by Hugh M. Lewis
We returned to stay with my Mom, having no other immediate plans. I was soon engaged full time by my brother to help him set up a dental office not too far away. We worked for more than six months on it, and finished about the middle of January of the following year. After a few rough starts, we finally got going with it. I ended up doing most of the work, from electrical installation and plumbing to framing and plastering to dry-walling and door-hanging and carpentry and the final painting. I even helped the carpet layer come in and lay plush wall- to- wall carpeting in all the offices and down the side hall. That Christmas I made my brother some nice hardwood diploma frames with oak and black walnut to hang in his office. I was very disappointed when he only paid me about U.S. $1,000 for the work me and my wife had done for him over the past several months.
After that I set about looking for work once again. I sent off numerous applications to several different agencies in the Federal Government and in local government. I canvassed locally for lesser paying jobs. I found the amount of bureaucratic bullshit in hiring to be very unreasonable. I had qualifications higher than almost all of the people who did the interviews, and yet my schooling or degrees did not seem to mean anything to anyone. I did get a job hauling furniture and other junk off the back of a panel truck into the show room of a local thrift shop. Though thrift shops are supposed to be non-profit, charitable institutions, the owner had a chain of five of them and from what I could tell was making very clean and large profits from items he was getting for nothing. They were more interested in the fact that I was an ex-marine than that I had a Master's degree in anthropology. They told me I was the last person of their applicant pool to be called, because everyone else had already quit. They were surprised when I could fill out the job forms and income tax forms by myself without anyone's help. Needless to say I did not stay there very long as I was marking the prices on the stuff too low and everyone was buying the junk--they were surprised they had moved so much in one day. I quit the first day with cuts and sores on my hands and a sore back, without getting any pay. I quit and the next day the lady in charge desperately called me, telling they would pay me a whole $4.00 per hour. It was just not worth it to me.
I kept looking and slowly learned how to fill out the forms properly. The DEA was quite interested in hiring me, promising to send me to the FBI training academy in Virginia, but after an FBI check on me and finding out that my wife was a foreign national, from Malaysia no less, and that my brother-in-law and sister-in-law were both Mexicans, they changed their minds. Perhaps they found too many beer bottles in my trash can or my amazing military record or talked to the CPA neighbors who didn't like me very much.
I was desperate and tried any and every job offer or interview. At some point in the process I had found an old application for admission to a graduate anthropology program at SUNY-Binghamton. Since I was filling out so many other forms, I decided that I would send in this one as well. I did not at the time take it seriously. I had aimed at admission into the UC system a couple of years earlier but received such negative and critical insults from a couple of arrogant male professors of one school that I gave it up without much of a fight. I filled it out, got some letters of recommendation and sent in transcripts and promptly forgot all about it.
I got involved in building a redwood deck in the backyard of my Mom's house--a project which took about six weeks to complete.Then I continued looking for work. I got Rosie enrolled part- time in a few night-classes at an extension college nearby. She was learning medical terminology and other types of things. She was having good interaction in the course and seemed to be happy in it. Then that summer I received notice from SUNY-Binghamton in New York that I had gotten accepted to their PhD program for the coming Fall. I was excited that someone in the world finally considered me worthwhile enough to take seriously. In the meantime I had gotten a part-time job as a janitor at a senior citizens recreation center in Orange County. It was a long drive and didn't pay very much, but I didn't mind the job and liked to interact with most of the old people there who didn't have many people to talk to. I worked with a 16- year- old Chicano boy who was given a full-time position doing the same thing I was doing. He was a gang-member and there was a program that gave him double pay for doing the job. He did not last long on the job after he ended up breaking into the kitchen of the cafeteria and stealing some of their equipment. I remember distributing food under the WIC program to people who would drive up in Mercedes Benz Cars and BMW's. The old men who helped out got a kick out of it.
Anyway, by August, almost one year after we had returned, I was off again to New York. I got rid of my old valiant and took a beat up Volkswagen beetle I had paid cash for from my own earnings out of High School, which I had repaired and repainted. We packed that Volkswagen full, and we drove across the country like that, with my seat moved fully forward so there was only a few inches between my belly and the steering wheel.
We drove across the U.S. in August during the final year of the draught, and so much of the mid-west looked burnt up. We went to Chicago and stayed overnight with the family of a buddy of mine I went through the entire Marine Corps with--a red-haired Irish-German who came from a big catholic family. He had died several years previously in a fishing accident, and his family had never gotten over it. I learned the details from his brother, and they kept his ashes in a coffee can in the closet in the room we slept in that night. It all felt strange to me.
