Reclaiming the c-word

buddhacwordIt was the early 2ooos. I was a young, earnest student reading Simone de Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem. I took Gender 101. Sometimes I wore a beret and sat in cafes alone drinking black coffee or cheap red wine that tasted like vinegar and scrawled in my diary. I worked part-time in a rather cool bar. I was making connections between the personal and political and my feminist conscience was taking root.

It’s fair to say that I was quite naive and innocent (still am! gah!) and involved in a one-way street on-again-off-again relationship in which I was the very cute doormat. So I started to see that guys weren’t always nice and were actually sometimes kind of ruthless. Manipulative, pathetic, ridiculous lying dogs. But I’ll hold off telling you how I really feel.

So I was working as a waitress at this cocktail bar and this new girl started. We got along well and divulged all our deepest, darkest boy-related horror stories – the ritualistic bonding of females. Then somewhat coincidentally, we both started dating two guys who worked with us. They basically screwed us over at the same time and we were upset and heartbroken in only ways that silly 20 year old girls can be. The details are hazy now but we joined forces and created SPC which stood for ‘Strong Powerful Cunt’ in an effort to reclaim the c-word. It meant that we were stronger than this petty bullshit and could override our relationship dramas. I even held a potluck dinner at my house for women only in the spirit of SPC. See, we don’t need no man. SPC eventually died out after being reprized for an event on a ship in the name of peace and empowerment, but that is another story.

Cut to a decade later and I’m chatting with my male friend who is well-educated in such things as philosophy and ethics. The conversation turns to language and we agree that the c-word is the worst word in the English language and should never be used under any circumstances. I did not tell him about SPC. And so, I buried the word in the back of my lexicon closet and may have only fetched it out once or twice in the context of stubbing my toe or checking my bank balance.

Cut to a few years after that conversation. I’m sitting in a beautiful Balinese restaurant with opulent marble floors where there is a live band and salsa dancing. I’m waiting for some guy to ask me to dance, but alas, that is never going to happen because we’re in Ubud where the ratio of women to men is 45:1. But, I spy to my right another white woman, perhaps around the same age with ridiculous cheekbones circa Hollywood 1940. I almost see a smoky haze emanating from her. I overhear that she’s an anthropologist. I’m giddy and inch my way over. We start to chat and were still talking when the band has long gone and the waiters are practically kicking us out.

Over the next week, we become inseparable, like long-lost BFFs. We engage in the ritualistic bonding of females and vomit out our worst heartbreaks, show each other our life scars. Hailing from Norway, the peculiar thing about my new BFF and perhaps the thing I like most about her is her perfect cut-glass Oxbridge accent which was acquired, funnily enough, while she was living in Bali doing fieldwork. The second best thing about her is the way she spits out bad British words like a sailor. Before I know it, I too am saying ‘shag’ and ‘wanker’ in every sentence. And then we start to say the c-word with abandon in all different contexts. It feels very cathartic to say this taboo word in relation to all manner of things that really get my goat. There is power in this word and joy at transgressing by using it.

Then there comes the reality check – back in Seoul I drop it in the middle of a conversation with a group of female friends that I don’t know that well. It goes down like cold sick. Oops. So, context is everything. Next time I trawl it out, it will be in the presence of my new BFF. She gets it. And god, it just feels so good and deliciously politically incorrect to throw the c-word at someone that has wronged you. May the c-word prosper (in the correct context of course).

On privilege and meritocracy (again)

the-american-dreamAnthropologist, writer and intellectual giantess Sarah Kendzior recently published an astute analysis of why those born in the 1970s or later are basically fucked as in a climate of widening inequality, winner takes all.

Although she is referring to the American context, the pattern also applies more generally to the western world. Broadly, she asserts that the baby boomers had it relatively easy and now getting a decent education and job are much more difficult for those of us under forty.

In her words: “In America, education has become a prize for people who have already won. Those with money, connections, and access to technology travel a path that starts with private preschools, continues through SAT tutors and exorbitant enrichment activities, and culminates in college that costs more than the national median income.”

She points out that the notion of the United States being a meritocracy is no longer valid. Back in the day when the boomers were coming of age, a good, affordable education was more accessible and decent jobs more plentiful. However, now  the springboard into a solid middle class existence comes with a much heftier price tag. According to Kendzior, “The fate of the next generation…relies on how heavily parents are able to invest in the expensive credentials now required to purchase a professional future.”

