WITNESSING THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF THE WORLD
by Hugh M. Lewis
Anthropology and Authoritarian Power Structures
An American Autobiography
Whatever the type, there is a deep-seated craving common to almost all men of words which determines their attitude to the prevailing order. It is a craving for human recognition, a craving for a clearly marked status above the common run of humanity. (Eric Hoffer, Between the Devil and the Dragon 1982: 269)
I have nothing to prove my words that follow except a firm faith in my own basic honesty. I speak for myself and for no one else, and I offer but one possible interpretation, but one eyewitness testimony to the events of my experience. One must pay a price for honesty and openness to one’s experiences. Often it is a price of self-security. Sometimes it is a price of self-credulity—of worthiness and merit in the eyes of others.
It is honesty, particularly self-honesty that most dispels the ‘necessary’ illusions of life that sustain our belief in our actions and our worldview. Such honesty rests upon a common ground of human weakness and frailty, and upon a healthy skepticism that while people of the world may sometimes admire a good hater, no one ever loves a chronic doubter or a selfless critic.
Witnessing one’s faith in terms available to and relevant of one’s own experience is sometimes the prelude to one’s confirmation of that faith. It is an unveiling, an expose', and forging of one’s own character in the fire of life.
Indeed, all people are by the achieved wisdom of their lived experiences ‘authentic anthropologists’ of the world. And anthropology has been a peculiar preoccupation of all of humankind, and an ancient profession of all peoples to understand themselves in disillusioned ways. The need for professed self-honesty derives from the inability to live well with the deceit and contradictions that normally sustain most of our illusions and our actions. Deceit begets ever greater darkness and deceit, and the path of wisdom lies through the disillusionment that only honesty can hope to bring.
There is no human being who is not untransformed by experience and whose pathway through life does not twist and turn in unexpected directions, and who is not, sooner or later, forced to walk in someone else’s foot steps.
I witness six different sets of experiences drawn from six different periods of my life. The events, which framed these experiences, were biographically, and historically, real, though the interpretation I now give to them remains my own fiction, my own mythical illusion. The only common theme uniting these six different episodes is my own autobiographical impression formed by these various experiences that is bound together by my existential need for self identity. It is a common theme composed of threads of aggression, authority and authoritarianism, being American and trying to become an ‘Authentic Academic Anthropologist,’ and, last but not least, my own obsessive preoccupation with authorial credibility.
We are all actors with our parts to play however minor they may really be. And we all have our own voices with which to witness the world.
Whether in visible or mysterious garb,
Buddha is neither one nor divisible.
If you need to distinguish his aspects,
Imagine a Lotus blooming in a fire.
"Buddha" by Dao Hue
I do not remember well my father’s face. I remember him walking through the front door. I remember him arguing with my mother. I remember his hairy hands turning the pages while I sat in his lap trying to read with him. I remember his long interminable absences, his unexpected visits in his old gray Plymouth. I remember him working in the garage on his boat, helping him bring his tools. I remember going fishing with him, becoming sea sick, and his catching barracuda, halibut and bass. I remember riding in the car with him on his journeys, and him waiting for me to pick me up after school.
One day, the first of December in 1965, I walked home from school to find his car not parked beside the curb. I looked for him and waited. But he never, ever came again. Eventually my grandpa pulled up in his Chevy pickup truck, and he took me silently to my aunt's house on the other side of town. I asked him where my father was, but he was strangely quiet. I was told at my aunt’s that something had happened. My father had a ‘heart attack’ but that’s all I found out from them. Finally the phone rang and then my aunt drove me back to my house.
My mother and older sister met me at the door. They both had tears in their eyes as they told me he had died. I said I was told he had a heart attack. They did not say anything. I did not understand death very well at the time, for I smiled in embarrassment, not knowing what else to do.
My older brother had red eyes for about three days, and then that was the last time I ever saw him cry in my life. My father had been very hard on my brother, punishing him very fiercely when he neglected his duties like taking out the trash.
We then had a big family reunion at my Grandma’s and Granpa’s house. Family came from all over. A big long black limousine with fold up back seats picked us up and took us uptown to the memorial service. The coffin was open, but as we filed by I could not see who was in it because I was too short and I was too shy by the ceremony to ask my mother or sister to pick me up to look inside.
We drove a long way to the funeral in a long line of cars. He was buried on a hill at the Federal cemetery in San Diego (Rosecran's National Cemetery at Point Loma). It overlooked the beautiful blue ocean and the gray naval ships in the harbor. The flag that draped the coffin flapped in the breeze, as the soldiers standing on the hill fired their rifles overhead and then folded up the flag into a funny triangle and handed it to my mom.
Everyone else left the graveside except myself, my brother and sisters and my Mom. As we stood there in an endless geometric sea of white grave markers, my mother and oldest sister cried. My brother, other sister, and myself went back to the car and waited for them, laughing and joking about their melodramatic mood. Perhaps we were trying to escape from the overwhelming gravity of the moment in our own naive ways.
My mother put the folded flag into one of her old trunks by her bed, and I have only seen it once or twice since that day, and only after my request. We only visited the grave once after that, and have never been back to see it since. My father used to take us to Church and Sunday school every Sunday morning, but after his death we never went back to church at all.
After that my growing up was mostly memories of playing, being alone, fighting between all members of my family, taking care of my pet animals, television and school. All of these events transpired against a background of the Vietnam War, assassinations, campus protests and racial riots, the Beatles and popular rock and roll on the radio. I remember giving the casualty reports from the second page of the LA Times to my class every morning for current events. I remember watching Walter Cronkite on the six o’clock news telling us "and that’s the way it is."
I remember Life magazine with the pictures of the TET offensive in Hue, the casualties, the Vietcong and My Lai. I remember the neighbor boys next door, down the streets, behind us, all going off to Vietnam and eventually returning. One boy my mother had taught in school had told us that he was a machine gunner in the Marine Corps. Another son of family friends of ours never came back. An older brother of my best friend came back, only to be killed in a car accident a few days later. In my neighborhood there was no ostensible dishonor in serving in Vietnam. It was a lower working class neighborhood of mixed Mexican American and White background, and serving one’s country was an expected and not dishonorable thing to do.
My family fell apart over the next few years. My mother worked all the time and went to school at night. My older brother fell in with a bad group of young men, got hooked on drugs, and would come home at night in terrible rages, smashing up furniture and everything. Many times he would be angered with me and beat me up—one time so bad that I was laid up in bed for several days after. He began sawing holes in the roofs of pharmacies and burglarizing them for their pills. He would stash them away in the garage. One day my mother found the dope, and took it to the police station uptown. She asked me if I would go with her, but I was frightened and refused. That night undercover detectives arrested my brother in our living room. We spent the next year visiting my brother in prison.
My younger sister became schizophrenic later on, but her strangeness always permeated the household to the point that I was afraid to bring my school friends home to visit for fear of her unexpected behavior.
It was only several years later that I had discovered the truth about my father’s death. He had been suffering for several years from paranoid schizophrenia. He spent about a year in Camarillo State Hospital receiving electro-shock therapy. He had attempted suicide one day by slashing his wrists and had taken himself to a hospital for treatment. That day in December 1966, he had shot himself in the heart with a twenty-two-caliber rifle that we used to take target shooting in the desert. I discovered the truth from a school acquaintance who had lived nearby my Grandparent’s house where it had happened, and I later confronted my mother with the question, and she explained to me the whole secret that had been kept hidden from me for so long. The pieces began falling into place, and my memories began making sense. In hindsight I can understand my mother’s reluctance to tell me the truth, as I probably wouldn’t have understood it very well anyway. But it has always fundamentally bothered me that my own family had deceived me when they had been the very one’s to teach me always to tell the truth. Lies, white, gray or black, are still lies.
No color or complexion distinguishes the way
Still its message flares up everywhere:
Of the thousands of worlds, numerous as grains of sand
Which is not home?
Perhaps it was desperation, or perhaps it was the epitome of wisdom, that led my mother to move to another part of the city right when I was coming of age and was about to enter High School. In my old Junior High, I was not just the top of the class, but the top of the whole school. I was probably the classic example of an early over achiever in a small, poor school district that has chronically rated some of the lowest reading and math scores in the country. I found conventional schoolwork stimulating, and I was quite the perfectionist and quite frustrated and unhappy. I achieved in spite of the emotional turmoil and desperation of our family life, and perhaps because of it.
My mom had no one else to help us move. I was the only one to help her, and we made many trips across town in our old Plymouth loaded up with our possessions. We did not finish until late at night, and we left behind many things, which we could not carry with us and put into the car or the van of a friend who came to help us in the evening. I had learned to become the little ‘man of the house’ taking care of many of the household chores, the animals and learning to cook and clean up after myself, my sister and for my mom while she worked.
High school turned out to be one of the loneliest and unhappiest times of my life. I burned out early on in the overachievement syndrome, especially as I found myself in classrooms full of students who seemed to suffer more acutely from the need for achievement and pernicious perfectionism than myself. My mom had landed me in an upper middle class white people’s school, and the common distinction made by the student body and the teachers was between those who came from ‘above the Boulevard’ and those unfortunate few from ‘below the Boulevard.’ I found myself not only ostracized from most social circles in the school, but actually shunned and ostracized from many extra-curricular activities. It was apparent to us, even then, that many of the teachers had a selective preference for supporting students from ‘above the boulevard.’ I found myself the member of a lunch time clique who called ourselves ‘the odd ball group.’ Looking back, we shared one thing in common, we were none of us academic overachievers and most of us were from ‘below the boulevard’.
The Vietnam War still loomed in the background, only not so overshadowing as before. It was receding quickly. By the last year of my high school the first wave Vietnamese refugee children made their first appearance in our school—about twenty or thirty of them in all. They were a strange and separate group. I tried to little avail to befriend some of them in PE class. I remember one boy proclaiming proudly that he was not Vietnamese, but Chinese from Vietnam, and that a U.S. helicopter could be shot down with a forty-five-caliber pistol if it was still bigger than the size of one’s thumb.
By my senior year I was working more than full time as a dishwasher at a local restaurant and a convalescent home, and on weekends I would do peoples yard work and housework. I managed to save quite a lot of money, but could no longer deal very well with school. I ended up getting kicked out of a couple of classes for fighting with other students or talking back to the teacher. Though I ended up having to go to a continuation school at night, I ended up graduating with the rest of the class of ’76 on schedule.
I left high school without any clear sense of what I was going to do next. I remember telling my mom one evening at dinner, in quite serious earnest, that I was bound and determined to leave the house, and all the nonsense, no matter what. I paid cash for a Volkswagen, and soon found myself living alone in a single bedroom apartment in a dusty city in central California, attending a state college full time as a pre-vet animal science major and still working full time as a dishwasher at a Holiday Inn.
I must have been terribly lonely in that strange city, and also terribly confused. One day I found myself walking by a military recruiter’s office downtown and saw a poster of Marines in uniform—it read ‘The Few, the Proud, the Marines’. Next thing I knew I found myself inside, signing all the forms for an enlistment which was delayed only long enough to go home and say goodbye to my Mom. I had a choice of either becoming an enlisted man or of being sent back to college and eventually becoming an officer. I was attracted by the two thousand-dollar bonus then being offered for the ‘combat arms program’ and I remember one officer telling me that he thought I would be happier driving around in tanks rather than humping it with a backpack and a rifle. My mom was quite disturbed and surprised when the recruiter phoned her to congratulate her on her son’s enlistment into the Marine Corps.
