Category: UIUC Undergrad Anth Majors Abroad!


Tara McGovern in Quito!

TARA MCGOVERN, a UIUC junior in Sociocultural Anthropology, is studying abroad in Ecuador’s capital city this spring (’12), at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito.
She recently sent us this riveting, breathless account of her cultural immersion in a place that has clearly captivated her, body and soul—a place that has pushed her to think about how to use her anthropological training to make the world a better place.  If you’d like to read more of Tara’s thoughtful and anthropologically informed impressions—of Inca gold, Renaissance paintings, Cortes’ legacy, and more–check out the terrific and aptly-titled blog she’s been keeping, “Claroscuro:
A Gringa’s Perceptions of 21st Century Latin America.”  You can find it at: http://tararaquelclaroscuro.wordpress.com.

El Nuevo Jerusalén, 16 April 2012
    How do I even begin to tell you about this place?  
Every hour of every day is a spectacular montage of light and water and earth. Shimmering green mountains exhale swirling clouds that billow into the sun; in the night, the moonlight becomes so thick in the damp air that you can breathe it.  Quito’s glass skyscrapers and pastel box houses sprawl beneath the grand silhouette of the volcano Pichincha, transforming into a carpet of gold stars at night.  Steep snowy peaks of volcanoes appear like apparitions of ancient gods when the clouds suddenly clear.  The dramatic statues of virgins and angels crowning fountains, facades, and mountains could have descended from the low-hanging clouds moments before. The gilded interiors of hundreds of Quiteño churches suck the breath right out of me; the grisly sculptures of Jesus’ bloody, bruised body and the Virgin’s pained, averted eyes raise goose bumps.
    How do I even begin to tell you about these people?
Just at first glance, the “diversity” of Ecuador is unique and complicated and beautiful and dark.  Four-foot-tall, deeply wrinkled women and men in indigenous-style fedoras crouch beneath spectacular polished colonial architecture, begging photo-snapping tourists for coins.  Trimly dressed businessmen crowd next to tattooed guitar players on the El-like Ecovía during rush hour.  Afro-Ecuadorians from the coast swing jugs of milky liquid, advertising “¡jugo de coco, jugo de coco!” between market women with toddlers strapped to their backs. Throbbing reggaetón and Latino Top 40 mingle with merry salsa and the sophisticated lilt of traditional music on the street, inside buses, across plazas.  On the streets of the luxurious nightlife district, La Foch, foreigners and Ecuadorians flutter from club to club while poor women and children wander around trying to sell packs of gum and cigarettes.  Men’s glossy aviators, carefully sculpted fauxhawks, and distinctive strut evoke a sleek, aesthetic masculinity.  Otovaleña women proudly wear full traditional dress–a complicated arrangement of lacy embroidered blouses, tight handwoven belts, fitted floor-length skirts, and dazzling coral and glass beads–to their jobs one day, and formal business attire the next.
    How do I even begin to tell you about this history?
Ecuador, embracing snow-capped mossy mountains, tropical coast, and the Amazon rainforest, has been a cultural and environmental crossroads for thousands of years.  Quito’s sleekly designed museums house impressive collections of Pre-Columbian artifacts: homoerotic Moche pottery, brilliant gold jewelry of matriarchal societies, and elaborate textiles glorifying Pachamama (Mother Earth).  Even the accomplishments of the famous Inca, who only managed to conquer Ecuador a few generations before the Spanish arrived, pale in comparison to the archaeological diversity of Ecuador.
With the Spanish Conquest (or “Invasion” as it is called here sometimes) Quito continued as a thriving artistic, economic, and cultural center centuries before the United States had even dreamed of independence.  Quiteño indigenous and mestizo artists established conventions that bucked Western notions of “high art” and instead innovated their own Quiteño School of Art.  Early Spanish writers, enthralled with Quito’s explosion of artistic production and monumental architecture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, proclaimed that Quito was to be the Nuevo Jerusalén, the New Jerusalem–grander, more impressive, and more idealistically Christian than any city in human history.
As I read the literature of the cronistas, or the “chroniclers” of the Conquest/Invasion–Christopher Columbus, Hernán Cortés, Don Felipe Guamán Poman de Áyala, Bartolomé de Las Casas, Ginés de Sepúlveda–I’m coming to more intimately understand the inescapable global forces at work on the human beings involved.  These writings flesh out the grotesque violent narrative of conquest into a story inhabited by characters that are both victims of circumstance and actors of passion.  For example, I’m seeing Ecuador with the eyes of a terrified foreigner–the harsh jungle and rabid mountains so much grander and more threatening than the temperate environments of Europe or the U.S.  The conquistador’s acts of violence and fear make more sense in the context of terror, and the context of militant conversion inherited from Reconquista-era Spain.  I’m seeing the mystic scenery of Quito through the eyes of someone full of hope and fear for the future, for a “New World.”  At the same time, I’m imagining the harrowing life of Don Felipe Guamán Poman de Áyala, an Inca noble who learned Spanish and wrote a 1,189-page illustrated letter to the King of Spain about the daily lived realities of early colonial Latin America.  Bartolomé de las Casas saved one “race” and condemned another, when he suggested the importation of African slaves to lessen the burden on indigenous workers.  These cronistas were 16th-century anthropologists.  They encountered the unknown, the Other, in the context of strife for power and resources, and tried to make sense of this Other with the theory and philosophy available to them at the time.  Their conclusions and observations created a continent and its ideology, setting the tone of gender, race, and intercultural relations for centuries.
