs to the community’s traditional healer. I started feeding the small furry family in the hope that they’d hang around camp to deter other would-be explorers (wild dogs, jackals and even hyenas are not unheard of), and the puppy I’ve named Xoriab (“hunter” in the local dialect of Khoekhoegowab, a joke on the fact he’s tiny. Say the “X” like the “ch” in loch, or the “G” in Grootfontein, for Afrikaans-speaking readers) has got rather attached to my fire and the fact I insist on teaching him to play fetch, which he does not understand.

Xoriab sitting by the fire, expecting something to happen. Probably food.

Xoriab sitting by the fire, expecting something to happen. Probably food.

I have to say I’ve grown rather attached to him, as he seems to have done for me, though I do harbour some suspicion it is cupboard love in some ways.

Some of the food is my fingers.

Some of the food is my fingers.

This post isn’t about that, though, nor is it about CHAGS. What I want to write about a bit are some of the problems that I’ve run into data-gathering for my PhD.

It’s a mammoth task, but the problems do not revolve around mere size. You’ve got to know your parameters, your variables, what questions you wish to answer, before you set out on any kind of scientific research. The problem with conducting anthropological fieldwork, or any kind of social research really, is that it isn’t really possible to know that beforehand. I was advised, before setting out, that I should have a question in mind, then be prepared to change everything about that when confronted with the field. I understand this. Better to have a plan that you later change, than no plan at all. But when the field actually presents itself to you, in all its chaotic splendour, involving as our research does the single most unpredictable organism on the face of the earth, no amount of planning can prepare you for being back at square one. As a result, I made a vague plan, knowing it would not stand up in the field. I knew the areas I would be considering: “folk knowledge”, “traditional skills” and so forth, but no more than that. I did not even have any research techniques in mind.

The problem starts with my discipline itself. It doesn’t like putting people in boxes, a strange habit for a subject concerned with primarily that upon its inception. Our ancestors measured people’s boiled skulls as well, though that is Something We Don’t Talk About any more.

Social anthropology is often said to walk a fine line between the arts and the sciences, some, rather more hardened to cliche and aphorism than I might say it is “the most artistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the arts”. I dislike this forced symmetry, but doubtless social anthropology operates on a strange bridge somewhere between the two, blurring lines and deconstructing dichotomies itself in the same way its practitioners adore doing with cultural events and ideas. During my undergraduate degree, the idea that dichotomies could be permitted to exist at all was somewhat blasphemous, and always we were encouraged to think about the outliers, the spaces between, and the borderlines. We’ve moved on from Levi-Strauss’s oppositions in the house, so to speak.

There’ve been several traditions in anthropology that have tended towards the artistic and the surreal. The undergraduate favourite (at least at Edinburgh class of ’12, represent), Clifford Geertz’s 1960s idea of “Thick Description”, posited anthropologists less as scientists but more in the way of literary critics, picking apart and interpreting culture as one would a paragraph of Tolstoy, or a stanza of Keats. I loved this. It meant we were free in some respects from the tyranny of The Scientific Method, which in my mind always smelled like antiseptic. We were artists, writers, creatives, we had sculptors’ clay under our fingernails and because we studied human culture it was the very stuff Adam was made from that we were working with. It was all Very Important. I tapped away at one thousand five hundred word essays, due at the tutorial tomorrow afternoon, about how Science (Big “S”, always) was a closed-minded, Euro-American-Centric (God forbid we say “Western”) way to think about the world, and interpretation was better, more democratic, and less white, either in coat or complexion.

From there I read (or tried to read) Michael Taussig’s Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man, a foray in what you might call “surrealist anthropology”, and to be honest I do not remember a great deal about it. There’s a long, unpleasant bit about torture, which I think is an illustration about colonialism, and much of the rest of it that I read felt faintly like being led through someone else’s dream. There were definitely psychoactive drugs involved, as well there might be, given that it’s about shamanic practice among Amerindians. I remember writing a very bad essay on the subject about how there was a place in anthropology for something I really am not sure I ever understood. It’s about the limit of the really artistic stuff I ended up getting into, and I teetered on the precipice before settling back into regularly quoting the sort of things I think Geertz would have said about culture, literature, description and interpretation.