I spent a Memorial Day weekend wondering around downtown Los Angeles waiting for the AAFEE’s station to open on Monday morning. The induction process took a whole day, and it wasn’t until nightfall that we took our oaths and made the long and lonesome bus trip down to MCRD San Diego. My first encounter with several mad Drill Instructors even before I got off the bus taught me a lesson I would have reaffirmed many times over during and after my stint in the ‘suck’—what a fool I had been in volunteering for active duty. Boot camp was difficult and purely physical, but it was simple and straight ahead, and it had its affect upon myself and everyone else at the time. It had effectively turned us, in the course of three months, into blindly obedient, boot shinning, rifle drilling mad machines ready to sacrifice ourselves for our country and to kill other people in the process.
The effect of this brain washing did not begin to wear off until I actually got to the Pacific Fleet Marine Force stationed at Camp Schwab in north central Okinawa. I spent the entire eight weeks at the tank training school polishing boots, shinning brass, running five miles a day in any kind of weather, and then going out and getting blindly drunk at the army EM clubs. At Okinawa I had a somewhat abrupt and rude awakening to a battle hardened and battle weary Marine Corps line units that were suffering a severe hangover in a kind of ‘post Vietnam’ syndrome. Morale was severely low, field officers were frequently missing and getting drunk on duty, and everyone had a defeatist ‘Fuck the Suck’ and ‘Eat the Apple, Fuck the Corp’s’ attitude. The Lifers were still as Gungi as ever, but Vietnam had left a funny cloud hanging in the back of their minds and a funny look in their eyes. Our tank platoon was put to sea with 3/9, an infamous regiment that had been called the ‘Walking Dead’ in Vietnam and apparently, so the story was told, left calling game cards on the bodies of their Vietnamese victims. They had lost their standards in battle and so were not allowed to return to the mainland—being semi-permanently outcast in disgrace.
While in the Philippines, the mortar and machine gun platoons we were bunked with aboard the USS Alamo were involved in a tragic helicopter crash in which 37 young marines were chopped to pieces. When the battalion returned from its six months afloat, it began rioting out in the little base village of Henoko. Many of these riots, and a great deal of the fighting were racial/ethnic conflicts, and ethnic relations upon the island, especially between units, was always severely strained. I returned after thirteen months on Okinawa the veteran of more than a handful of fights and small group melees, several close calls with getting killed in accidents, as well as having a friend and sergeant crushed by a tank, and a severe problem with alcoholism. By the time it was out turn to rotate back to the States, virtually everyone in our small platoon was severely alcoholic, no matter whether they were tea-totalers or drinkers when they arrived on the ‘rock’.
I was next stationed at Twenty-Nine Palms, California, for the remaining two and a half years of my active duty. ‘Stumps’ as we called it turned out to be not only worse than the rock, but the very bottom of the Marine Corps barrel. It was as if the Marine Corps had a secret policy of concentrating all their worst misfits in one place. The whole base was more or less isolated from civilization, on the edge of nowhere, and it was run like a minimum-security prison with weekend liberty. Not only were people continuously harassed by the lifers, being rather severely punished for the slightest infractions, but or whole company especially was managed more like a work gang than a proper tank-operating unit. We would come back to the parade ground at evening formation only to hear the meting out of that day’s punishment. Many would receive several hours a night of extra work details, while the rest of the company were frequently ordered to field day the barracks until 9 or 10 at night for someone in the morning forgetting to make their bed well or forgetting to clean out the trash can after emptying it.
Whereas alcoholism was the main problem on the ‘rock’, at ‘stumps’ it was the drugs that were epidemic. In my company alone, there was a staff sergeant who was the major cocaine dealer on base, a corporal who was the main marijuana dealer, growing a patch of it somewhere secretly out in the desert, and a private in my own platoon who was the main acid dealer. A cook in our company distributed speed. Almost everyone who did not drink profusely as a matter of nightly routine, at least smoked pot. Few had the character or willpower to resist for long the many foul influences that daily slinked through the squad bay.
For the most part, I stayed free of the drug influences, although by the end I would not refuse a joint if someone offered it to me. I lived only to get drunk at night, and though drinking heavily, never missed a reveille and always was one of the hardest workers on the tank ramp. We sweat out the beer by the end of the hot day only to be primed for the next round of beer that evening. Because I worked hard, I was soon made a tank commander in charge of my own tank. Our units then were chronically half manpower, and the whole post Vietnam era military was suffering critical manpower shortages. My tank was probably the oldest Vietnam vintage tank left in the Marine Corps. We could never hit anything with it because the main gun had more than twice it’s maximum quota of rounds put through it, and the rifling of the barrel was severely cracked in the middle and worn out. Nevertheless, the tank, though comparatively slow, never broke down out in the field when many newer, faster tanks were having all kinds of problems. When I first got assigned to the tank it was bereft of any of its normal consignment of tools, and had many of its nuts and bolts missing off its track and armor plate. Most of the tools had found its way into private toolboxes in the cars of many of the Marines. Since nothing could be done in that state, I ended up having to become a ‘scrounger’ and steal the tools off of other tanks and vehicles when no one was around. We would leave our orders with guys of our unit who were carrying guard duty on the ramp at night, to find the tools neatly stored away inside our tanks the next morning.
Going to the field, which we did on a weekly and monthly basis, was really our only respite from our normal regimen and usual harassment. I came to look forward to the field and took great pleasure in the vast rocky moonscapes of Twenty-Nine Palms. I came to volunteer for any kind of duty in the field I could get, anything to get away from the madness and tedium back on the base. It was this that eventually earned me meritorious corporal amidst a situation in which too many young men turned into hard core drug addicts and eventually into criminals.
I saw the same downward trajectory repeated many times over during my time there. Naïve young men, almost always highly motivated and with a bright eyed future when they first arrive there, eventually becoming burned out, coping bad attitudes, doing drugs, going UA and getting into trouble somehow. At one time, six people in my platoon deserted within one week. Our platoon, already half its normal size, looked pitifully small when represented by only a handful of guys standing in formation. It was hardest then because the guys left over were having to carry on in the usual way with the whole load. Inspections were frequent, things still had to get done on the tanks, all the extra duties were still required of us, and when we went to the field there were only two men instead of four on each tank—a driver and a commander.
It was the tank accident that I was involved in that precipitated my own burn out. We were serving as a target tank for the TOW missile people in pretty rugged terrain. It was at night during a sandstorm. We were filthy from dust from head to toe. We were being hit by the search light of another tank about half a mile off while going up and down a ridge. All of a sudden a huge black hole loomed up in front of the tank, as the driver took a wrong turn going down the ridge. We were flying in space until we suddenly smashed into the bottom of the ravine. I was thrown down on top of the ammunitions inside the tank. Greenly, who was sitting just behind me on the loader's hatch, was thrown out in front of the tank and the tank came to a stop on top of him. I got up in pain. It felt like a thousand pounds had been dropped on me. I looked around and couldn’t find Greenly. I climbed outside and began running around the tank looking for him. Sgt. Perricone, the tank commander, was bent over with some broken and bruised ribs. I got down in front and Hansen, my driver with his front teeth smashed out, told me he saw Jeff fly down in front of the tank. I sent Hansen off running across the desert to get help, while I tried digging Greenly out from beneath the tank. He was wedged in very tightly, bleeding from the mouth, nose and ears. He was moaning softly, but was not yet dead. Finally, I got in the tank, started it up and backed it off him, but it was too late. A week later I was part of a seven men team who delivered a twenty-one gun salute at his funeral.
It had dawned on me then just how much of a man eating machine the Marine Corps really was—its completely impersonal manner in which it processed death. I was just a few inches away from that coffin they were lowering in the ground. Our lieutenant, that night back on base, blamed me for what had happened in no uncertain terms, but he was not sorry about Greenly’s death, only about his soon to fail career in the suck. Just that day before the accident Greenly had confided in me that he was planning to get a vasectomy because he didn’t want his young wife to get pregnant any more. At the scene of the accident, when help finally arrived, it became clearly apparent to me, in a way it had never before been, just how much everyone was acting out their parts, and how false and made-up it seemed in the face of death.
Some time after that a sadistic Staff Sergeant of ours, who hated prostitutes and women in general but loved to play the lifer with us, thought I needed morale up lifting at NCO school down at Camp Pendleton. I was there all of two weeks. I figured out how to earn the minimum number of demerit points in the shortest frame of time. I had earned my corporal stripes the hard way and was too salty to be processed back through another boot camp. All I wanted was to be left alone by the lifers and to wait out my remaining time in the suck the shortest and easiest way possible. I left the NCO school in ‘disgrace’ but happy that I had achieved my goal. Later my sadistic Staff Sergeant confronted me alone inside of my tank and threatened me with court martial if I did not change my attitude to suit him. I told him to ‘fuck off’ to his face and to leave my tank crew alone. He was a coward at heart and would never back up his fierce words with fists.
Later I was called to an unofficial "court martial." They called it a competency hearing and was essentially asked why I had failed out of NCO school and also wanted me to squeal on all the drug dealers in my company. This I could not do. One day, a lifer approached me behind the supply buildings and gave me a pair of lance corporal bars again. I was happy to be back ‘on the other side’ with my buddies. But I was transferred to a new and better-managed company. I spent the last eight months of my active duty in the best platoon I had ever had. All the NCO’s were black and most of the enlisted men were white, and it was the easiest going platoon I had ever seen. Even the lieutenant was pretty cool, though he really freaked out like a baby when it would come to tank maneuvers with live ammo in the field.
I had been changed that last year in the suck. The lifers screwed with me all the time, but they couldn’t affect me in the slightest. Nothing they had I was interested in. They no longer tried to play mind games with me. It was then that I began going to the base library and spending all my spare time reading. I began writing my first manuscript on militarism and military mentality, based upon my experiences. I began looking at the Marine Corps in a different way, as a self-perpetuating illusion, as a ‘social construction of reality’ directed by its own sense of reconstructed history. It was nonetheless very real in consuming the lives of countless young men in service of a higher ‘ideal’ which had no substantive basis in social reality beyond its own legitimated construction. I spent my remaining months sitting on my footlocker in an open squad bay, penning out a five hundred odd page manuscript. During the summer months the First Sergeant became angry at all of us, and crammed the whole company into only one side of the bay, turning the other side into an NCO recreation room. We had our double bunk beds spaced about a foot apart in a long line down both walls of a single large room. The officer of the day could easily monitor all the activity in the whole building by just looking up across all the bunks from one place. We had nothing to do but to sleep in our underwear in fetal positions. One night after light out, the whole barracks began to riot. Someone down on one end began yelling, and it soon spread throughout. The whole barracks was yelling and screaming, and we rampaged through the building, tipping over wall lockers and knocking over racks. It subsided about as suddenly as it began. We picked everything back up and went back to bed.
During the whole time I sat writing my manuscript, not one person ever came up to me and expressed an interest in what I was working on, though one day, a man who was on legal hold for desertion was left on watch at the barracks while we were in the field for a couple of months straight. One day he locked all the doors broke open all the wall lockers and stole everything he could get his hands on, tipping everything out of the wall lockers. But, though he had opened mine, he left it undisturbed. The last few months I turned into a real ‘shit bag.’ I wore holey, greasy utilities all the time and pulled an unstarched cover low over my eyes. Except for all the shit details, the lifers left me well alone. I was like a zombie on the base, wandering around as if in a daily trance.
I left a month early. The company commander took mercy on me and gave me my accumulated leave time. I packed up my sea bag one morning and left an empty barrack while everyone was down on the ramp. I did not say goodbye to anyone. Four rather intense years of my life were suddenly over, and though I desperately needed the freedom and the privacy, it was a severely strange feeling. No more tanks, no more guns, no more lifers, no more weird events. The thing I missed the most though, were the wide vast desert spaces and its utter silence and stillness. The desert had a serene beauty—its summer storms, its winter snow, its spring flowers and gray fall skies, which I had come to love.
In hindsight, after watching the unfolding of the Gulf War on television, I came to understand many of the things that had happened to us back in the desert twelve years previously. The same units I had been in were the same ones bearing the brunt of the action in the Gulf. During the Iran hostage crisis our battalion had formed a special team. We were to fly to a small island in the Indian Ocean and there get ready for battle, brand new tanks that were already waiting. Army airborne and ranger units all converged at El Toro Air Base and we waited around for three days with our battle gear packed, our gas masks, etc. until we were finally flown back to the stumps. We were, thirteen years ago, experimenting with the very tank manuouvers desert tactics that were now being employed in the Gulf. We were first field testing the armored reconnaissance vehicles, the desert camouflaged uniforms, the ‘combined arms’ team units that were now being flashed on the television screen live from the Gulf. It is not too much to conclude that more than a decade ago, the Pentagon had set its strategic sights on the Gulf region, and was even then preparing itself for an inevitable war in the desert. Vietnam was a strategic failure, and it took a few years for the military to recover its discipline, its morale, its fighting spirit and its esteem. The pentagon needed a new Strategic Focus-the vital oil pipeline to the U.S. fossil fuel economy—and a new ‘Threat’ to American ‘Security’ to perpetuate its own commitment to the efficacy of force and the threat of violence.
What’s fairer than the lotus in a swamp?
Green leaves, white blooms, gold stamens at their hearts.
Gold stamens set amidst white blooms, green leaves-
It lives near mud yet does not smell of mud.
Anonymous (Translated by Huynh Sanh Thong)
I got out without knowing what to do next. I had it in my mind to become an artist, and I was committed to getting done with the manuscript I was writing. I ended up renting a one-bedroom apartment not too far from my mom’s house. It was during this time that I just wanted to be alone and not bothered by other people. I was feeling intense ‘separation anxieties’ and it was in this mood that my first collection of poems flowed out almost spontaneously. I began learning the basics of oil painting, a practice that I ended up pursuing for the next five years, elaborating into several different media. Fortunately, in spite of my drinking during my enlistment, I had managed to save about twenty thousand dollars that supported me for the first few years out. I looked for work the first year, but could find nothing. It seemed as though no one wanted to hire a young ex-Marine. I ended up paying five hundred bucks to attend a brief four-week bank teller vocational school. There were four women, a Mexican and myself. Even though I scored the highest on the math test at the end, everyone else was hired even before the school ended except myself. I looked in every bank in the city for the next month, and though banks were hiring, none were hiring me. I began getting discouraged and began increasingly to do my artwork.
One day my older sister visited me in my apartment. I remember cooking her some shrimp with red sauce on top of white rice with fresh picked green beans. She herself had just been on the rebound from a divorce. She told me to go back to school, and not to worry about finding work. It seemed like a good idea, and I ended up enrolled the next year at California State University, Fullerton. I moved back home to live with my Mom, as living alone in an apartment without any other income was becoming increasingly expensive. I paid her a small monthly amount for rent and helped her with yard work. The first couple of years at CSU Fullerton were difficult for me. I was an undeclared major and didn’t know quite what I wanted to do with school. I shopped around but was dissatisfied with different departments. Finally I took a couple of anthropology classes, I liked the professors, had good interaction, and I began making ‘A’s more consistently. I realized that anthropology had closely fit the orientation that I had been pursuing in my own writing, and that the alignment may have fortuitous consequences for my intellectual development. I wrote a couple of more collections of poems over the next few years, as well as a couple of more manuscripts on Aesthetic Anthropology and on Irrationality and Normality. I got increasingly involved in academic work, especially in black and white photography in field methods and in video taping and editing, during my last couple of years pursuing undergraduate work. I received the GI Bill for five years, which paid enough during the school year to help my Mom out and to support my other activities in art. It freed me from having to find work so that I could devote all my time and energy to my studies and to pursuing my other interests in art and writing.
Towards the end of my undergraduate work I had become increasingly involved in my anthropological studies. CSU Fullerton was a fairly large and impersonal kind of school. It had a very alienating social atmosphere about it. During my time there, four people committed suicide by jumping off the humanities building. Once while I was taking a psychology class on the same floor of the same building that it happened on. The only way of surviving the daily grind was to become basically inured to the social crowding, impersonalness and anomie. I began spending all my between time at the arboretum which offered a sense of tranquility in its relative solitude.
I went for an interview to be accepted into the graduate program at UC Riverside, for the following year. The professor who interviewed me made some conclusions about me based upon my record, which were not accurate or true when he told me, but formed the basis of his presumptions about my character. He did not bother to ask me if these things were true or not, since he being the professional anthropologist, must have known better. This was my first, but not last encounter with the kind of fallacious logic anthropologists are prone to—what I have called ‘inferring a probable presence from a definite absence’. Since he knew more about me than I knew myself, and since obviously must not have thought much about me in the first place, and since he ignored any first hand counter evidence I could bring to the occasion, I was subsequently not accepted into his program. It is sometimes true that first impressions are final ones.
At the time not seeing any other alternative future for myself in Anthropology, I applied to the Master’s program at CSU Fullerton and was readily accepted. I had already planned my thesis work to be about the Vietnamese refugee culture, because they were such a strong presence both is the school and in the surrounding area, even though I had no real leads for breaking in to the culture at the time. I fortunately participated voluntarily in a health survey of a poor slum area in the city which had a strong contingent of Vietnamese refugees, and it was primarily during the course of interviewing these families that I gained the association, and friendship of a couple of families of boat people. I began my fieldwork even before I officially began my master’s program. By the time the following semester as a graduate student started, I was already well enmeshed in a whole network of Vietnamese refugees. My fifth and final year at Fullerton was my busiest and perhaps most rewarding. I did my anthropology round the clock, and when I was not in school studying I was spending time with the Vietnamese families.
I gained entry into the cultural world of Little Saigon via a key informant whom I had met during the health interview surveys. I had given her my telephone number while interviewing her friend, which was not unusual practice. I only made contact with her again when her apartment came up on the randomized list. During the interview I noticed she had taped the phone number I’d given her near her phone. She had three little boys and they lived in a small single bedroom apartment, complete with rats, dirty carpet, bars on all the windows, and kicked in front door. Her husband had left her and she spoke very little English very poorly. She was apparently quite depressed, sleeping many hours of the day, and was suffering headaches and dizzy spells which medical physicians could not properly diagnose. I made a deal with her that if she would help me with my ethnographic work, I would help her go to ESL classes. I finally managed to enroll her in a daily ESL program during the summer months. Her middle son was enrolled in a nearby public day care center, and I baby-sat in the park each day her other two sons. I drove her around, taking her to the grocery store and to buy things at the stores, as well as to visit her friends and families. In this way I began meeting and befriending other Vietnamese and their families, all of whom were caught up in a quite extensive multipurpose, and, so it seemed, virtually boundless network. I did not like visiting her in the apartment, because a local Vietnamese gang was quite active, and we had problems with them a couple of times. A family who was very close and helpful to my informant had earlier moved out to an outlying satellite community about an hour and a half drive from my house. I felt it would be better to move my informant’s family to be near them, and we finally managed to help her to relocate her there. Apartment hunting for these families was especially difficult because nobody wanted large families on welfare. But the Vietnamese had their own networks which seemed to consistently come through at the last moment.
I made furniture for her new apartment, and we equipped it pretty well. I was busier than ever at school, as I had my first graduate assistantship on top of trying to complete a year’s worth of course work in a single semester. Everything seemed to click and fall into place, and I wrapped almost everything up by the last semester with very few loose ends. I entered the final summer working on my thesis full time. I completed about the forth version by August just in time for the last deadline. My committee met one morning and signed the thesis, and after that, save for a few minor administrative details, I received my Masters degree.
Writing my thesis entailed almost a complete disassociation with the Vietnamese whom I had been involved with on a regular, everyday basis for the preceding year. I could not have finished it otherwise, and I doubt I could have written it while maintaining the relationships I had before in the same way.
One of the primary obstacles in doing the background research for the thesis was wading through so much of the recent historical literature on the Vietnamese conflict. Very few English texts on traditional Vietnamese culture and history are available, and among these many are all too sketch and superficial. But the research, combined with my own participant observation, had been a real mind opening and mind-blowing experience. In rewriting a brief history of Vietnamese civilization, I came to realize how wrong the Americans had been ever to have been involved in the war at all, just how devastating our involvement had been for the Vietnamese people and their culture, and how civil war and conflict had been part and parcel of Vietnamese history for at least two thousand years. I had concluded that our acculturative influence on Vietnam, brief but decisive, consisted of ethnocide, ecocide and genocide. We waged a war on three fronts, against a people, their sense of history and culture, and even the very land itself upon which they depended for their autochthonous identity. "One cannot destroy a nation in order to save it." (Arthur H. Westing, Ecocide in Indochina, pg. 61)
This viewpoint about our own Amerikan-style presence in Vietnam left me feeling very ambivalent about the Vietnamese refugee community with whom I was becoming increasingly identified with on both a personal and a professional basis. I did not blame individual Vietnamese for who they were or what they did in Vietnam, just as I do not blame the American GI for their trying to make the best of a lousy situation. I only blame the leadership on both sides, and both the American public and the Vietnamese refugee population in general, for failing to take responsibility in the whole affair and to face the realities of the entire predicament.
A Vietnamese friend invited me to attend the eleventh annual celebration of the fall of the Saigon regime down at the ‘mini mall’ in little Saigon. I met him there and we had a dinner before the events. We sat in back of rows of chairs in the parking lot. A stage had been set up in front with large flags of the old South Vietnamese Republic. Candles were distributed to the crowd. Speakers came on stage dressed in the military uniforms of the fallen South Vietnamese Republic and these speakers harangued the audience against the communists and against establishing diplomatic relations with North Vietnam. The common belief and desire of these people had been they would eventually return victoriously to Vietnam and defeat the communists. They blamed Washington DC for their own defeat, and felt as if the U.S. government owned them a lot in return. The candles were lit and the crowd marched up the boulevard in a thick strand of people, all the while being harangued by men with loud speakers shouting at the top of their lungs—"no communists in America," "down with North Vietnam," "no diplomatic relations with North Vietnam."