    How do I even begin to tell you about this present?
The word desarollo, or development, is hot on everyone’s lips.  The president, Rafael Correa, was not so long ago a graduate student in Economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Two weeks ago, several unions and CONAIE (Confederation of the Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) marched against the President and some of his “development” plans involving exploitation of mineral and oil resources.  Government reports on television have Quichua and sign language subtitles.  My Quichua-speaking friend gleefully informed me of the most common use of Quichua on campus: discussing the hotness of women.  “They’ll understand you if you speak Spanish or English, but not Quichua,” he explained matter-of-factly.
Studying abroad among the people I’m “studying” is incredible.  I’m attending the most prestigious university in the nation, La Universidad San Francisco de Quito, alongside a thousand other gringos –and the next generation of Ecuador’s governing elite.  A friend from the Amazon–half-Quichua, half-Shuar–told me he chose to come to this university because “the whole world is here–indigenous, gringos, mestizos, Europeans, rich, poor, everyone.”  My classes, my professors, and my experiences sync together and spread their complex narratives and subnarratives before me.  In my Art of Colonial Quito class, the power-resource-religion complex that shaped colonial society is apparent in the content, donors, and location of Quito’s greatest artwork.  In my Quichua language class, I’m learning pieces of a language that bring me closer to several of the students here who speak it as their first language.  In my Andean Anthropology class, I’m meeting dozens of really fascinating, brilliant, motivated young people from all over the U.S. and Europe–involved in activism, politics, minority or women’s rights, public health, global studies–who are just full of energy and great ideas and authentic desire to save the world however they can.  Just by sitting in class, I hear the opinions of young elite on their own history, politics, religion, art, and culture.
My best friend here is from what must be one of the poorest villages in Ecuador.  He told me his deep struggles with the intense cultural and material contrasts between his home and his university–the most expensive and pretentious in the country–and he told me that he wrote a personal book of poetry about it.  Then, in some fit of artistic angst, he burned it.  He was very upset when he told me this.  I sort of smiled and told him that all the best writers, like Franz Kafka and many other “great” writers, had at some point ordered all their work to be burned, and then someone else published it and it became great.  That seemed to make him happy.  I told him my personal opinion that the world of literature needs more perspectives like his: well educated, emotionally intelligent, politically aware, and from a unique disadvantaged background.
Last time I wrote for this blog, from a corner of El Salvador where I was doing research last summer, I asked myself and my fellow Anthro majors and whoever else cared to read it, “What good is my privilege if I can’t do anything with it?”
Well.  Latin America first made me ask that question, and now it’s finally starting to give me an answer.
Some people might cringe at the term elite, but, well, let’s face it.  I’m elite.  And there’s nothing I can do about it.  No vows of poverty, no Marxist rants, no self-indulgent reflexivity can change where I’ve been for the past twenty years of my life.  So I’m going to embrace it and do something with it.
Studying among, making friends with, and observing fellow elites–whose lives resemble mine–is helping me realize where the potential for my own life and talents lie.  Here, I’m learning what elites do.  Elites create culture.  What’s more, they create dominant culture…even hegemonic culture.  Which is a scary, powerful thought.
The cronistas, those Spanish and Inca nobles who wrote the first dark ideologies that shaped Latin America for the past five hundred years–they were elites.  All of them.  Did they know what they were doing?  Did they know that their quickly-penned words in 16th-century Spanish would echo and resonate all too strongly throughout the centuries?
I don’t mean to romanticize, but I can’t help it.  I’m no scientist, I’m barely an anthropologist, I’m a storyteller, I’m a chronicler, I’m a cronista.  I’m a creator of culture.  I can’t just sit back and analyze; every analysis is a creation, every analysis is its own new seed that can take root and blossom or explode or shrivel or strangle or nourish humanity’s vague cosmos of ideas and ideologies.
Here I sit, with the quill of the 21st century shuddering beneath my fingers, creating culture with every keystroke.  Here we go.
The Virgin of Quito, a giant statue crowning the hill overlooking Historic Quito.   The Virgin of Quito, also called La Imaculada or the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, is a distinctive Quiteño artistic trope that appears all over church facades and interiors and in little figurines sold in markets.  The Virgin is depicted with wings and a crown of twelve stars, standing on a globe and crushing a serpent with her foot.  This is how the Virgin appears in the Book of Revelations.

