On writing from elsewhere

My childhood imagination enhanced stories told to me by my elders of where we were from, and my history embraced the possibility of exciting seafarers, noble learned men and women, poor housekeepers, exiled princesses, wandering mystics, Marxists fighting the good fight, and revolutionaries standing up against the British. While some of this might very well be true, at age five or six, sitting in New Jersey, truth was a far fetched notion and irrelevant. As we do, I have carried these stories with me through my life and into my practice, and I revisit them now as I consider the topography of text. I am curious about what it means to write about others from a position of otherness as the cartography of elsewhere informs my writing from within, while positioned somewhere else.

Where are you from?
But, where are you really from?

Along with the fantastical stories of being from somewhere else, this all too familiar pair of questions has followed me throughout my life. From all levels of schooling (and life) in the United States to checkpoints in Iraq: when one is from elsewhere, where that else is, is always in question. When I am asked this question within the context of my practice, there is often an assessment of trust, suspicion and a base line assumption that all anthropologists are spies — and guilty of that until proven innocent. As it has been laid out for me countless times: how can one trust someone with such mobility, with no grounding, with no place, and/or with the ability to move into a new socio-cultural world just for research. Of all of these, the last stings the most because it simultaneously devalues our profession of choice while underlining the privilege that anthropologists carry in our disciplinary bodies. It is that discomfort of privilege that makes me want to pause here for a moment to situate such a question, before moving on to what it means to write from such a place.

Given that my own practice has existed within the ambit of the colonial world, either writing from landscapes of settler colonialism, the spaces of colonial transit, or in former colonies, I have wondered about the relationship between land and trust as a colonial bi-product. That seems to be the tip of the iceberg. Why is trust, in the few geographies I have encountered (thus not a universal), based upon placedness? Where are you from? I used to think it was because part of the human condition was to always place people within socio-cultural structures that made sense to us — but as I have grown, I have experienced a different depth to that question. Where you are from is not about fitting into the social schema – but rather, the where-ness of it all eerily exudes some sort of ontological certainty to belonging.

If you sense some hesitation on my part as I write about this, it is because I bring this up with much trepidation and with a desire (that I am foolishly ignoring) to hedge my bets. This is (at best) a very complicated issue because it is deeply and irrevocably entangled with histories of displacement and land claims, issues of class mobility, and in my mind, a hegemony of agricultural (read: settled) societies that emerges as far back as the third millennium BCE (of course, agriculture starts earlier – I’m linking the millennium to a certain hegemonic form of power related to institutions, infrastructure and agriculture – stay tuned for a different post on those power relations). At the core of my query is a very contemporary question and that is: why the mistrust of immigrants? And what relationship does immigration have with a sense of authentic belonging? As one who has never had the ability to transition into a body of authentic belonging, for me, this will always loom as an uneasy query, and most likely without any answer.

In my own intellectual upbringing I first tried to wrap my head around questions of citizenship, transcultural and transnational identities, which can be dated to the late 90s and early 2000s based on some of my touchstone texts, like May Joseph’s Nomadic Identities, Pico Iyer’s The Global Soul, or Aihwa Ong’s Flexible Citizenship. Simultaneously I was ensconced in American minority politics finding my own understanding of a certain type of white ignorance in the US through edited volumes such as Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance (among others). Thus, having been nurtured in the political efficacy of epistemological critique, when I found myself wrestling with a conflicted sense of deep meaning in the ontological turn, I was worried but curious. It worked brilliantly with archaeology, with some archaeologists claiming that we had been doing this all along. Before you roll your eyes at these claims, I would think about the colonial baggage archaeology continues to carry in its current neo-colonial avatar — and perhaps what is being tapped into here is some relationship between coloniality, placedness (that can be excavated), and some ontological certainty of belonging.

A few years ago (in 2013), I co-organized a AAA session entitled ‘Once you see it, you can’t un-see it (A. Roy): Negotiating Inequality and Coloniality in Anthropological Epistemology and Archaeological Practice’ with Sonya Atalay, Whitney Battle-Baptiste, and Jane Anderson. Part of my impetus for the paper I presented (and subsequently published with a different title in a reader for the Cyprus Pavilion at the Venice Biennial), En Route to a Manifesto: Some Thoughts Concerning Epistemic Inequality and Injustice, was to contend with such issues, in particular, the tension between the ontological and the epistemic. What were we doing with this bitter colonial aftertaste that the ontological blue pill was forcing (or maybe enforcing)? And yet, there was something very important happening in the recognition of a sort of vitality for things – or most commonly heard at the AAAs that year as ‘the thinginess of things’.  My only solace was that I could trace my pedagogical tendencies to think about entanglement, my body, and issues of labor to feminist/queer scholarship – and I became that crazy lady at archaeology conferences who kept muttering under her breath, “well, it would be nice if you cited or read Karen Barad who actually wrote about this in 2007…”

