As we cross the border, the smooth, four-lane Mexican highway collapses into a winding, undivided, pockmarked road. Scraggly underbrush takes the place of manicured trees. Swathes of farmland are punctuated by swamps. Cows and goats wallow in the middle of the road and flat-bed trucks laden with bundles of sticks rattle past, pumping gusts of black smoke behind them. No speed limits, no zoning, no side rails. A sun-bleached billboard implores us: Belize it or not!
My friend T is in the passenger’s seat. Technically, she knows how to drive, but she doesn’t want to try here, and I can’t blame her. She’s German – she learned to drive on the Autobahn, the highway of all highways. Me? I’m fine on these roads. I know what I’m doing. I’m the one who planned this trip. I booked us the flights to Cancun, I rented us the car at the airport, and I’m in charge of getting us to my parents’ house another seven hours south, at the tip of the peninsula that leans off the Belizean mainland into the Caribbean Sea.
In lieu of cops, Belizean roads have what are called ‘sleeping policemen’, irregular speed bumps at random intervals that appear without warning. It becomes T’s job to point out when a bump is on the horizon so I can hit the brakes in time. Sometimes a bump turns out to be a spot where the paving has simply washed away. As we jostle around I start to realise that our Chevy rental may not be cut out for this terrain. I make a lame joke about what would happen if our car broke down. T nods, spits out her nicotine gum, and lights up a duty-free Gauloise.
The road suddenly plunges into thick green jungle and we’re both shocked by the overwhelming beauty, the lush wetness and the size of the trees arching overhead. T asks whether the rest of the drive will be like this, and I search my memory for an answer, but find it’s blank. My dad told me that I’d taken this route with him many times before, but I can’t remember a thing about it. To tell the truth, I’m not even sure we’re on the right road. Casually, I ask T to check Google Maps – she bought a roaming package before we left, while I insisted I could get by on my wits – but she can’t find a signal.
Now that we’re alone on the empty road in a shitty car, I’m not sure which is worse: confess that I have no idea how to get where we’re going, or keep pretending that I do. I’m about to suggest that we call someone for directions, but then the air conditioning shorts out and we have to roll down the windows to breathe – and I’m hit in the face with a smell so nostalgic I can barely exhale. Dirt and white rocks mingled with sweat: a smell that reminds me that I know this place. My amnesia is supplanted by déjà vu.
I can trace the smell back to the early 1990s, to the place my family usually calls ‘the site’. The site is the Mayan ruin called Chau Hiix where my mom led an archaeological excavation for two decades. The smell is the scent of sweat-drenched graduate students and workers picking with axes and tapping with trowels at taped-off squares of rubble that never looked to me anything like a pyramid. The smell of adults working in the dirt was oddly libidinal to me even then, dark and exciting and upsetting: the aroma of things my child-brain didn’t understand. In my mind, it is intermingled with other Belize sensations – the stomach-churning taste of crushed malaria tablets and the sweet stench of overripe cashew fruits on the verge of rotting, which is the best time to eat them.
To access the site from the nearest village, Crooked Tree, you have to cross a lagoon in a boat during rainy season. As a baby and a kid I lived alternately between the site and in the village with my parents during their fieldwork stints, spending weeks or months at a time in either place. My dad is an anthropologist who studied the living people of Belize, while my mom – as the joke goes – studied the dead. Like most jokes, this is both true and false. They were actually trying to bridge those kinds of disciplinary divisions in various ways: by working with the people who lived in Crooked Tree, by involving the locals in their academic study, by living together as a family in the field. By stretching the confines of their professions through what I now recognise as an unusual level of social and political engagement. But I did not know this at the time. I only knew, or felt, the part of it that concerned myself: that I was somehow important to the endeavour. That I was, in an oblique way, wrapped up in its successes and failures. That I was supposed to like being there, but that I didn’t.
Anthropology has a lot of historical baggage to contend with. Both anthropology and its corollary field, archaeology, were built around an eighteenth-century concept of an anthropological ‘subject’: the passive, fixed, and separate Other located in distant space and time.1 Even living subjects were set in the permanent, unchanging, unadulterated past.2 The ethnographic framework was a colonial instrument that contributed theoretically and materially to the European expansionist project – a process of gathering data about the natives to validate and inform their ‘conquest’. On the other hand, my dad tells me, the historical description of anthropologists as ‘unwitting tools of imperialism’ is overly simplistic. ‘As far back as Malinowski,’ he says, ‘anthropologists have been providing medicine and advice, bandaging injuries, acting as mediators in disputes. A lot of anthropologists were radicalised … and were doing their best in a horrible colonial situation. Many have always seen themselves as caught between a colonial power and indigenous people, and often they were the only people who spoke for the indigenous.’3 My dad explains the inevitable breakdown of ‘professional’ boundaries in practice, of the existence of aid, activism, and friendship – even where these stories are missing from the historical record.
