anthropology, culture & society, feminism, love

food for thought

Over two years ago now (scary), I took a course at St Andrews called ‘Anthropology and Eurasia’. It was, by far, one of my favourite courses ever. During a seminar one day the group discussed an article written by the course lecturer, Dr Stephanie Bunn. The article was short and deceptively simple compared other dense texts but incredibly powerful. Put briefly, it was about food.

In Kyrgyz, the language of many nomadic peoples indigenous to Kyrgyzstan, the word küt means food–and bone, nourishment, ancestors, fate, the stars, sustenance, fortune, luck, family, and more. This had links to how the Kyrgyz people would divide up the meat of a sheep by family role and status. The eyes of the sheep were given to the oldest female as a sign of honour, and it went on from there. The sheep was raised, herded, cared for in different ways by different members of the family, and it thus reproduced and reinforced family relationships even as it was being consumed.

I remember how each young woman in the class seemed struck by this expansive way of tying food into so many aspects of life. One classmate, in particular, said something that I remember clearly even today.

‘Food,’ she said, reflectively. ‘I mean, that’s just not what it means here. I feel like every young woman here can say that food, for them, means something so different. Calories, weight, health, restriction, guilty pleasure, diets, beauty, fitness. On holidays and at Sunday dinners, it has something to do with family, but you always come back to how what you eat means for your worth as an appearance. And this applies to lots of men and women.’

I sat back in my chair and thought about this. Images raced across my mind.

 

 

What the hell, I thought. I then quickly tried to put together a mental map of food that somehow reflected my very limited, very western perception of Kyrgyz values. It looked so different.

The image that struck me in that moment did not render the eater an object of marketing. Instead, food became a focal point of connection to the cosmos, family, society, our bodies, our actions.

It would be a bit silly and ethnocentric to portray Kyrgyz people as somehow ‘innocent and pure environmentalists’. The dynamic and ever-shifting Western environmental values are based on individual and national history and philosophy; a Kyrgyz worldview, by default, must be different yet equally complex and varied.**

I don’t want to go into it all right away in a single blog post, but instead I wish to rest on a few questions.

In light and in spite of the fact that this concept küt exists in a very different cultural setting, what can we learn from it?

How can küt challenge our understandings of ourselves, our bodies, and our relationships?

What does küt make you think about your relationship to your environment?

What does food mean for you? Does it connect you to others or separate you from them?

It’s a powerful word, a powerful concept. I’ll leave you with küt as it’s far more eloquent than more of my words could be.

Sources

2016 Anthropology and Eurasia module as taught by Dr Stephanie Bunn.

images:

http://www.rosemarysheel.com/archives/kyrgyzstan-landscape

https://www.theapricity.com/forum/showthread.php?192502-Kyrgyzstan

https://xpatmatt.com/photos/kyrgyzstan-photoessay/

https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/

http://www.hollysierra.com/files/?C=S;O=D

 

**disclaimer

I dearly hope my ‘mental maps’ as portrayed here isn’t in anyway trivalizing of the complexity of Kyrgyz culture or, on the other hand, U.S./broader ‘Western’ culture. This post is meant as a bite-size dose of anthropology, a way of posing a question, and not in any way representative of broad swaths of communities.

 

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love, personal journeys, Scotland, travel & adventure

twists, turns, and a love story

I don’t often share everyday details of love, family, and friendship here on this blog, but I feel like I should tell the story of Nick and me–simply because it’s a good one and has contributed to so many of my recent thoughts and adventures.

We met on Tinder, of all places. I was about to delete my account given the state of the average American male, while Nick’s friends had just talked him into making an account. I was his first match, and two days later we met up for dinner. I’d just finished work at the stable and I wasn’t sure about going to meet this stranger, but I went.

It was, quite simply, the best conversation I’d had in months. He kissed me in the parking lot, we parted ways, and, like a goon, I couldn’t stop smiling.

We met up two days later, then the day after that (Valentine’s Day), then the day after that. The day after Valentine’s Day, he drove out to rescue me when my car died and I was stranded. I got him into healthy(ish) eating; he got me into rappelling. The relationship unfolded from there like a river unfolding into itself: climbing, hiking, camping, kayaking, bad decisions and hilarious adventures.

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Nick and I climbing at McConnells Mills the day before I left for the UK

Then, on April 1st, I left to guide a family for whom I tutored around England and Scotland for several weeks. All of a sudden, a place I had wanted to leave for months–Pittsburgh–felt so difficult to leave. No matter how I happy I was to be back in the UK and to see my dearest friends, I was continually surprised by how much I missed this recent stranger.

That UK trip was full of surprises. I frequented an awesome climbing gym while in London, got horrendously sick (perk of working with small children), and then my parents kicked me out because I’d left my room messier than they’d wanted. This sent me reeling–it was my parent’s home, of course, and it was their decision, but it did leave me feeling incredibly stressed and homeless. The tutoring family’s grandmother passed away while we were in Scotland, which meant they decided to go home early. Plans I had with my UK friends fell through given the rather drastic logistical and financial changes that had just hit me. I felt unprepared, childish.

In spite of this, I was fortunately able to make the most of my time in Scotland and St Andrews. I ceilidhed with the hillwalking club, helped friends with dissertations, had coffee and dinner with my practically-a-sister friend Antonia, laughed and gossiped with Maryam, enjoyed my favourite coffee shop, attacked Irma with a hug, jumped off the pier, ran through Glen Shee, and more. But then I had to go home. This time, home meant going back to Nick and his family.

