Thinking Science, Figuring Anthropology

How does it feel?

When I had only been in Hong Kong for less than a week, I remember being surprised by the fact that it felt like months had already passed. It feels so good to have been awarded this research opportunity–I have never been closer to what I want to understand about the relationship between how we make sense of ourselves and how science works to shape and reshape that making. But there is also this heart swollen feeling of being nowhere …of unbearable isolation. There is no village life into which I can insert myself. There are no social routines that I am a part of. There are no rituals that have shown themselves to me. There is only my white walled office and living space, the white and primary colored accents of the buildings, the white haze of clouds that blanket this green and blue island everyday. There is silence only broken by harsh winds.

There are nights when I have drinks with the scientists and engineers who I am interested in understanding. Language is not a barrier because everyone seems to live here through English. In fact, when I ask where I can learn Cantonese or Putonghua I am told over and over again that there is no need to learn anything Chinese. And this advice makes me feel that much more alone because my values and desires are so far from the people who are the objects of my stated interest …and people who I actually like.

In the social spaces where some scientists and engineers meet, I am invited to join them. I am welcome. They too have come here from distant places–from almost every continent. But I am dislocated in ways different than them. They are married and most have children–some have grandchildren. And this family life is separate from work and from drinks and from the social space of the university and bar. I have no family and I have no one here to take my leave from or to return to at the end of the day.

I wondered early on what kind of anthropologist I would be here. And I still can’t quite answer that question. But my experience so far has me wondering more about institutions all over the world rather than this particular institution in this particular time-space. I love the tropical weather and views here. I love the urban centers and the sound of the people talking in languages I do not yet understand. But would this really be the place that I would come back to in order to learn about how science proceeds? I am not so sure that I need to be tied to a place or an ‘ethnic’ people. I think that I would like to learn about scientific knowledge production and circulation across various spaces during my career. If I were to do this over the years I am not so sure it would be possible for me to pick up the “native” languages. But then again it seems that English has become the “native” language of global science. And it turns out that this native-ness is interconnected with nation building, imperialism, colonialism, and ethnocentric values set in particular histories across space–and I am fascinated by this too. Is this still anthropology? My heart says “yes,” but my mind says that no one will take me seriously. Maybe my feelings of lonely dislocation are easier to think about than all of my fears regarding the future.


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