Anthropology, like most of the social sciences, finally underwent an explicit postcolonial turn (crisis) in the 1970s and 80s, a process of reckoning in which the anthropological gaze flipped to regard itself. The structuring dichotomies of home and field, observer and observed, global and local, colonial handmaiden and colonial subject, Western and Other, all came into question. Can ‘we’ study ourselves? Can indigenous anthropologists study ‘us’? Is it possible to do away with cultural relativism without also doing away with human rights? 4
Today, academic papers often begin with complex acrobatics trying to justify a methodology that the author acknowledges is, no matter how self-aware and deconstructionist and postcolonial, a permanent descendent of colonial dispossession. The inclination to perform this contortion is exacerbated by the fact that, with the disintegration of academia as a reliable support structure, many, maybe most, trained anthropologists find themselves working on behalf of today’s engines of accumulation via dispossession: corporations, militaries, and governments.5 Each new generation of politically inclined anthropologists and archaeologists is faced with the question of whether they can reinvent the tools of the trade to ally with the struggles of their living subjects (or living descendants of their subjects) – or whether the tools just might be too dirty to wield at all.
In 2003, my mom wrote a list of ‘Principles for Community Engagement for Archaeologists’, where she laid out her own position. ‘No amount of archaeological data is sufficient to justify claims about the past that compromise the human rights of living people,’ she writes.6 (For instance: discovering that an indigenous group’s ‘real’ genetic ancestors didn’t occupy the same territory the group now lives on. This sort of ancestry data can be easily mishandled or misconstrued, in service of governments seeking any ‘scientific’ premise or excuse to dispossess indigenous groups of their land.) Until recently I had not actually read this document, but I’ve heard most of its lines repeated like mantras throughout my life. I was very young when she first explained to me that she did not ‘discover’ Chau Hiix in 1989 – the year I was born – but was invited by the Crooked Tree village council to come and excavate, with the goal of creating sustainable infrastructure. The hope was that visitors would be doubly attracted to the area, to tour the local wildlife reserve and the ancient site. With tourism as a long-term source of income, the village could resist both the sale of artefacts and the destruction of the rainforest – the twin decimation of heritage and ecology to which so much of the world’s population has had to resort in order to survive.
In a 2014 article, my mom explains further: ‘I described my project as effecting a compromise among the preservation needs of the archaeology (the government mandate), the needs of the village (economic development), and the needs of the wildlife.’ 7 She also explains that the relationship between the village and the site is a complicated one, since the inhabitants of Crooked Tree, roughly 500 at the time, identify them- selves as Creole, or Afro-Amerindian, not direct descendants of the Maya who lived there over a thousand years ago. (Another thing that drives her crazy: the common belief that the Maya are ‘extinct’, when there are more living Maya now than there ever have been – just another way of keeping the colonial Other in the perpetual past, and disavowing the rights of living populations.) We lived in a few places in Belize when I was young, but the one I remember most is Crooked Tree.
My memories from Belize are fragmented, distorted, and disordered. When I compare them to my parents’, they don’t usually match up. I recognise many of these memories as clichés that I can’t be entirely sure an early therapist didn’t implant – basic feelings of ‘not belonging’ and ‘abandonment’ that seem to unfairly hinge on my mother having been absent a lot while working. In my late twenties I finally started to try to string these memories into a story, a real one with places, names, and dates. I spoke with my parents many times while writing this essay, the conversations ranging between mock-formal interviews, nostalgic chats, arguments, and lectures (for the first time I was grateful that a late-night phone call could turn into an articulate 45-minute explanation of Mayan land rights). I was continually surprised by how far our narratives diverged – mine from theirs, and theirs from each other’s. At one point my dad started digging through photo albums to check the dates on Polaroids.
Nearly twenty years have passed since our last family stint in the field. I don’t want to make too much of my amnesia; childhood recollection is notoriously unstable, invented and reinvented as life goes on. But the opacity of the memories has begun to bother me, the difficulty I have in distinguishing them from archetypes that don’t quite apply. My question is not exactly why I can’t remember details, but why I’ve been so resistant to filling them in. Until recently, I have categorically refused to contextualise or revise my memories from an adult perspective: to really think about what Belize is and was, or what my parents were doing there. I haven’t read the dozens of articles and books they’ve authored on the subject. I haven’t been able to think about the big picture. I turn inward. I can only think about myself.
Most kids think the universe revolves around them, and the rude realisation that parents have their own lives arrives only in retrospect. In this case, though, I wonder whether my memories have adhered to the sticky core of personal feelings for so long – where everything that happened was about me – because in some ways, my parents’ intellectual and political project was about me. Bringing your kid into the field fundamentally changes the nature of fieldwork. It also shapes the nature of the kid. The kid becomes both little anthropologist and native informant; research collaborator and research outcome; observer and observed. The kid becomes, in a word, complicit. And therefore the kid’s feelings have to constitute their own form of ethnographic evidence.
