This post follows up from my post about liminality. Clearly I’m thinking a lot about my place in my surroundings. Bear with me; this post serves both as a response to the common question I get from back home “How are you? Are you lonely?” while drawing in some sociology theory.
So last time I talked about being liminal, being between. Being in a place where people don’t really know me the way I know me (or that my family and friends do). That is both a result of and a contributor to my being on the outside. Liminality is mutually reinforcing in this way. I’m not sure if that is a new theoretical insight on the concept or not, but it’s not the focus of my post today. I want to talk a little about the consequences of being liminal or more outside than in.
I’ve been here at the research center since September 1st, but I’ve never actually been here for more than three weeks straight. It’s always been broken up by home stays, emergency medical trips to Kathmandu, trekking, my parents’ visit, and/or my friends’ visit over the holidays. And while, in general, the months fly by in Nepal (I’m already past six months!) a month here goes slowly. Each day is pretty much exactly like the day before and they’re largely solitary. I have collegial relationships with the others who work at the research center but I find myself being a bit shyer around them than my colleagues in Seattle would recognize in me. Partly, this is structural.
Besides language barriers, I am a visiting graduate student who is employing professionals here to help as research assistants. I straddle the line of student and principle investigator. And Nepali hospitality means that the research center treats me a bit more like a student than an adult. It’s taken a lot of conversation and two heavily supervised evenings for me to prove that I can cook well and I enjoy it and that, when the cook needs to take a day off, I can feed myself. They are protective of me in a way that feelings caring and makes me feel safe and valued. But sometimes I don’t feel like a 30 year old independent researcher that I am. For example, at night I leave the dinner table and return to my room and I do not leave until the morning. I am locked into the research center (not that there is anywhere to go), I joke that it’s my princess tower.
The isolation of being here explains, somewhat, why a month straight here feels like a feat. I am getting very well acquainted with my brain and thoughts. Although I am meeting others. The office had its annual anniversary celebration on the 31st and I got to know more coworkers than I had (and realized I probably should have been less shy). And I’ve been walking at the same time every day and have started to build more relationships with those around me in the village. One very spunky older woman in particular likes to call me over and she has the most wonderful guttural laugh, tinged with a smoker’s rasp. I think this is, in part, because once I chatted with someone word got out that I could speak a little Nepali and was friendly and more people talk to me. Word seems to travel fast around here. The children around here generally have asked my name, but now they seem to have heard me respond enough to understand it (Ande is a hard name for them, much like I usually can’t catch what they say when they tell me their names, always first and last). Now children say “Hello, Ande!” when I pass them on walks.
But these kinds of interactions are about the limit when I am Chitwan for face-to-face interactions. Who I am, what I do when I am not immediately in someone’s presence, and anything meaningful about my life is a mystery to those around me. I am a node without a social network, a free floater. People are embedded in social contexts and that’s how we understand them. In Nepal, I am superficially imposed on top of the social fabric, I am not part of it. I don’t comprise it and it doesn’t comprise me. Without my social context, I feel a little bit like I cease to be my “self.”
And I mean that in the symbolic interactionist sense, not a melodramatic sense. George Herbert Mead calls the self a “social process,” meaning our “self” is the result of a set of actions based in social life. He differentiates between the “I” and the “me”. The “I” means my individual impulses, my actions that satisfy my immediate needs. What Plato would call the appetites and the will. The “I” takes the ‘self’ as the subject, but the “me” takes the ‘self’ as the object. It is the ‘self’ receiving from the “generalized other”, meaning my understanding of myself is based on knowing how others see me.
All this amounts to an individual person understanding themselves in terms of their social surroundings. Self-hood is a sociological process colored by the constant dialogue between the “I” (the knower) and the “me” (the known). The self is achieved by a process of who I feel like I am based on what I do, and who I know I am seen to be by others. Self-consciousness is only achieved when I participate in different aspects of society and can recognize how I am seen in different contexts. This idea connects to my last post, where I encourage people to go some place and be liminal, be outside. They should do so to understand this world better and to understand themselves better, in the sociological sense. And probably the psychological sense too.
In Nepal, the change in context means a change in the “generalized other” the comprises my “me.” I am perceived here in shallow terms, I am hard pressed to be seen as much beyond foreigner, even by people I’ve spent a good deal of time with, this is what is most salient about me to them. And I am welcomed as foreign, even celebrated because of it, which is a wonderful feel but the result is a flatter “me.” In the US I have more depth because can pick up on all sorts of signifiers in my general presentation that have meaning there, but not here, such that people have a good sense of which groups I belong to. I know how people see me and I have incorporated it into my self and how I let the “I” behave and how I present myself.
It’s worth noting this process of flattening happens with many newcomers (immigrants, refugees, and people who move from one part of the US to another). They lose their social context and instead are perceived in narrow terms that shape their social options, but also their sense of themselves. And sometimes Americans wonder why there is ethnic affinity, why people of the same or similar groups hang out together. One reason, aside from structural factors that may funnel them into similar neighborhoods or occupations, is that it allows people to cultivate a social self that is deeper and more closely aligns with how they might see themselves, or how they are used to seeing themselves. Moving to another place upends your “self” and it can take a long time to recreate or rebuild that.
All this answers the “how are you? Are you lonely?” question in a few ways. For one, the above paragraphs show that I’m in a pretty existential space right now, which I think can only come from a sort of profound shift in surroundings. And yes maybe loneliness, or at least social separation or isolation. I am achieving a different kind of self-consciousness. And in the process of that, I am disentangling the “I” and the “me.” The dialogue between the two has shifted because the social worlds I am embedded in back home are ones that I can only communicate with digitally. I have an eye and an ear to the ground at home in so much as someone lends me theirs and recounts life at home for me. And I have I foot over there since these digital relationships with my friends and family give me temporary social context.
But my time in Nepal is skewed balance between “I” and “me” towards the “I” – I am my will, my appetites, my impulses. My actions have very little bearing on others, and others actions have very little bearing on me (in the sociological and literal sense of the word “me”). I simply am. So it is lonely, in a way, but it’s finite and so it doesn’t bother me. I spend a significant amount of time in dialogue with myself, which still engages me intellectually and emotionally. I did feel restless with the loneliness and the apartness from my world in Seattle more at the beginning, by my wise friend Shri suggested thinking of loneliness as an actor and inviting it in to sit with me and join me for tea. And I’ve carried it with me since and I don’t really notice it.
This seemingly healthy (and surprising to me) adaptation to this isolation has been an interesting sociological journey, and one that I have weathered well because I know that it is finite. In less than two weeks I head back to Kathmandu where I will have more social fabric to be part of. More people around me, more anonymity among my neighbors. After those two weeks, I have 5 weeks of travel, visits, and then vacation with my sisters. Even the knowledge of these helps ground me. Similarly, the visits I had in November and December were affirming in a very deep way. To be in the cradle of my parents and then close friends from high school made me feel a sort of belonging I had missed and enjoyed every moment of. The “me” clicked into place and my soul felt full and warm. That’s not to say that it feels cold or empty otherwise. But rather, like any good thing you have going, you don’t know what it was until it’s gone. And sometimes it takes it coming back to note the change. This experiment has been enlightening, personally. And it lends some evidence to Mead’s claims about the self as a social process. (Of course a case study of one person without a control group or variant conditions is a social experiment that would stand up to peer review in the social sciences.)