The first time I was alone and taking field notes for an independent research project was in rural Chile. I spent about a month observing and talking with students and teachers, many of whom spoke an endangered indigenous language as well as Spanish. The school that I worked with was a multicultural institution whose students were 99-percent indigenous. I remember feeling unprepared as I wandered onto the school grounds the first day, not knowing how I’d be perceived: a small Asian girl carrying a notebook and pen.
In addition to my notebook and pen, I had my phone which I used to record all of the conversations I shared with people. That was all I used for my interviews with students and teachers. As I asked a few questions that I had prepared, I took mental notes, because I discovered that the most organic conversations happened when the sound of a pen being scribbled on paper wasn’t creating a wall between the interviewee and me.
A year has gone by since that incredible experience where I learned a great deal about the preservation of a culture and language within an academic setting. Students and faculty shared their stories with me. I haven’t started the conversation with the refugees in Pittsburgh yet, but I’m already preparing myself for the moment I begin; the moment where I step into their lives and begin several months of conversation.
I enjoy reflecting on life experiences. I believe that reflection brings life back to the memories and creates a space where I can rediscover myself as well as those around me. Reading my field notes, listening to the hours of interviews on my phone and looking at photos that I’d taken in Chile, I’m hooked. I’m reliving each of those interviews as I hear my own voice becoming more confident with each interview. I hear silences where the interviewee takes a moment to really think about what they want to say, well aware of the fact that they are being recorded. The voices are the only things I have left, but they say so much.
I want to share one particular interview that struck me. He was a history teacher who spoke with me a few times. The first interaction felt stiff as he talked for an hour about the history of the school. The second, he sang for me. I didn’t include this encounter in the academic paper that I had written, because at the time, I didn’t see the content being relevant to the research question with which I was working. When I look back at my decision to ignore this interaction, I wonder if I chose to ignore it because I couldn’t understand where he was coming from. Beyond the words and the actual content, the man that shared with me the history of the school had suddenly taken on a new persona and performed an original piece for me. As he sang, he’d become a different part of himself; this wasn’t what I was looking for a year ago.
I was reminded of one of my inspirations, Anna Deavere Smith, a playwright and actress. She interviews individuals who will become characters in her plays and listens to them. Rather than learning to walk in those individuals’ shoes, Smith prefers to learn to walk in their words. I bring this up, because this resonates with me as I listened to the year-old recording of the singing historian and prepare to create more in the next few months as I begin my research this summer through the Dietrich Honors Fellowship. I will never completely understand a stranger’s position unless I am that stranger, but I shouldn’t shy away from that. As someone studying anthropology, I am learning to embrace that. I will always be an outsider doing research and the best that I can do is to listen and really listen to their words. After all, I am not asking them to share with me their shoes; I am asking them to share with me their words.