Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Going Native

In an undergraduate anthropology course, a professor had us read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. We compared the character Kurtz's experience to that of Bronislaw Malinowski (who is described to all anthropology students, including mine, as the "father of ethnography") as revealed in his not-so-culturally-relative tell-all diaries. In the end, Kurtz's is found behaving like the "savages" that surround him. Because anthropologists have historically studied indigenous and other non-industrial groups, early ethnographers-in-training were warned not to be come Kurtz - not to get oneself so immersed in their studies that they never return to the "civilized" world. Anthropologists are thought to be the most in danger of "going native" because it is a part of their job description to become an active participant observer of the "exotic."

Today, anthropologists are not really concerned with "going native"; in fact, most of us find that phrase outright offensive to us and the people we study. However, the idea of me "going native" has crossed my mind several times as I try to put my dissertation together. No, I am not going to become a hunter-gatherer or a herder. I'm not even going to do a Carlos Casteneda and make my career by taking hallucinogenic drugs. But many aspects of my life are starting to mirror my informants', though I can tell you this is not voluntary.

Let me first explain to those who do not know me: I have spent the last six years following several families in Ecuador. The focus of my research is how they cope with having a child with a disability. Most of the children are non-ambulatory and will require care well into adulthood. Over the years I have collected many stories that describe heartache, fear, sacrifice, and unconditional love. Parents not only have to fulfill their roles as mothers and fathers, but they become caregivers, teachers, and therapists for their children.

When I started my study, I was newly married and wasn't thinking about children. By the time I finished my fieldwork in 2005, I had become a mother. My experience started out as abnormal - because we had conceived via IVF, my pregnancy was immediately labeled as "high risk." By my third trimester, I was really at risk. I was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia at 28 weeks and my daughter (Sassy Girl) was born at 32 weeks. My fieldwork was not only cut short, but I had a lot more worries than I was ready for. I knew having a child would be difficult and take up all my time, but I never envisioned having a 2 pound baby in intensive care. Even after she came home, my time was spent going to specialists, pumping milk, and being worried. Day care was out of the question - Sassy girl's immune system wouldn't be able to handle it. And I couldn't embrace the idea of another person taking responsibility for my daughter, especially when she was so sick.

A year later, I resumed my fieldwork and taken Sassy Girl with me to South America. I thought I would resume my life...then after we came home the unimaginable happened. Sassy Girl contracted E. Coli and ended up in the hospital with kidney failure. I almost lost my little girl. Again. It took her over a year to fully recover.

I don't think people really grasp what Ebo and I went through, especially other parents. I have been told by countless well-meaning mommies and daddies that I worry too much, that my kids are fine, that "they know what it's like." I know every parent worries about their little ones, I feel like I live in constant fear. Because of the kids's histories, we take every sniffle, every fever, every pain very seriously. I feel like my whole life is on hold because I'm waiting for my kids to be "well." And I don't even know what "well" would mean.

One of my informants is a woman Susana with a daughter named Gabriela. Gabi has severe cerebral palsy and is also visually impaired. Susana considers herself fortunate enough to be able to stay home and care for Gabi. However, being a caregiver has affected her own health. When we last spoke, she needed surgery to fix a hernia, but was afraid to have it done because it would mean that there would be no one to take care of Gabi. At the same time, lifting Gabi in and out of her wheelchair was making her problem worse. Living with the pain didn't phase her - "Es la vida," she would tell me.

Granted, my daughter is able to walk and does not have any impairments. My children are more than likely to grow up healthy, despite their tough beginnings. I also don't have a hernia and am able to take care of myself (most of the time). Yet, I must say that dealing with my kids' health crises changed me - I no longer have the same priorities. Yes, my degree remains unfinished. But I'm not going to take a back seat to my kids' lives just to be able to put "Ph.D." at the end of my name.

What did happen, though, was I started identifying a lot more with my informants' stories. I could relate to their struggles with doctors, specialists, and therapy. But could I relate too well? It seemed like the more progress I made on the dissertation, the more my kids would get sick. Was I "going native"?

If anything, my experiences will make a great preface in the finished work.

No comments: