Author’s Note: Certain names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.
A fanciful ink drawing of the world hangs on the wall of the study where I write, each continent a different color: pale orange, butter yellow. A black and white photograph is superimposed over the map. The photo, taken in 1942, shows the politician Wendell Willkie and eight other men standing in front of the Gulliver, the plane in which they circled the earth as Willkie prepared to write his book One World. The man standing next to Willkie in the photograph is my father, Joseph Barnes.
The men wear dark topcoats and fedoras, dark hats with brims. Each of them has signed his name in black ink under the photo. My father’s signature is tiny and sharply slanted, as it remained for the rest of his life. The Gulliver looks like a boy’s model airplane. My father is smiling ear-to-ear.
Joe, as I called him, relished everything about travel: opening himself to new people and places, suspending routines and everyday assumptions. Joe was Willkie’s interpreter on the trip; he spoke four languages fluently and several others “well enough,” as he said. Sent off to study in England at fifteen, Joe had mastered Russian before he turned twenty-one. He was a foreign correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune in Moscow in the 1930s, then reported from Berlin as fascism threatened Europe.
The faded orange and yellow map that traces the flight of the Gulliver is not the only thing my father left me. Joe’s love of travel became my own. Every now and then I look up from my desk, staring as though I were searching for a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. I wish I could see the puzzle pieces assembled, revealing my father to me. And I wish, every so often, that he could see something of the person I have become.
The first time I went abroad with my parents was in 1957. We sailed from New York City on a Dutch ocean liner, the SS Statendam. As we waited in the berth on the Hudson River, my father beckoned me into the cabin and handed me a notebook with a light green cover. “You might like to write in this as we go along,” he said.
I was eleven years old.
It was an early morning in December, 1963, when my father and I boarded the scruffy little mail boat that waited in the harbor in Dar es Salaam. The boat puttered across a swath of the Indian Ocean, crossing to the island of Zanzibar just off the coast. The water was turquoise, the passage smooth.
Once the boat had left us in Zanzibar Town we walked and walked, exploring a labyrinth of alleys and dark entryways that revealed interior gardens, splashes of color. We ate lunch at the Hotel Stanley, an outpost for white colonials since 1909. Did we look like them? I had never before felt how white I am. It was an English lunch: large pieces of over-cooked meat and two kinds of potatoes, boiled and roast. The scent of cloves hung heavy in the dining room, fragrant buds being loaded by the ton into the bowels of freighters docked in the harbor. A ceiling fan barely stirred the air.
I was seventeen that year, finishing high school, on the brink of adult life. I was already away from home at boarding school but my parents, who believed travel was essential to a child’s education, arranged for me to go with them to East Africa.
Young as I was, I realized that the trip was out of the ordinary. Joe’s passport had been revoked and his newspaper career ended by the witch-hunts of the McCarthy years; he was elated when he was permitted to travel again. He had become an editor at Simon and Schuster and the trip to Tanganyika, now Tanzania, would allow him to meet with local writers.
That December, the newspapers in Dar es Salaam were filled with stories about Soviet activity in Zanzibar. British rule was ending and the island was said to be unstable. When my father proposed the daytrip to the island my mother, an intrepid traveler, refused to go. She announced that Joe had paid dearly for his love of all things Russian. “I feel you are being foolish, taking unnecessary risks,” she said, mindful of how the McCarthy hearings had affected family life. My father and I went without her.
The day was sweltering yet hours slipped by as we wandered, up and down twisty streets so narrow that our outstretched hands could touch the stone walls on either side. The heat, the cloves, the ancient city, were dream-like.
Suddenly, rounding a corner, we came face to face with a gang of sailors. They blocked the path, seven or eight of them, big pale men wearing navy blue wool trousers and tall leather boots in the tropical sun. I reached for my father’s hand. There was a shocked, uneasy silence. Then Joe began to speak to them in Russian.
What told him to speak Russian? How did he know? The men burst into conversation, interrupting and vying for attention. They grinned and bellowed, patting my cheek and slapping each other on the shoulder. I grinned too, not understanding a word.
The Russian sailors were strangers, utterly mysterious to me. Were they shocked to see us? Joe’s questions transported them home, I could tell, and their answers, the details of their lives, carried him back. It had been decades since my parents lived in Moscow in the 1930s, long before I was born.
After we parted Joe told me what they had been saying. “The foreigners’ quarter is completely gone – you remember that snapshot, our dacha with the dog on the porch,” Joe said. “This humid heat is suffocating them, and seeing you made them homesick for their children.” He shook his head, an astonished look on his face.
I couldn’t have named it then but as I stood there, listening to grown men I didn’t know talking with my father in a language I didn’t understand, I grasped something remarkable. The sailors had grown up with the smell of freshly baked piroshky that Joe reminisced about, and they joked in a language he loved. The older ones would have remembered how the streets felt in the mornings when Joe filed stories about the Stalin trials. Those Russian sailors knew my father in ways that I never would.
My father died six years after the day in Zanzibar.