Above all else, it made me feel better. I had occasional wanderings into the bleak, sterile world of neo-modernist positivism, but I did that with most of the -isms at university, and I doubt it’s a rare crime. The idea of the anthropologist as a literary critic was attractive to me because it meant that nobody ccould ever accuse me of being wrong about anything, as such. This was just how I saw it. Great. It seemed, if I’m honest, like less work, too.

Yet here I am in Namibia on German (of all countries!) scientific money gathering data ostensibly used to flesh out a computer model of the movements of ancient hunter-gatherers, as well as fuelling some book or other and getting the very hard to obtain D before my name, followed by an elusive R and a positively impossible to pin down “.”. I write “Research Scientist” on things asking my occupation. I’ve actually had to start doing the job I’d been writing about the theory of doing for about four years.

At the root of this job is data. Data I need to gather. Questions I need to first find, then answer, as well as dealing with the practicalities of asking those questions of a very poor community, who live very far away from me, and who don’t speak any languages I do.

A lot of anthropology relies on something called “Participant Observation”, which is part loitering, part nosiness, inserting yourself into someone’s life in an attempt to learn about them. This is prime venue for the “Thick Description” side of anthropology. When I’m on fieldwork, I write. I write a lot. I’m scribbling in my little notebook when something interesting happens, and I’m writing up, scratching it all out in my bigger notebook like it’s trying to escape from my biro, when I can find two or three hours in the day that something else scribble-worthy isn’t happening.

It has its flaws, though. How do I know whether what I am seeing is reflective of the whole community? How can I accurately reflect The Truth about what is going on? I can, and have, argued for many years that there is no such thing as objective truth, but even I will concede that there is a difference between saying that the people in my field site all drive Lamborginis and saying that they place hunting as very important to their way of life when it isn’t really. As with everything, it’s a question of degree rather than kind, and I have a huge incentive to identify as closely as possible what is really going on, even if I never truly (whatever that means) know, and that is simply because I want to know, to get closer.

I can’t very well judge people solely on observation alone, then. So what about interviews? They’re another anthropological staple. Well, they work, too, but one has to be prepared for the fact that people do not blurt facts like robots. They have an interpretation, too which makes it a great tool to have in the toolbox, but not the only one.

This is where the problem starts. The anthropological toolbox is vast, and can encompass any sociological tool you like, from surveys to free-lists, psychological experiments to marriage statistics, but to the PhD student starting their research the vastness of the available tools, and the wide range of possible uses reflected in anthropology which range from systematic analyses of kinship diagrams to surreal passages about drug-fuelled shamanic rites in the Amazon Basin, the primary problem is figuring out what anthropological research is actually supposed to look like.

My problem has been gathering what you might call systematic data. By systematic, I mean answers to structured yes/no question interviews, compiling free-association lists with the same parameters, conducting a direction-finding psychological experiment, and other similar things. It’s incredibly hard to do this when your field subjects are not the least bit interested in repeating the same task with you five times, and every task you come up with on the fly, to test something you observed and wrote down scruffily yesterday, has to be either revised or miss out on some crucial aspect that you have discovered is important. Which do you sacrifice, repeatability or thoroughness?

Above all else is the feeling that despite this being a huge moment in your academic career, you are simply working it all out as you go along, as there are so many things about doing research that nobody tells you, and that you are expected to Just Know. I’d never conducted a structured interview or free-listing in my life before I got to the moment when I was constructing an exercise that will give me important information for my PhD. Nagging at me constantly is the feeling that when I step back from the systematic exercises, and think about interpretation, art, the beauty of the well-written word and the other fluffy things that help me sleep at night, I am making excuses for not doing any Real Work. And Real Work is Science. There are no standards to work to, precisely because, I think, the others who have gone before me haven’t had those standards either, and are loath to set any. The only standards are the ones I set myself. In true form for me, this means they are usually either impossible or non-existent.