One feeling that emerged over time was resentment. I resented that my childhood was also a political project, that my success as a person was tied to the success of the field. What is that resentment evidence of? One thing is simply the dumb fact that growing up between cultures and navigating difference is hard. Of course, anyone in a minority position can tell you that much better than I can. I’m reporting from the position of whiteness and privilege. The only unique aspect of my privileged position is that I knew it was my position from the very start, and I felt guilty about it. Putting me in a situation to be acutely aware of my own privilege was exactly what my parents wanted to do. They wanted me to become a person who did not see herself as the default, as the centre of the world. And shouldn’t every white kid experience that? On one hand, this project was successful: it worked. On the other hand, what does it mean that my main responses to this awareness were resentment and guilt? That I held the secret selfish belief that the world’s inequality was my fault?
At the age I am now, when my friends are starting to have kids, my perspective is shifting. Much of the resentment is giving way to incredulity, awe, and respect. Much of the guilt is giving way to my own political projects. I can finally recognise what my parents did for its effects far beyond our family. I can understand what a brave, ambitious, idealistic endeavour it was. Heading into the jungle with an infant? Mom digging up a pyramid while dad takes care of the baby? Converting centuries-old colonial methodologies into contemporary social justice work? I wonder if I could ever be so ambitious.
As we slow to a crawl to pass through a village – smiling, but not stopping for the kids holding sacks of mangoes and coconuts up to the car window – T asks me about the country’s demographics. Again, I’m at a loss and ask her to check Wikipedia, but there’s still no signal. The only factoid I can recall off the top of my head is that Belize was the longest lasting British colony in the Americas, gaining full independence from colonial rule in 1981.
If my parents were here, they would explain this through anecdotes dating back to the 1970s, when they first started out. My dad was an archaeologist at first, making his first expeditions in the 1970s with an archaeologist named Norman Hammond. I have always known Hammond’s name without knowing him, because my parents fell in love while my mom was on a Hammond excavation in 1985. By that time my dad had become exasperated with the field’s myopic view on the distant past and switched over to cultural anthropology. He wrote in 1997: ‘I felt hypocritical and helpless talking to people about recovering the past, when their children were dying from measles.’8 In 1985 he was on hiatus from academia and was working for the international development agency USAID, hoping to make governmental policy more effective in protecting the rights of the indigenous. Meanwhile, my mom had committed to trying to change archaeology from within. She wanted to run an excavation on her own terms. My dad wanted to support her. His support was necessary; there weren’t a lot of women running excavations at the time.
I tell T a sketchy version of this story, messing up all the dates, and then apologise to her for not being a solid tour guide. Of course, she knows the situation. She’s my closest friend and, on some level, she realises this isn’t strictly a beach holiday. I’m here to try and get a grip on my memories, to place them in context, to try to define my position. It’s a pilgrimage of sorts, the kind you make in an effort to attain adulthood.
The pilgrimage is confused further by the fact that we’re not returning to the village or the site, the meccas of memory – instead we’re heading to my parents’ beach house. Ten years ago, they bought a plot of land in a resort development with beachfront properties owned by a friend, and built a two-bedroom home with a wraparound porch. A few weeks out of the year they can be found on the porch with glasses of iced tea, grading dissertations and hosting visiting academics and family. My mom’s final fieldwork season at Chau Hiix was in 2007 and my dad does ethnography elsewhere now, but their involvement in local politics and education hasn’t slowed. Mom brings undergraduates on field trips and takes them to sites and villages. The two of them work with a Mayan high school, making visits, discussing curricula, sending computers, installing washing machines. Recently they spent a weekend with indigenous leaders who had invited social scientists specialising in Belize to discuss how to work toward a more autonomous and sustainable future.
Another family joke: the anthropologist is never not doing ethnography. My dad sometimes makes this joke when I interrupt his third-person commentary (at a restaurant: observe how that couple is distributing food between them! at the airport: observe how many of these tourists carry pillows!). But it’s undeniable that sometimes these two social scientists, my parents, are now also sometimes on vacation in Belize. There’s no inherent contradiction between the roles of vacationer, academic, expat, local, activist, philanthropist, spouse, and parent – ‘helping and studying are not diametrically opposed,’ my dad tells me when I press the point – and indeed, showing how these roles can coexist is a political endeavour in itself. All the same, there must be cases where the interests of these roles do not neatly align. When they don’t, which comes first?
One therapist told me there was a name for my type: the Third Culture Kid. An American sociologist named Ruth Useem coined the term in the 1950s, when she and her husband were living in India with their children. They were surprised to discover that their kids had learned to identify both with their parents’ culture (the ‘first’ or ‘home’ culture) and the culture where they were being raised (the ‘second’ culture) – leading to the formation of an idiosyncratic ‘third’ culture all their own.