Writing about that afternoon, I am again aware of the loss. Joe and I had a great adventure; I knew it was special while it was taking place and that impression grew even stronger later on. I was twenty-three when Joe died, not a child but profoundly unprepared. The loss was devastating. Yet as I write about it now, a lifetime later, a fresh perspective is emerging: I am tracing the contours of what my father left me.
Joe showed me how to touch the world, and smell it and study it and take delight in it – simply by venturing out from the corner where I lived. He held strong views about how best to approach travel: do things you’re not supposed to do, stay open to surprises, be curious about how a trip is affecting you. Most of all, he taught me that whatever happens, write the story.
My father was not sentimental about travel. Arguing with my mother about Zanzibar, he acknowledged that it could be risky; he knew that any trip might be arduous or disappointing. But as a rule he was confident. Every trip held out a promise: somehow, one way or another, it would be extraordinary. That was a gift, like handing a child a new notebook.
One late autumn day in November, 1976, I sat in the front seat of a dusty black jeep that set out from San Cristobal de las Casas, a colonial city in southern Mexico. The jeep followed a dirt track that wound up and up, traversing steep barren hillsides, deforested and bleak. Not a single dwelling was visible. The sky was huge, dominating, on the edge of sunset. The clouds were washed with grays like the insides of oyster shells.
Miguel, a Tzotzil Indian, drove the jeep. It was Miguel’s job to check on the then-new government schools in remote communities of Tzotzil and Tzeltal and other Mayan indigenous groups. Three schoolteachers squeezed into the jeep’s back seat, slim-hipped sexy men in their twenties, their dark hair glossy as seals.
I had only recently met Miguel, yet when we talked over coffee in the city it was as though we were old friends. We plunged into a long winding conversation about schooling and children and indigenous rights, how cultures change and what work we each hoped to do. Then, as he was telling me his plans for an upcoming visit to a school in the highlands, Miguel suddenly stopped.
“Would you like to come along?” he said.
“Yes,” I said. Yes.
I was a Ph.D. student at the New School for Social Research in New York City that year, not quite thirty, uncertain about my future. My father’s death had left me adrift, unready to go back to the intensity of the community organizing work I had been doing. I had begun to take classes in cultural anthropology with no particular plan in mind. Graduate school was more engaging than I expected, but I still felt as though I was marking time.
On the verge of quitting, I stumbled into a job teaching in a program for kids who left high school to start college early. I loved it. I loved everything about the teaching, every minute from the very first day. I didn’t want to stop. That meant I needed to finish the Ph.D.
Anthropologists in the 1970s had just started to study the institutions, like schools, that shape our lives, so I designed a field research project that took me to Cuernavaca, near Mexico City. I became a participant observer at two alternative schools, talking with Mexican teachers about what they were up to and what their educational projects meant to them. Ambivalent and skeptical as I had been about graduate school, I was excited.
The research collapsed just short of a year. The schools imploded, riven by personal and ideological infighting. It was a catastrophe. Disheartened, feeling like a failure, I was ready to give up.
Mexican friends urged me to see the indigenous Mayan communities in Chiapas before I went home. Okay, I thought, I’ll be a tourist for a few weeks. I hoped it would give me a chance to pull myself together, maybe even get an idea of what might come next. Traveling alone in my tan VW bug, I followed the spine of mountains from Mexico City south to San Cristobal.
The days of driving were grueling, long and hot, and I wondered what I had gotten myself into. More than once I heard my father’s voice: “If you have a chance to go on a trip, any trip, say yes,” Joe said. “Things will be different because you said yes. And then you can write the story of the trip.”
When Miguel asked if I wanted to go with him to the school in the mountains I said yes. Yes.
The jeep suddenly jounced off to the right as we approached the settlement, passing through a stand of oaks with spindly, blotchy trunks and gnarled leaves. Dusk slid closer to dark. The night air was growing cold.
More than a hundred people were gathered on a dirt basketball court awaiting our arrival. This Tzotzil community seldom interacted with the outside world; the crowd was silent yet somehow eager, expectant. Villagers pressed close to each other in front of the school, a low cement-block building. The men wore chucs, black wool garments like tunics, blurry in the dim light. Little boys wore white tunics, miniature copies of their fathers’.
It was so quiet that natural sounds registered one-by-one: a dog barked a single bark, water sloshed in a bucket. The children made light quick movements, like birds swooping and skimming across the open spaces. They were bursting with anticipation yet hushed, quite unlike kids in the U.S. The schoolteachers who had ridden in the jeep got busy rigging up a long cord that was strung with naked bulbs to run off the gas generator we had brought. Candles, flickering in tin cans set on the ground, offered the only other source of light.
The night sky was immense. A heavy white mist slid up out of the valley, cloaking us in its cool damp. I knew that people in this region spoke of the frequent fogs as “airs,” and believed that a person’s soul could be carried off by the airs. When the mists vanished, there was the moon.
I could see the expressions on the waiting faces, bright in the moonlight. The people in this community, living less than a day’s drive from the city, did not speak Spanish in 1976. They did not pay taxes or send their sons to the Mexican army. Miguel had told me that they did not willingly enroll their children in the government schools. I felt a surge of excitement, like walking headlong into a fierce wind. Who were these people?