South Quito, heading into the Avenue of the Volcanoes, where several snow-capped volcanoes line the highway.

A woman roasting cuy, or guinea pig.  It’s a delicacy here.

Universidad San Francisco de Quito has a lagoon instead of a Quad.  With a fountain and a waterfall.  Yeah.

Façade of the church La Compañía de Jesús, or the Company of Jesus (better known as Jesuits).  Art historians glorify La Compañía as the most extravagant, innovative, and influential church in Quito, and that it inspired architecture throughout Latin America.  While the floor plan is based on an Italian church by Alberti, Il Gesú, in Rome, Quiteños used local pumice (light, strong volcanic rock) and advanced architectural experimentation to create a well-lit and majestic church.  The interior (no pictures allowed) is literally covered in gold, plastered over dozens of side-altars with statues dressed in rich textiles.  Construction started when the Jesuits arrived to Quito in the 1600s and finished almost two centuries later in 1765, just two years before the Jesuits were expelled from all territories of the Spanish Crown.  Bad timing.

Interior of the church San Francisco in the center of Historic Quito.  It’s significantly older and smaller than La Compañía, completed sometime in the early 1600s.  I took this photo at a special service of La Virgin Dolorosa (the Sorrowful Virgin) on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter.  It was a beautiful, enchanting, devastating service; Quiteños lit candles around a life-size statue of the Virgin and chanted prayers about the terrible sorrow that must have wracked the mother of Jesus as she watched her son die.

She’s promised us a post for our blog, but meanwhile, you can check out her own blog!  It’s here: http://loonyjigs.tumblr.com/

I'm about to wash my jeans. This is a lavadora (sink) and a huacal (plastic bowl) with the laundry soap (green cylinder).I filled up the clotheslines with my laundry, the equivalent of about one machine load. Washing this took about 3-4 hours. Because it rains every afternoon and we have to take the clothes inside, these clothes didn't dry for 4 days.

[Note: Tara McGovern is an anthropology major at UIUC.  She is conducting ethnographic research in El Salvador this summer on Salvadoran youths’ memories of the civil war and experiences of violence.  This is the second post we have published from Tara about her summer experience.  The first was written on May 31 and is available online here: https://anthroillinois.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/musings-on-the-eve-of-fieldwork-by-tara-mcgovern/.   Her project is funded by the National Science Foundation, and she is being supervised by Prof. Ellen Moodie, who is conducting her own research for a new NSF-funded project in El Salvador this summer.]

A Day in the Life: The Household of a Single Mother

July 2011

This is the side of Carmen's house, with pila. We bathe behind the black bag for some privacy--except I'm too tall to stand up under the roof.This is the street outside Carmen's house.Carmen cooks everything standing next to the fire at this hearth. The fire is lit with matches and ocote, the small fragments of fragrant fast-burning wood. The red container is full of salt, essential to every Salvadoran meal.I'm about to wash my jeans. This is a lavadora (sink) and a huacal (plastic bowl) with the laundry soap (green cylinder).I filled up the clotheslines with my laundry, the equivalent of about one machine load. Washing this took about 3-4 hours. Because it rains every afternoon and we have to take the clothes inside, these clothes didn't dry for 4 days.


