By Crystal Yan ’14
[Student View] “Sula nexee,” I pleaded, as I reached for the broom.“No, no, no, no, no, teranga,” she replied. Teranga is Wolof for “hospitality,” so I sat down, defeated.
Academic theory did not prepare me for this moment. I had been sitting on the bed doing my reading for class, an ethnography on the rural poor in Senegal, as my host mother was busy cleaning outside, living the very life that the anthropologist who authored my reading sought to analyze. I offered to help sweep, but she wouldn’t let me.
Should I insist and help clean, or give up and let her treat me as a guest? My reading assignment had no answer to that question. I was sitting idle with my academic theories and being utterly useless in the context of a village.
During my junior year abroad in China, India, Senegal and Argentina, I had to adjust to culture shock. I also wanted to prove to myself that I could be independent. That desire had led me to Amherst in the first place, 3,000 miles from my hometown in California.
As we wrote for class about migrant workers being displaced to make way for luxury developments, I felt like we were reformatting injustices we saw into MLA format. My study-abroad classmates and I talked to our professor about the guilt that accompanies academic work in fields that study marginalization. She told us it was important to try to critically understand our experiences through academic analysis and have the humility to acknowledge that we know next to nothing from only one experience in only one village of many.
My professor’s words stay with me. I’ve thought back to them since my return to Amherst this year. In my psychology class, when we discuss helping strangers, I remember the people who gave me directions in China, and how I never questioned whether they were helping me because I was a woman, or because we were in a small town.
In my architecture class, when we study theorists on low-income housing or read the U.N. definition of a slum or look at photos of urban housing in the developing world, I remember the informal housing settlements I saw in India—places I sometimes forgot to study when they were right in front of me.
In my economics class, when we discuss conventions and culture, I remember a lecturer explaining hand gestures and body language in Argentina—gestures I didn’t notice when I spoke to my host family.
In my fieldwork and studies away from Amherst, I learned to listen to people. From my coursework at Amherst, I learned the theories that allow me to analyze more critically what I see in the world.
From both experiences, I learned that one of the smartest things we can do is let ourselves feel ignorant. That’s often hard and uncomfortable to do as an Amherst student. Knowledge is a balance of theories and experiences, and perhaps the knowledge we should seek is acknowledging that we know very little, and knowing that we still have so many more questions to ask.