She terms this an “entrenched meritocracy” – “one structured on what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called ‘the social alchemy that turns class privilege into merit.’ In an entrenched meritocracy, advantages conferred by birth are marketed as achievements, but these achievements – a good education, a prestigious-but-unpaid or low-paying entry-level job – are only possible for those who have the means to afford them. The cycle repeats itself, with a wealthy and educated elite conferring their own advantages onto their children.”

Kendzior goes on to assert that, “opportunity hoarding has become the pastime of the elite, with education used as a proxy for rejection based on ‘merit,’ and ‘merit’ redefined as how many prestigious accolades one is able to purchase to gain access to education. This process begins at birth, where quality of school is determined by parental income bracket, but is shown most clearly in higher education, where the cost of tuition increased 1120 percent between 1982 and 2012.”

So where does this leave us? It’s clear that Gen Y and millennials, the offspring of the baby boomers are struggling. They struggle with paying for education, housing, finding suitable and well-paying work. While some of it is their own fault (let’s face it, they can be a bit entitled and narcissistic), economic immobility is spreading like a disease, education becoming more and more for the elite, like back in the old days, leaving a very uncertain future indeed. If things continue as they are, it will only get worse, and slowly but surely, the American dream is turning into a nightmare.

Dance in Honour of the Gods

candomble-13Candomble (which means what the title says) is a syncretic religion of African origin that is popular in Brazil. It was brought with people from Africa who were forced into the slave trade and is still widely practiced, particularly in the north. While I was in Salvador, home to generations of people who had descended from slaves, and where there are many devotees of this religion, I had the opportunity to attend a ceremony. A fellow traveler organized for us to meet his Brazilian tour guide who practiced the religion and would be able to take us off the beaten path, so to speak, to attend a ceremony.

And so one warm, dark night we met this woman in a ‘safe’ area on a pitch black street where we kept tripping over upturned cobblestones and the protruding roots of trees that were colonizing the pavement. As is tradition, we were all dressed in white and our guide, a beautiful and voluptuous woman who was a Brazilian of African and Japanese descent, spoke perfect English (after a high school year abroad in the U.S. = Rich Brazilian) and introduced us to her friend, a small woman who was carrying her adorable 6 month old baby girl. We drove around winding hills, past the juxtaposed colonial mansions and rusting shacks until we arrived in a favela. Looking around, it reminded me of the song ‘little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky…’ It was so peaceful. No gangs. No guns. Just people enjoying their evening with friends and family. Dogs and children wandered about. Although it was dark, we could see specks of light coming from the layers and mazes of houses that stretched out far below us.

We walked into the temple, which was unremarkable from the outside. Inside, we sat in a large, square room where there were about 50 other people seated around who would both watch and participate in the ceremony. I was surprised to find signs in English that read ‘Do not take photos or videos.’ I was also surprised to see some very white-faced, blond-haired people inside – tourists like us. Not so off the beaten path then.

Witnessing exotic religious ceremonies like the one we attended is like crack to an anthropologist. Indeed the hours we spent there watching the worshipers dance around in circles in their elaborate white costumes and enter into a trance were were both fascinating and mesmerizing as they attempted to become possessed by their personal deities. At its most simple, it could be described as some people dancing around and around to the sound of beating drums. However, a candomble ceremony is very complex and intricate, with a lot of different components playing out at the same time. Many of the components  are not perceptible, or easily understood to a newcomer. More information about the origin and beliefs of the religion can be found here.

I was also interested in watching those who were watching the ceremony. So during the parts I deemed to be repetitive, I would look around and take in the body language (and bodies – why are Brazilians so beautiful?) of those sitting around the room. The gaggle of tourists off to my left seemed at first to be intrigued which then segued into confusion and then, after the first two hours, disinterest. Most of the Brazilians, however, were deeply immersed in the experience and were genuinely moved by the music and dance. I just could not fathom how something like this could happen in New Zealand which feels like a spiritual desert in comparison to Brazil’s lush rainforest of religions and spiritual traditions.

Before and during the ceremony, our guide warned us that we might start to feel dizzy or even go into a trance ourselves, depending on how sensitive or open we were to the energies that were being evoked. At times, she herself became a bit woozy and started to push the energy away with her hands. I didn’t feel anything and may have even stifled a yawn or two near the end. But later, lying in bed, I felt like my nervous system was overstimulated while simultaneously feeling drained. It was hard to fall asleep, but eventually I did, feeling grateful for having witnessed something so beautiful and sacred, for being able to experience a culture and religion so different from my own.