Useem’s original TCK categories were: Foreign Service Kids, Corporate Brats, Military Brats, and Missionary Kids – that is, children of post war families living in ‘exotic’ locations abroad, typically within Western enclaves, performing various versions of postcolonial colonialism. The unspoken premises of the original 1950s TCK theory were that both parents were white Westerners venturing into foreign (less white) territory, that cultures can be separated and reduced to monolithic and quantifiable entities, and that kids who live abroad acquire ‘cultural experiences’ that are impossible to get in a supposedly monocultural home society. In other words, many of the same premises on which anthropology was founded. The premises my parents were trying to dismantle by bringing me into the field.
According to Useem, who went on to survey other families in similar situations, children raised in these environments grow up to exhibit a common set of personality characteristics. Hallmarks include always feeling like an observer; constant meta-questioning of social interactions; difficulty forming attachments and making commitments. General ongoing identity crisis, tempered by an unusual capacity for adaptability. These easily describe my issues, but the category has always felt wrong.
In their 2001 book Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, sociologists David Pollock and Ruth van Reken picked up and expanded Useem’s theories for a wider audience.9 The book was popular with people who saw their neuroses laid out for them in tables and diagrams, their experiences finally given a taxonomy. But by the 2000s, in light of globalisation and postcolonial study, the colonial psychodrama underpinning this construction had become all too apparent, and Pollock and van Reken received a healthy dose of criticism.
Why was the default TCK white? Why didn’t TCKs feel inclined to ‘assimilate’? Is there no implicit hierarchy between the first and third cultures? Does ‘third culture’ not imply ‘third world’? If the TCK always has the ability to return to the first – home – culture after living safely abroad, could such experience be universalised at all? Does the term not in fact refer to children made complicit in forms of domination over the third culture? Doesn’t the grouping of diplomacy, military, corporation and missionary suggest that they may all have something in common, something like colonial legacy? When so many people are raised in cross-cultural environments, why is TCK a category at all, unless it’s based in race, class, and privilege?
In 2009, Pollock and van Reken published a revised edition, in which they attempt to address these questions. In the updated version they try to temper the racial/class specificity of the TCK, not by expanding the category itself, but rather by introducing an umbrella term, Cross-Culture Kid (CCK), which includes the TCK and several new categories. The new categories include the children of domestic or seasonal workers, refugees and international adoptees. That is, those who leave (what remains implic- itly categorised as) the ‘second’ culture for the ‘first’, likely out of necessity rather than choice. This addition seems to reinforce rather than flatten the cultural hierarchy at play. If the TCK is the temporary expat, the CCK is the precarious migrant. The TCK asserts and preserves dominance through difference, while the CCK is pressured to assimilate into the host culture, to eradicate any difference perceived as threatening, to become invisible, to pass.
Nowhere in the list of categories does one find Children of Anthropologists.
Five hours into our drive, T and I have to make a decision about which route to take for the final stretch. Either we turn left on the Coastal Highway and head directly east, towards the sea, or we continue south on the Hummingbird Highway, which swoops east at the last minute. I should know the answer, but I don’t. We pull over so T can walk around by the side of the road and search for a signal. The iPhone insists, with certainty, that we’ll cut an hour off the trip by opting for the Coastal, so we do.
The further we get down the Google-endorsed road, the less like a road it becomes. Tamped earth gives way to pits of loose gravel, jagged and rocky. Then there are the wet, sandy holes, followed by at least a mile of miniature ridges like tiny sand dunes, then more gravel. I’m only going at ten miles an hour, but red dust is flying up from all sides and mosquitoes are splattering into a layer of black guts on the windshield. Assaulted by insects, we roll up the windows despite the heat. We consider turning around; we resolve to forge ahead.
There’s no dusk to signal the transition from day into night, and in a matter of minutes we find ourselves in total darkness. Craggy mountains, looming in an undefinable distance, fade into menacing silhouettes. I’m dripping sweat, my hands slipping on the steering wheel, body arched as far forward as possible, shoulders clenched to ears. Jolt after jolt. I can’t see more than a few feet ahead. ‘Did the tyre just pop?’ I shout. T shouts back: ‘Are you sure the headlights are on?’ She has her nose glued to the screen of her phone. ‘Why isn’t the blue dot moving?’
Later we will learn that everyone knows not to take the Coastal Highway. It hasn’t been printed on official maps in ten years. This is not information that anyone thinks to convey any more, because it’s common knowledge. Only I – and apparently Google – could be so out of touch. And I was out of touch enough to assume that by now Google would know Belize. Either Google doesn’t care enough to update the map, or the landscape somehow resists access.
To be fair, I did ask someone besides Google. Before we left, when T and I were planning our trip, I called my dad to find out if there was anything we should know about the drive down from the border that we wouldn’t necessarily find online. He said yes, and then gave me very detailed instructions about where to find his favourite tamale stand by the side of the road. It didn’t occur to him that I wouldn’t remember the most obvious thing, not to take the bad road. Everyone from Belize knows that.
