Field Note #7 — Being Lonely and Shifting Focus

Kichwa word of the day: fakchaman = "cascada" / "waterfall"

Hi, how’s it going?  Day 18 here after a week-long hiatus.  I’ve got the usual setup: sitting at my desk cocooned in my sleeping bag, watching my cup of tea get cold, sheep grazing on the hills outside my window, and of course, having the looming shadow of perpetual loneliness settle in just in time to keep me company for lunchtime once again.  Just your typical Saturday afternoon.

By this point I don’t even try to hide it: I don’t think I’ve ever been this lonely my entire life.

It feels rather contradictory that an Anthropologist should feel lonely in the field, doesn’t it?  It’s like an accountant who goes home at the end of the day and slumps down in their seat and thinks, “Man, I wish I got to see more numbers today 😦 ” or something like that, I mean I don’t actually know what accountants do but this is the first analogy that came to me and we’re gonna run with it.  It’s been hard for me to justify this feeling—it’s our job to be around people all the time, building relationships and becoming intertwined in people’s lives.  How can someone spending hours of their day studying human interaction feel so deprived of human interaction?

But alas, that’s where I am right now, and it’s where I have been for the past two weeks, and probably where I will be for the rest of the field season.  Turns out it was not Malaria or food poisoning that I needed to worry about here; it was the incurable malady of missing home.  It’s not like I haven’t been homesick before.  I get homesick even in Los Angeles, just six hours away from home.  But loneliness?  I can’t remember ever feeling lonely while traveling solo; if I have felt lonely, it obviously wasn’t enough to deter me from wanting to go out there on my own again.

But there’s a big difference between those trips I’ve been on and what I’m doing right now. I’m not a traveler this time—I live and work here.  It’s not so much an adventure as it is everyday life, something that is so easy to navigate when the conditions are right but when they’re not, it’s damn near impossible to adjust to.  While on a backpacking trip you’re practically fueled by the unfamiliarity of it all, eager to find new clever ways to be challenged by novelty, during fieldwork you’re trying to rebuild the familiarity that normally keeps you afloat in daily life, in order to integrate into the community as best you can, while still trying to maintain your perspective as a researcher—as an outsider.

Gosh, what a gloomy way to start a post.  I want to be honest with you about this whole process, but at the same time, being mopey is not what we’re about here on A Grain of Nice.  My tagline is field notes of a hungry optimist, for goodness’ sake; I have a reputation to keep up.  So don’t worry.  I have my moments, but I’m learning to coexist with my loneliness—as in, I’ve accepted that I can’t overcome it, but I’m not going to let it get in the way of me living my life.  And life’s been pretty good here.  This has been a big week in particular. Below are some snapshots of the colorful life in this community, starting with photos from the Fiestas de la cosecha San Pedro, San Pablo, y Santa Isabel. 

Note: This summer festival should not be confused with the Inca tradition of Inti Raymi, or “Sun Festival,” celebrated in Peru.  These communities suffered both the Inca conquest and the Spanish conquest that destroyed their cultures and dispossessed their peoples—so these festivities actually represent the resistance to the empires that tried to take over their land, and celebrate their prehistoric ancestors and Pachamama, or “Mother Earth.”

A parade lasting the entire day on 7/14/19 celebrated many indigenous communities with their own songs, dance, and clothing.
A young boy dancing in zamarros de chivo—special pants made of leather and sheep/goat wool.  It’s typically worn by the indigenous cowboys/girls of the Andean haciendas.
These girls were sitting on the back of a pickup truck covered entirely in beautiful roses, throwing petals into the crowd.  They’re wearing traditional indigenous attire: felt trilbies, white embroidered blouse, and the golden beaded necklace called gualcas.
And of course, fiesta food.  Fluffy golden llapingachos (fried potato pancakes) and a hearty bed of mote (peeled, boiled corn kernels) topped with crispy, succulent, slow-roasted pork.
7/17/19 — Papa José took me out for a spontaneous day trip to Cascadas de Peguche, an indigenous ceremonial site nestled in the mountains of Otavalo.
A quiet prayer in the Socavón de la Purificación, or Cavern of Purification, before washing our faces with the rushing mountain water below these rocks.
We were going to go through this tunnel behind us, but we both agreed we were too hungry to go on.  We’d been trekking through the mountain for a couple hours by this point.  Despite being in his seventies he definitely had way more energy left than I did.

And now, the moment you probably weren’t waiting for, but should have known was coming because this is my research diary—we have a research update:

During the several days that I didn’t write, I was at a low point of going to bed every night feeling like I shouldn’t be here. In addition to wishing I were back home, I was grappling with impostor syndrome and a tremendous amount of self-imposed pressure about being productive—literally, having some sort of product at the end of the day to prove I did something worthwhile.  I was making zero progress, felt like I was a failure, and basically doubted if I could really do this. 

