Posted by: martinworster | January 28, 2011

112. ANTHRO-APOLOGY

Having lived in four different countries now (including England), I like to think that this experience has opened my mind. In many ways it has, particularly anthropologically speaking. To live in another country is to fully experience all the social mores, rituals, manners, habits and behaviours of it’s people. It’s political system, religions, work culture, family matrix, holidays, arts, sports and culture, the whole very fabric of what it is that creates that country. It’s fascinating to observe and you are always an outsider. To attempt to get under the skin of what it’s like to be an American (or French, or Spanish person). 

 

At university a lot of my close friends studied anthropology – it was always a running joke with them. What actually is anthropology? Anthro-what? What’s the point in that? When you graduate will you become an anthropologist? At Sussex University I studied English in AFRAS – the school of African and Asian studies, so some of my courses touched on anthropology – The Empire Writes Back (literature from the former ‘colonies’ like India, Trinidad and Nigeria). Post-colonial studies were all the rage. AFRAS was also the ‘trendy’ school at the time. Lot’s of dreadlocked, mung bean eating trustafari’s fresh back from building wells in Zimbabwe pranced around the corridors, being primed for jobs in NGOs in developing countries. Anthropology was interesting – you study the rituals and habits of other societies and cultures so as to illuminate those of your own. We read ethnographies on the southern Sudan and Claude Levi Strauss was king. Some of the lecturers were famous – academically speaking – in their field and the department was notorious for forward, left thinking critiques. I particularly remember one of the star academics Homi Babha (not a made up name) who seemed to speak in riddles and long words as if lost in an arcane world of academia. The word sesquipedalian was invented for him. A quick search on Google reveals he is now at Harvard.

 

I am digressing to far into memory. What about here in America? I am fast coming to the conclusion that far from expanding your horizons, living in different countries can solidify fixed opinions in the observer. Us and them. Making you judgemental and perhaps intolerant, values I abhor in others but perhaps ones that exist more in myself than I care to admit. Isn’t that always the way? Being critical of others for the very things you are also guilty of? Religious fundamentalists spring to mind. Particularly ones like Ted Haggard; condeming homosexuals to hell, fire and brimstone whilst himself smoking meth and regularly taking it up the ass from male escorts in cheap motels. This seems to be a recurring trope in American public life for many outspoken Christian fundamentals. 

 

Once you start to move around and live in different countries you start to bring all your own nationalistic prejudices to the table. Academically speaking, this was a common criticism raised at a lot of the anthropological studies where, far from being objective and scientific, the observer projected all his / her prejudices onto the observed and therefore was far from scientific. The ethnography was tainted. On a personal level, instead of just relaxing and thinking ‘it’s different here’ and letting whatever it is blow over you it’s hard not to get irritated by what you observe and experience. Then of course by being an outsider you are constantly reminded of your nationality. People are interested when they find out you are from another country and probably project their perceived ‘English’ national stereotypes on you. They assume you are posh, grew up in a castle, a sometime football hooligan, an alcoholic, can quote Shakespeare verbatim and are possibly related to the Queen. You are constantly reminded of your ‘Englishness’.

 

Maybe that’s just my experience of America? The country that my children are growing up in. Things that irritate me in America;- the rise of religious fundamentalism, angry politics, lack of free healthcare, no gun control and high gun crime (linked), a land of dischord and contradictions (for eg, puritanical in attitude but the biggest producers and consumers of hardcore pornography), unfiltered capitalism, oil dependence, conformism (‘speak your mind, different opinions matter’), an unquestioning obsequiousness to those in power, and an overall aggressive dog-eat-dog type society, plus the lack of environmental awareness, the massive rich-poor gap and over consumption of everything, 

 

But nowhere is perfect. It is easy to focus on the negatives. There are many positives to this country. It’s just exhausting constantly judging as a result of moving around and being an outsider. If I lived in England I would no doubt be irritated by a lot of things that go on there. And I indeed I am when I return; many of the those things would be similar to the list above. Except guns of course. And conformism. And the rise of religious fundamentalism. Oh and healthcare bit. 

 

So, as the title says, this is an ‘anthro-apology’ (geddit?). I am sorry to be so judgemental of this country. It’s because I am not from here. And a little bit to do with my personality which, if, I’m honest, gets exhausting at times…

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