Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Fulbright: Butterflies

So last night I was up at 3AM and went down to the kitchen for a glass of water. I saw there was something on my phone, which I keep away from my bed on purpose--these last days of preparation are so wired--but I checked my email anyway. 

A junior colleague, who I think is already pretty anxious about coordinating arrangements, wrote about two of our senior collaborators. As it turns out according to his email, they don't get along. His evidence? Unanswered emails, moments of silence, unanswered questions. Pretty much what I've been getting when I've barked up the wrong tree. And not a huge surprise. Big people in small ponds have a way of not liking each other. The surprise for me was that I was party to this information at all. The person who told me is so circumspect that he never corrected my misconceptions about the arrival date of the monsoon--a miscalculation that could have sunk this whole research project. 

But other things can sink a project, for instance, senior team members who butt heads. It leads me to a larger question, maybe a little paranoid, about how I get along with people in the country I'm going to. 

It's easy enough to mis-translate thecircumspect nature of communications in Sri Lanka as a kind of sinister inscrutability. Is that person holding something back from me? Is murder on his mind? Of the former, probably. Murder? A good chance of "no." But in reality the feeling I've had many times before in Sri Lanka, where by the way I really like people, is that I might be a slightly undesirable morsel, something that needs to be pushed along and gotten rid of. I've had this feeling anywhere from public buses to hotel lobbies. But seldom among friends. 

But what do you do with friends? Sometimes I think the answer is to stay pleasant and act dumb. We are after all foreigners, both in the literal and figurative sense. At so many levels we don't speak the language. Better perhaps to stay on the outside, enter where welcome, not make assumptions, and not try to penetrate too deeply. In other words be a good guest and wear a sort cloak of invisibility--like the Sri Lankan landscapes I'm studying--hidden in plain sight. 

Butterflies? Sure. But a recipe for sound social and mental health is to go light, stay afloat, and sip gently at each flower. Looking forward to our launch in less than two weeks. 

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