drafted 10 February 2009
Dutch has two words for foreigner. It seems that one is a generic label (buitenlander or “alien”) and the other (vreemdelingen) emphasizes – just slightly? – the strangeness of someone from another land. If I ever develop a respectable degree of fluency, I will begin to listen for the usage of these two words in conversation: what are the situational conditions that inspire one word or the other?
It would be an overstatement to describe myself as the ultimate outsider, but let’s look at the facts: I’m American (for god’s sake), a mere bilingual, and the wrong kind of interpreter. Just as the action component of my research project elicits surprise from persons at the site of study, their reactions hold a mirror up for me to see myself, too. Am I just a pushy American? Or am I true to form – enacting that independent “can do” attitude that is a central feature of the American character? Heavens, what is she on about?!
When I made it to Strasbourg last month, a confluence of political and emotional forces enacted through specific acts of communication battered at me, temporarily affecting my ability to concentrate. The conversations I held with Members early in the week were more scattered and less organized than usual. As I became aware of the disruptions in my ability to focus I managed to re-group and re-establish clarity of purpose for the later conversations and my first observation.
I have been at the crux of discursive forces like this before. There are different ways to represent this juncture in academic literature. I am most familiar with it as a storming phase of group development, which I envision as the clash between discourses (the momentum of past trajectories of articulated experience, perception, and understanding) and dialogue (the cooperative interaction by conscious users of these pre-existing discourses in the co-construction of a future-oriented amalgamated discourse). Edgar Allen Poe describes this metaphorically in his short story, The Maelstrom. As a huge swirling whirlpool threatens to suck all objects into void, hope for salvation emerges by careful observation of the most slowly-moving objects. Only these have a chance of avoiding the final flush through a combination of light mass and non-resistance: in human terms, by relaxation and patience.
The trick of survival in a socio-cultural maelstrom is to fix oneself to a couple of moving anchors. I know it sounds like a contradiction, but when everything is in flux, everyone is in fluid motion. In this instance (back in Strasbourg for the first time since 2005), I remembered my interpreting roots as socialized by empowered members of American Deaf Culture, reached out to friends and colleagues met in the U.S. (who, heaven help them, actually like me), and accepted with gratitude the presence of new friends who adopted me without hesitation because, “this is what we do.”
Building trust is hard. I am not sure if it is harder in Europe than in the U.S.? The other day, Topi shared some of the lessons she’s learning in the integration class for immigrants to Belgium. The reason she was given for Belgians’ interpersonal distance – for instance, the way they do not acknowledge your presence when passing on the street – is as an outcome of having so many wars fought over this land. As an American, it is hard for me to wrap my mind around the ever-present lived history of violence across the European continent, especially within the European Parliament where it seems everyone is working very hard to get along. The threat of betrayal is, I guess, never far from mind.
I have thought a bit about “friends” and “enemies” as this research project has unfolded: the fear that I might be a bad guy, or maybe even a journalist, is a fascinating development. I am teasing with the emphasis; I understand that the matter of representation is serious. In fact, the question came up four years ago as well and I wrote about it in this post on critical or applied ethnography. With action learning, I have landed somewhere in the middle of those two methodologies, as well as extending from action research‘s customary fields (education largely, business next), and initiating as a solo actor hoping to engage stakeholder groups.
Now (23 March 2009), there is tentative engagement in a few directions. A number of small gestures – both visible and private – suggest the possibility that a few seeds may take root.