The simple fact that this research is PhD research means that it is my first time doing it, or really anything approaching it. A PhD is built up to be something upon which you definitely know what you are doing, and you do it to make big and exciting waves in the academic community, but in fact it can be characterised more as your proving moment, the time you find your feet. In anthropology a scholar’s PhD thesis often becomes his or her defining work, and this fact is something that weighs heavy on my mind. What will I turn this into? Will this define me? What will it say? It is a nightmare of neuroticism and anxiety, and I am convinced social anthropology contains more people prone to neurosis and social anxiety as a proportion than does the population at large. The anthropologist I confided my concerns to got into studying people for the same reason I did: That we were neurotically doing it anyway, and had become somewhat proficient. Whether the neurosis informs the work or the work inflames the neurosis is perhaps a question for another time.

The thing to take away from this, if you happen to be reading and are suffering similar concerns in your academic work, is that the reason you do not know what you are doing is that you are not meant to. The reason nobody is telling you things that you think they think you should Just Know is that they don’t really know them either. If they do, they don’t know how they came to know them. Another anthropologist in Scotland told me that if you have no idea what you are doing, you are probably on the right track, and if you think you’ve got it all worked out then you’re probably missing something out somewhere. The world is a complex place, and human beings are perhaps the most complex of all. The only people who think they’ve got it all worked out are eighteen-year-olds and those who have never grown out of the mindset they had when they were eighteen-year-olds. Both of those sets of people are probably wrong, and I have just reminded myself of my opinions at eighteen, and cringed.

I joke at parties (it’s true, I get invites occasionally, ask anyone) and say that I am making a career pretending to have read books that I haven’t. This is hyperbole, but the nugget of truth there is that in academic circles Knowledge has a capital K, it is currency, and nobody wants to admit that they don’t know something they feel they “should know”, because the others in their circle of colleagues have been pretending they know it already. Nobody is going to tell you these things. Nobody really can. If you have not embarked upon fieldwork for an anthropological PhD you will probably, if you are like me, have existential crises on the regular and start looking for office jobs online. This is (probably) normal. The best therapy for these moments of terror is usually to plan the following day. No further. When you feel more confident, start planning weeks. When you get back, you might find you know more than you think, and tying it together will be a cinch. Get someone acquainted with your field to ask you questions about your site. Before you know it, you’ll be reeling off things and telling people that something is “common sense” when it’s something nobody has observed before. Congratulations. You’re now an anthropologist. The existential crises probably stop. I don’t know. I’ve not got that far yet.

Then again, what am I doing giving you advice? I have no idea what I’m doing.

Tschuß!

Fieldwork Proper

It has been a very long time since my last post. Only now I have returned to the thriving metropolis of Windhoek do I have a stable enough internet connection to upload anything as meagre as a text post, let alone something with exciting pictures. As always, the difficulty in finding what to post increases exponentially with the time since the last one, but I thought the best course of action was to pick a few interesting anecdotes from the last couple of months.

I’ve been on fieldwork proper since January. What that means is that I’ve finally been doing the job I actually came to Namibia to do, namely fieldwork among the many and varied San people that occupy the reaches of the North I have been exploring. It’s been a tough but thoroughly educational experience, and of course any plans I had regarding such trivialities as the Whole Point Of My Research have changed massively, sometimes doing so day-to-day. Right now, I’ve got some recorded interviews in the process of being transcribed and translated from Oshikwanyama to English, I’ve got some videos, I’ve got hundreds upon hundreds of pictures, and a hundred and fifty pages of notes and observations, closing on two hundred if you include the results from my experiments. Only time and extensive rereading will illustrate their usability. What with the prevalence of computers throughout my education, I think it’s reasonably fair to say I’ve written more down on paper with a pen in the last few months that I did over the entire course of my university career to date. I used up ballpoint pens. I knew that could happen in theory but I’d never seen it. My battered notebooks, of which I am painfully conscious there are no copies yet, are the fuel for my PhD and I am concerned to the point of neurosis about anything happening to them. They currently reside in a locked trunk in a locked cottage twenty-five kilometres outside town, which is where I reside while here, upon the hospitality of my hosts. I could, of course, painstakingly transcribe them into my laptop and back up the data about a hundred times as I have done with pictures and video. I will, at some point, given that these notes may well make up data I use for the years after my doctorate. It’s busywork, but given their value to me and the lack of copies, I do not trust anyone in the world enough to pay them to do it for me. It’s a problem for another day.