But there continued to be a nagging epistemic problem – specific to my body and belonging – a problem of deep set coloniality in archaeology specifically and anthropology more broadly. In some manner of speaking, the issue is not so much about the discipline itself, but how my practice was now part of the discipline of anthropology and yet from elsewhere because of its desire to decolonize and dismantle. What sorts of epistemological frameworks was I reigniting that maintained a distinct colonial flavor that I might be able to remove, change, re-evaluate. And how might I do this while acknowledging the vitality of everything around me. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve figured much of this out  (although I am still working on it) – except to say that now the earth has more vitality, I am read as belonging elsewhere, and racism continues to create murky epistemic problems in the academy.

Putting the earth and the academy aside, so what’s going on here? Do we or can we belong to a place or not? If we are from elsewhere, can we belong to here?

This sets up an all too easy critique of the failure of the modern nation state, so I am not even going to bother with that. What is more interesting to me is how, in spite of the trickery of citizenship, and the bareness of life, there is still a sense of belonging that permeates our discourses. This authentic belonging is constructed and saturated with the politics of everything and the deep privilege of ascribing or prescribing identity to others. And those of us who continue to embody multiple prescriptions (which I would argue is most of us – although some more than others), learn how to switch. But this is not about code-switching and identity. This is about always belonging to somewhere else.

It is not a coincidence that I write this while I live in the UAE. It is also not merely a turn of phrase that I have chose to write about ‘living’ here rather than saying I am ‘doing research’ or that I am ‘in the field’. It is precisely because I live here that I now have a different stake in cultural work, including archaeology, that happens around me. It is because I live here that I work with collaborators and colleagues as we co-construct some understanding of the ancient and contemporary.

And yet, I still do not belong. When I write about here I am writing from elsewhere. For so many others here, who also may not belong, I cannot help but wonder where they are writing from. Perhaps what we all have in common are our exciting seafaring grandmothers, housekeeper aunts, roaming mystic sisters, and raging Marxist mothers. Or perhaps there is something to seeing the color of your soil on another body that holds us in place for a moment as we recognize something familiar and dangerous.

Uzma Z. Rizvi

Uzma Z. Rizvi is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Urban Studies at The Pratt Institute of Art and Design, Brooklyn, NY. She is also a Visiting Scholar in the Department of International Studies, American University of Sharjah.

8 thoughts on “On writing from elsewhere

  1. Uzma, writing so deeply felt should, I believe, be answered in kind. Your opening clause, “My childhood imagination enhanced stories told to me by my elders of where we were from” speaks directly to memories of family stories and the potted history taught in K-12 schools from which I learned that I was an American, descendant of courageous individuals who rejected the belonging tied to attachment to the places they were born and raised and traveled to what they saw as a “New World,” in which they could recreate themselves, freed from ties to the Old World’s oppressive regimes.

    As I write, however, it is just over a week since I attended my younger brother’s memorial service and was sharply reminded of something my wife, then a sociologist, mentioned to me shortly after we met, that those of us who embody that American dream, moving West in search of new selves in new places, are a minority of native-born Americans, of whom roughly four-fifths (these numbers may be out of date) never move further than fifty miles from where they are born. I had left home and, ultimately, wound up working and living in Japan, where I will never be Japanese. My brother followed our father’s example, went to the shipyard apprentice school, married a nurse, and built a house on land next door to our parents. He came a pillar of the church where the memorial service was held. At the reception that followed the service, I realized that I was surrounded by people who, except for our childhood together, had known him far more intimately than I ever would.

    I, too, “belong” to a place, but not the one in which I was born. Mine is a cosmopolitan belonging. But that is another story. I wonder if and how these memories affect my reading of what you have written.

  2. Dear John,
    Thank you for your in kind response – and sharing the story of your family. I am sorry for the loss of your sibling – but in telling that story, you have touched upon something so very important – and that is the intimacy of knowing our lives and how we are known, which I suspect is part of this story of belonging. I have been thinking a lot about this notion that you have called, cosmopolitan belonging – I’m thinking of it more as fluid belongings, something I’m writing about here in the UAE. Even so, I do think there is something here of how we are remembered. When we move as much as we do, how intimately do people remember us at our memorial services? Perhaps for now, this is more of a rhetorical question, but something I wonder nonetheless. You’ve given me much to think about – thank you for that and for reading the post and responding so generously.
    All best,

  3. Uzma, thank you. I detect something unusual in our exchange, a genuine conversation. Allow me, if you will, to continue it.