Jocoaitique, Northern Morazán, El Salvador

I shivered with the shock of cold water on sweaty skin,  standing up quickly only to smack my head on the roof beam.  I cursed loudly in English and hunched my shoulders beneath the low ceiling, hesitantly scooping more cold water out of the pila to dump on myself again.  Carmen´s musical laugh trilled out the window.  “¿Te gusta bañar, Tara?” she called, “Do you like bathing, Tara?”

To wash my clothes, I filled up the clotheslines with my laundry, the equivalent of about one machine load. Washing this took about 3-4 hours. Because it rains every afternoon and we have to take the clothes inside, these clothes didn't dry for 4 days.

Bathing, I learned quickly, is a focal point in the daily praxis of rural Salvadorans.  It is absolutely necessary to bathe before leaving the house, no matter the hour.  You stand naked, outside, dumping bowls full of cold water on yourself.  The water comes from the pila, a giant waist-high cement box filled with water–the shape and size makes me think of a sarcophagus.  Every task that requires water—bathing, dishwashing, laundry– is accomplished by scooping water out of the pila with wide flat-bottomed plastic bowls, called huacals.  I’ve become much more conscious of how much water we use every day, just in one household, just by watching the water level in the pila sink lower and lower and lower with every huacal scooped out.  We can only refill the pila every two days, when water runs out the tap at one end for just a few hours.  The water caye oscuro, “falls dark” — that is, it looks cloudy and grey, despite the water purification system installed for the community last year.


Carmen cooks everything standing next to the fire here. The fire is lit with matches and ocote, the small fragments of fragrant fast-burning wood. The red container is full of salt, essential to every Salvadoran meal.

To answer Carmen’s question, I actually do like bathing.  I look forward to it, as a refreshing relief from the afternoon heat, not to mention the creeping stench of one’s own sweat.  In fact, many would-be inconveniences about rural Salvadoran life have benefits as well.  The house is always full of smoke from the cooking fire, but the smoke keeps away mosquitoes and eliminates the inevitable mildew of the rainy season.  Food cooked over a fire tastes wholesome.  Clothes scrubbed by hand are significantly cleaner than those from a washing machine.  After drying on the lines outside, they smell like sun and jungle breeze.  I find Carmen’s house incredibly warm and welcoming.

This is the street outside Carmen's house.

I hesitate to call Carmen my “host-mom.”  Barely older than I am, she’s more of a friend, and guide, than a “mom.”  It didn´t take her long to realize exactly how dumb the gringa in her house was—that I was totally lost on the most common-sense things about being a Salvadoran  woman.  She has the patience to teach me everything—how to light a fire with the fragrant fast-burning ocote wood, how to dig and peel sweet pale yucca tubers from the backyard, how to fry bananas, how to bathe, how to clean the house, how to wash clothes, how to clean rice and prepare beans.  As she moves through the house, she tells me stories about her family, explains folk expressions to me, and corrects my faulty pronunciation.  When I moved in, I stowed away the lofty theoretical questions of my project and concentrated on learning the lifestyle of Carmen.

No matter what time I set my alarm, Carmen is up before me–washing clothes.  The degree of cleanliness Salvadoran women maintain is incredible.  Carmen is always washing something–laundry, the refrigerator, the hearth, the floor, the walls, the pila, her young daughter, herself.  I think Carmen´s house is far cleaner than even the most germophobic houeshold in a first-world country, let alone a US college student´s apartment.

Carmen´s life is raw and complicated, too complicated for a blog post, but just to give a glimpse: Carmen (name changed), 23 years old, is the single mother of a bright four-year-old girl, María.  Single motherhood is very common; of the women my age I have met, about fifty percent have one or more children and no partner to speak of.  Hand-to-mouth is the only way to describe their existence.  I literally watch the cash—five to ten dollars, no more—pass from Carmen’s hand to her little red purse to the hand of the storekeeper when she brings back a few days’ worth of food.  Carmen makes artesanías (handicrafts)–necklaces and earrings from seeds, shells, and other organic materials she finds on the ground.  She sells them to friends, neighbors, and tourists when she can.  This income, however, is insufficient.  Like many other women I’ve talked to, Carmen desperately wants to find trabajo fijo, steady work, in this region of Morazán.  “It´s not that I don´t have time to work, or that I don´t want to work,” she says.  “It´s that there is no opportunity to work.”  My presence in Carmen’s house, while very welcoming on a social level, has the economic dimension of two solid months of food security.

