Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Anthropologist Within

By pondering what I have seen within different refugee and immigrant populations over the past 4 decades I have come up with numerous observations. You compare, weigh, grapple with and wonder. One tries to catalogue or list similar groupings of facts. Is there indeed any order here at all? What might be a consistent thread? What can we learn from this? What might I have missed? Do I need to revisit a certain point in time to clarify something … anything? The questions never end. I doubt they ever will.

To listen and learn, to be immersed and become a simple observer of a unique situation among a unique people takes great patience. To go into research with absolutely no proposed hypotheses or even possible conclusions frees one to see what otherwise might not be noticed. By scrolling through all the constructs learned in numerous studies and attempt to apply this particular observation to its assigned ‘box’ misses the point completely. Exactly what should we know/have before delving into the unknown? I believe nothing; curiosity perhaps, but nothing else.
This is why Jane Goodall was able to make the discoveries that she did, and exactly why Dr. Leaky wanted her and not a trained scientist. Jean Liedloff too, was unencumbered with facts and stores of knowledge by which to assess her findings. I am sure someone somewhere has studied how we learn and what we learn if we have already learned too much previously. Does that alone limit our openness to something new? Can the mind only store so much or is it capable of retaining infinite or unlimited amounts of information? These and other answers elude me. All I know is what I continue to see and ponder.

“Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.”  ~ Abraham Joshua Heschel

At a lecture that I heard in 2011 we were labeled as an ‘unreasonable people’ -- the gathered alumni of a grant program “who would not take NO! for an answer” but would pursue our individual quests to the end. There’s no money to finish this research? No problem, we will find a way. So it has been with this project on bonding. There is something very wrong here. That has been clear for a very long time. But what is it? Is it getting better or worse? Who exactly does it impact? When did it start? Is it still going on? Will it end? Can we do anything about it? Does it even need fixing? Is it better left untouched? How would we go about that? What other options might be out there? What are others doing about it? Will any of these ‘fixes’ actually work? Will they work for everyone? Or only some people? If it is successful, then how did it work? For whom did it work? And finally, in the end, what would I propose for the future?
So began what has woven together a lifetime of extraordinary experiences. I am grateful for each one. I would not have any taken away, as hard as some lessons have been. Perhaps I will spend my old age with more questions than I can answer in one lifetime. Maybe I will need to request further lifetimes to understand it all, or perhaps I will be allowed to access the Source of All Knowledge and ask to be granted my answers in one nanosecond of Eternity.
Ethnology (from the Greek is the branch of anthropology that compares and analyzes the characteristics of different peoples and the relationship between them. Compared to ethnography, the study of single groups through direct contact with the culture, ethnology takes the research that ethnographers have compiled and then compares and contrasts different cultures.
The term ethnologia (ethnology) is credited to Adam Franz Kollár (1718-1783) who used and defined it in his Historiae ivrisqve pvblici Regni Vngariae amoenitates published in Vienna in 1783 as: “the science of nations and peoples, or, that study of learned men in which they inquire into the origins, languages, customs, and institutions of various nations, and finally into the fatherland and ancient seats, in order to be able better to judge the nations and peoples in their own times.”
One thing I have often wondered about is where exactly did my dear Hmong friends originally come from? There is some speculation that somewhere in Upper Mongolia over 500 years ago some of their clans separated, some moving southward and away from their Hun enemies and others crossing over the then-frozen Bearing Straight and south into the Northwest Territories where the now-called Inuit peoples are. Their features couldn’t look more identical. Their languages though, bear few resemblances however hard I have tried to compare them. What is very surprising however is that the custom of the family bed and even the exact order of persons in bed is identical in the two cultures, even to this day. I wrote about my own experience in the
story/chapter called “Primitive Bonding” at this blog under the June listings. Then recently while reading an account* written in 1914 by an ethnologist on the Stefansson expedition, 1913 – 1916, to the Coronation Gulf region on the Arctic coast to study the then-called ‘Eskimos’ he diagramed the same family bed when he was expected to sleep in their igloo upon his first night with them. Perhaps other cultures have similarly evolved to the same arrangement for convenience’s sake, but these little discoveries only confirm some of my own theories.

