…They don’t even know that they’re a foreign country.
I met with an academic award committee today to discuss my application to study religious change and conversion in Central Asia. I’d like to go be with people, to move slowly, share life, and learn what matters to them.
But because I’ve taken grad classes, I can’t just go. I have to have a research project. And perhaps mine’s a bit idealistic, but isn’t that what these awards are for?
So I go into this interview and sit at the foot of a broad conference table in front of a committee, in a high administrative tower on campus. Six professors from across the university sit around a gleaming table: women in glasses, perched in bright jackets, and men in rumpled button-up shirts. The men slouch in their chairs powerfully, each with a pile of papers in front of them.
The committee liked my proposal, but expressed concern that my project was vaguely worded (because I want to be sensitive to local concerns on religion), politically sensitive (“Will people talk about religion?” they ask. “They seem quite open,” I replied.) and morally deceptive. It seems they had read my prior work, and were suspicious that I myself was a “shadow missionary.” All fair concerns, and things that I’ll clarify in revising my essays.
They were also very encouraging about my extensive preparation, knowledge, language and cultural familiarity, and capabilities to represent the U.S. as a cultural ambassador. They told stories about colleagues who had worked in the area, and we laughed a lot, and I enjoyed our conversation.
So I left encouraged… but also a little battered.
That Dirty Religion
The professors in the room, in spite of their laughter, were clearly uncomfortable with religion. They squirmed at my self-identification as a religious (and firmly not a missionary!) person interested in talking with others about how they see the world and what leads them to make the choices they do.
In describing their reaction to the personal essay — the part where I had opened up in what I thought were the strongest and most honest parts — the professors had visceral and negative reactions. It was as if religion was vulgar, as if a rural conservative upbringing shouldn’t be mentioned in polite company.
Where I wrote about growing as a person and as a graduate student because of the tensions involved in living between liberal and conservative views on religion and society, one woman said “I got to that part and was just like, Ewww.” She squinched up her professional face.
And where I had outlined my (expansive and eye-opening) experience of being a Protestant at a Catholic university in terms of how it broadened my understanding of religion, a man’s deep voice said that it sounded parochial, and if I used such divisive language (such as major categories of Christians) in writing, how would I be pigeonholing people in conversation?
And why, they asked, would I even say that I had Protestant heritage? “I mean, you sound like you could be a missionary yourself,” a woman said, leaning back in her chair and looking at me.
She suggested that instead of doing research, that I look into the foreign service or intelligence work, as religious was more of “national-security” or missionary than of anthropological interest.
“I mean, these are Muslims in Central Asia you’re talking about. Have you thought about intelligence?” She asks, insistently.
Wait… I’m thinking. I want to learn from others, and because religion is one aspect of my life, I want to learn how Central Asians experience it.
I hear her concern that I might try to get others to join my beliefs. She finds that distasteful and inappropriate. Okay.
…But instead, she says that I should use others, secretly gathering data from them as an intel worker, so that I can report it to the world’s policing empire?! And she suggests this approach is both better than converting people, and more fitting of my skills than anthropology?!
I don’t understand this, friends, and my heart is porai.
After the grilling, I sit by one of the older stone buildings on campus, with its intricate carvings of agricultural workers and sheep’s heads and triumphant stone flourishes.
Sitting on a concrete bench in the shade of an oak tree, I wait. Squirrels run along the branches above me and drop acorns on my head, which skitter across the pavement.
I slump down beside my heavy backpack and watch the cloudless sky, all blue and sunlight. Across the ‘grassy knoll,’ architecture students pace back and forth in a group, calling out to each other as they practiced surveying with various measures and strings.
I rest and watch the pathways, waiting for my spirit to settle. A pretty boy roars by on a motorized bicycle, leaving an old man in his wake, who is still weed-whacking the grass. A handful of birds scatter as a boy and girl walk arm-in-arm, their oversized backpacks touching. Some executive administrator, swinging his bagged lunch, whistles obliviously as he walks up to the heavy doors of the marbled building.
Mosquitoes buzz around my feet near the damp roots of the oak tree. Bells ring, classes change, and backpack-bent students flood the walkways. It’s quiet, but the committee echoes in my head.
“It sounds in this part like you’re just trying to please people,” one woman had said, ruffling through her stack of papers and pointing at something I couldn’t see.
Yes, I thought. It was one of the few perceptive comments from this committee, and I was surprised that she saw it so clearly.
I’ve lived as a defiant stranger in so many communities, wanting to be seen and to see, to feel at home and to make others comfortable. I don’t want boundaries to divide us. I don’t want to be different. I don’t want to persuade people to be like me. I just want to have fun and live with people, learn from them. I want to listen and to write.
I hold back my tart opinions (at least at first) so they can relax and be themselves. And over time I want to say the truths I feel, even the ones that are uncomfortable for them. I want to be wise. I want to listen.
And I want not to be so unsettled by this damn wise-and-foolish committee.
I guess I have to accept that I won’t please everyone. I haven’t pleased this committee, and the power relations and distorted perceptions and piles of proposals are still stretched taut between us in my mind.
These professors, critiquing to strengthen my research, settle on comments that negate religion and religious people, seeing us as dangerous and unclean, dirty, something you keep hidden.
Don’t let it seem like you’re hiding anything, and especially not religion, they seemed to say, but don’t talk about religion, because you really aren’t allowed to be religious.
But you also aren’t allowed to hide anything, because that would be suspicious.
As if religion was something akin to intelligence work.
And nothing I say can convince them otherwise.
The divide between me and them reflects the very tensions I was talking about in my “disturbing” essay, I realize. I left rural Ohio, I had tried to express, and moved to this foreign country called Academia. I study migration, but I’ve also lived it. I’ve lived here for two years, and I’ve been through culture stress and conversion to your way of life. I’ve experienced nostalgia, bright new experiences and relationships, and new and strange ways of living and thinking. I love it and I hate it. I miss my old home but can never fully go back.
I want to love and be a part of both communities, and now I belong neither to the old country or to the new one.
And their distant, echoing voices reply: But you shouldn’t be in this place, not like this.
Why do you talk about something so disruptive to our system as religion, this uncontrolled and dangerous thing? Their silent question answers, as they shuffle paper and avoid my gaze. You’re prepared, but this is unsettling. You aren’t writing like ‘one of us.’
Wisdom has a standpoint, I realize again. She gathers together in communities, and speaks from a given place, just like Knowledge does. She cries aloud in the streets, and some people listen.
And perhaps each street has its own wisdom, and each person leads us toward different insights in how to live well and speak truly.
These professors see themselves as American Academia, and I’m the young graduate student with a vague project (true!) to be disciplined. They speak their wisdom, and see it roll out straight in front of them, a long blue measuring cord stretched across the grassy knoll.
They gather and smile, watching their survey of the landscape lie straight and smooth. They invite us graduate students to see with them.
But from the tree-roots where I sit — between academia and the heartland, between the secular and the religious kingdoms — their line cuts jarring and slantwise. It doesn’t look straight, but curved. It veers from the sun into the swampy grass and is hidden from my sight.
“This is the One Line,” they say as they measure the land for us, the places we do and don’t stand, the paths we can walk as an Approved Academic.
And they smile and wait for my confirming reply. They don’t realize how strange it seems to anyone foreign, by race or class or gender or faith.
And they don’t realize that even this familiar place, this academic place I love — still — to me — looks like a foreign country.