TCK case study one: I’m in first grade at the village elementary school and all the kids are reciting the Lord’s Prayer at the start of class. My parents have taught me how to recite the prayer so as not to offend anyone, but they have also told me to quietly replace the word ‘god’ with ‘dog’ so as not to unwittingly convert myself with the incantation. Another family joke in retrospect, but I took it seriously at the time. One day, feeling rebellious, I decide to try saying ‘god’. No difference.
TCK case study two: it’s my birthday, and I’m wearing a ruffly pink dress. I’m surrounded by a circle of village kids playing Red Rover – the game where the chosen person in the middle has to charge at the edge of the circle to break the chain of hands and escape – but for some reason I can’t figure out what to do. I’m embarrassed in my fancy dress, which was supposed to make me feel special but instead makes me feel stupid, and I can’t understand the instructions everyone is shouting at me. Somehow, I’ve never learned to speak the local Creole well, even though I picked up rudimentary Spanish easily from a caretaker I had as a baby. I know everyone is just trying to include me, but I also feel like they’re making fun of me. My mom notices I’m on the verge of tears and has to bail me out of the circle.
TCK case study three: I’m in the yard of my house, eating a stewed chicken foot given to me by a family friend from the village. Patty, a teenager, is pretty and kind and loves to feed me things. I’ll eat anything she gives me – it’s my way of trying to impress her. My dad cheers every time he hears about a new unusual item I willingly eat.10
TCK case study four: unable to heed my mother’s admonishments not to bite my fingernails, I’ve finally gotten the dreaded worms. In the middle of the night I run into my parents’ room writhing as I feel them wriggle out into my underwear.
T and I arrive at our destination three hours later than planned, rattled and exhausted. The house, true to expectations, has been undone by the tropics: there’s gecko shit smeared all over the beds, the rust from the fixtures has settled into a fine dust on the floor, and the screens in the windows have been torn by animals, letting in spiders and who knows what else. The internet and phone connections are patchy.
I take T on a tour in the dim light. The house is painted sea-blue and plastered with Mexican Talavera tiles. From the veranda we can hear the sound of waves, but the ocean, only a few metres away, is hard to see in the dark. Instead of maintaining the white, sandy beach coveted by expats the world over, my parents ask the gardener to leave the forest untouched in front of the house, so you enter the water by walking through dirt and pine needles and then wading through half a metre of seaweed washed up on the shore. We are no tourists, the place says. This is no beach cabana!
Until now the housing development has been quiet, with only a few single-family homes. But by the coming autumn the resort down the beach will finally be finished, complete with spa, yoga studio, two restaurants, and a poolside bar. My parents have put up a good front, but soon any pretence of their living like locals or fieldworkers will be hard to maintain. From the perspective of a passerby, they will be vacationers in a gated community. Their distaste for the situation is palpable. Increasingly, they debate selling the house. But they don’t. It means too much.
T and I throw our stuff in the house and get back in the car. I drive us to the nearest restaurant, at a hotel a few miles away. After we order, I attempt to explain Third Culture Kid theory to her. Shovelling in bites of coconut-battered shrimp, I tell her how TCKs are supposed to take on a ‘representational role’ or ‘system identity’ on behalf of their parents. They become creepy ‘little ambassadors’, ‘little missionaries’ and ‘little soldiers’ parroting their parents’ beliefs. Little zealots, little proselytisers, little salesmen.
The problem, I explain to T, the reason I don’t fit, is that the system identity of the Little Anthropologist is to be aware of those system identities: to deconstruct system identities as such. Like the TCK, you’re supposed to stay separate – not because you think you’re superior, but because you understand your own position of privilege and the impossibility of ever fully becoming Other – and yet, like the CCK, you’re supposed to fit in. If the anthropologist parents are good anthropologists, the Little Anthropologist will be a TCK masquerading as a CCK. Or something. T looks sceptical.
A new waiter appears at the table to ask if we want refills on our Piña Coladas. I do a double-take – I recognise him, he recognises me. Ten years ago, when my parents were building their house, we stayed at this hotel for a week, and I made friends with him. He flirted with me constantly in Spanish; my Spanish was fluent back then. (By now, I’ve spent years in Berlin trying to learn German, and my other languages are all rusty.) As
a teenager, I struggled not to seem like a rich gringa who wouldn’t give him the time of day, while also not giving him the idea that I was interested. The Little Anthropologist should treat everyone like an equal human but should not breach the boundaries of the field. I wondered whether my parents would be angrier if I were rude to him or if I hooked up with him.
I stand up to hug him, awkwardly, and we make small talk. He asks where I’ve been all this time. I try to explain. To college in New York. To be an art critic in Berlin. He asks what those places are like. I stutter, as if in the last decade I’ve completely forgotten not only Spanish but also how to find common ground with someone who doesn’t share my cultural vocabulary. We’re both too old for pretend flirtation now, grown-ups too aware of our difference. The extent of my privilege has only become magnified in the intervening time. I feel the age-old shame. He stayed here. I left when I wanted, and didn’t come back.