    I have been thinking about “cosmopolitan belonging” and “fluid belonging” and realizing that neither is quite right for my own situation. Better images might be an invasive species putting down roots in alien soil or or ties woven through spending a long time and becoming closely involved in a space other than the one in which I was born.

    My wife and I moved to Japan in 1980. I was an unemployed anthropologist, she an aspiring student in a PhD program in Japanese literature. It was one of her colleagues who provided the connections through which I entered the advertising world in Japan. While the academic job market continued to deteriorate in the States, we enjoyed the benefits of Japan’s economic bubble in the late 1980s. My wife, now one of the premier Japanese-to-English translators of art-related materials, founded our company in 1984 and allowed me to come out as her partner in 1996, when it was time for to leave the big Japanese ad agency that hired me in 1983. We have lived and worked together in Yokohama for thirty-six years. Our daughter, who now lives in the States, grew up there.

    When I think about our situation I am reminded of an old friend’s description of “gaijin” (literally outsider, foreigner) society in Japan. It is, she remarked, like an old-fashioned sugar-coated donut. There are the expats (typically corporate executives or diplomats) who are sprinkled down from the outside. Their lives are, in material terms, very sweet, but they soon disappear. Then there are those like me and my wife. We came to Japan for all sorts of reasons, as students, soldiers, business people, diplomats, musicians or aspiring practitioners of martial arts, the list is endless. But unlike the expats we found niches in the local economy and settled in Japan. Many of us wind up spending half or more of our lives there. Finally, there are those in the hole, economic immigrants from third-world countries who find, if not wholly illegal, barely legal employment doing the sorts of “difficult, dirty, dangerous” jobs that Japanese, whose country is a very wealthy one, do not want to do for themselves.

    In our family’s case, we are fortunate. We live in the cake but close to the sugar. We will never “be” Japanese but we have Japanese friends, neighbors and local merchants who have known us for more than three decades and fondly remember our daughter’s attending a local kindergarten and public elementary school. We participate in local politics as members of our apartment complex’s local government association, and I have served on the condominium’s board of directors. Yes, we are cosmopolitan, in several of Aihwa Ong’s senses. We are US citizens with rights to permanent residence in Japan and also sufficiently well off to travel freely around the world. Because we live close to the sugar, we have friends in several parts of the world. At the same time, however, our ties to Japan are strong and show no signs of diminishing, and why should they? Our mortgages are paid, our daughter is independent, our business continues to generate a comfortable income — and the majority of our friends are Japanese. “Fluid belonging” somehow misses what have become increasingly solid ties.

    How, then, would you describe us?

  4. Hi John,
    I really enjoyed reading your description of what it meant to move to Japan, your many years, work, commitments, engagements, etc — as well as your ability to recognize the race/class privilege that you and your family enjoyed in Japan as compared to other immigrants coming in through the transnational domestic/and other labor flows. Of course in Japan, they have their own issues related to racism, and indigenous rights (with the Ainu, etc) – so I’m sure there are many more complications to the narrative of your good life there. Whether it is cosmopolitan or fluid – I couldn’t say from this, nor is that really what this is about. One of the things I am most curious about is what you set up as immigration being akin to an invasion of an alien species – to me, this becomes problematic because it pre-supposes some pure origin and makes it difficult for anyone to belong — and more troubling for me, sets up ideas of pure races – and such discourses can be readily mobilized for political rhetoric – the current US situation with the rise in visibility of calls of pure race in America as being white, might be a case in point. Your life in Japan sounds lovely, and I think one of the more salient points to my discussion about Dubai is the movement of people who are considered ex-pats — it’s interesting – there was this article going around a few years ago on social media in which there were links made between race/class and the idea of immigrant vs ex-pat… and there is a power dynamic that is embedded in that discourse – but what I find most interesting about your observation is that the form of transience that is a privileged state of ex-pat-ness. I’ve been trying to wrap my head about these global cities that talk about transience as a ‘problem’ and so thank you for that because it’s adding another dimension to how the clamor about transience might be a point of solidarity among disparate groups- hmm. something to think about.
    But all of this also makes me think that perhaps what has inadvertently happened is that there is a set up between cosmopolitan and fluid – when in my mind they have the ability to coexist in seamless ways. I’ll pay attention to this more as I write about this more. I have a piece coming up soon about fluidity and so I’ll keep you posted on it.
    Thanks again for your engagement with this post and on SM generally.
    All best,

  5. Uzma, I take your point about the invasive species imagery. Transplants like us can flourish in Japan. None, to the best of my knowledge, have anything like Kudzu’s ability to overwhelm or displace their Japanese neighbors. Those of us who love in the cake discover niches. We do not fundamentally reshape the local ecosystem. Western and global influences have and still do have their effects, but these involve political, economic, and technological effects on a scale much larger than our modest contributions.

