Saturday, August 20, 2011

Fieldwork and gratitude

Last evening, Debalina and I had a wonderful time having dinner with our friends Shaunak and Zhuo.

At the end of the evening (which usually rolls into late nights as conversations get more and more interesting), as I was getting ready for bed, I felt very grateful for our friendships and for the privilege that academe offers us to do the work we choose to do, to converse about this work, and perhaps to have the opportunity to continually evaluate the value of this work. You see, Shaunak and Zhuo are also my students and advisees, and they just returned from India and China respectively after having spent their summer doing CCA fieldwork for their dissertations. Shaunak spent time in India amidst conversations with truck drivers along truck routes around the issue of HIV/AIDS, and Zhuo spent her time in China conversing with workers on factory floors and living in a local church that housed the workers, conversing about issues of worker's rights in the backdrop of globalization politics.

Listening to their stories was heart rending at multiple levels. For starters, I felt a great deal of gratitude for the kind of human beings they have grown into through this process of fieldwork (this blog posting is going to focus on this aspect of growth).

When working at and with the margins, fieldwork tests your character. What I mean by this is that the gruelling circumstances of fieldwork are often the tests of patience and commitment; Are you committed enough to your project to "want" to come back to it? Even in circumstances where your familiar levels of comfort are no longer available to you, the strangeness of the fieldsite sits on your senses as reminders of the unfamiliar; are you comfortable with this sense of continually being unfamiliar? Are you comfortable having your privilege continuously sit uncomfortably on your soul, amidst the knowledge that you have the choice to walk away from the hardships that you have entered into and that these hardships are not permanent markers of your life? None of these questions have easy answers. Rather than offering us definitive pictures, they bring us face-to-face with the uncertainties within which problems at the margins are often located? And it is perhaps in the midst of these very uncertainties that your character is tested, that you face the task of asking yourself the meaning of your privilege and what you are going to do about it, and that you ultimately work on finding practical solutions that work for communities.

As I listened to the stories that Shaunak and Zhuo shared, I was touched by the many many hardships that they undertook without giving up. Sure, for me to spend time discussing these hardships perhaps points to the sheer amount of pain and suffering amidst which those at the margins live their lives (hardships that we can "escape" from through the simple choice of exiting the field). Sure, in our choices of entering the field, we need to make sure to note that these are still our choices so as to not undermine the reality of the lived experiences of the people that experience these hardships as products of the structural violence amidst which they live their lives.

And yet, I feel as their advisor that I am grateful for the difficulties they have embraced, for the integrity of their character in working in and working with the margins to try to find answers, and for the choices they have made in embarking in the difficult journeys of life. Sure, they have the "choice" to escape these hardships, but the bottomline is that they don't. They work through these hardships to search for answers which hopefully will make a difference in the lives of those at the margins who often have been robbed of the capacity to participate in discursive spaces that are marked off as too sacred for them. Rather then choose to sit in the comfort of their air-conditioned rooms in picturesque West Lafayette over the summer and recruiting student subjects to write their projects, many of my advisees make the "choice" to embark on journeys in the unfamiliar territories of the field, not only amidst the physical difficulties, but also working through the difficult emotional/spiritual questions that relate to what it means to make a difference in the world. Sure many of my advisees don't just sit in the comforts of their A/C rooms in West Lafayette to write a Marxist analysis of Survivor or some other irrelevant TV show/pop culture phenomenon or Bollywood flicks; they decide to spend that time getting to know the margins that Marxist theory points toward. In Zhuou's story of her life staying with the workers in the Church and participating in the daily chores, in Shaunak's stories of travels at truck stops and in trucks, I am touched by the strength of their character, at their ability to keep at it with dignity, and in their continual desire to make a difference in the lives of the people they journey with. As they partake in this journey, their bodies are shaken up, but even more so, their worldviews are continually tried and tested (For example, Zhuo's struggles negotiating her Marxist and postcolonial worlviews about the role of Christian imperialism (the mega-church phenomenon in Asia) with her understanding of the Church in the lives of the workers she lived amidst).

And for these choices they make, I am grateful to them. The journeys of CCA researchers amidst the politics of social change are ones that are filled with gratitude, first and foremost gratitude for the people in the field who gracefully open up their hearts and worlds to us so we could partake in this journey with them. It is their incredible kindness and love amidst the pains and hardships of their lives that makes CCA work possible. But it is also the gratitude we feel for each other. Gratitude for the cammarederie, love, and the sharing in this journey of love, disappointments, struggles, and hopes. Ambar Basu, Mahuya Pal, Induk Kim, Iccha Basnyat, Debalina Mookerjee--you have paved ways for the next generation of CCA researchers. Like guiding stars, you have offered us maps and visions. As the Lala Acharyas, Shaunak Sastrys, Zhuo Bans, Sydney Dillards, and Uttaran Duttas of the next generation embark on their own journeys of negotiations, they look at your stories (bounded in those thick black covers) as stories of inspiration.

For each of you my advisees and students, as I partake on my difficult journeys at field sites, share these field sites with you, and learn from your field sites, I am incredibly grateful to know that your camarederie stands in the backdrop as a beacon of hope!

I am grateful for the difficult choices you made/make in working with a "difficult advisor."

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