It was obvious to me in a way that was not apparent to my poor friend, who had tears in his eyes and was fully caught up in the feeling of the moment, just how fascist the demonstration really was in sentiment and in action, just how well planned and executed it had been by the ‘leadership’ of the Vietnamese refugee community, and just what they had to gain, by means of control, over the poor, dispossessed Vietnamese people in the crowd. The Vietnamese community, with help from CIA operatives, was fully engaged in manufacturing its own anti-communistic, pro-South Vietnamese Republic refugee mythology and ideology which it used as an instrument of control and self-aggrandizement over its own people.
I became aware of many subtle contrasts and contradictions within the Vietnamese community—the presence of so much gold in its many shops, the general success and growing affluence of its small businesses in spite of the fact that so many were on welfare and receiving government support. Every family household I had been in, which were numerous was receiving full welfare benefits. At the same time, every household was involved in an ‘underground economy’ of stitching piece work for the garment industry which involved both a great deal of exploitation and a great deal of profit. Every week ‘care’ packages were piled to the ceiling in downtown little Saigon awaiting shipment back to Vietnam. Though the refugee leadership and their supporters wanted no diplomatic relations with Vietnam, their remittances themselves were the primary means of external aid to Vietnam.
These were not merely simple goods to be shared by family and friends back home. These items were by the carton—electronic goods, etc.—no doubt intended for the underground market. And the community was much less than tolerant for divergent points of view. One Vietnamese man was murdered in a restaurant for expressing viewpoints sympathetic to the communist regime of Vietnam. A college professor at Fullerton was shot in the neck and killed by a Vietnamese student for similar reasons. I found several pages in different books expressing similar points of view in the library—one a poetry collection by Ho Chih Minh—whose pages had been glued together and marked out so as to be illegible. Exploitation within the community, of Vietnamese by other Vietnamese, was not uncommon practice of getting ahead. A common attitude and contradiction which was revealed by a questionnaire I administered in little Saigon revealed that though they fled Vietnam to escape persecution and for liberty, they believed that America suffered from too much freedom and not enough police protection. This structurally translated into their own political economic sense of structural insecurity.
In hindsight, I wished I had done a follow up study of the community or had taken a longer time, as little Saigon subsequently changed in quite dramatic ways. Returning several times in the following years, little Saigon had more than doubled in the number of its small businesses, and had increased substantially in its apparent affluence. I wish I could have followed the trajectories of assimilation and adjustment of the several families I had been involved with—trajectories that became apparent to me only after the fact of my involvement with them. I needed to get away from the Vietnamese though. Though I respected their culture and their people, I really did not like the Vietnamese refugees well. I felt used by them, and did not trust them very well. I felt that many had been deceitful to me in fundamental ways, and I could not reconcile this basic difference of cultural value orientation and world-view with my own need for honesty. These refugees were neither the real nor the legitimate representatives of Vietnamese civilization. Rather they were the ex-colonial cast-offs, by and large corrupted by the Western influences and their own greed.
I had finished an ethnography about the Vietnamese refugee, which, I felt, the Vietnamese had little interest in trying to understand. It seemed to me that they were mostly interested in creating their own versions of their reality to suit their own interests. One woman at CSU Fullerton had done an ethnography of the Vietnamese that was basically anti communist and pro-refugee. It gained not only recognition by the upper class members of the Vietnamese elite, but earned her a key post in the ESL program in the state. I finished my ethnography that seemed to me much more honest and realistic, as well as much more involved and professionally written, only to be met with ignorance and silence.
I returned to a symposium at CSU Fullerton in 1990. A young man recognized me there and knew of my thesis. He was doing his own research on the Vietnamese, and told me he really liked my ethnography. He took me to lunch at a local Vietnamese restaurant, discussing the Vietnamese, anthropology and other things, and he treated me, since I did not have any cash at the time.
Two Wild Geese
There: wild geese swimming side by side,
Staring up at the sky!
White feathers against a deep blue,
Red feet burning in green waves.
Lie Chieu and Do Phap Thuan
I finished my MA under the wire with the deadline, and I was left in a huge anticlimactic loss at what to do next. The struggle with the thesis, which was a condensation of about a thousand pages into about 250, left me in a state of psychological exhaustion. I don’t know if it was the anger or the exasperation with all the minor typographical mistakes, which never seemed to end. I was also left feeling alienated and distant from the Vietnamese whom had been such a part of my life for the preceding year and a half.
I spent the next four or five months working out in my garage, making furniture on order from my family, and working part time for an old retired handy-man who paid me five bucks an hour out of his pocket. On the side I began getting into Van Gough studies, the study of venomous snakes, and I got back into my oil painting on the side. I was giving an Indian woman I had met in school panting lessons once a week. I had given up on the idea of going on in an American University, believing somewhat naively that they were all to difficult to get into. Anyway, I had set my sights on leaving the U.S. and since I wanted to pursue Southeast Asian Studies, I began doing background research into the different countries there. I realized that Malaysia and Singapore had been British colonies and English was still widely spoken there. Besides, they seemed to have a relatively open social tourist policy that allowed foreigners to visit there for extended periods of time. I decided that Malaysia would be my destination. I planned and prepared for the trip several times over—but no amount of planning prepared me for the experiences I was about to have. I had little experience as a traveler and failed to take a friend’s advice to travel ‘lightly’. I bought a ticket for late January, squared away my passport, and said goodbye to my Mom and caught a bus to the airport.
The plane landed in Kuala Lumpur about midnight on the same day it left LA half a world away. I was greeted by the "No Dada" and "Death To Drug Traffickers" signs even before debarking from the plane. It was a strange feeling. I instantly became drenched in sweat. I had made no prior hotel reservations and did not know what the going rates were. It was the beginning of Chinese New Year celebrations and many of the decent hotels were booked up. A self-appointed tourist guide offered to take me to the city and to find a hotel for a price. He eventually found me a hotel in the downtown area which was rather quite exorbitant for the area and for the standards. I spent the first weekend with him and his family, as he took me to the zoo, to the cultural museum, downtown and to his flat to eat a curry fish dinner cooked by his Malay wife. The weekend had been on me, and I knew I couldn’t continue for very long at that rate. The dinner at his home was eaten with our bare fingers, a custom which I never got quite used to, and which at the time almost made me vomit my curry rice. On Sunday morning he took me to the train station and I purchased a rail pass which allowed me to travel on the Malaysian Railway System for two weeks. It was a great deal, but I only used the train once during that time. I left half my extra belongings behind with my tour guide/expensive friend—a pair of shoes, a couple of books, a small brief case and some other odds and ends. I never saw the man or my things again, and still had two bags full of useless junk to struggle with.
The train headed north to Penang. I might as well have been the dark side of the moon as far as I was concerned. The trip took more than eight hours, and did not come rolling into the Butterworth station until about ten o’clock at night. I made the acquaintance of the ex-Police Chief of K.L.—an elderly Sikh gentleman. We talked for a couple of hours and he told me to check into the YMCA on Burma Road in Penang and he warned me to stay away from drugs.
The worst thing one can do is to enter a strange city in the middle of the night. One is shocked by a cascade of lights and a continuous cacophony of strange noises and smells and feelings. I did not realize that Penang was on an island and that the train let me off at the Ferry. I followed the crowd loaded down under my bags, sweating profusely in the humid night air. We swept along a wooden walkway and into a large deck area with rows of benches. I did not realize I was on a boat until the gate closed behind me and I settled down on top of my bags only to feel the rocking motion beneath me. We got off on the other side about twenty minutes later, and we swept down more wooden ramps to descend into a busy crowd of anxious waiters and shouting trishaw drivers and porters. For five Malaysian dollars, a young Tamil porter carried both my bags to his trishaw. I asked him if he could take me to the YMCA. He said of course, and I, in blind faith, jumped in for the ride. The cool air was refreshing, but it was a very thrilling experience to be riding headfirst into the oncoming headlights of cars. We stopped in front of the New Asia Hotel and he said that this was the best and most reasonable place in town (he also worked under commission by the hotel manager). He carried my bags up the steps to the second floor, and I ordered a pint of Malaysian Heineken beer and settled in under the ceiling fan of my sparsely equipped room. I had never been in a Chinese style hotel before, but I might as well have landed on Mars. I though I had really done it this time, but had extremely mixed feelings of ‘Old Asia’ excitement with the sudden realization of what a clumsy fool I must have been to come so far to the edge of nowhere.
The next day was spent getting lost in the midst of the city on y own foot walking tour. I found various temples and kong si’s and I was propositioned by an overly friendly Indian homosexual. I witness a heroin transaction with a young drug addict who was following me around the city. Finally, having gotten lost, I found another Tamil trishaw driver who rode me back to the hotel.
The first ten days or so was beset with an incredible loneliness, alienation and tremendous, almost paralyzing culture shock. One early morning while happening by the gate of a Kong si a young Chinese man noticed me and tagged along. He made himself my unofficial tour guide and we traveled everywhere in the city together. I paid him only a small amount, but did not trust him as I found him going through my bags and helping himself to what was inside. He was biding his time, waiting for the moment to set me up and get my money. One day on the street he was behaving very strangely toward me, and I hailed a taxi and told him to take me to the police station. I told my tour guide who would not leave me alone to get in. As I turned around he vanished into the crowd. I had had about enough of traveling, and was extremely disoriented and depressed. I checked into a rather luxurious downtown hotel across the street from the police station and stayed there for two days. I planned to leave Penang that Monday, and to leave Malaysia as soon as possible, as it seemed to me that all anyone wanted from me was my money. I met the bartender in the hotel lounge and we began talking. His command of English for a Chinese person seemed surprising to me. I told him I was leaving the next day and he agreed to take me back to the train station. The next morning he met me with his car and his young wife. I ended up touring the island with them, and as they seemed friendly enough, they invited me to come and visit their home.
I ended up staying with this Chinese family for about a month. I paid them a little money for rent and food, and they were quite friendly to me. This is where I met Rosie, who was boarding with them. The son who had first invited me turned out to be quite untrustworthy. He too was intending to set me up for some kind of scam, and the father warned me about him. Once he realized I was on to him, it is as if I no longer existed. I moved my things down to the bedroom on the end where Rosie was staying. Rosie worked during the day, and we would go out on the town at night. She told me about the son and the family she was staying with, how they were not to be trusted and had, in the past, ripped her off as well. She lived with them because she had no other family and could not afford to live alone. Before I left, I bought her an electric fan that she could never afford with her small salary, and a little gold pendant with her initials on it.
I flew back to KL and then back to LA I had been all of six weeks in Malaysia, and besides bringing home a couple of boxes of ceramic gifts and souvenirs, I had little to show for my journey.
I spent about two months back in California. I was in utter limbo. I wrote another collection of poems, but did little else. I wrote back to Rosie almost everyday, and I really missed her. One day I wrote to her and proposed marriage by letter. Almost two weeks later she called me by telephone one evening and told me yes. I made arrangements to return to Malaysia, better prepared than before. The trip went smoothly and without a hitch the second time around. I checked into a small Chinese hotel near where Rosie was staying with the family, without realizing I had checked into a Chinese style brothel. Rosie came and visited me there each evening and we made arrangements for our marriage. There were a few legal formalities, mostly a matter of money and fees, which had to be taken care of first. A friend of Rosie’s helped find me a room to rent for five Malaysian dollars at the Lee Kongsi. I stayed there for about a week. The family that Rosie had been staying with became hostile, as they didn’t want to lose the means of income that Rosie provided for them. Rosie’s friends from work really came through for her, while the family she was staying with began spreading malicious rumors about town about me. I became a confidence trickster, a California abalone diver and a CIA operative. One day I rented a taxi and we drove to their house. Rosie took me in and we gathered up her belongings, loaded them in the boot of the taxi and left.