Outside the Ivory Tower

ivory towerWhat follows are some seemingly disconnected paragraphs related to a range of First World problems (things that people who work in coalmines or steel mills don’t have the time, energy or resources to pontificate about). Bear with me and you will see that some overarching themes will emerge – perhaps along the lines of: tangible vs. intangible, concrete vs. abstract, limitations vs. opportunities, relevance vs. obscurity, expectations vs. reality, thinking vs. acting.

It was quite by accident that I recently stumbled upon the amazing work of compatriot Priv Bradoo. Although very young (I think in her early 30’s), she has accomplished incredible things in the arenas of science, business, entrepreneurship and environmentalism, like discovering a new gene for brain repair and founding a start-up dedicated to recycling e-waste. Of course, she no longer works from little ol’ New Zealand, but is based in the U.S. where there is actually money and markets for things such as tangibly changing the world.

In a public talk she gave recently, she said that she used to aspire to being a neuroscience professor but serendipity intervened and she soon realized that she would need to work outside of academia and delve into the worlds of business and entrepreneurship to create the kind of large scale impact she desired. In order to do this, she had to let go of the notion that business people were ‘losers,’ and that she was going to the dark side. She urges people to consider empowerment (based on the tenets of entrepreneurship, such as innovation, creativity, action, proactivity, failure) over employment, citing the latter as paid servitude.

Enter Sarah Kendzior, a recovering academic in the United States who holds a PhD in anthropology. Despite the dismal job prospects for people in that field, she has managed to carve out a living for herself outside of academia through journalism, consulting, speaking, and researching. She empowered herself by giving up on an academic career (she didn’t have the financial resources to support herself when, and if, she found a tenure-track position) and realized that she can have much more relevance, influence and impact outside of the walls of the ivory tower. She writes about the sad state of affairs in her homeland for having or seeking paid servitude:

When you continually board sinking ships, you stop having hope. In a collapsed economy, this is an advantage. The most unnerving thing I see in the job market nowadays—academic or otherwise—is people working in terrible conditions in the hope of a future that never comes. Hope is something you should have for other people, not for yourself. Hope holds you down and blinds you to possibilities.

transitionRealize that nowadays, everyone is in transition—even if they think they are secure. Ignore people who say that things will “work out eventually,” especially baby boomers who have no idea of the grim prospects for people in their 20s and 30s. Things often do not work out and there is no reason for you to suffer on false promises. I see so many graduate students and recent PhDs sacrificing things they want—having a family, pursuing outside interests, expressing their beliefs—in order to meet other people’s expectations. They base personal decisions on others’ empty assurances. This is a terrible way to live.

Does Molly Wizenberg care about other people’s expectations? I came across her food blog, Orangette one day when I was procrastinating and discovered that she gave up a PhD program in anthropology: she couldn’t see where she was going with it or how it would lead to gainful employment. The two most important things to her were food and writing, so she combined the two into soft-core food porn for the Internet to which I have a mild addiction (the food writing, not the Internet itself). Because she is passionate about what she does, is a skillful writer, a clever marketer and of course an experienced and knowledgeable cook, she has attracted a large audience. Other bonuses include: two book deals, her husband (he emailed her because he liked her blog), and together they have opened two restaurants in Seattle and recently had a baby. She is making things and selling them (food and words, not the baby). They are tangible. They are commercial. They make money. There is a demand for these things. (Side note: Molly went to top tier universities, and her father was a doctor, so probably there was no potential homelessness or crippling student loans to worry about if no-one liked her work).

Finally, I have been reading a memoir about a glamorous former New York writer (Kristin Kimball) who falls in love with a dashing and charming farmer. Together, they founded and run a farm that feeds hundreds of people. In the following lines, she reflects on how her view of work has changed as she became an experienced farmer:

As I patched the barn with scrap lumber, pig-tight but ugly, I was forced to confront my own prejudice. I had come to the farm with the unarticulated belief that concrete things were for dumb people and abstract things were for smart people. I thought the physical world – the trades – was the place you ended up if you weren’t bright or ambitious enough to handle a white-collar job. Did I really think that a person with a genius for fixing engines, or for building, or for husbanding cows, was less brilliant than a person who writes ad copy or interprets the law? Apparently I did, though it amazes me now. I ordered books from the library about construction, plumbing, and electricity, and discovered that reading them was like trying to learn in a foreign language, the simplest things – the names of unknown tools or hardware, the names for parts of structures – creating dead ends that required answers, more research. There’s no better cure for snobbery than a good ass kicking.