My parents were by no means the first anthropologists to bring a kid into the field. A book of essays by other field-parents was published in 1987. Joan Cassell, the editor of Children in the Field: Anthropological Experiences, explains in her introduction that the 1980s saw an uptick in researchers bringing their families along, in part due to women’s changing professional roles. In her essay for the collection, anthropologist Christine Hugh-Jones agrees, with some irony: ‘If we have decided that it is a good thing that women are involved in fieldwork, a sleight of thought persuades us that it is virtuous and liberated to take our children along as well.’ 11
Hugh-Jones suggests that, especially for women, choosing to bring the kids was partly about making a point: family and job are not mutually exclusive, I can have it all, etc. Of course, no one can have it all, and it’s not like heteronormativity or patriarchy disintegrate upon relocation. Doubling down often meant doubling up, and women researchers probably ended up shouldering the burden of care while working, instead of having spouses or others step in.
The fact that gendered caregiving is itself a social construct often becomes unavoidably obvious in the field. In a paper from 2004, my mom describes trying to hire a babysitter for me while living in a Creole village. The babysitter she found couldn’t seem to keep an eye on me, and it took a long time for her to figure out why the woman appeared so neglectful. Eventually she noticed that single adults don’t often mind children in Creole culture; instead children watch each other, in conglomerations beyond family units, and there’s no assumption that childcare is the responsibility of an adult or biological parent, much less a female one.12
For her part, my mom took me along to the site when she could and otherwise handed me over to my dad to stay in the village. We talked a lot about this fact. They wanted me to feel proud that my dad was often the only father among mothers in line to pick me up from school, that my mom was brave enough to head into the jungle for weeks at a time without phone connection, that I had short hair and was not afraid of bugs. (This is another myth. I hate bugs.) I felt my mom’s desire to make these points acutely. Most of the time, I wasn’t sure who she was making them to. Herself? Her colleagues? My dad? Me? It would have been easier if leaving me behind didn’t make both of us so sad. At the same time as she knew her work was the right thing to do, she couldn’t get out from under the age-old female guilt. More to the point, she missed me.
The attitudes of the parents in Cassell’s book vary from self-satisfied and oblivious to tortured and guilt-ridden. Some claim that the experience of having their kids around was domestic bliss; some relay stories of culture clash as situational comedy; others worry they’ve scarred their kids – physically, as in testing positive for tuberculosis, or in less tangible ways, as in becoming withdrawn and depressed. One parent says she was eager for the opportunity to ‘immunise’ her children ‘against complacency’. In turn, having your kid in the field gives you a whole new subject to study. Family dynamics became part and parcel of the research. One woman in Cassell’s book reports that, while working in Northeast Brazil, she asked her children to write daily journal entries and interviewed them regularly. I remember my dad questioning me in a way that I understood to be more than just parental curiosity. The questions made me feel special and smart, but also like I was under constant observation.
Almost everyone in Cassell’s book seems to agree that bringing their kids was helpful for their work. There’s nothing like a toddler to highlight cultural common ground. In one essay, Renate Fernandez, a full-time mom who accompanied her anthropologist husband to Asturias with their two children, observes that children ‘accelerate the ongoing social dynamics in the field community’, and that ‘a child’s encounter in the field, witnessed by the parent, may create an emotional charge powerful enough to redirect the investigation’. Experiences of parenthood may not be universal, but parenthood forges social relationships that wouldn’t exist otherwise. My parents describe toting baby-me around during interviews and chats, and say that people tended to be more open when I was around. In his early fieldwork, my dad says, people thought it was strange that he didn’t have children. Most Belizeans he talked to already had families by their mid-twenties.
One essay from Children in the Field is a tragedy. The author, in this case a non-anthropologist, went with her husband to rural Nepal with their three kids in tow. Early in the trip, their youngest son fell sick with an undefined illness and suddenly died. The author writes of her attitude upon arrival: ‘We knew we would have to share this way of life to begin to understand it. Yet, to be honest, we knew we would not be sharing it all the way. We would not have to face bedbugs without DDT. We would be very sorry if the rains did not come to the cornfields, but we would not go hungry. We also knew that two years was not a lifetime. Still, we never dreamed our sharing would be so complete.’ The situation embodies one of the basic paradoxes upon which anthropology is built: how to become an insider to report back as an outsider; how to get an authentic experience without assuming too much authentic risk. Her story starkly outlines both her family privilege and its limits.
My parents struggled with this, too. How to protect me from malaria, but not give daily tablets to all the village kids? How to send me to the village school while keeping me on the college track? How to let me wander in the jungle with the others but make sure I didn’t step on snakes? Any theoretical conundrum becomes unavoidably practical when you’re parenting someone. The needs of the kid direct where you look, who you talk to, change your priorities.