     Again my curiosity was piqued upon the arrival of Somali refugees in the U.S. over the past several years, the majority settling in Minnesota; so completely different in so very many ways from my Hmong friends that I had gotten to know intimately, even fostering 2 Hmong teens over the years along with our own 5 children. Of course I began observing the Somali families and comparing them to the Hmong and their own early assimilation and problems 30 years ago, my only context in which to ‘box’ what I was seeing. Many things were the same.
The old people in both cultures have very little need to learn to read, write or speak English well. They appear to be useful only for babysitting when the rest of the population goes to work and school, or when their married children are too busy to shop and cook. The elders hold court daily in the parks and myriad coffee shops dotting Minneapolis, gathering from sun-up to sun-down to solve the world’s problems. English school is another chance to gather (and is free) and often turns into a social event where learning English is shelved along with any other agendas that us “Whites” as we are referred to, may have worked hours to prepare. Most gatherings are quite jolly, though I happened upon a very sober group one night on my way home in my neighborhood from the train station recently. I stopped and asked what was happening. Sadly, the news that was travelling through the Somali telegraph system (word of mouth) was that a 10 month old baby fell from one of the windows in the 28-floor housing project buildings. The place doesn’t have air conditioning and the ‘cages’ as the tenants refer to them, had become stifling
in the 90+ degree heat. One family had moved their beds by the one window and the kids had been bouncing on the beds when the baby bounced against the screen and fell out. There are also shootings and drunken stabbings almost weekly in the area. One local pastor raised a peace pole in the neighborhood last year after one such murder, inviting the entire African community to come together, meet one another and have an ethnic meal together.

I often wonder what good, if any is gained by befriending and living in close proximity to marginalized people. Much, I have concluded. It often takes me back to 1971 when I lived with Mother Teresa in New York City when she founded the first U.S. house of the Missionaries of Charity of Calcutta. A quote that she hung in one of her children’s homes in India reads,

People are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centered;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
Build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you've got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
It was never between you and them anyway.  ~ Kent M. Keith

Another one of her pithy bits of wisdom:
“Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.” 
~ Mother Teresa

So I live here. I work here and visit ‘the cages’ regularly. I shop at the little family groceries. I grab an iced coffee at the Afrik Market next to Have a Happy Day Jewelry store while I wait at the bus stop. I practice my Korean on any poor elderly passerby with straight jet black hair. There is a senior daycare center for Koreans in this neighborhood, too. I recently decided to begin frequenting the local food shelf to ask about picking up some staples for a friend expecting her 6th baby – a complicated situation. The morning at the food shelf is an adventure in itself. I figure that I will go early to procure the necessary number when they open at 9 a.m. There are 300 people ahead of me and it isn’t 9:00 yet! We sit on chairs placed around the perimeter of a gymnasium. I look around me, marveling at all the colors – of the people as well as the array of clothing. There are the Somali women in the solid color hijab head covering which flows down to the elbows in a cape fashion. Underneath that is a colorful caftan, often cotton African batik fabric. Under that is a slip with at least 4 inches of lace at the hem. Some of the older women wear a black caftan with long sleeves covering the wrists. Some of the very most observant also attach a veil right below the eyes, pinned in place above the ears on the hood of the hijab. I commented to a Somali friend last year that in our 90-plus degree weather that must feel absolutely sweltering. His comment was simply, “Well, hell is hotter.”  I stopped, aghast at the suggestion. “So, is she somehow doing penance to avoid judgment?” He said he thought it was something like that.

Then there are the Ethiopian women in their even more colorful caftans with clashing patterned scarves and shawls, sometimes covered with sequins and glitter. Sandals studded with plastic jewels add to the sparkle of their outfits. There are men, too, some that I know have invalid wives at home. The Africans make up over 90% of the people in the gym this morning. I count perhaps 4 people I would guess are American; two Black women in shorts fanning themselves with newspapers, a man I recognize from the local bar where I pick up surplus organic veggies on Saturdays, and me. The remaining 9 % of the crowd today are Asian. I ask a woman near me if she is Korean. No, dear, we are all Vietnamese she says as she gestures to the circle of people around her chair. More people come in and sit on the empty chairs on my right. One by one people are waved into an office to register for the give-away food box today and leave with a number printed on a blue card. The doors will again open later today for all the lucky card holders.

Every few minutes, as 6 or more chairs become free as people leave, the rest of us get up as if in a giant game of musical chairs without the music and move to the left and again sit down and fill the chairs in line for waiting. I turn to the Asian woman who has now filled the chair to my left and say hello in Korean. I have been studying on my own for over 12 years now, trying to master yet another language while hopefully staving off our family’s possible propensity for early onset Alzheimer’s. She responds with a laugh, and answers, An-yah-ha say-yo! Hello to you! I continue: “I am so glad to meet you! My name is Stephanie: mahn-na-sah pung-kap SOOM-nee-dah! Suh-TEF-ah-nee ir-rah-go hay-yo.”

So, again today I sit patiently with over 300 other folks, watching, looking, wondering. Wondering what I might learn today. Perhaps I will be granted another piece of the puzzle. Perhaps I will fall asleep tonight with more questions than when I first awoke.

*The People of the Twilight by Diamond Jenness, 1928, The Macmillian Company, Chicago.

 “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”  ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

STAY TUNED... This and other stories will be appearing the book, Stone Age Babies in a Space Age World: Babies and Bonding in the 21st Century© pending by Stephanie Sorensen

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