The gendered division of labor appears to be relatively strict.  Women can wash clothes ($5 per day, maximum) or make tortillas; men can work the cornfields ($7 per day, maximum) or construction.  Jobs are extremely temporary—lasting at most three months, more frequently only a day or two.  The father of Carmen´s daughter lives nearby and visits frequently—visits that Carmen tolerates only because he pays voluntary child support whenever he finds work. Many young people leave Morazán for other parts of El Salvador, or for the United States, just to support themselves.  However, most don’t want to leave.  Morazén is exceptionally beautiful and peaceful, a sharp contrast with the cities of El Salvador, where more than ten people per day die as a result of gang violence.  Even more dangerous is the long road of illegal immigrants to the United States, which many people are nonetheless compelled to take.

This is Carmen's kitchen. She keeps dry food in the hanging basket to keep the ants away. I write fieldnotes at this table.

When she was younger, Carmen wanted to study medicine, travel, discover other places; now, at the age of 23, she is resigned to do whatever she can to ensure the survival of her daughter.  “She will know other places.  She will get out of here,” Carmen says, softening her sharp dark eyes as she watches her daughter prance around the room.  I swallow the bittersweet taste of privilege that rises in my mouth when Carmen says things like this.  It’s become clear in our conversations that I have the life that she wants, and both of us know it.  Carmen has shown me the most intimate details of her life; now all I want to is to bring her and little María back to the U.S. to show them my life.  But this can never be, for a thousand reasons.  The unfairness of it all makes me angry sometimes. What good is my “privilege” if I can’t do anything with it?  If all I can do for Carmen is make sure she has food for a few months?  I said this to Carmen once.  She only half-smiled and said what Salvadorans tell me every day: “Así es la vida.”  “That’s life.”

French cognitive anthropologist Dan Sperber has been getting quite a lot of publicity for an article in which he and a coauthor suggest that the point of humans arguing is to argue.  The broader theory is termed the “argumentative theory of reasoning,” and is also known as the “the social brain hypothesis.”  You can read a summary here:
Continue reading

Tara McGovern, a rising junior in anthropology at UIUC, will be spending this summer in El Salvador conducting her first fieldwork in cultural anthropology, supervised by our own Prof. Ellen Moodie.  Both their fieldwork projects are funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation for which Prof. Moodie is co-Principal Investigator (with cultural anthropologist, Leigh Binford).  Tara wrote her first post for us on the eve of her departure for El Salvador.  In this post, she provides a rare look at the rush of thoughts a first-time fieldworker has when about to embark on a new project in a new career.  Later this summer, Tara will update us with the progress of her research. Continue reading

Bryan Anderson

Distant Disaster: Local and Global Response

The first I heard about the earthquake came from a staff member in the exchange program’s office. While inquiring if we knew of anyone travelling out of the Kobe area this weekend, she informed us that there was an earthquake in the north close to the Tokyo area. She did not seem overly worried, and no one in my group reacted with excess concern. Earthquakes are extremely common in Japan, we all knew this, so it didn’t strike us as overly concerning news. After talking for a bit more, we all went out for dinner, and then to a party at a restaurant that a friend was holding. People were handing out papers in the street. I assumed it was in regards to the earthquake, but no one seemed overly panicked while reading. I didn’t think much of it and carried on with my evening. The party went very late, and so I went straight to bed once getting home. When I woke up to check email and Facebook, I was completely taken aback. I had dozens of emails and notifications, all from people back home frantically trying to hear from me if I was alright. I replied to everyone as fast as I could telling them that I was alright and that the disaster events were very far from me. Despite this blanket reassurance, and subsequent telling of my safety as the nuclear issue came about, I would be spending the next two weeks in a constant attempt to calm fears at home. In addition, I would be balancing highly differing information in an attempt to evaluate the truth of my situation.

The portrayal of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that occurred in the Sendai region of Japan seems to have varied greatly from country to country. In Japan, videos of the disaster and reports came constant from the sites surrounding and in the area affected. For days, a map of Japan was shown on the TV screen with three levels of tsunami threat depicted: red the greatest risk, orange moderate risk, and yellow minimal risk. Whenever a news report was given on the event, the correspondent  would always wear a hard hat, regardless of where they were (this including, quite unnecessarily if they were in the station studio of an unaffected city). The devastation was constantly reported, but no sensationalism seemed to be expressed. It was a massive disaster that affected a highly populous region of Japan, but it was only a relatively small part of Japan, and therefore most of the country was able to continue on their normal business. This was true of the area of Japan where I live and travel, the Kansai region. No shocks were felt at all from the distant quake, and our risk of tsunami was extremely minimal, especially considering that the island of Kyushu is blocking most of our area from the direct sea. The event stayed on the local news, and was is the background of people’s conversations for days, but people in Kansai largely continued their lives as normal.

