Field Note #6 — Making the Unfamiliar Familiar

Kichwa word of the day: mishki = rico / delicious! I use this one a lot.

To start today’s post I am sharing with you this photo of my Papa José.  At first I was just taking photos of the adorable guaguas de pan, shaped like little babies and horses and usually shared on Día de los Difuntos in November.  But then he came over and wanted me to photograph him cradling the guaguas (Kichwa for “baby” or “child”), and how could I refuse such a sweet moment?

Sometimes you can just see the kindness in someone’s eyes.

OK, Day 9, let’s catch up.

I had a couple rough nights in my first week.  I had what I would diagnose as a magnitude 4.6 breakdown recently where I crawled into bed after a long day and opened up my messages and felt the tears getting ready for takeoff as I began writing to my mom.  I wish I could say it was because of the tremendous ethical pressure of ethnographic research or the fatigue from jet lag and corn harvesting but really, it was just that I missed home and the realization that I was going to be 6,000 km away for the next two months crashed down on me all at once as I asked myself,

Do I really want to pursue a profession where I have to leave everything to work alone in an unfamiliar environment for long periods at a time?

I’ve asked myself this question a million times, never to reach a solid answer.  On any given day, rain or shine, I’m likely oscillating between wanting to trek through every crevice of the earth on my own or spend the rest of my life at home as my mom’s personal chauffeur even though I’m not even that good at driving. 

But we’ll get into this topic some other time.

I’m somewhat back on my feet now.  I received some good love & support from friends without whose kind words I would have booked a flight home set for next Tuesday; I got over the sickness after getting cleaned by an egg; I became friends with a girl who works at the picante; I even decided I should go out and run for the first time since the high school mile test even though I am in no shape to handle the altitude or any other aspect of this form of exercise.  It was absolutely excruciating.  I felt my body shutting down as my lungs forgot the mechanics of respiration, and I had to walk most of it because the wheezing made me think I was actually not going to make it home.  But I liked the view so much that I ended up being out for a full hour, and a big chunk of that I spent meditating on a small mound between the quiet, deep ridges.  So I’ll probably go running again, maybe, who knows.

Perdóname for the phone quality but you get the idea.

Yesterday, I helped my host mom and sister cook dinner.  By that I mean I chopped green plátanos (plantains) and carrots and turned a bowl upside down to make things fall into a soup pot.  I like to think of myself as the extra set of hands that is not necessary but is still there so they might as well put it to work.  But my usefulness was definitely put to the test last night.

Enough soup for seven people?  Barely.  After we all got seconds there was almost nothing left in the pot.

Now I’d like to think my knife handling skills are pretty alright.  I’ve done my fair share of julienning in my previous life back when I was nineteen and pulled out of university because I believed it was my destiny to become a professional chef (ten points to whoever can guess how that turned out!).  But the one thing I stay away from is cutting things not with a cutting board but with my hand.  That has never made sense to me, I don’t care if your grandma who’s the best cook in the world does it, my grandma does it and I’m still not a fan.  The only time I found an actual legitimate reason for cutting by hand was when I worked at Subway and got quite good at slicing up avocados in the palm of my left hand, but that was only because they’re paying 75 cents extra for that shit and they deserve a little show.  Other than that, if we have a board meant for cutting, is it not our moral duty to use it as it was intended?  So when I saw Mama Rosita and Mary slicing away at the plátanos in the air, I thought, that’s cool, but I’m gonna go ahead and use this kitchen counter over here.  The end result, after all, is the same.  We’ll both end up with diced plátano verde, everybody wins.  This is a rare case where it is about the destination, and not about the journey.

Is there anything more badass than a lady in the kitchen?  In the back is Mary slamming her hand down on the butt of a knife to remove corn kernels from the cob, and Mama Rosita is risking her entire left dexterity to do the same.  Gnarly.

They quickly caught on that I was taking my time laying down neat little planks to cut into smaller pieces.  “No no, like this,” Mary said as she held the plátano vertically with one hand and began to swiftly slice into it with the other, creating a tic-tac-toe grid on the surface of the fruit.  She tilted the plátano toward the bowl and gently pushed her knife through horizontally.  I watched as perfect cubes elegantly slid off her knife.

“Ohhhh,” I sang with an exaggerated nod, pretending I was doing it wrong because I just hadn’t seen her do it, and not because I was actively trying to avoid amputating my hand today.  But now I felt her eyes watching me—I had to give it a try.  I gulped and made my first incision.  As it turns out, the firm and bulky plátano verde is all talk and no walk—it’s rather elastic and flimsy under pressure.  When I tried to get my knife through it, it just kept following the knife downward, the blade inching its way very close to my fingers, so close that eventually the plátano would likely split in half and so too my thumb.  Holding my breath I slowly sawed my way down, millimeters at a time, before I heard Mary laughing beside me: “You said you’re Japanese, right?  I thought Japanese people were good with knives.”  

There was no way to recover from that.  Good thing I let go of my dream of becoming a professional chef a while ago.  Despite getting roasted I had a wonderful dinner with my family, as always.

Sopita con picuda (barracuda), maíz, yucca, plátano verde, zanahoria

Now, onto big news!  As you may know, a week had gone by in the field site without me collecting a single piece of data from my primary participant, but now we actually have a project!!!!!!!  Samara and I still have not met up in person yet but we have a blossoming online relationship where we discuss research matters, and she has been absolutely wonderful throughout this entire process.  Just yesterday I transcribed, translated, and coded her first audio diary entry!  The diary, in which she records herself talking freely about a prompt that I give her or about any topic of her choosing, is one of my favorite methods I’m using in my ethnography because it’s an intimate yet minimally obtrusive way to look at micro-scale details like word choice, sentence structure, and manner of speaking, as well as macro-level thematic content such as what’s going on in her life, what she’s feeling, what types of things she finds worth talking about, etc., all to illustrate what everyday life looks like for this one girl.

I’m just glad research is starting.  I think I needed this tangible proof that I’m headed somewhere. Granted, we’re facing several more weeks of data collection so hopefully from this point on we see more productivity—not that I don’t absolutely love just sitting on the floor talking to Mama Rosita or going to the nearby city to go shopping with Mary or learning Kichwa from Papa José.  Those are the moments I value most.

As for the question I posed earlier in this post, I’m probably not going to figure it out any time soon.  But if there’s one thing I’ve started to understand since entering my field site, it’s this: Maybe the environment eventually stops being unfamiliar. You find a new family, you build friendships, you rely on the support of those waiting for you at home—and somewhere along the process you realize you’re not working alone at all, that you’re not that far from “home” after all.