Interestingly, because of the economic downturn, the Times has started a discussion section called “Happy Days,” to facilitate dialogue about “the search for contentment in its many forms.” The discourse (media and otherwise) on “back to basics” is noteworthy. IMHO such conversation should be part of regular, sustained personal and public quests, not just something to fall back on in dire straits. In any case, Pico Iyer’s recent Opinion piece, “The Joy of Less,” and the reader responses it generated were welcome demonstrations that people can and do care to talk about what drives them other than the bank account balance. Of course, I find a few problems with Iyer’s idealization of (material and relational) escape in a foreign land, a luxury that (as one reader pointed out) one can only afford if one has a certain level of financial security and little in terms of family obligations.
Still, I started to think about what it is about being in a relatively unfamiliar setting that inspires transformations in values, routines, etc. Something in it undergirds the allure of the twenty-something round-the-world-backpacker culture. (It’s on my mind as I’m currently surrounded by it at a computer station at a hostel in Singapore.) Length of stay matters. Familiarity with language matters. Reasons for engagement matter. But I think in any case people experience a sense of rejuvenation at one time or another. I certainly feel it, having spent a couple of days back in Viet Nam. This time, in addition, I am beginning to find comfort in my own new way of relating to being in the country. The parental warnings about theft and corruption, bordering on paranoia, I can now push aside to a practical distance in order to engage by my own terms, to apprehend the experiences at more of my own discretion.
With that said, I am overwhelmed. I can imagine how people coming back from the field year experience writer’s block. I understood it conceptually before but now felt it as I rode along on the back of a motorbike, the throngs whizzing past me. I had just come from my cousin’s place, home to a thirty-something couple with lucrative jobs at multinational companies. They have a driver. And iPhones. Then out on the streets there are the newspaper peddlers with sun-dried, sorrowful complexions. I had just skimmed an Oxfam-generated report about the ongoing challenge of urban poverty. Income disparity and class differences will be ever more apparent. How to navigate among and within these worlds as an ethnographer?