If you’ve ever talked to me in real life—even for just five minutes—you’d know that my entire conception of who I am is based on what I study.  For the past three years, it’s the one thing about me that has remained constant, reliable, absolute.  But it’s risky to build your identity around just one thing, because what happens when it suddenly isn’t enough to hold you up?  Who are you then?  What do you have left? 

So I was in a funk for a while.  And not the groovy Isley Brothers kind.

But then there was one night where I gathered enough energy to not stay curled up in bed on the phone with mom, telling her I want to go home.  I give credit to my friend Rayce, who told me to “get the ball rolling” instead of just feeling sorry for myself, and my fellow cohort members who reminded me in a Zoom call that it’s okay to change directions, and more importantly, it’s okay to let yourself have fun.  I found myself ravenously brainstorming all the ways I could make this better for myself and filled up three pages of my notebook, most of which turned out to be illegible.  I had to accept that things weren’t working with my current topic, a hard pill to swallow when 20% of my data collection period has already gone by—but when I took a step back and reevaluated what I’ve been seeing here every day, the answer was clear.

The cohort (actually just half because of our scattered ass timezones).  There are thirteen of us in the program and we’re stuck with each other for two years, and I couldn’t have asked for a better family to go through this with.  On the very first day we met, our TA said, “You can’t operate in a vacuum.  You need to figure out who your neighbors are.”  He was absolutely right.  You just can’t do this shit alone.  And what defines neighbors?  If I can be up at 11:00 PM in Ecuador talking face-to-face with friends in Texas, Malawi, Armenia, Peru, Tijuana, San Diego, and the most exotic of them all, Arizona—then they are my neighbors, no matter where they are. (Photo credit to Callie)

I realized the only thing I wanted to do was to study people and their food.  That’s what I had wanted from the start, but I let the idea go thinking it would be hard to gather interactional data on it.  But after spending some time here, it turned out to be the only kind of data that I’ve been able to write about.  

Sharing my notes taps into a new level of vulnerability that I’m not very comfortable with, but we’re gonna give it a try.

That’s right.  I couldn’t seem to find any data that fit my focus—but it was actually the focus that didn’t fit the data all along.  Sometimes the one who’s meant for you is the one who’s been standing right in front of you this whole time.  I just had to open myself up to it and give it the chance it deserved.  I’m keeping my original project, exploring themes like modernity and tradition, urban and rural, girlhood and womanhood—but with food as my lens to look into these aspects of everyday life.  I’ve been testing it out for a few days now and I’m the happiest I’ve been this whole trip.  Being busy with work is a great distraction from loneliness, and now that I finally feel like I know what I’m doing, I’m excited about being here again.

Plus, I’ve got a little side project going: asago yachay hulspa parlashun Kichwa (Learning to speak Kichwa little by little).  75% of what my host dad says to me is in Kichwa now because he’s quite confident that if I hear him speaking it enough I’ll eventually be able to understand him completely.  So far I can ask to buy seven eggs (kanchis lulun) or compliment someone’s cooking (kamba yanushka mishki mishki) or let people know that it’s raining outside (tamyahun) and honestly, I think that pretty much covers all I would ever need to function in this society.  (The spelling is probably way off, sorry about that.)

But check this out.  There’s this little discovery I made that got me super excited, and maybe it’ll excite you too, if you’re one fellow Linguistics nerd out there lurking about:

When José was teaching me the aforementioned phrase, I was able to figure out what he was trying to say before he translated it into Spanish.  Did I just instantly develop fluency in Kichwa?  No, but I recognized that the Kichwa verb “parlashun” sounds an awful lot like the French verb “parler,” meaning “to speak.”  You guessed it, they’re false cognates—similar in sound and meaning, even though the two languages belong to different etymological families.  I can tell you’re begging to know, how could this happen?  It stumped me as well.  Could it just be mere coincidence?  Perhaps.  But I did some excavating (See that? Little Archaeology humor there, not that I’m an Archaeologist, no no) and it’s possible that the French word got brought into Ecuador during the French Geodesic Mission of the 18th century, when French and Spanish scientists passed through this particular region to figure out the shape of the earth.  And think about it—for a word as ubiquitous as “speak,” for a bunch of white dudes trying to communicate with indigenous people in a foreign land, it’s very likely that the word was passed around and eventually adopted by the people here, right?  But if anyone has any other theories on this, let’s discuss! I’m desperate for human interaction, remember!!!?

Field Note #5 — Lost in Translation (Sketchbook)

Some Linguistics humor to wrap up my day…


(Puta means “whore” in Spanish.  While in English the /b/ sound is more firmly voiced and held longer, in Japanese it’s a softer, more “staccato” consonantal sound that’s very close to the Spanish bilabial stop /p/ —so the two come out sounding dangerously similar.)

