Really Nice Strangers

      I have traveled quite a bit in the last few months.  In June I was in Thailand about ten days, and I have been living in Germany since August.  During this time, I have had the usual mix-ups that go with traveling—missing trains, wandering off in unforeseen circumstances, and just generally misplacing stuff.  Generally people are pretty nice about these things.  Indeed, I just met “met” my third really nice stranger in these travels, so I guess it is time to acknowledge them.

        The first really nice person was a Thai woman on a small motorcycle after I decided to use a tourist map to walk from Chiang Mai University where I was staying, into town.  I thought it would take about an hour, and that I could do it before it got really hot.  But, I got the map sideways (or maybe backwards), and ended up walking off in a really wrong direction for about thirty minutes.  I ended up between some rice fields, construction sites, and noodle stands before finally acknowledging my mistake to myself, and starting to walk back.  

     I must have looked pretty odd along this hot stretch of road, because the woman on the motorcycle stopped to ask where I could possible be going. She was about 27, and had her three year old son with her. I told her, and she indicated that my destination was a long long ways away—and described the route I needed to take.  I groaned inwardly.  She did a really nice thing though, and asked me if I wanted a ride.  SURE, I did!  And so I piled on the back of the motorcycle made for three, and ended up back where I had intended to go in about five minutes.       

      My 16 year old daughter found the second really nice person the usual way.  She left her purse with about $200 in dollars and euros, as well as her California driver’s license on a bench near a the local castle here in Friedrichshafen.  We assumed that we would never see the purse or money again.  But our new neighbors convinced us that it was indeed reasonable to file a police report.  So we did, and the following day, the police called to report that the wallet had been found.  The purse was returned with all the money, i.d., and so forth.  

       We found our third last really nice stranger yesterday when my cousin, who was visiting from Berlin, left her cell phone on a train.  We had gone to a one of these really nice cute German towns for the afternoon, but by the time we reached there, her cell phone was gone.  Groan….But when we got home, my cousin went to check her email.  Someone found her phone, checked the entry for “home” in her address book, and had called her flat in Berlin.  Her roommates emailed her the phone number of the person who found the cellphone who we immediately called, even though it was 10 p.m.   Today my cousin is meeting the third really nice person at the ferry to pick up the phone before flying back to Berlin.

       I am sure that there is a moral, or at least an anthropological insight to all this, but I don’t know what it is.  Except maybe the point is that there are some really nice people in the world. Also, it is sometimes nice to accept rides from strangers, always check the lost and found for missing items, and you should always have “home” programmed into your cell phone.  

       And if you ever find someone’s phone, use it to call home—someone will really appreciate it!

Well, at least the AAA meeting gave me some perspective

I didn’t say it was a happy one, but it is a perspective. Of course there were the expected strident calls of moral outrage over anthropologists in the military. Then it got worse when a voice vote was taken and passed that “no reports should be provided to sponsors [of research] that are not also available to the general public and, where practicable, to the population studied.” (from the Chronicle of Higher Ed. Blog ). To be clear, this does explicitly include the kinds of proprietary research I do for my clients.

Well, there we go… apparently when that resolution passes next year (I have no doubt it will) my industry brethren and I will once again be non-anthropologist anthropologists and the rest of the field will return to the comfy tower without fear of getting its collective hands dirty. I am not renewing my membership that expired last Thursday. It’s not some form of protest, but more of why bother? I went into the AAA meetings feeling like people were having arguments that are nearly 50 years old, and already rolling my eyes. But now I’ve stopped rolling them.

I’ve realized that being annoyed at the American Anthropological Association and the more vocal members of the organization is like being annoyed at an old doddering relative. You know the one I mean, not quite crazy enough to lock up in the attic, but still likely to blurt out embarrassing anachronistic statements during holiday meals like “We may have lost the war, but I’ll be damned if I recognize missou-ra!” Also like the AAA, the effect on my life and career other than the occasionally embarrassing statement, is exactly zero.

The only function of the association is to hold a meeting once a year, distribute info about open positions in academia and issue statements about ideology. Other than that, I don’t see much. You can’t make someone stop being an anthropologist. No one can reach into my brain and remove the knowledge. Never in my career has anyone asked if I am a member of the AAA, I don’t even know if it’s a requirement of an academic department to be a member.

I don’t claim to do classical ethnography, that’s why many of us in my end of the field prefer the term Design Ethnography or Design Anthropology because it is a sub-field that is different from the long-term studies others do and used for different ends. Its not better or worse, it’s different.

So, I’m still an anthropologist but one that places academic and professional freedom above being in an Association that is trying to keep us all in a box.