The line between recording observations and obsessively keeping a journal like a fourteen-year-old is fine indeed.

The line between recording observations and obsessively keeping a journal like a fourteen-year-old is fine indeed.

I’d say that anthropology is a lot more difficult than it sounds, but to be honest I don’t know anyone gregarious enough to think that forcibly inserting yourself into the lives of other people twenty-four hours a day, enthusiasm for constant social interaction being a requirement, is a prospect to entirely relish. Mentally, it is quite exhausting, though not in ways that are conventionally considered “work” in the sciences. Of course that cultivates a certain anxiety that one isn’t doing the utmost work possible, and is not collecting enough data or the right data. Because in one sense qualitative research never actually reaches a conclusion in the field, uncertainty and panic over a lack of systematic data due to flaky participants is also a perennial psychological side-effect of social research. It is worth it, though, and it is, in some strange sense, fun. It is an odd but pleasant feeling developing friendships with people who I can only speak to via a proxy, even if the feeling of meeting them alone reminds me unpleasantly of linguistically losing a limb. I will probably be able to tell you more about in what ways exactly it is fun with a little more temporal distance from it.

It also is impossible to engage in anthropological fieldwork without a serious change in how one deals with tasks, and people. The first thing I learned is that before research is conducted dreams abound as to the wonderful reams of data that will be collected. In fact, studying people has the rather obvious complication of the subjects of study, and their varying sense of enthusiasm for research. It does not lend itself to systematic data collection. I am starting to recognise the need for interpretive and slightly more literary analysis, without such aspirations to over-arching truth. The spectre of Clifford Geertz from second-year anthropological theory haunts my data. The second thing I learned is that there is no way to remain in any way detached or “scientist-like” while doing research of this kind, and to attempt to do so is to be disingenuous. I had learned this before, from books, but had to stop myself fighting the urge to adopt a strange aloofness to protect myself from what was to me the strangest environment I had ever inserted myself. “Just going with it” is a lovely hippie mantra, but even for an ex-hippie such as I it is not the easiest to follow, particularly when the primary mental defence one employs against culture shock is periods of self-imposed isolation. I had time off, however, and read about ten novels while kicking around at camp. I like to think, however, that I succeeded in getting involved and “going with it” at least to some extent, and that shows by comparing people’s reactions to me (as well as mine to then) in February against those of when I left a few days ago.

Among the greatest of the experiences I was privileged enough to share in was a successful small-game hunt, which rendered a dik-dik and a hare (which they called a rabbit). I’ve videoed most of it, although most of that amounts to Blair-Witch-Project-style shakycam footage of bushes race past as I attempt to keep up with the swift pace of my hunting companions.

Yes the dik-dik is adorable. Yes this was a problem for me.

Yes the dik-dik is adorable. Yes this was a problem for me.