So, there you have it. I guess that now I am at the end, all these words put together into sentences construct some kind of meaning – to which I now interpret broadly as being about thinking, acting, and working outside of the box; as exploring the road less travelled and flipping the bird to society’s and other people’s expectations.

Rockstar Anthropologists (in their natural habitat)

Oh how it irks me when I start talking about anthropology and am met with that same distant, glazed-over look usually reserved for when a drunk relative starts haranguing you about your student loan.

I spent five years of my life immersed in the discipline while at university and of course, as a human being, it is a part of my everyday life, much like it is a part of yours. Thinking like an anthropologist entails sounding like a whiny four year old much of the time and incessantly asking ‘why’? (Slight digression: an anthropologist walks into a bar and asks ‘Why is this joke funny’?)

Broadly, anthropology is the study of people throughout the world. What are our differences and similarities? Does nature or nurture play a bigger role in our development? How do cultures develop and change? It is a tool, perspective and education that allows us to perceive our world from a different angle, to challenge our ethnocentric, taken-for-granted assumptions, to compare cultures, religions, societies. One clichéd definition is that it ‘makes the exotic familiar, and the familiar exotic.’

Anthropologists think about people’s realities – their subjective and objective reality – how they create social worlds and live in them. Key words in anthropology are: process, perspective, production, change.

While there is some stigma attached to the discipline (adventurous British upper-class pasty white man spying on jet-black natives (heathens) as they go about daily life in their natural habitat), how anthropology plays out in the post-colonial world is very different. Anything can be studied by anthropology: witchcraft, mail-order brides, drug-dealers and poverty to name but a few of the endless avenues explored by anthropologists.

Those operating outside of the ivory tower are using their training to make a difference in the world and to impact it in innovative and unique ways.

A man everyone should know about and be inspired by is Dr. Paul Farmer. Farmer is both

Dr. Paul Farmer – saving the world

a physician and medical anthropologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School and is a founding member of Partners in Health (PIH), an organization that provides medical care to disenfranchised people in the world’s poorest countries. Farmer’s work in the area of structural inequalities in Haiti is well-known in academic circles. However, it wasn’t until I read Tracy Kidder’s best-seller, Mountains Beyond Mountains, about Farmer’s life and work that I understood the complexities and inequalities of global health and what it takes (politically, economically, socially, ethically, legally, psychologically, culturally, technologically) to build physically healthy communities. Farmer’s anthropological training has allowed him to ‘go native’ in the countries where PIH operates and understand the local and global contexts that he and his staff operate in. The man has lived 100 lives, saved many more, and if there is a heaven, he deserves The Ritz version for all his hard work (although he would probably object to that kind of elitism and inequality).

Another prominent anthropologist is Dr. Gillian Tett who currently serves as US managing

editor of the Financial Times. She is esteemed for predicting the credit crisis that happened in the US in 2007. With a PhD from Cambridge, Tett has worked in Japan and the former USSR as an anthropologist, author and journalist. Her training allowed a different perspective to perceive elements such as ritual, language and cultural patterns in the finance industry. As she stated in an interview with the Guardian:

“I happen to think anthropology is a brilliant background for looking at finance,” she reasons. “Firstly, you’re trained to look at how societies or cultures operate holistically, so you look at how all the bits move together. And most people in the City don’t do that. They are so specialised, so busy, that they just look at their own little silos. And one of the reasons we got into the mess we are in is because they were all so busy looking at their own little bit that they totally failed to understand how it interacted with the rest of society.

“But the other thing is, if you come from an anthropology background, you also try and put finance in a cultural context. Bankers like to imagine that money and the profit motive is as universal as gravity. They think it’s basically a given and they think it’s completely apersonal. And it’s not. What they do in finance is all about culture and interaction.”

For more information about how anthropology operates in the ‘real world’ check out this new site, Popanth which offers a range of fun anthropological articles on things related to all that is sacred in life: ghosts, bars, drugs and shoes.