The first two semester's in the program at SUNY-Binghamton went well for me. I had made almost straight A's and I was given a Teaching Assistantship and an office of my own for the following year. I was vocal and opinionated and more than a little naive. It was a politically charged atmosphere and the social relations within the department could have been described as a bit frosty, if not down right frozen solid. So I found it strange from the beginning and the second semester attempted a kind of ethnography of the department where I interviewed about 30 or 40 of the students and about 16 of the faculty. I discovered some of the internal tensions of the place and who was pulling whose strings. I did not know at the time that probably more than a couple of senior people probably wanted to get rid of me, and that my ethnography probably threatened the hell out of them.
During that summer I painted a two-storey house for a few hundred dollars and built some oak bookshelves for a friend for another few hundred dollars. Rosie had picked up a baby-sitting job that added to our earnings. Near the beginning of the following semester one of the students in our program committed suicide by hanging himself. Some of the students voiced their anger to me about how they felt the department had kind of railroaded him and treated him poorly. They wanted to sign a petition of protest against the department.
The following semester some of the key figures in the faculty came down hard on the students and intimidated them into conformity. I spoke out against these people in the open forum of the classroom and pissed a couple of professors off. Needless to say that the semester was a busy year, but one in which we actually began saving money instead of spending it. But by the end of the semester a handful of professors had officially ostracized me from their program, and tried to make me believe it was my fault and that I couldn't ever get into another program. I got the letter announcing that I had been denied my TA-ship for the following semester just around Christmas time, and that I was put on a conditional status in the graduate program. Needless to say I was pissed off and never set foot in that department again, and after that only ever saw my primary advisor who encouraged me to stay within the program and fight it, and who, I believe, felt very hurt when I left the program.
That was just at the time we had our baby. It was snowing and icy, and our daughter came two weeks earlier than expected and at about 8 3/4 pounds. My wife was in the delivery room for almost 36 hours, until a rude Indian woman doctor finally pulled Mahala out with forceps. I was extremely disappointed at the program for having let me down during a time that we needed the most support.
About a month after Mahala was born we drove back to California in my new 1971 Chevy truck. At first we didn't know what we were to do. I was bound and determined to get into another anthropology program because I knew I was one of the best students and that I could do it. I ended up sending off two salvos of applications to different departments all across the country. The first salvo got one or two nibbles but no bites. During the interim I installed a Jacuzzi on the deck I had previously built for my Mom, and then I went up north to help my brother move his practice and keep my grandma's house in Chow-Chilla while she went back east for a few weeks. I gained admittance to a small state-college up in the valley with the idea of earning a second degree in some other field, and began getting involved with the Cambodian refugee community in the area. But the second salvo of applications that I managed to get off by early summer time did the job and landed me in two different programs at the same time, for the coming Winter semester, so we quickly cut short our stay in Northern California and returned post haste to get ready for moving again back east.
One program offered me a TA-ship right-off the bat and entry in the winter semester with a full scholarship, while the other program offered me nothing and entry only in the following fall semester.
I was inclined toward the first school, but we ended up driving back out and visiting both programs in the fall. The first school was a small prestigious private college in the mid-West with some well-known faculty person's and pretty good connections as far as funding and hiring were concerned. I attended it in the Spring semester, but found myself treated so poorly by some of the people and so alienated by the stuffy and ultra-conservative social atmosphere that I decided I would go to the other school in the Fall. So the day the school semester ended at the first school we had repacked all our belongings in our truck and were on the road again going to the other school where there was campus housing made available for us.
I found myself quite successful in this school, though I was not a part of any student network and totally outside its social life, and successfully completed four semesters and achieved my PhD. candidacy during the following two years. We moved in the middle of that period and found a better on-campus arrangement, and we soon made many foreign friends from other fields, most of whom were married and with children.
I had taken out student loans to pay for the final year there, as I knew it was my last year, if everything went right, and we had several thousand left over. We used this to pay for plane fare back to Malaysia. Rosie was really missing going back, and she made me promise to take her back as soon as possible. So we threw most of our belongings into a small rental storage room, had a yard-sale for the rest of our junk, and drove back out the long road to California one more time. We got tickets to return to Malaysia on the 15th of July, 1993. Rosie made herself busy the last week or so buying gifts for all her old friends and the few family she had remaining. And when we got back on the plane we had three bags, most of which were presents for different people.
Professional Pariah: Ethnography of the Anthropological Self
Hugh M. Lewis
Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, © 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.
Last Updated: 03/17/05