We ended up renting an old style house in a nearby village. It was a nice big place with a big compound behind it, backing a jungle on a hill, and it cost all of one hundred and fifty dollars US a month to rent. Getting married in a civil ceremony, beneath a low ceiling fan, we had a no frills, no honeymoon wedding. We settled into our new home while Rosie went to work everyday. The possibility of employment in Malaysia was zero, and even though I had married a Malaysian citizen, I gained no visa or passport privileges or residency whatsoever. I talked with all kinds of civil Malay authorities and learned that the best I could do was to put up a thousand dollars bond for a year long visa that precluded my working there. If I had married a Muslim woman, things might have been a little easier, but I was married to a Chinese woman, and there were already too many Chinese women in Malaysia.
We went to the U.S. embassy in KL and applied for Rosie’s residency in the U.S. It took about four or five months to clear up the administrative paperwork, and we need to have affidavits of support signed and completed by my family in the states. This processing was not completed before my own social tourist visa had expired, and I ended up having to exit the country twice, and almost a third time, and re-enter for a one month extension. I was getting worried because each time was proving problematic to get any extension at all, as the immigration authorities would always wonder what I was doing in Malaysia. We spent one weekend in Singapore that was an interesting escape, and one weekend in Hatyai in southern Thailand that was interesting in another way.
I ended up staying about seven months in Malaysia. Rosie worked much of the time while I purchased some hand tools from cheap side downtown and making furniture from wood. Malaysia is a strange country. There is a political repression and almost a social paranoia of persecution about it. One had the very real feeling that the police could walk into your home virtually anytime, and arrest you under almost any pretext. One did not speak too loudly or freely in public places, and always took care what one said and who was listening. The tension between the Chinese and the Malays is very strong and apparent. The Chinese are much more industrious and entrepreneurial, the Malays devoutly religious. The discrimination and political persecution of the Chinese by the Malays was fairly blatant and open. Though the Chinese were economically prosperous and largely independent, the Malays had gained political dominance and controlled everything in a very systematic way. No Chinese or Tamils went beyond the equivalent of the twelfth grade, while Malay students who were poorly qualified were sent abroad to the U.S. to continue their schooling. Housing, government jobs, even businesses were under control by the Malays to the systematic exclusion of the Chinese and Malays.
On the other hand, Penang proved to be one of the most fascinating cities on earth. It is known as hawkers’ paradise and as Pearl of the Orient. One can witness well the cycle of seasons in the year round calendar of religious celebrations. Chinese New Year consisted of all night vigils by Chinese storekeepers, who burned up huge mounds of paper in the streets, set out huge tables of roasted pigs, ducks and other Chinese delicacies for the Gods, and who lit off multiple strings of dynamite sized firecrackers. Thaipusam was a Tamil celebration in which the kavadi is carried by many men, women and children with hooks in their skin, shoes of nails, spines and needles through the cheek. The streets flow with coconut milk from all the coconut smashing done in payment to the gods for good fortune. Wesak Day is the equivalent of Christmas, and it went on at the Buddhist association next door to the Lee Kongsi while we were staying there. We made the rounds of countless temples, the Sleeping Buddha, the Thai temples across the street, the Kuan Yin temple where we had offerings made for our marriage, Kek Lok Si temple set against the hillside with the huge white statue of the Goddess of Mercy. Then came the month of Ramadan and Hari Raya Puasa. The Christians have several shrines of local saints—a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Anne. The most interesting temple is the Buddhist temple of a thousand and one steps, which almost no tourists know about and which is frequented only by a few Chinese who are willing to make the climb up Penang Hill. Rosie’s friends took us there a couple of times. It is by far the most peaceful and serene place on the whole island—free of the squalid hubbub of the city directly below it.
The action on the streets of Penang is fast, cheap and dirty. It is an old, out of the way Chinese commercial city, that has changed little since the pre-World War II days of the British. There is an excitement about the place—the morning Chinese markets, the fish markets, hawkers and their stalls. It proved as cheap and more convenient to eat out than to bother buying food and cooking by the charcoal stoves at home. And came to know the city by knowing where the best food was to be found at the most convenient times. I never cared for Malaysian society, but I grew accustomed to and quite fond of the little city of Penang.
I became quite the old Asia hand. I got to know Penang very well by walking around it almost everyday. On our periodic trips to KL, Singapore and Thailand, we would meet each time a young American tourist headed up to Penang. We would serve as their tour guide and treated them quite royally, showing them the sites that tourists do not normally see. I missed being with Americans, talking American and it is this, which lead me to make these acquaintances. We never took advantage of these people, and they kept in touch with us when we returned to the US I think they immensely appreciated someone taking the time and care to help them in the city and to show them around a little. I also missed drinking milk while I was there, and grew quite thin. The soy bean juice and coconut milk, while quite delicious, did not prove to be adequate substitutes for my raving for milk, which I never really got over.
Renting the house, I bought a young black dog from the caretaker of the Lee Kongsi where we had first stayed. The dog was kept permanently on the end of a short chain out in the open. It had worn a little brown spot on the lawn, and I would find it there day and night, rain or shine. I ended up buying the dog from the man for few Malaysian dollars, and an ang pow of a pound of sugar for the old man. He was quite delighted to receive an ang pow from a young white man. The dog was quite difficult to deal with. So long on a short chain, it proved uncontrollable and hyperactive in our compound. I spent a few days trying to mend the fence to prevent him from escaping. It had ticks and I found some tick bathe at the local RSPCA that was just down the street. The dog liked me, but could not keep down or from biting me in the leg. It was near wild and proved too much for me to deal with everyday. I ended up taking him down to the RSPCA where he would be put away. I listened to him howling all night, and the next day, walking back from town, I happened by the front gate of the RSPCA to find the dog shooter with the doors of his van open. I sensed something and went into the compound and found the stiff black body of the dog with its head wrapped in bloody newspapers. The Tamil shooter told me it was a beautiful dog. I agreed while stroking its flank. I left with tears in my eyes. I will never forget the look the dog gave me when I first carried it to the cage at the RSPCA—as if I had forsaken its loyalty. It rained very hard that day, and I felt utterly depressed. It was as if the Gods somewhere up in Heavens had been angry with me and was scolding me with the thunder and lightening in the afternoon storm that had been sent.
That evening we decided to go to a movie in town to cheer up. While waiting at the dark bus stop two young men on a motorcycle came riding straight up to us. The man on the back was about to snatch Rosie’s purse. I poked out my umbrella with its metal point like a bayonet and caught him in the elbow. The backed off and came on us again very aggressive. One was edging closer to Rosie, putting his hands on her. I interposed myself between him and Rosie and grabbed my Swiss pocket- knife I carried in my pocket. I pulled Rosie behind me, who was frightened into panic, while we retreated into the darkness. The strangers had taken off their helmets and were intending to bash us in the head with them. Passers by just ignored the whole scene, and no one was getting involved. I became very angry with Malaysia and Malaysians. Just then a police car happened by and we waved them over. The two motorcyclists took off in a hurry. The police gave chase. We waited and the police came back and took us to the police station where we filed a report. The two guys had been active in the area for a while—they had slashed a nun at a nearby Catholic cancer hospital while trying to steal a necklace off her. After that incident, I never felt comfortable anywhere in Malaysia again except when in the company of other people and in well-lighted places.
The Buddha body is omnipresent.
Each sentient being beholds it
Through aspiration and Karma relation
As it dwells eternally on this seat of meditation.
We arrived back in LA in August of that year. Rosie wore her traditional kebaya and sarong on the airplane. We had a hard time in customs, and were met outside in the lobby by my Mom and sister who were carrying balloons and candy. After half a year in Penang, LA suddenly seemed like one big, endless, crowded freeway. We did not know what we would do next. But soon my brother propositioned me to help him construct a dental office for him, as he had finished dental school a couple of years previously, was already tired of turning a huge profit for other dentists, and was anxious to strike out on his own.
After quite a bit of conflict over how to do it and who would do it, during which I quit more than once to leave him stranded. I finally convinced him that he didn’t need to pay a contractor shark thirty dollars an hour and that we could do it ourselves. I ended up working almost everyday for the next six months. I did virtually everything—plastering, framing, dry-walling, electrical and plumbing installation, lighting, purchasing, building much of the office furniture, shelves and counter tops, helping to install the wall to wall carpeting, hanging all the doors, all the painting and finishing touches. It turned out quite nice. I even made nice oak and walnut picture frames for his diplomas, which he hung in his front office. I worked mostly alone, with Rosie sometimes at my side to assist with the more tedious tasks. I finished this job in January of the following year, and had earned all of about a thousand dollars for about six months full time work. I begrudged my brother for having promised to pay me four dollars an hour and for only really paying me only about fifty cents an hour, but I did it to help my mother who was bearing most of the costs of the materials for the project, and whom I owed a few thousand dollars for the trip to Malaysia anyway.
Once that ended I began seriously looking for a job with my Master’s degree for the next five months. I went back to visit the chairperson of the anthropology department at CSU Fullerton to get his advice. He told me to look for federal government jobs. I ended up knowing how to do it on my own. I looked not only at federal level, but also at the state and local levels as well. A Master’s degree is something which nobody wants to hire and pay for—one is either ‘over qualified’ for many kinds of jobs, or ‘under qualified’ for the really good jobs. It was a difficult time for us as we had little money and no future in a big expensive city where money was everything. I followed every possible lead for jobs I could find. I became aware of how much there were screens of obfuscation, especially at the municipal and state level, which got people involved in long extensive examinations, lines and interviewing, but from which very few if any jobs were actually forthcoming. It seemed like an elaborate, systematic scam to keep the jobless preoccupied with filling out forms and standing in lines in hopes of some minimal job, when there were actually few real jobs to be had that weren’t going to people through insider networks. I ended up compiling a large notebook on getting jobs in various sectors, in teaching, in government, business, international and giving it to the Chairperson of the Anthropology department so that other students would not have to go through the troubles that I did in compiling information on relevant jobs. It was a notebook complete with the federal job application forms, numbers and addresses for job listings and for community college credentials.
I became increasingly depressed and not finding anything while spinning my wheels. Rosie entered a regional vocational training school in the early summertime and was quite happy in her schoolwork. I had sent an application to SUNY Binghamton Anthropology program while filling out other job application forms without much farther thought of it. It had been sitting inside the top drawer of my desk since 1986 and it seemed just like a shot in the dark. "Why not" I asked myself. I had forgotten completely about it when in July, I received an acceptance letter from this anthropology department. The best I had managed to find in the way of the job was as a ‘recreation director’ at a senior citizen’s center way across the city. It was all of seven hours a week and paid four fifty an hour. It consisted of sweeping up and picking up the chairs and tables after the old people, and doing typing for a young woman in charge who was still working on her BA in social sciences. I worked with a young sixteen-year old Chicano gang member who was given the same job more than full time. He lasted on the job shorter than I did, getting busted by the police for ripping off the cafeteria storeroom. The time and pay made it hardly worth the time, hassle and amount of gas driving across town. It was during these months that I built a deck for my Mom in her backyard, as well as helped to finish another one for a friend. I also got into buying cheap furniture at the local thrift shops and stripping out and refinishing them.