The view of the disaster abroad was quite a bit different. My exposure to American news media at the time was minimal, but from what I saw, it seemed to be a constant stream of disaster footage. The massive wave becoming a wall of mud and debris and the devastation that followed it. All that could be seen was devastation of the towns over and over again. But the headlines I saw did not talk about the region or cities affected by the event, they talked about Japan being affected, with devastation often implied to be  total across the country. Much of my poor family and friends were in a great panic, thinking that I was absolutely in danger. I made a continuous effort to calm people, and to try to get across how big Japan really is, and that the media’s portrayal of the event was maybe misleading. I was fortunately able to quell most fears with assurances that I was okay, and would be remaining that way. But then the nuclear disaster hit the mainstream news.  Once again sensationalism set in on the news. The reactor is quite far from me, so I once again set out to explain that the danger for me and Kansai was just not present. If there was any risk, I told everyone, my university would know, and they would withdraw us from the program.  This calmed my parents, and calmed me, but then confusion set in among the exchange students. Our program at the time consisted of about 45 people coming from about ten schools across the US and Europe.  Four of the schools were linked to Illinois, so their information and advice would be the same as that given to me. Every other school, though, made their own evaluations, and no two institutions came to the same conclusion.  Soon after, students began to be recalled. Some universities firmly believed students were in immediate danger due to radiation, and some seemed to just want to be cautious just in case. A university in France even decided to cut off all relations with the university. This situation greatly confused all of us. All the universities have access to roughly the same information, how could such varying conclusions and levels of panic be reached?  Some of us are still unsure if we will be sent home early. Worse yet, with so many authorities claiming to understand the situation over everyone else, we still don’t know the true risk involved with staying here. Unfortunately, it seems only time will tell.

By Bryan Anderson

I arrived at Kansai International extremely exhausted. With layovers, it had been a 20 hour flight, and I barely slept the entire time, and that was with not sleeping at all the day before. Despite this, I exited the plane alert and anxious. Even with my constant interest in international topics and the various cultures of the world, I very rarely traveled in the US, let alone by myself internationally, so finding myself alone in the airport check in process was daunting. My Japanese was extremely basic at this point. I studied up on some airport words in an attempt to speed up the entry process, but that didn’t help a great deal. I could not understand the staff member at the foreign entry counter at all at first. I was attempting to get any Japanese words out of their statements, but then realized they were actually speaking extremely heavily accented English. I tried both languages but communication was still difficult. Japan was always presented to me as a place where service was held in an exceptionally high regard and where extreme politeness was a social standard. I quickly learned this was not at all a consistent case. The attendant quickly became visibly frustrated and lost patience. I managed to stumble through our interaction, and it lasted no more than 3 minutes, but it definitely unnerved me. Finished with the bureaucracy, I began to wander the airport looking for the meeting place described to me earlier online. I didn’t have to look long; after about a minute I heard my name being called. I turned to see two women in a quick rush towards me. I recognized one of them as the program representative I had been in contact with over the summer. Both women were extremely kind and patient as they dealt with my questions and general exhausted post-flight bumbling. This helped to lift my frustrations from before, and I once again became consumed with excited anticipation.