The capture of the dik-dik was rendered still more impressive by the fact that the successful hunter caught it with his bare hands, by simply bending down and picking up the terrified thing from a bush. It was kept alive, in the hope that its plaintive cries would attract its mother, but alas, to no avail. To those wondering, the dik-dik was sold still alive to a lady from the herding community, who when we saw her was feeding it with milk and keeping it with the intention of growing it into a full-size adult. So thankfully no charming baby animal was slaughtered in front of the soft European. The rabbit, however, was another story, and would hopefully be in the pot that day for some meat, which I was desperately craving. It was quickly dispatched in the field, and was prepared on some open ground near to the settlement, but not so near that those not involved in putting the work in with the hunt came over to beg for some meat. This was a huge issue for my hunting companions, who felt fiercely protective of a kill that is rarer and rarer these days, what with one thing and another. They used ashes from the fire to aid their hands in pulling out the rabbit’s fur, singeing off the remainder on a hastily-put-together fire before gutting it. It was taken off to be cooked “later”.

If the dogs look like they are circling hungrily, there is a good reason for that.

If the dogs look like they are circling hungrily, there is a good reason for that.

This turned out to be something of a mistake. One big issue at the community is sadly the prevalence of alcohol, and when we ventured out “later” to find what had become of this rabbit, some of the younger members of the hunting group informed us that the rabbit was sold by the one person who’d promised to keep it, the money inevitably spent on Tombo, the locally-brewed libation. Such is the way of things, and what a lot of hunters will experience if they entrust their kill to someone else when the cucashop (the shack that sells drink) is open. My other companions on the hunting trip were similarly disappointed by the lack of rabbit, and we all grumbled about it together.

We did have a bit of luck later on, however. Word travels fast in the community. I remember when I first arrived I asked a few questions about hunting, to which nobody at all responded, with one chap endeavouring to avoid me altogether. This is because of the greyish legal area that hunting currently occupies. Small animals are, strictly speaking, totally legal to hunt, but that does not stop policemen and government representatives making trouble for those that persist in it, going against the government plan that is expressly, in one policeman’s words, trying to “make farmers out of the San people”. In order to practice something that used to be a massive part of their culture, the people come up against the law. However, once it was general knowledge that not only was I not from the government (despite having government permission to do research) I was actually interested in hunting because I liked it, we were visited by a chap a few nights later bearing a leg of springbok to sell to us for the equivalent of about four euros. He was hazy about where it came from, and I was not about to ask questions. It was extremely tasty marinaded and fried with rice.

Seriously fantastic meat, that had woken up that morning.

Seriously fantastic meat, that had woken up that morning.

Yet despite my focus on hunting here, meat makes up a comparatively small part of the diet of the people I was working with. The staple food is maizemeal, which is made into a thick viscous porridge you eat with your hands, and which gets very very boring after a short period of time. To go with it, and to alleviate its blandness in the absence of meat, which is often, people often eat greens, referred to as “spinach” or ombidi in Oshikwanyama. One of my friends at the village took me out on a gathering trip, which, in contrast to the “gathering from the bush” archetype that is conjured in the minds when one things of hunter-gatherers, was gathered on a homestead owned by Kwanyama farmers. It grows bountifully there, and chokes the mahango (pearl millet, used to make a version of maizemeal in the absence of corn) crop. You stew up the ombidi with salt and cooking oil (if you have them) and it is advisable to wash off the sand if you wish to keep your teeth.
It cannot be eaten raw. I tried. She laughed.

It cannot be eaten raw. I tried. She laughed.

I’ll be honest: It wasn’t great, but it was food. It kind of tasted like the most bland spinach you’ve ever had, but made a contrast to the maizemeal and it has a lot of the nutrients that people (which includes me after a few months there) desperately need to stave off malnutrition, which I am pretty sure I was suffering from for a lot of my time there. I was grateful for the opportunity to get some, and to observe the process, and I think my contact LL was also grateful for the help. My translator would not pitch in, though. According to him Owambos have a very strict gendered distribution of labour, and it was unthinkable for him to engage in “womens’ work”, just as it would be unthinkable for his female friends and family members to engage in herding cattle. Interestingly, LL said that !Kung and Hai||om men will pitch in and help with gathering, if the opportunity arises.. While women do not hunt, there is often some food to be gathered when only men are around, and they have no such sqeamishness about picking it up. It is not common for men to go out specifically to gather food, however. I asked my translator what he thought of me beavering away with LL and picking the ombidi. Apparently as a foreigner and anthropologist I got a free pass to engage in “womens'” labour without garnering any disrespect. Not that I mind all that much, to be honest. My own sense of gendered labour is, I would hope, nonexistent. The strict definitions of gendered labour did, however, allow my translator to sit around while I worked, so I have a bit of skepticism about exactly how prescriptive these roles are. The women from the Kwanyama Owambo community seemed relatively unfazed by my gathering. All the more greens for me.