Without much to lose, we packed up our little VW bug that I had refinished, the same one I bought brand new in 1976 and had only driven it for less than a year myself, and drove to New York in time for the Fall semester at SUNY Binghamton.
I found the anthropology department to my distaste the first week there. It was unfriendly and alienating. I had no support and spent the first year there sitting out in the hallways. Towards the end of the first school year, I was working in the empty conference room when the chairman happened by the door in the hallway, looked in at me, and told me they would have to find an office for me. I only laughed, thinking he was a day late and about a dollar short. The first semester was the hardest. We were living miserably in a small run down single bedroom apartment. The slumlord was only interested in money, and failed to fix anything. The plumbing from the bathroom upstairs leaked severely into our only closet and the water made its way to our bed. I grew less and less patient, and we finally moved to a much better place on the edge of town.
I befriended a couple of people that first semester. One was a British social anthropologist who was interested in what he called ‘human behavior’. He early on warned me about the department and told me he thought I would be better to transfer to another school. He himself hated the politics of the department. He saw it having gone downhill over the years, the very people whom he himself had brought into the department were now stabbing him in the back and withdrawing departmental support for his students. The department was very cold and had a ‘closed door policy’. People were chronically whispering and looking over their shoulders. I also befriended another professor there, a socio linguist from Edinburough and Singapore who was on a one year contract there. He also was quite alienated and ostracized in the department, and quite lonely there. People did not like him because he had cerebral palsy and people found him strange. He delighted that my wife was Malaysian Chinese and we developed an almost instant friendship, which lasted well beyond Binghamton. We had many dinners, many beers and many talks together,
I did not like the school, and was quite ambivalent about remaining there. There did not seem to be any place for me or my interests in the department, and very little support or charity from anyone. The students were extremely competitive and even viciously so. I only knew and liked a handful of students there; many made an obvious point of ignoring me and my wife and even of venting their open hostility towards us.
The second semester proved to be the best one there. I made the acquaintance of another professor, a cultural anthropologist. Rosie began baby sitting nearly full time for her two young children. Everyday I would make the long drive to and from her home to pick up and drop off Rosie. With a little income, and better relations in the department, I became more productive. I wrote four manuscripts during the spring and summer. It was also during that second Spring semester that I decided to do an ethnography of the anthropology department for the field methods class. I was met with mixed reactions by both students and faculty. Many faculty were absent and ignored what ever was going on. Many students initially expressed enthusiasm for the project. My social anthropology professor warned me against it, saying it would not be a good thing to do. I ended up interviewing about forty people in the department, about a third of the whole department.
Several aspects became apparent to me. First and foremost was the utter multiplicity and complexity of viewpoints and attitudes. Second was the degree to which such attitudes and viewpoints were largely a function of the individual’s relative positionality within the department and the larger context, and of the individual’s own distinctive biography and background experience. Third was the distinction between what people were telling me and what they may actually have been telling me. By and large most people wanted to present a positive image of themselves to me. An interesting aspect is that about 79% of the students reported an upper middle class background, and 79% were white, non-foreign and from the northeastern United States. I interviewed about 50% men and women, and about 79% of the men reported that they did not believe anthropology to be a male dominated field and about 79% of the women reported that they did believe anthropology was male dominated. People on either side of the coin had reasonable rationalizations for their beliefs. Virtually everyone I spoke with made ‘sense’ when set in context to their own background experiences and rationalizations. I came away from the study concluding that people for the most part tried to present to me their best side during the interview, and were interested in hiding aspects of their own character which they themselves believed might detract from their anthropologicality. There was also a clear dichotomy between people who were critical and negative about the department and those who believed that the department, though maybe having some problems, was really a good place. Those of the former group tended to report particular instances and more specific complaints of unfairness or discrimination, while those of the latter group tended to be more general and nonspecific, and more ‘ego-centrically’ focused upon their own situations and values. The tended to see themselves and the department in which they were situated in, in a more unproblematic and unquestionable way.
Everyone was expecting me to publish, at least within the department, my results, and many expected my results would focus upon a set of specific suggestions on ‘how to improve the department’. My main objective in conducting the study in the first place was descriptive, rather than prescriptive. Because I genuinely felt that some of the information may be harmful for some, as well as for myself, if it were published, and because I did not complete a finished version of the manuscript and I could not clearly ascertain what would and what may not be harmful to people in the department, I decided not to publish it at all. I think more than a few people felt let down by this, as if I owed them something to them for granting me the interview, and I think this may have tended to reflect negatively upon my status within the department. I already had my own ideas on how to improve things in the department, even before the study, and my results from the study only tended to reinforce than to disconfirm those ideas. I myself could not clearly nor concisely separate my own values and attitudes from those, which I was supposed to be reporting on in the department. During many of the interviews themselves, I became keenly aware of how my presence, my own relative positionality and status, and my own background experiences were critically influencing the direction and results of each interview. If the interviewee and interviewer were interested in achieving rapport, there tended to be an exclusive emphasis on things shared in common, and a de-emphasize upon exceptional differences. If there was a block to achieving mutual rapport, as happened most often with some of the faculty, then the emphasis came to be on the differences and upon the dominance of the interviewee’s own points of view, while things in common tended to be de-emphasized. Either way, the results were considerably more biased than an ideal, disinterested study demands. Though I think this kind of bias is inevitable and must always contaminate the neutrality of any kind of ethnographic participant observation, this does not complete negate the value or importance of such a study.
In hindsight, it has struck me how much like anyone else anthropologists really are, and how much like any other kind of corporate community in anthropology department is really like. In this regard, the expectations of reciprocity for the interview was not too unlike the demands many Vietnamese refugees made of me in return for interviewing them. Bringing the results of such a study too close to ‘home’ must always have unintended and probably damaging consequences for someone within the department, as it must follow the dictum knowledge is power. There is no such thing, in a local context, of neutral knowledge. There is also no way of being able to be completely sure that the identity of one’s informants is completely protected, so that what they say may not be used against them by other people in power. Different people were attempting not only to influence what I wrote or how it was written by representing themselves, and the department, cast in a certain light, but were indirectly via my own study attempting to exert an influence within the departmental setting. There is no knowledge, however indirect, which cannot be used to ‘triangulate’ upon a person’s identity and to modify the local status of that individual.
The most important thing though, was that everyone seemed to be presenting themselves and their own perceived situations in the most advantageous light possible, myself included, and were, conversely, subconsciously trying to cover over all that may have been threatening to their own sense of status identity. How each person represented her/himself depended largely upon their own positionality and context within the department, such that what some people may have been attempting to highlight others may have been attempting to implicitly deny.
Finally, this sense of foreground/background contrast seemed to me to relate to what I believe to be a prototypically ‘American’ characteristic of a kind of compartmentalization between private and public domains of existence and experience, and a kind of socially reinforced ego-centricity of orientation in which experience becomes focused by, and oriented around, one’s own psycho-social and biographical identity.
Another interesting aspect of the study was that almost everyone believed that the interviews and the question protocol asked during the interview was the main thing of the study, when actually the main organ of the ethnography was my own participant observation and the indirect open-endedness that the interviews with its protocols was set up to foster. The interviews by themselves meant little, but when compared to everything else that went on alongside of and outside of the interview, tended to reveal a great discrepancy between how almost everyone presented themselves to me and the kinds of actual interactions that occurred in many other contexts. This speaks of the silent, subtle, and the sublime power, which the ethnographer carries to the field. No aspect of an ethnographer’s experiences escapes notice and interpretation. There are few if any ‘neutral’ elements of such experience.
Setting oneself in a position of participant observer in any setting has certain consequences. It tends to frame all experiences in a quasi-objective way which such that every new experiences becomes added to the cumulative fund of knowledge, and becomes weighed in relation to this larger fund. It superimposes degree of self-alienation in which others come to participate in and reinforce. In such a manner, one can no longer be a naïve or completely innocent participant in the ongoing production, but one’s own identity and positionality is thus contaminated. Furthermore, this is an irreversible process which leads not only to a permanent loss of innocence, greater understanding, but to the relatively permanent affective separation of one’s own sense of identity and the social context in which that identity becomes defined. Once achieved, such an attitude or point of view cannot be simply undone or removed from experience, though it can perhaps be redefined.
Though only one person in the department actually read what I wrote, and though only a couple expressed enough interest to actually ask me about it in any detail, everyone seemed to have formed some kind of opinion about the whole thing, for better or worse, both before, during and after it happened. For some it was seen as a threat, to others it was a weapon, and to still others it was to be a tool for change. During the interviews, a few found my protocol not matching their own expectations, and expressed disappointment. Others found the interview fun and even enjoyable, largely because it was one of the few times they got to talk at length about what they themselves were about to someone else within the Department context. A few criticized my approach and told me how I should do it and what I should be asking.
Summer soon came, and with the semester over, the incentive to continue actively with the project waned. Other involvements quickly diverted my attention and I left the whole thing basically incomplete and unfinished. I felt like I did with the Vietnamese. I grew tired of the interviews and I grew to dislike the whole situation I was involved in. I did not want to be construed any longer as the student doing an ethnography of the department—either as a rebel or as a savior. The whole project had gained control over me, my status, frame of mind, and identity, rather than my having control over it. I began believing that the whole thing was a mistake from the beginning, an unwise mistake, and I came to question my original motives for beginning it in the first place.
Nevertheless, subsequent events, a few of which were quite unexpected, and others which seemed almost too predictable, tended afterward to confirm my understanding, and to reaffirm my basic attitude about the department and the people within it. I had set something in motion, which I no longer had the power to stop, either in myself or in the department. My own status and positionality within the department had become irrevocably jeopardized by the study.
It is interesting that during the course of the study, though I had been already into it for a couple of months, an outside set of evaluators came in to give the department a critique. They were there all of one day, and they were given the grand tour by the powers that be. Though everyone had long known what I was up to, no one even suggested the possibility that these observers might want to talk to me about the department. There was almost a feeling that I should be kept apart from them. I have always wondered what these relative strangers could learn about the department in the course of a single day what I couldn’t learn in a few months. They must be pretty good. I’ve learned to accept my own anthropological triviality and mediocrity—besides I do not yet have that all-important PhD that would legitimate whatever I do. A similar thing had happened at CSU Fullerton. A rather politically oriented professor was appointed in charge of a program for the Southeast Asian refugees, not because of her relative lack of experience with these people, but because she had a Ph.D. Meanwhile I’ve remained long unemployed and essentially unemployable in spite of my anthropological experiences.
I got involved in painting the house where we lived for our landlady, and doing some carpentry during the summer. It did not earn us very much, but the gratitude and friendship of our landlady. My wife became pregnant, which tended to complicate everything else a little bit. Towards the end of summer, just about two weeks before the fall semester began one of the students in our department committed suicide. I had met him in the hallway just a week before as he was having an interview with one of the professors—the same person who was not only implicated in his own problems in the department, which this professor was trying to solve to my problems. His suicide caught everyone including his live in girlfriend, by surprise, and everyone was quite upset about it.
