…They don’t even know that they’re a foreign country.
I met with [an academic award] committee on campus today to discuss my application to study religious change and conversion in Central Asia. I’d like to go and be with people, move slow, share life, learn what matters to them. But because I’ve taken grad classes, I can’t just go. I have to have an academic research project. Perhaps this one’s a bit idealistic, but isn’t that what [these national awards] are for? So I go into this interview, sit at the foot of a broad conference table in front of a committee in a high administrative tower on campus. Six professors from across the university sit around a gleaming table, women in glasses perched in bright jackets and men in rumpled button-up shirts slouched in their chairs powerfully, each with a pile of papers in front of them.
The committee liked my proposal, but expressed concern that my project was vaguely worded (because I want to be sensitive to and adjust to local concerns on religion), politically sensitive (“Will people talk about religion?” They ask. “They seem quite open,” I replied.) and morally deceptive (it seems they had read my prior work, and thought it sounded suspiciously like I myself was a “shadow missionary”). All fair concerns, and things that I’ll clarify in revising my essays.
They were also very encouraging about my extensive preparation, knowledge, language and cultural familiarity, and capabilities to represent the U.S. as a cultural ambassador. They told stories about colleagues who had worked in the area, we laughed a lot, and I enjoyed our conversation. So I left encouraged… but also a little battered.
That Dirty Religion
Most of the people in the room, in spite of their laughter, were clearly uncomfortable with religion. They squirmed at my role as a religious (and firmly not a missionary, I might add!) person interested in talking with everyone about how they see the world and what values lead them to make the choices they do.
In describing their reaction to the personal essay — the part where I had opened up in what I thought were the strongest and most honest parts — they had visceral and negative reactions. It was as if religion was a vulgar thing, as if a rural or conservative upbringing really shouldn’t be mentioned in polite academic company. Where I wrote about growing as a person and graduate student because of the tensions involved in living with grace between liberal and conservative viewpoints on religion and the nature of society, one woman said “I got to that part and was just like, Eww.” She squinched up her professional face. And where I had outlined the (for me, expansive and eye-opening) experience of being a Protestant at a Catholic university as something that shaped my understanding of religion, a man’s deep voice said that it sounded parochial, and if I used such divisive language in writing, how would I be pigeonholing people in conversation?
And why would I even say that I had Protestant heritage? “I mean, you sound like you could be a missionary yourself,” a woman said, leaning back in her chair and looking at me. She went on to recommend that I look into the foreign service or intelligence work, suggesting that religious was surely only of “national-security” or missionary, rather than of anthropological interest.
“I mean, these are Muslims in Central Asia you’re talking about here. Have you thought about intelligence?” She asks again, insistently.
Wait… I’m thinking. I want to enjoy being with and learn from others, and because religion is one aspect of my life, I’d like to learn how Central Asians think about and experience it. I hear her concern that I might be a person who tries to get others to join me in my religious beliefs. She finds that distasteful and inappropriate. Okay. So instead, I should use others, secretly gathering data from them on their beliefs, so that I can report it to the world’s policeman empire?! This is better than conversion, and more fitting than anthropology?!
I don’t understand this, friends, and my heart is porai.
Afterward, I sit in front of one of the older stone buildings on campus, with its intricate carvings of old agricultural workers and sheep’s heads and triumphant stone flourishes. Sitting on a concrete bench in the shade of an oak tree, I waited. Squirrels ran along the branches above me and dropped small acorns on my head, which skittered down and across the pavement. I slumped down beside my heavy backpack and watched the cloudless sky, pure blue and sunlight. Across the ‘grassy knoll’ in front of me, architecture students paced back and forth in a group, calling out to each other as they practiced their surveying skills with various measures and strings.
I rested and watched the pathways, waiting for my spirit to settle. A pretty boy roared by on a motorized bicycle, leaving an old Hispanic man in his wake, still weed-whacking the grass. A handful of birds scatter as a boy and girl walk arm-in-arm, their oversized backpacks touching. Some executive administrator, swinging his bagged lunch, whistles his way obliviously up to the heavy doors of the marbled building. Mosquitoes buzz around my feet and over the damp roots of the tree. Bells ring, classes change, backpack-bent students flooding the walkways. It’s quiet as they move on, but I still hear the committee echoing in my head.
“It sounds in this part like you’re just trying to please people,” one woman had said, ruffling through her stack of papers and pointing at something I couldn’t see.
Yes, I am, I thought. It was one of the few perceptive comments from this committee, and I was surprised that she saw it so clearly. I’ve lived as a defiant stranger in so many communities, wanting to be seen and yet to see, to feel at home and to make others comfortable. I don’t want boundaries to divide us. I don’t want to be different. I don’t want to persuade people to be me. I just want to have fun and live with people, learn from them. I want to listen and to write. I hold back my tart opinions– at least at first– so that they can relax, be themselves. And over time I want to say the truths I feel, even the ones that are uncomfortable for them. I want to be wise. I want to listen. And I want not to be so unsettled by this damn wise-and-foolish committee.
And I realize that I have to accept that I won’t please everyone. I haven’t pleased this committee, and the power relations and distorted perceptions and piles of proposals are still stretched taut between us. These professors, looking for a critique to strengthen my research, settle on comments that express a negative view of religion and religious people, as politically dangerous and unclean, dirty, something you keep hidden. Don’t let it seem like you’re hiding anything, especially not religion, they say, but don’t talk about religion, because you really aren’t allowed to be religious. But you also aren’t allowed to hide anything, because that would be suspicious. As if religion was something akin to intelligence work. And nothing I say can convince them otherwise.
And these are the tensions I was talking about in my “disturbing” essay, I realize. I left rural Ohio, I had tried to express, and moved to this foreign country called Academia. I study migration, but I’ve lived it. I’ve lived here for two years, I’ve been through culture stress and conversion to your way of living. I’ve experienced nostalgia, bright new experiences, new relationships and new and strange ways of living and thinking. I love it and I hate it, I miss my old home but can never fully go back, I want to love and be a part of both communities, and now I belong neither to the old country or to the new.
And their distant, echoing voices reply: But you shouldn’t be in this place.
Why do you talk about something so disruptive to our system of secular as good and proper and religion as uncontrolled and dangerous? Their silent question answers, as they shuffle paper and avoid my gaze. You’re smart and prepared, but this is unsettling. You aren’t writing like ‘one of us.’
So Wisdom has a standpoint, I realize. She gathers together in communities, and speaks from a standpoint, just like Knowledge does. She cries aloud in the streets, and some people listen. And perhaps each different street has its own wisdom, each place and perspective and person leads us toward different insights in how to live well, how to speak truly.
These professors implicitly see themselves as American Academia, and I’m the young graduate student with a vague project (perfectly true!) to be disciplined. They speak their academic advice and wisdom, and see it roll out straight in front of them, a long blue measuring cord stretched across the grassy knoll. They gather together and smile, watching it lie straight and smooth. They invite us graduate students to look and see with them.
But from the corner where I sit — between academia and the heartland, between America and the Kingdom of Heaven — their line cuts jarring and slantwise. It doesn’t look straight at all, but curved. It veers from the sunshine into the swampy grass and gets hidden from my sight. “This is the One True Line,” they proclaim as they measure out the land for us, the places that you do and don’t stand, the paths that you do and don’t walk as an Approved Academic. And they smile and wait for my confirming reply. They don’t realize how strange it seems. And they don’t realize that even this familiar place, this academic place I love — still — to me — looks like a foreign country.