On independence day, the 21st March and the 25th anniversary of Namibia’s shedding of the shackles of apartheid and repression, we were invited by some of our friends in a nearby village to attend the annual independence day horse race, which was an incredible experience. Helga (my car) needed all of her offroad capabilites in order to get there, which requires drifting around corners in some of the thickest sand I’ve ever had to get through, dodging the lethal prongs of camelthorn and wacht-en-beetje (wait-a-bit) trees and bushes, to arrive at a place called Ekongola.

Helmets? What are they?

Helmets? What are they?

The atmosphere was thick with anticipation and excitement, every shebeen had music playing and a crowd outside, and lots of very important-looking and well-dressed Kwanyama elders were wandering around being bought beer by everyone. I could tell this was not only a village party, but a lot of money would be riding on the results of the yearly race, without even considering the prize money offered. The horses had slowly trickled in over the last few weeks, and were surrounded by crowds of admirers, protected by their proud owners and the jockeys. The racetrack would be the last bit of the road into Ekongola, out to a specified point, turning and coming back, and after a short meeting of the owners to decide the rules in advance (to prevent any post-race quibbles) we filed out to assume places around the start/finish line. The first of the race groups careered off into the dust.

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This happened a few more times, the shouting from the supporters of each rider drowned out only slightly by the shouting of the race organisers that we should step back to avoid being wiped out as they came back at full gallop. As nice as it was to be at the front, a riled-up horse is not the most predictable of beasts, so I had a few moments of panic.

Eventually a final was held and a winner chosen, the crowd muscling in to get a glimpse of the prize-giving ceremony, with it’s associate money-waving and smiles from the winning riders and owners.

Race arbiters are important people, but I think A, in the hat and leopard pattern, was milking it a bit...

Race arbiters are important people, but I think A, in the hat and leopard pattern, was taking the mick as we had the camera out.

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Winners! Horse with the hat is definitely looking stylish.

I had a little experience there of Kwanyama life which provided some interesting contrast and insight compared to the people I work with, whose culture, while different, has a long history of being intertwined with their neighbours through trade, work and a shared history. It also meant that I got to hone the small amount of Oshikwanyama I’ve been able to pick up, too, able as I am now to greet people (Walelepo Meme/Tate, Nawa?), say that everything is fine (Shili nawa), as well as ask for beer at a shebeen (Kwafalenge ombilla yatarara). You know, the important stuff. It’s only slightly worse than my abysmal German, anyway. We were even invited by the race organisers to share in a meal of oshikombo (goat. A goat, specifically. A whole one) and mahango porridge, which after a day cheering and standing around in the sun I was more than ready for. I then drove back to our camp, along that same sandy road, though this time in the dark. I think I did rather well, even if I do need to find something to clean thorn scratches from Aztec Gold Toyota paint.

So I did have fun, and I like to think I learned a lot, though I’ve still got to read through all my fieldnotes. So much more happened of course in the last two or three months, and in an effort to get some of it down I feel like I’ve missed so much. Hopefully what I’ve managed to do is provide something of a snapshot of some of the things, work and otherwise, that I get up to while on fieldwork. It has been an incredible experience, I think more so because I didn’t come here “for the experience” but to do work. These things happening by-the-by almost makes them more special. I just hope the data justifies the time I’ve spent out here. Only time (and how much I stammer at my next meeting with my supervisor) will tell.

Tschuß!