Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Fieldwork Hiatus

I just got back to Ecuador after a two-week whirlwind tour of the US, visiting friends and family on both coasts. It was fun and exhausting as trips home always are. You try to cram in as much face time as possible with parents, siblings, cousins, uncles/aunts, and friends. Again, exhausting and fun. It always makes me nervous to leave the field, even for just a two week trip. Somehow I’m afraid the women will forgot me and our intimate bond, which has taken so much effort and time to build, will be destroyed. I also feel incredibly guilty that I can just hop on a plane and return to my privileged life at home; a surreal disconnect exists when I’m having dinner at a fancy restaurant in New York City with my parents. I can’t help but think of the women in these moments and I become overwhelmed with emotion. My life at home could not be more different from the lives of the women I work with on the streets. I have never known poverty, hunger, domestic violence or any kind of abuse.

So while at home, the feelings of guilt stay strong as I can’t seem to get the women out of mind. It makes no sense to obsess over them and my “white-guilt” while I’m trying to reconnect with my family and friends. This issue of “guilt” is a powerful feeling I carry around with me as an anthropologist. Obviously, I’m not the only one, plenty of anthropologists have written about it. Perhaps some of the best ways to confront these feelings is to just feel and accept them. They are never going to disappear, indeed they will accompany me for the rest of my fieldwork. But I recognize that I can’t let them dominate me into paralysis—I need to always recognize and accept my subject position of privilege in the field. Obviously, constant awareness of my power position is necessary to remain intellectually honest as I conduct my fieldwork, but it can’t prevent me from actually doing my research (which at times feels like it has the potential to do so). The feelings of guilt and sadness that accompany my research make my work so emotionally taxing that there have been moments when I’ve wanted to quit. I recognize that to do my work, I need to maintain tough emotional boundaries. For the most part I feel as if I’ve been successful with this, it’s only when I return from a visit home that I feel as vulnerable as my very first day of research on the streets.

I didn’t need to worry about the women forgetting me. As soon as I walked up the hill yesterday, I started to see familiar faces and heard the women start calling out to me, “Anita, Anita…We’ve missed you!” It was so heart-warming and as I hugged each woman I felt as if I had never left. My biggest fear is that they will somehow resent me for leaving them or feel jealous that I can go back to my country, but they never express those sentiments to me. All of them joked and asked if I brought back a cute, rich gringo for them to marry, and laughed. It felt good to be back with them and again, it was as if I had never left—what a relief ! Our relationship survived a two week hiatus! After all that work, it was truly my biggest fear that somehow they would no longer view me as part of the community. My rational self knew that such fears were unfounded, but you never know. In some ways I felt like I was happier to be back than they were. I’m just a woman they hang out with everyday but I am so invested in their lives, emotional states, and children, I wanted everyone to tell me exactly what had happened since I left. I wanted to hear about their kids and get caught up on their current problems—what had persisted, what had been resolved over the past two weeks. Obviously, I know more about them than they know about me so perhaps for this reason I feel more attached to them. Although who knows, my closest friends on the street seemed equally as pleased to see me.

I survived my two-week hiatus, one which I faced with much fear and trepidation. The women were as open as ever and everything felt more or less the same on the streets. They caught me up on the latest dramas, police beatings, domestic abuse inflected by chulos (pimps), drug dealings gone array and all the latest gossip. I got to reunite with a friend who hadn’t worked in eight months. I met her at the beginning of my fieldwork in September and then one day she disappeared. She said she found a stable partner who made enough money to support both of them so she stopped working. Now they have new expenses so she decided to walk the stroll again. Her partner knows of her decision to return to the streets—he’s an ex-client so he knows she finds steady work in the sex industry and like many of the women’s partners (who are NOT pimps, but working men), is not bothered by her work (a topic for a future blog entry).

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