On one hand, it was scary to move in with someone I’d only known in-person for six weeks. It seemed a little mad, even for me. But underneath all the confusion, I felt a sense of peace and excitement that didn’t make sense given outside circumstances. I already knew I loved Nick. He felt like home for me, and his family soon came to feel like home for me as well. I started doing the family gardening (commandeering the entire yard). I changed summer jobs from high ropes course instructor to farm and greenhouse worker while the tutoring season was at a bit of a lull.

Meanwhile, Nick and I kept climbing, kayaking, and camping. It was ropeswing and swimming season all at once, and I went to my first music festival. My life suddenly brimmed with new things in a place that had once seemed a little mundane. Sometimes it was overwhelming. Often, it was exciting. But I always felt that, in spite of the craziness of the past few months, I was on the right path.

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back in my favorite St Andrews coffee shop, Taste, and sleeping on the sofa like my old self. photo by ILinca

I don’t know what the future will bring. It’s been a crazy few months, but I do know this: I have an acceptance to the University of Glasgow’s Celtic, Pictish, and Viking Archaeology Master’s Programme, which I’m deferring until 2019. I have an idea of how I want to combine archaeology and anthropology in the future. I have someone with whom to explore the world. I have relationships to mend with my own family, but I also have another family that has come to feel very much like my own. Lastly, I have hope that this unforeseen road will take me better places yet.

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sometimes this is about as professional and put-together as I feel. Photo from a Dublin adventure with Antonia in March, 2017.

My path isn’t looking like a straightforward undergraduate to master’s to PhD to an academic career path. But maybe a life of radical challenges is exactly what I need in order to conduct research and exploration that will have a powerful impact. These days, I’m reading anthropological articles while the bread rises, thinking about landscape theory whilst weeding in the garden, muttering Scottish Gaelic in the shower,  and thinking about Scottish mountains while I walk to the gym. I keep repeating my old mantra to myself: anthropology starts at home, no matter what home looks like. 

Beyond that, these twists and turns have opened me up to so much love. It’s shown me how little I actually control in my life. Five months ago, this new and lovely world I now inhabit didn’t exist for me. It didn’t come to me because I planned or earned it. Rather, it fell into my lap: a gift wrapped perfectly in muddy adventures.

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anthropology, culture & society, Uncategorized

our rainbow bridges

It’s no secret that I love anthropology. Ever since I was a kid, I loved reading about different people and places, and, at the University of St Andrews, my Social Anthropology degree irrevocably changed how I think. But a recent visit with Oma–my German grandmother–reminded me of one of the most crucial lessons I learned throughout my whole degree.

It seems that every time I see my oma, I hear another part of family history for which I’d previously been a little too young. Germany during and after World War II was, of course, a very complicated place, a place whose figments often resurface in my mind and challenge my sense of identity.

I wonder what my great-grandparents thought about the war. I wonder which prejudices they carried, which dear friends they lost, which homes were bombed and burnt around them. The potential for baffled complicity with genuine evil terrifies me just as much as my sympathy for indescribable loss moves me.

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my oma as a little girl

Thus, the stories my oma tells me of her own small family during that time strike me hard. Recently, she told me the story of her biological father.

The man and soon-to-be father was taken prisoner by the Russians at the Eastern Front and spent five years in a Siberian gulag. My oma’s mother assumed he was dead. When her biological father finally came back, he found that his former best friend had divorced his own wife after falling hard for my oma’s mother so they, in turn, could be married. My oma only found out that the man she grew up knowing as her dad wasn’t, in fact, her father, when she was in her thirties. This, of course, was long after she had crossed the Atlantic and had two children of her own.

My oma has only one memory of her biological father–that of a sad man sitting across from her and her mother at a restaurant. My oma was three years old, and she remembers the thin and weary man signing papers. He pushed these papers back to her mother one by one and with a sigh.

Oma and I were bent over a sewing project as she told me this. My hands looked so long and clumsy next to her compact and quick fingers.

“I would never condone their actions. I can’t say I understand why they did what they did, and I would never do it myself, Schatzi,” she said, bending over me. “Hold that cloth tighter. There you go. You need to keep the tightness same.” She paused. “But Em, you also cannot understand what they went through. You did not see the darkness they did. You can talk about it for as long as you want, but you never really hear what they were thinking. I think about this from time to time.”

There was nothing to say after that; her words sunk deep into my head as my fingers worked.

My oma and I spent hours and hours talking about everything and nothing. She gives me a very deep sense of home; her accent makes me feel safe and her still-broken grammar carries the same mistakes my mother sometimes makes when she’s not careful, that sometimes even I make when I’m a bit spacy. We watched travel shows in German together and talked about people we trust, people we love, hiking trips we’ve enjoyed, and about how to best plan for traveling. We talked about traveling to St Petersburg together in a year or two, and we agreed to do our separate research.

When she left, I cried for a good half hour because I hadn’t been able to be a child with her and play with her and know more about her. Maybe I’m a total dork, but it struck me that this is the challenge with almost every relationship and in nearly any culture. You want to know a person, yet, at some point, it comes down to words. It comes down to a thin bridge made of sentences and memories. Sometimes, this seems just as implausible as following a rainbow to a crock of gold.

Making space in my life for these small stories continuously strikes me in a way I never anticipate. The words my oma and I spin together create a place where we can understand each other while knowing that, as she says, “One can never know what goes on behind the forehead of another person.” Our listening makes me keenly aware of the places words can never bridge, no matter what I wish, while also making me wish and work harder for the bridges I can build.

I believe this “making space”, this affirmation of the humanity of those who we will never understand, is anthropology at its best. How can I ever claim to understand or to study something or someone I do not first listen to out of love?

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