Archived Blog: yui yaku 1 • “mendokusai”

etymology plug: yui + yaku
yui = ゆい me                yaku = 訳 (やく) "translation"

yui yaku (ゆい訳) is a series in which I attempt to explain obscure words and phrases from modern Japanese culture that do not have equivalents in English.  The reign of Schadenfreude as the New Foreign Word on the Block has ended, and I think one of these Japanese words could be next.

Why should I care about understanding words that only exist in Japanese culture?

Great question!

The thing is, Japanese culture didn’t invent these concepts.  The culture just put linguistic labels on them, so people could effectively communicate their thoughts and feelings to others and build connections with those who understood.  Just because the words only exist in Japan doesn’t mean those concepts aren’t experienced elsewhere.  Feelings, sensations, and experiences can be universal, beyond the grasp of language.

There was, at one point, a claim that language controlled thought—and therefore language also limited the categories of thoughts that a person could have.  Based on the Sapir-Whorf Theory, a speaker of one language would have the ability to understand something that a speaker of another language would not.

The fallacy in this particular aspect of the theory can be demonstrated by our understanding of animal cognition and sentience.  Chimpanzees can be compassionate toward one another (1).  Elephants grieve over the loss of their loved ones (2).  Dogs can’t help but act on jealousy (3).  These aren’t just valuable life lessons I learned from Disney movies; there has been actual research done to demonstrate that animals experience the world in similar ways as humans—even if they don’t have the language to communicate their feelings.

My point is that sometimes, when you can’t understand someone because they come from a different cultural background, it could just be a matter of differences in cognitive identification.  You might not recognize certain feelings and expressions the same way, but that doesn’t mean that you’re genetically or culturally wired to be incapable of ever understanding the other person.  Recognizing that your world perspective is expanding is part of what makes learning words from other languages so fun!

Okay, that’s my intro for this little project.  Let’s jump into our first word!

yui yaku 1



Hybrid of めんどう men•dō  くさい  kusai
*    *    *
A very timely word.  The winter quarter at my college has just begun and, knowing myself, I’m in for a whole lot of moments where I throw my hands in the air and sigh dramatically and mumble this word to no one in particular but also to everyone within a 5 ft radius.  School, among many other things in life, elicit hefty doses of mendokusai.
I’m almost certain you’ve experienced this before.

From JPN → ENG, this term is typically reduced to the following laconic translations:

  • bothersome, troublesome
  • pain in the ass
  • feeling lazy, on the level of that Bruno Mars song
  • (whining) “but I don’t wannnaaaa”

These expressions are not necessarily wrong.  In fact, they’re good to keep in mind so you’re at least in the ballpark of how you’d feel toward something that is mendokusai.  But I think an explanation for this word requires more analysis in its hidden implication than its projected meaning.

Mendokusai is an adjective.  Something that is mendokusai is characterized by the heavy weight of ugh that drags you down until you’re lying face down on the cold hard floor grumbling inaudibly.  But by describing a task as mendokusai, you haven’t just conveyed the nuisance of all the time and effort that has to go into its completion.  You’ve also implied something about you.

It’s for those nights when you’re craving a steaming bowl of 天ぷらそば (tempura soba) and you have all the ingredients to make it sitting in your kitchen, from the hearty burdock and lotus roots to the thin buckwheat noodles, but for some reason you would rather scarf down four and a half servings of slightly stale Cheerios drowning in nonfat milk, not even the honey nut kind but the crudely bland kind with absolutely no flavor except weirdly a hint of saltiness—and you feel absolutely no shame about it.

Deep, deep, deep down inside your soul, you know you don’t really have a good excuse to whine and complain and not get it done, but it almost feels like you’ve justified yourself when you blame the task for being mendokusai, and not yourself for simply being lazy.  After all, it’s not your fault that the task, by its own design, is mendokusai; you can’t help but succumb to this natural, perfectly healthy aversion to doing it.  You’re only human.

The essence of mendokusai is that with this one word, you can passively express your state of being without specifically articulating your thoughts and feelings.  All of the details of why you feel the way you feel—you’re tired, you’re busy, you’re just not interested—are omitted, yet enough is implied about the situation that you’ve presented a fair case against doing a task you don’t feel like doing at that moment.

Mendokusai lets you run away from having to confront your true feelings, and forgives you for being a flawed human being who lacks the emotional drive to do something feasible, for reasons unspecified but also unnecessary.  It is a subtle affirmation of self-acceptance and self-compassion toward who you are.  I find it profoundly beautiful. Let us all incorporate more glorious moments of mendokusai in our lives, the way we deserve.

Did I just put myself in quotes?  Yes.  I said those things, I have that right.

Thanks for reading yui yaku today.  If you have requests, send them my way and I will try my very best to cover it on a future post.