I placed flowers in the department in his name. The head of the department definitely did not want them there, as I felt he wanted to cover over the whole incident and get things back to business as quickly as possible before the new semester began. A group of students who were his friends approached me, and asked if I would help sign a petition of complaint that would go above and outside of the department, in protest of unfair practices, which they believed, aggravated the circumstances of his death. I agreed, but didn’t hear anything more about it. More than a few people felt that this student had been unfairly treated by certain people within the department, and that his death was not altogether attributable to his own psychological problems.
Even before his suicide, I had reached the general conclusion about the department that, because it was so hierarchically top down and status oriented, it depended upon its effective ethos upon finding and persecuting abnormal difference within the department. This was a kind of group think phenomena in which many people seemed to be engaging in unconsciously. Different people had been the target of this kind of ‘persecutory’ and incriminating complex, with various consequences. It was a kind of scapegoating and ostracizing which maintained the relatively tight reign of authority, control and conformity which the more politically motivated people seemed to have over the whole department. This formed a kind of background context which tended to predefine and precondition the individual students own status identity, psycho social adjustments, and their peer and official evaluations which were kept on file and which were used as a chief instrument in determining a person’s eligibility for support.
One person almost experienced a nervous breakdown over the evaluations, which she read about herself by a professor, an evaluation she felt to be unfounded and unfair. Also, other students were quite aware of this, and were deliberately engaged in ‘impression management’, not only in terms of their identity, but in manipulating professors' opinions about other students in the department. This involvement and influence of other students over the official and semi-official status of an individual graduate student within the department became especially marked over issues involving critical indeterminacy and greater subjectivity of evaluation. Some people seemed almost frightened by too much subjectiveness approached and demanded from professors a more objective and authoritative standard from above. It is a paradox, that some of the most self righteous, and most cool seeming students were the ones most implicated in this deliberate manipulation of the professor’s attitudes and opinions about other students. The demands were always made in terms of greater authorial objectivity.
In regard to the professors, one facet of their authoritarianism I found particularly disgusting was their somewhat hypocritical and hypercritical paternalism toward their children. Those students who manipulated the professors played up to them as if they were parental figures and they were dependent ‘children’ who needed to be protected and favored over and above the other students who refused to play along with the unwritten rules of the game.
This kind of paternalistic attitude towards graduate students became particularly apparent to me in the third and final semester at Binghamton. I was finally given a TA-ship, and though I carried a heavier load, and did most of the work on schedule. Where some of the TA’s were late even though they had only half as many students, these TA’s were chronically given preferential treatment by the professor because they ‘played along’ with him in such a supplicative and paternalistic manner.
One professor in particular, who was the one implicated with the suicide, thought that she could solve my problem, which became expressed in terms of writing. (Similar to the suicide’s problem) I resented her paternalistic, parent child attitude from the beginning, and refused to play along with her. I disliked not being treated like an adult, with my own sense of the world. She backed down after I threatened to put a special note into my file complaining of her preferential treatment of some students over others in our class. Though I wrote some of the most productive papers ever for her class, she began giving me consistently lower marks for each subsequent paper. I began responding by adopting ever more outlandish styles in which to frame my essays.
I was working on the assumption that authoritarian personalities have difficulty in dealing with normal frame disruption. If one deliberately disrupts the ‘normal’ taken for granted frames and style of convention in one’s writing, such people would not be able to deal in a tolerant way with such differences, even though such framing had little or nothing to do with the actual subject matter or content of the paper, except in terms of being ‘metalogically’ framed in ways that reflected the content. As I expected to have happen, this person could not deal at all with such distortion, and each term paper gave me a lower and lower grade, until she gave me a ‘D’ for the final paper which was written as a take home Master’s examination.
The real power a professor has over the status of the student became clearly apparent to me by the end of the semester. A group of professors who did not like me decided to withdraw departmental support I had been promised for the following spring semester. I knew this would happen even a few months earlier. The first response by this particular professor to my first term paper sealed my fate. I remember realizing then, in a sudden moment, that I had no more future or place in the department. I remember, two months before it ever happened, walking out to a window at the end of the hallway and looking out at the cold gray skies, and feeling the same cold inside of me.
I planned my exit from the department in a graceful fashion. I had already written to many other schools and had applied to ten. I people whom I asked for letters of recommendation from Binghamton I either did not fully trust, or else they failed somewhat miserably to come through at the last moment for me. The key professor I was counting on, the British social anthropologist who advised me to transfer the year before, suddenly took off to Africa without completing what I requested from him. None of the schools that time around accepted me, and I ended up leaving Binghamton without anywhere else to go.
The news of the withdrawal of support and the readjustment of my status, from a Ph.D. Candidate to conditional on the basis of the letter grade of that one paper. I resented as well the fact that I had already had my MA degree that I felt I had earned the hard way. It still hit me like a ton of bricks. It happened right at Christmas time, and right before Rosie was due to have her baby. I was floored and severely depressed. I never stepped foot back in the department, and never said goodbye to anyone except one student who had been in Brazil when all of this happened, and yet who remained a close friend in spite of it. We left there about a month after Mahala was born, packing our truck, giving away most of our possessions, and driving back to California. No one there got to see what our baby looked like, and none of my ‘friends’ had seemed to have the nerve to bother to find out about us.
I left Binghamton completely. I met another graduate student in philosophy there who came there at the same time as I and who was just leaving the school behind in the same way. He expressed to me many of the same feelings, which I had felt, about the place. We had both arrived there a year and a half before with high expectations of success, and we were both leaving with profound disappointment about the school.
I had been made to feel like a failure when I had really done nothing wrong, except not to conform myself to the paternalistic expectations of a few professors. Their own, highly prejudiced judgment weighed much heavier than all the years of experience and successful involvement in anthropology I had had. I would not doubt it if these same professors intentionally tried to keep me from getting into other graduate programs through insider networks and unofficial phone calls. We all still know who we are, in spite of the impersonal side of it all.
The Gateless Gate
An instant realization sees endless time.
Endless time is as one moment.
When one comprehends the endless moment
He realizes the person who is seeing it.
I arrived back in California feeling as if we had never left, as if we had gone right back to where we had begun with, nothing different except the facts that we were two years older, had a small baby, and a sour attitude towards anthropologists and anthropology in general. I anxiously awaited the news from my other applications only to receive one disappointment after another. It seemed as if no program wanted a half-baked anthropological reject from SUNY Binghamton. I was left without any sense of direction or determination, and we didn’t know what to do. I felt like déjà vu all over again, like a vicious and endless cycle. I knew anthropology and felt fundamentally confident of myself and my training, and I resolved myself to apply again. I ended up applying to about 16 more schools over the summertime, for all those programs accepted applications in the off season. I cost me about a thousand dollars all in. I busied myself in the meantime with little different projects. I installed a Jacuzzi my sister had given to my mom into the deck I had built for her two years before. I worked on another deck for a professor friend from CSU Fullerton that was located in the mountains. I later received the news that the whole cabin had burned down. I was near frantic to hear positive news from somebody, but was feeling in fundamental despair without any hope of anything. I believed I would only receive more rejections. I ended up pouring a concrete driveway for my mom. Then I received news of acceptance from Southern Methodist University and from the University of Missouri, Columbia, at about the same time.
I couldn’t make up my mind between the two, and left early to visit both departments. SMU had offered me support for the springtime and seemed as if it had more wealth than MU Columbia. It was perhaps one of the hardest decisions I ever made, and after visiting both places, I felt more uncertain and confused than before. I felt literally as if I was in two places at once without being wholly in any place. SMU soon came through with on campus housing which clenched the decision for me. We stayed about a month in a hotel room in Dallas until the campus housing became available. We moved in just before Christmas time and settled in just in time for the spring semester to begin.
It took me all of about two weeks to realize I had made a mistake in choosing SMU. It was not really, from a purely academic standpoint, a bad department. I just did not click with the people in it very well. I felt even more ostracized beginning at SMU than I did finishing at Binghamton. I made open comments to a lecturer in one of the classes which neither the lecturer nor any of the students appreciated very much. The next day, in my office, I overheard this same professor talking out loud about it, saying how this new student was being nonconformist. I thought I had made an intellectually valid and interesting comment. Rumor spread throughout the department, the reverberations of which came back to me via other professors, and though none of the other students even made the effort to talk with me or to try to get to know me, it was as if they had already formed their own opinion and evaluation about me.
The other TA I worked with added fuel to the fire. She was a middle-aged neurotic white woman who drove to school everyday in a Mercedes Benz and seemed to have little better to do than to annoy other students and screw the faculty. She thought that she should have control over my sections and my own work, even though the professor in charge of both of us made it explicitly clear from the outset that we could do our own thing under the aegis of her syllabus. She followed this professor around like a young child, and her paternalism was as strong as what I had experienced at Binghamton. The teacher though, saw through it for the most part and was a little disturbed by it. She just didn’t know what to do about it. This student was a pain in more than one butt. She was having an ongoing affair with another, rather neurotic looking professor, and felt as if she had some power in the department. She spread lies about me just at the time when the funding for the following semester was being decided, and tried to influence the department about me, even though she herself never bothered to ask about me or try to get to know me in any way. She had convinced our professor that I was being too ‘subjective’ in my evaluations of my students essays when in fact all I was really doing was using my own system of ‘points’ different from the other Ta’s. It seemed pretty petty and pointless, but its effect was well designed and deliberate—to influence the committee decision against my further funding.
The same general kind of phenomenon I had observed going on between professor and students at Binghamton I observed at SMU. The same paternalism, manipulation, the same kind of incriminating ostracism, the status control of the grapevine and the focusing of all these issues over the authorial problem of objectivity and subjectivity. I happened not just once, but several times at SMU. I was prepared for it, having experienced it before and I knew better how to deal with it. I bowed out rather gracefully from SMU. I made A’s in all my course work there, and we packed our truck and left without saying goodbye to anyone.
The case and cause at SMU was not exactly the same as at Binghamton. I had made the acquaintance of one graduate student who had been six years at SMU and he had informed me a little of the inside history of the department. The general orientation of the whole department, exceptions notwithstanding, was basically one of cultural materialism and cultural ecology. Any critical voice to the contrary was met with strong reaction, a mutual reaction by both order imposing professors and order seeking and conformist oriented students all of whom wanted to play at science. Materialism formed a certain orienting, and often, hidden, agenda which emphasized the etic over the emic, the material over the ideal, and the positive over the evaluative. This acquaintance had been screwed over by the same strong voices who thought that I should be silent and obedient in class, and he was looking to transfer to another more productive program.
A Mountain Dream
Pure Void: bamboos by thousands find a home.
The brook cascades-a mirror spilling chills.
A shower of moonlight drenched the air last night.
I rode the yellow crane and joined the gods.
I am now completing my first semester at MU Columbia. We drove directly north to Columbia from Dallas. I opened a bank account there the first day, and we deposited our possessions in a storage rental, and drove back to California to await news of receiving on campus housing, which I was expecting a month later. Back at home again, I put in a new lawn, an automatic sprinkler system and landscaped the front yard for my mom.