Before leaving for a month of fieldwork when I was 3 or 4 (depending on who’s telling the story), my mom, to her credit, asked me if I wanted to come along again. She wanted to know how I felt, because she knew my feelings mattered. I told her I did not want to go. I explained that ‘there’s no ice cream in Belize’ and I asked to stay with my grandparents in suburban Texas instead. My grandparents’ house was air conditioned, they had ice cream, and they gave me all their attention. I was allowed to stay for the whole month. I loved it.
In the morning I walk down the beach to the neighbours’ place, to ask if their housekeeper might help me and T get my parents’ house in order. The neighbours are expats who run a restaurant in the tourist town a few miles away. As I approach, their 9-year-old daughter rushes out of the screen door to meet me. She tells me all about her dog, a big Labrador who’s chewing something in the bushes, and then she announces without prompting that this isn’t her real home; her real home is California. She says proudly, pointing to her own arm, ‘I live in Belize, but I’m not Belizean – see, I’m white!’
I squint down at her and try to see myself at her age. Blonde hair braided in an approximation of corn rows, scalp burned at each parting. Barefoot, seashell anklet. Yep, there I am. But I’d never have said that. I knew I was white, and that I was a minority in Crooked Tree, but I did not think this negated my being Belizean. One story that gets told and retold is my confusion upon returning to the USA after living in Belize as a toddler: I wasn’t used to being surrounded by white people, and I panicked in the airport to see so many at once.
No, this kid I’m looking at is a true TCK. Her system identity is Little Restauranteur, and she seems fine with it. As far as I can tell, she isn’t trying to figure out which is her first culture, or feeling embarrassed about her nice house with running water. She feels like the majority, even when she’s in the minority. She isn’t trying to decide whether her maid is her friend or her employee. She’ll go back to California and act the same.
When my parents weren’t doing fieldwork they were on tenure tracks at a university in Indiana. Just as foreigners usually describe Belize in relief – not as touristy as Mexico; not as dangerous as Guatemala – people sometimes describe Indiana: not as Republican as Kentucky; not as diverse as Michigan. At my not-very-diverse Montessori elementary school, I was a novelty just for having been on an aeroplane. Word got out on the playground that I spoke another language, and the kids wanted me to perform.
Then they got suspicious. Why did I get to skip school to go somewhere else? Did I think I was so smart? How rich was I? Did I think I was better than them? I fell for it, and I bragged, wanting to feel special, showing off what I knew. In Belize, where I was unavoidably more academically advanced than the other first-graders, who had not received a Montessori education, I definitely did not brag. I tried very hard not
to show off.
T and I fail to reach the Jaguar Reserve as planned. We don’t even get close. We take the wrong turn yet again, and, unable to reverse on a narrow, rocky road flanked by jungle, we get our Chevy wedged in a chasm on a dirt road on a mountainside. It’s idiotic, and it’s the last straw. When we finally make it back home – having been towed out by the son of a family friend – I finally give up: no more self-guided adventures. No more pretending I know where to turn. For the next week and a half, I decide to descend, or rise, to the level of tourist.
Yelp tells us where to find a yoga studio and a massage place in town. We make dinner reservations at the neighbours’ restaurant. We spend a day at the resort down the beach, which is owned by the Coppola family, and burn ourselves in the sun, reading novels and drinking from coconuts served to us by people who I don’t check to see if I recognise. We have long conversations and take long naps. We watch reruns of reality TV in the evenings. Shirking my system identity, it turns out, is fun.
As an experiment, one night I take us to a restaurant in a little house on stilts in the Garifuna (Afro-Amerindian) village nearby. My dad takes me to this place every time I visit, and he always takes a moment before we order to demonstrate his familiarity with the menu – as I’ve said, one of his anthropological specialities is food. Sometimes he asks the server where he or she is from and what his or her family name is. The server is usually obliging, acting pleasantly surprised if my dad knows an aunt or grandfather. It’s not unlikely that he does; he’s been working here for forty years and the country is tiny, but I’m embarrassed either way.
This time, I tell T, I want to try eating at this restaurant, where tourists never go, without acting like a tourist or a little anthropologist. In other words: I want to try to split the difference. This proves awkward because I want to order the speciality, stewed pig tail. The waitress frowns and stares me down. It’s OK, I say, I know what it tastes like. Pig tail is actually one of my favourite dishes. She wants to know: Really? When have I eaten pig tail? I shrug. I should have known this would require some explanation.
It dawns on me that the question of what I want to eat has never really been a question about what I want to eat. It’s been a demonstration, a performance. But of what, and to whom? And what do I really want? What I want, I think, is not to perform at all.