After a few days of orientation, I met my host mom face to face for the first time. The introduction ceremony was overly elaborate, and supposedly hadn’t changed since the early years of the program over three decades earlier. Our program coordinator, an American professor, mentioned earlier how Japanese society is often slow to embrace change, particularly in regards to procedures. I suppose I was seeing this first hand. They introduced us to out host families in alphabetical order, so I got the dubious privilege of being first. I bowed and shook hands with my host mother, and then we were directed towards the first set of a long line of chairs. Since we were first, I had about 25 minutes until all the other introductions were completed. During that time, it was just my host mother and I sitting next to each other. Of course the first face-to-face meeting was going to be awkward, but the seating arrangement and extended waiting time was not helping. Her English was about as capable as my Japanese, so little conversation was possible. I summoned up all my abstract vocabulary to ask as much as I could, but it was still rather uncomfortable.
Shortly after the ceremony came to a close, we went to pick up my host father and host little brother and drove to the city hall in order to file some residency paperwork. The ride was again awkward, but I was able to talk to my new little brother to a decent degree (he being only about 4 at the time made this task a bit easier). After about 15 minutes of silly questions in Japanese, I decided to inquire about sports. I asked “yakyū ga suki?” (Do you like baseball?). He responded with a strong and loud English “Yes!” My host parents and I all laughed, and I felt some of the tension melt away. It was a minor moment, but it felt important.
Upon returning home, I was introduced to my new room. It was an average sized room, but the furniture was much simpler than I was accustomed to. I found myself immediately having to change the way I organized my things in order to accommodate what was presented to me. The strangest thing about the room, though, was the pillow on my bed. It looked like a bean pillow, but upon closer examination I found it to be filled with small, hollow, plastic cylinders. I laid on it for a few minutes and decided it was very odd. I knew I would get used to it though, and I knew that it was only going to be a minor item on a long list of alterations to my routine. I stared out my window at the ever familiar sky, and looked forward to seeing what other variations I would be making during my long stay.

This is me with my host mother and host brother who was 3 years old at the time. We are about to partake in a delicious and elaborate meal purchased by my host father's visiting parents

This is a photo my friend took of one of the central buildings of the Konan campus. It was early September at the time, and plants around the university were absolutely stunning!

Laura Lynch’s Photos

A Reverse Culture Shocking

by Laura Lynch

UIUC anthro major Laura Lynch spent a semester abroad in Brazil this past fall (2010), enrolled in a program at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro. She has just returned to UIUC for the spring and finds herself in a bit of shock.  Written the night before beginning spring semester classes back at UIUC, the blog post below is a sort of love poem to Rio . . .

The truth is, I’m scared.  Or perhaps, and more precisely, intimidated by the accumulation of things, the rush of time–

It is 2:22 am, the night’s rest before the first day of school back at UIUC, and although I’ve been near a computer all day, I couldn’t find the words or the will to tell a story of Brazil.  Instead, I invited my Brazilian travel buddy, Obedzinski (along our backpacking trip, he counted how many times people thought he was anything but Brazilian: 15) to a social gathering at my Urbana home via Skype, spoke to him in Portuguese, flipped through the photos and videos on Facebook of friends I met through the program at PUC-Rio.  It’s as if it’s what I know, a learned version of myself, a carioca[1] version, that must hibernate as I re-learn the practice of being a girl from Illinois and what that means.

It means windy winters at frosty temperatures.  It means fourth-year friend clique drama.  It means my own room and an established relationship at reach.

Living here means the ocean is no longer my guide to and from school, no longer my next-door neighbor.  It means no leaves on the fingers of trees, no orchids in bloom.  No small-glass standard serving size at bars such as Itahy in Leblon,[2] meant to be refilled frequently with ice-cold liters of summer beer that taste all the same to me; it means individual bottles of winter beer sophistication.

It means I’ll never find sand on my carpet floors, no Christopher, no Felipe nor Obedzinski or James.  No Luana, no Renata, no crazy suburb girls like Irene, who don’t care for spots like Post 3 at Barra Beach.

No baratas,[3] no flies– especially ones due to filth left behind by frat-like Portuguese roommates whose diet is a strict meat-and-starch composition garnished with swirling rings of cigarette smoke.

No regular supply of cachaça[4] for weekend caipirinhas.[5] No field trips to places I haven’t yet seen unless I run across an adventurer like Charlie, who once led me to Meadowbrook Park in high firefly season, perhaps late June, to ride bikes in a small mob and see the stars sparkle like Vidigal[6] up the morro[7] at night.

I guess I feel unpracticed as myself or perhaps unsure of who I am so that I may find a voice to speak.

Intimidation is the impetus of the strange behavior due to the unsettling essence and timid curiosity present in the face of beauty.  I am at the foothills of change, and to me, change is beautiful.

Tenho saudades do Brasil,[8] but I know I’ve been living in Urbana in my daydreams.  I’m where Monday feels like Sunday and everything follows forward in a reverse order in just the right way–

[3:00am].


[1] A person from Rio de Janeiro.

[2] One of the most chic neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro.

[3] Cockroaches.

[4] Distilled sugar cane alcohol.

[5] The national Brazilian drink, comprised of cachaça, sugar, limes, and ice.

[6] A shanty-town community at the southern end of the Zona Sul region of Rio de Janeiro.

[7] Hill.

[8] I miss Brazil.

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