    Are Japanese racist? In a broad sense, of course. The difference between being in the cake and being in the hole reflects historical patterns of conquest and domination. To be a white American is to be one of the victors in World War II. To be from Southeast Asia or Korea is to belong to the conquered and colonized in the days of the Japanese empire. To be Chinese is problematic. That China is the ultimate source of the Japanese writing system, Zen and other forms of Buddhism, Confucian values and Heian-era (roughly 1000 a.d.)imperial institutions modeled on those of Tang China is taught in Japanese public schools. But China is also the enemy defeated and, in Taiwan and Manchuria, colonized in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and now an emerging 21st century superpower.

    To me, however, speaking from a more intimate perspective, “racism” deployed as a stereotype misses a lot. Yes, it is true. Japan is famous for loyalty to tightly bounded groups and relationships determined by who is uchi(us) and soto(them). There is, however, a growing body of marketing research that demonstrates that group boundaries have become increasingly porous. Thus, for example, company loyalties grounded in lifetime employment, have become increasingly hard to sustain as companies embracing Neoliberal models restructure and a growing proportion of employees are temporary (like adjuncts in US academia). Where foreign executives tend to err is in seeing the result as Westernization. Had they read Simmel, they might realize that willingness to work alongside foreigners represents indifference instead of idealization of the West.

    Descending now, to the local and familial, I note a cultural difference about which my sagacious spouse once wrote a very interesting artical for the Matsushita Foundation’s PHP magazine. In Taiwan and in the US, we experienced societies in which group members are curious about newcomers and reach out to learn about them. There may even be welcome wagons. In Japan, the rule is exactly the opposite. Newcomers are ignored until they introduce themselves. There are several customary ways to do this. Taking small gifts to the neighbors and apologizing in advance for the trouble you are likely to cause them is one. The “self-introduction” demanded of new employees at the party that celebrates their joining a company is another. You can see the same pattern when a child walks up to an informal group in a playground, stops at the edge of the group, and says, “May I play?“ Imagine, then, what happens when foreigners who don’t know these customs move to Japan. Months go by during which their Japanese neighbors ignore them. They are convinced that Japanese are emotionally cold and hostile to foreigners. Meanwhile, of course, the Japanese neighbors are grumbling about these barbarians who have failed to introduce themselves. Both may blame “race,” but race is not the issue.

    In our case, we arrived in Japan with a four-year-old daughter in tow. My wife was a participant in an intensive Japanese language program, and I had to find work to supplement her fellowship. Noticing children who attended a local kindergarten lining up each morning, to walk together to the kindergarten, she introduced herself to the mothers and asked for their help. They instantly arranged for our daughter to attend the kindergarten, and one volunteered to take care of her until my wife got back from her classes in Tokyo. Some months later,my wife was walking up the lane to our apartment complex when she passed two little boys. One a visitor to the neighborhood, pointed at her and shouted “Gaijin da!” (A foreigner!). The other little boy, a neighbor who attended the same kindergarten as our daughter, replied, “Gaijin ja nai yo. Kei-chan no obasan da yo!” (She’s not a foreigner. She’s Kate’s mom.)

  6. Hi John,
    I feel like I’ve gotten to know you and your family quite a bit through this exchange, which has been quite wonderful. Thanks for sharing so openly. I was in Kyoto last summer attending the World Archaeological Congress, and in reading your comments, it’s really shed some light on forms of behavior – so thanks again for those insights. Since that’s the only time I’ve ever been to Japan, all I can really do is read and think through your experiences – not really comment too deeply on them. I think my favorite line in your comments has to be “Gaijin ja nai yo. Kei-chan no obasan da yo!” – and how children’s speech often really cuts to the heart of the matter. Amazing. Also, thank you for making the comments a parallel read to the text – I like the additional depth it’s provided — much appreciated.
    All best,

  7. Uzma, my pleasure. I could continue in this vein for many comments to come. I suspect, however, that you have a lot on your plate. Should you be interested in hearing more, please send an email to john.mccreery [at] gmail.com.

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