On our second-to-last day I sign us up for a snorkelling tour of a nearby reef. Our companions on the boat trip are a South African couple on honeymoon and a group of four retirees from Texas. Our Belizean tour guide is friendly but bored, chatting on his phone while he steers us out to the reef, where twenty boats will converge and unload their tourists to eat barbecue on a small sand dune, then paddle around in the shallow water, ogling the diminishing species of fish. The sunscreen that we’ve rubbed on with fervour during the ride out will end up as a thin, oily scrim on the surface of the water that washes up on the sand.
I successfully resist the urge to make small talk with the guide at any point, signalling to him that I’m not one of them, the honeymooners and the retirees. I pretend I don’t know the names of the fish he points to in the water; I pretend to be scared of the nurse sharks. At the same time, T and I desperately try to separate ourselves from our tourist companions, who are insufferable. While they chatter about the local bars, she and I exchange glances that say we’ve taken this tourism thing one step too far.
On the ride back to the mainland, Fran, a former nurse from Dallas, passes around a bottle of Belizean rum she’s brought to share. When I accept a sip, she starts to chat at me. She describes her travels with her friends; they’ve been all over Europe and they especially loved Germany. I lie and tell her that I’m German, like T, and she seems convinced.
‘Isn’t the ocean here fabulous?’ she shouts at me above the sound of the boat’s engine. ‘This is our first time in South America!’ With one hand she’s clasping her purple visor on her head to keep it from flying off in the wind and with the other she’s smearing sunscreen on her upper lip.
I look out to the horizon. The water is a brilliant green, with tangled patches of seaweed rising to the surface. I can smell the gasoline of the boat’s engine, which is leaking behind us. The sun is raw and ferocious in a cloudless sky.
I don’t tell Fran that the Caribbean isn’t an ocean. I don’t tell her that we aren’t in South America. I don’t tell her that she has sunscreen in her moustache. What would I be trying to show, and to whom? Today is not the day, and she is not my audience. I take a gulp of warm rum, nod at her and say, ‘It’s my first time too. Isn’t it so authentic?’
1 Most universities in the United States place archaeology as a subdivision within anthropology (along with three other subdivisions: physical anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and cultural anthropology – the last of which is my dad’s field). Although archaeological methodologies are distinct, for this reason I’ll use anthropology as an umbrella term.
2 For some classic reading on how the anthropological Other is situated in a permanent past and distant time, see Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1983).
3 The Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, sometimes called the ‘father of modern anthropology’, advocated for the importance of living closely among one’s ethnographic subjects as a ‘participant observer’ in order to understand the world from their perspective. His best known research is his early 1900s work on gift exchange systems in Melanesia, a foundation stone for later work on kinship and reciprocity.
4 On the problems of humanism and ‘doing good’ beyond cultural relativism, see Carlo Caduff, ‘Anthropology’s ethics: Moral positionalism, cultural relativism, and critical Analysis’, Anthropological Theory 11 (2011), pp. 465-80; Joel Robbins, ‘Beyond the Suffering Subject: Toward an Anthropology of the Good’, JRAI 19 (2013), pp. 447–462; Didier Fassin, ‘Beyond Good and Evil?: Questioning the Anthropological Discomfort with Morals’, Anthropological Theory 8 (2008), pp. 333-44; Miriam Ticktin, ‘Transnational Humanitarianism’, Annual Review of Anthropology 43 (2014), pp. 273-289.
5 I’m focusing primarily on the United States in this discussion. In 2018, the USA Bureau of Labour Statistics reported that 26.74 per cent of anthropologists work in ‘Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services’; over 23.42 per cent in ‘Scientific Research and Development’.
6 K. Anne Pyburn, ‘Anne Pyburn’s Principles of Community Engagement for Archaeologists’, 2003. <academia.edu/5129190/Anne_ Pyburns_Principles_of_Community_Engagement_for_Archaeologists>
7 Pyburn, ‘Preservation as “Disaster Capitalism”: The Downside of Site Rescue and the Complexity of Community Engagement’, Public Archaeology Vol. 13 Nos 1–3 (2014), pp. 231-2. She explains: ‘the village collaborated with the Massachusetts Audubon Society – a New England conservation organisation – to create the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. As stewards of this sanctuary, the residents can continue to use their resources as they have for 300 years, but keep outsiders from doing unsustainable commercial extraction.’
8 Richard Wilk, ‘How research can go astray and harm the people it was meant to help’, preface to the second edition of Household Ecology: Economic Change and Domestic Life among the Kekchi Maya of Belize (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1997 ), p. 2.
9 Pollock and van Reken, Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds (London: Intercultural Press, 2001).
10 One of my dad’s special areas of studies is food and eating practices, and for a period he researched ‘picky eating’ on the part of children of middle-class families. See Wilk, ‘Power at the Table: Food Fights and Happy Meals’, Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies Vol. 10, No. 6 (June 2010).
11 Children in the Field: Anthropological Experiences, ed. Joan Cassell (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987).
12 Pyburn, Introduction to Ungendering Civilization: Reinterpreting the Archaeological Record (New York, NY: Routledge, 2004).