We drove back to Columbia in a hurry when we found, a day late, that we had to be there in person to be let into our apartment by the first, which meant we had just one week to get ready again. We made the move without any hitches and settled in during the hot summer months at the University Village.
Since being here, I have dedicated myself almost exclusively to my writing and this has proven to be one of the most productive periods of my life. The basic cost of living here is about as cheap and affordable for poor people as can be had in the entire US.
Though I refuse to adopt the same kind of attitude as I had at either Binghamton and SMU, and will not try to analyze the social relations or power structure within the department, I will offer my first impressions of the place. It is perhaps one of the poorest universities on the States—making its incentive structure for graduate students less than adequate. The people, either graduate students or faculty, are not overly friendly. Though I’ve been here almost a semester now, I’ve only spoken to one other graduate student at all, though I see a few almost everyday. Everyone here seems too busy or too important to take the time to chat. The professors here, like everywhere, are always very busy juggling their schedules. But here, people seemed to behave more professionally and less paternalistically, perhaps more in spite of themselves than because of themselves. I do not know what complex set of factors make the difference between one professor who passes judgment without a complete knowledge and another who holds such prejudgment, or at refrain from allowing their own presentiments from being the decisive factor in their treatment of students.
The future is in deed and in word still an open, unfinished book. There is no telling what our future will bring us, whether we will reach yet another dead end, or whether my time, money and energy spent here at Columbia will prove rewarding and worth it. Though I am of a minority in Anthropology, I am not alone, and I know of more than a mutilated handful of others who share in my anthropological worldview and values.
I have learned one important lesson from all of my many trials and tribulations throughout my life. Though I may be alone, I no longer feel lonely, and though I may be in the company of many others, I often feel very alone. I will not treat others in my time as others have so often treated me.
Dreaming of Nirvana
By the time you awaken
It will be too late
I now take my anthropology with a grain of salt. There are no complete, unfinished, impartial truths in the world—there is only half-truth that is discolored by deceit and obscured beneath the veil of illusion.
The truth can both empower a person and can be used against a person—it is a double-edged sword that often as not cuts both ways.
We would sometimes like to live within a world in which truth is simple and straight forward, clear cut and concise, but it proves to be rarely, if ever so.
There is a certain prestige power associated with the command over and control of truth in the world. Because truth I is always half empty and therefore half false, there is always an unfortunate degree of uncertainty also associated with truth. Uncertainty becomes associated with falsehood and the unknown, as well as with the possibility of deceit. Such uncertainty also becomes associated with failure, especially in a society which value success, and rewards it well. The preoccupation with success is underscored by a secret fear of failure, which must be projected out upon antithetical examples in our social environment. We must find failure in our world as much as we must find success, and we must realize it in order that we can then persecute it. Such fear of failure leads to an obsession with uncertainty and a compulsion for certainty and the kind of order that such certainty brings with it. Those obsessed with failure must seek out and destroy uncertainty in their lives, and they must find examples which embody such uncertainty as much as they symbolize failure.
Because truth is relative, one person’s certainty may be another’s uncertainty, one person’s success another’s failure.
The power of truth involves the possession of information and the management of social impressions in order to reinforce status and social solidarity. Control over the truth amounts to control of a person’s solidarity. Control over the truth amounts to control of a person’s status in face to face and group interactions. Truth and its illusion determines the measure of acceptability of and legitimacy of certain forms of knowledge which in turns tend to validate such knowledge in self reinforcing cycles of belief and behavior. Information networks—grapevines—serve the function of reinforcing status and group boundaries—augmenting the status quo of the existing power hierarchy and systematically excluding marginal members who come to represent the repressed feeling of failure and doubt which is common to the social atmosphere. In maintaining the power of one’s truth and the system that supports it, one must deny and falsify or exclude evidence and viewpoints which are contradictory or conflicting and that cast the shadow of uncertainty over such power.
Deceit is implicit to the denial of truth. Within the circle of deception that maintains the vital lie of absolute truth, deceit comes at various levels and in various ways. There are permissible kinds of everyday deceptions that are largely unconscious and mostly out of awareness, in the service of maintaining the local status of one’s own ego identity. Then there are tolerable deceptions which pass unnoticed or semi-officially acknowledged as part of the way things are. There are also promotional deceptions, those delusions that become the part and parcel of ideology and the mythoi of power. Then there are also those tactical and strategic deceptions that allow the effective user to manipulate, conceal, deny, and distort truth in effective ways, for the purposes of power. In the circle of deception, truth becomes the vicious, unfortunate lie. Truth becomes dangerous, and becomes sanctioned to the taboo regions. In the manner of Irving Goffman and John Berreman, we can separate social spaces into the front regions of open, overt discourse and back regions of tact denial and of covert dialogue in closed circles.
With the social reinforcement of the denial of truth, there comes a need not to know. If knowledge creates responsibility, then its denial constitutes an avoidance of responsibility. There is a need to avoid, ignore and discriminate against those elements of our common environment which constitute a threat to our understanding—ultimately the threat to our unknown and the fear of uncertainty.
Within small communities, the social psychological phenomena of ‘group think’ can take control over the ethos, nomos and pathos of collective group consciousness and conscience. The desire for the kind of solidarity which comes from blind conformity and self sacrifice to the good of the corporate interests of the collect, and the corresponding emphasis upon organizational efficiency and routine operational conformity can take control and become the over riding imperative in the determination of an individual’s status identity, freedom and responses. Within such an atmosphere, truth becomes taboo, and deceit becomes routinized, habitual and an indirectly sanctioned constraint upon an individual’s belief and behavior.
To the extent that an anthropology department provides a forum for social mobility, like any other academic forum, anthropological knowledge and understanding becomes conditioned by and informed by a kind of class consciousness which is articulated in status control, ego identity, and truth power in daily, face to face discourse. This is as true for graduate students who are preoccupied with their own future careers in the field as much as it is for faculty members who are concerned for the reputation and their professional recognition within the wider status hierarchy of the field. To some extent, this class-consciousness informs the mythoi of anthropologos. In this regard it must be seriously questioned what is the symbolic status of the anthropological other as a counter-reference significant other, as well as to what is the somewhat liminal, and anti-structural status of the field in relation to the center of anthropology as this is practiced and reproduced within the university. It has been my claim that, to this extent, the field has constituted by and large an officially sanctioned dumping ground in which the normally repressed subjectivities of the anthropologist can be enacted and brought to realization, while the significant, counter reference other constitutes the unconscious, symbolic target of the anthropologist’s own repressed subjectivities and feelings of weakness, inferiority and insecurity.
American culture and character reinforces this predisposition and ego centric orientation of self aggrandizement at the expense of others by its extreme emphasis upon the values of achievement and social success. Anthropologia, within the academic island of the department, becomes imbued with so much Amerikana with its implicit promotion of aggressiveness and personal acquisitiveness.
There are several related features of a kind of American complex of what might be called Academic Authoritarianism. First, besides being largely class tied and class bound consciousness of status identity, which from the standpoint of false consciousness of people preaching one thing and doing the opposite, constitutes so much legitimated and legitimating hypocrisy, academic authoritarian in general is largely paternalistic. Besides a male dominated, ‘father knows best’ kind of attitude, it promotes a parent-child identification and relationship of social dependency/dominance between the professor and the student. This kind of relationship is mutually reinforcing and supplicative for the egos of both the professor and the student—reaffirming one another’s identity vis a’vis the significant reference/counter reference’s other. This relationship links knowledge and the control of truth with ego identity and feelings of certainty/uncertainty, success/failure and with social power/prestige and status role identity. It involves, differentially and quite variable, some measure of compartmentalization of the self between personal and subjective feelings of uncertainty and insecurity, and professional and objective attitudes of confidence and expertise. These tendencies become highlighted in a field such as American anthropology when one’s professional status is not as unequivocally legitimated by social values and interests as are, for instance, a medical doctor or a lawyer. This is so especially when the chances for failure are large, the consequences devastating for one’s career and livelihood, and the opportunities for success are increasingly fewer and further between.
It is the central the understanding of anthropology as a socio cultural system with its own distinctive dialectics of discourse and power, its own professional ethos and sense of specialized community interests, values and views, and as embedded within a larger American and world society and as serving certain definite structural functional purposes within the larger context, as a ‘mode of information,, that the issues of subjectivity/objectivity and of the legitimization and empowerment of one’s anthropological status, should come to focus upon and be articulated by the power and authority of the written word. It is the literal legitimacy of the signature, the published, printed article, that the greatest power of truth becomes articulated. One’s success as a writer, in a convincing, anthropologically acceptable mode or style, is what makes or breaks one’s anthropological status, authenticity and authority in the world. Anthropological authority is authorial, and anthropological authoritarianism is most articulated as authorial authoritarianism. It is not by accident that most of the issues involving anthropological authority and academic authoritarianism with which I became involved in or have given autobiographical witness of, have involved the issues of the subjectiveness and credibility of the student’s ability and manner of writing, in which cases it is often not so much a matter of what is said rather than how it is said.
I close this extended paper with the last claim that autobiographical authority remains the most reasonable, and perhaps the most honest, form of authorial claim to the truth which the anthropologist in the world has. Whatever the experiences, the ethnographic encounters in the field remain foremost and in the final analysis the participant observer’s own, primarily subjective, personal, biographical episodes of her/his own life history. Autobiography is not the only form of psychosocial inquiry available to anthropology. It is not mere narcissism, nor just introspection. It involves an extended kind of reflexiveness in which we do not just see ourselves as others see us, but through which we also begin to also see others as seen by ourselves, and even more important, to see others as we see ourselves. All experience is autobiographical experience, and such experience constitutes the only available pathway to a common ground of understanding between all humankind. Along this way we come sooner or later to our own heart of darkness which we share with so many others, and then we arrive at the realization of the possibility of our own, and others, eventual salvation.
I proffer autobiography as a legitimate, authentic mode of anthropological discourse. It is not the imperialistic ‘I came, I saw, I conquered but it is enough: "I witnessed, It happened, We and the world became transformed." It offers us an acceptable, anthropological alternative to the metalogical horns of reflexive dilemma of making the strange familiar and the familiar strange, without our having to compromise our sense of anthropological authority in the world.
Given American ego-centrism, the first person singular is perhaps the best we can do in the world. It reaffirms my faith to know that not only are anthropologists like any other people in the world, but that other people’s anthropologos are liable to be similar in basic ways to our own.
Without acknowledging the inherent subjectivity of human suffering in the world, there is little point or purpose in achieving anthropological wisdom or seeking anthropological experience.
The wild geese fly across the long sky above.
Their image is reflected upon the chilly water below.
The geese do not mean to cast their image on the water:
Nor does the water mean to hold the image of the geese.
As a point of deriving some objective value from this study, I have drawn the following conclusions based upon it:
We must somehow learn to live with the prospect and possibility that in our dialectic of anthropologos we must always remain unrehabilitated, imperfect, and partial pawns of power in the world. Because human development, and the human world, is yet unfinished business, so also must our anthroplogos remain unfinished business. Though some of these points may seem intuitively obvious, the extent to which they inform the everyday praxis of anthropological production is somewhat less than obvious, and usually out of awareness.