Miguel had brought along several films for the villagers to watch. The films were produced in Chicago by the Encyclopedia Britannica, vintage 1930. Why did he select those films? Where had he gotten them? I had no idea. As we stood together at the edge of the basketball court Miguel turned to me. “This one is called Ecology,” he said. He sounded proud.
“Ecology” was part of a science curriculum aimed at middle school children. As far as I could tell the title referred to the fit between certain animals and their habitats: a woodchuck eating lettuce in someone’s garden, a polar bear fishing through the ice, and two coyote pups roughhousing in tall grass. None of these animals had ever been seen in Chiapas.
The Tzotzil stood still as they watched. When they gasped at the tumbling pups, fur flashing silver, or drew in their breath at the polar bear, I couldn’t begin to guess what they were thinking. The crowd sighed at shots of fish swimming under the water; a hush fell at the sight of the ocean’s expanse.
The second film depicted a mechanized orange-growing operation outside of Los Angeles, the groves laden with glossy citrus. The scent of orange blossoms on the night breeze had been strong when I lived in Southern California, yet I’d never seen anything like the mounds of fruit on the screen.
People in the audience called out a single word of recognition: Naranjas! Oranges! Oranges!
Men in this hamlet had been farmers until the depleted fields and woods drove them to become wage laborers on fincas, the plantations on the Pacific coast. When they returned home from the hot country, they walked from Tuxtla into the mountains. They climbed on foot, climbing steadily for four or five days. Sometimes they carried a few precious oranges.
The film showed tens of thousands of oranges – a swollen river of oranges, surging through a stainless steel sorter and down a chute into wooden crates that waited below. As they filled, the crates became gleaming pyramids of fruit. The spectators surrendered to gentle waves of laughter at the sight. Why were they laughing? What did the laughter mean?
I turned to ask Miguel, but he was looking away.
On the screen the camera shifted to a scientist talking about citrus. He was a large white man, over six feet tall and paunchy. Very few people in the crowd were as tall as me, and I was a head shorter than the scientist. He must have seemed like a giant: a big shiny nose, black-framed glasses, and a totally bald head. He sent the Tzotzil into fits of nervous giggles each time he said something.
Miguel had told me, riding in the jeep, that he lived in this community for six years as a novice teacher. He was at home here. Yet that night on the basketball court he never acknowledged how purely mysterious the films had to be to the people watching.
Sitting there in the evening chill an astonishing thought hit me. I could not even guess what the pictures might mean to the Tzotzil. Nothing had prepared me for this moment; the realization stunned me.
“What do you suppose they’ll make of this?” I whispered to Miguel. He didn’t answer. Nor did he hint that he wondered how the experience was affecting me, the traveler who accompanied him.“What can they be thinking?” I repeated my question. Miguel gave me a quick smile but didn’t speak. Then, as the river of citrus slowed its roiling, he turned towards me.
“Tell me, Nancy,” he said, “what are you thinking about this evening, sitting here watching the films with us?”
I couldn’t say a word.
My mind has always been drawn to what an experience may mean: my own, or something happening to others, whether students or friends or people I’d met in my travels. That night, sitting with the men and women in the highlands, viewing the citrus and the big, funny looking scientist, I was struck dumb. I simply did not know.
Anthropologists were everywhere in Chiapas in the 1970s and I had had several opportunities to join their projects. Even as I said no, the tug of analytic thinking, which was their territory, was strong. I wanted to understand: what did the films mean to the villagers?
Yet I couldn’t share my thoughts with Miguel. When he posed the question – what was I thinking – I was startled. I heard it as a reproof: You don’t need to be an anthropologist right now, just be here. Don’t interrogate these people. Not tonight.
As I write this now, Miguel’s words bring to mind something the poet Gary Snyder says when people don’t understand a poem. “Fine, just listen to it,” Snyder says. “The exposure to it is part of its power. Don’t vex yourself with an intellectual understanding.” (“Zen Master,” Dana Goodyear, The New Yorker, October 20, 2008.)
Looking back, it seems as though the expedition with Miguel charted a course I had already begun to navigate. I was an ambivalent graduate student, a young white North American, active in the social movements of the 1960s. I had rejected the very idea of doing research in traditional cultures. Instead, and because I fell in love with college teaching and needed the degree, I embarked on fieldwork in schools. When that research failed I found myself, astonishingly, in a remote Tzotzil community in Chiapas. The power of the experience was tremendous. I was entranced, seduced by the mysteries of difference.
My response at the time was to write about it in my notebooks. The writing I did was often descriptive; Mexico is a visually thrilling place. But perhaps I also sensed that I was done with academic writing. What if I didn’t vex myself with intellectual understanding?
“Just be here,” was Miguel’s instruction. Could I simply be with the villagers? Under the moonlit sky, gauzy mists rising from the valleys below? I had an extraordinary experience that evening. Afterwards, I could write the story, as my father had urged.
The rainy season was hovering in January, 2010, when I sat in a classroom in Yangon, Myanmar with sixteen young Burmese students. The windows in the classroom had no panes, the doorways no doors. Thick, muggy air enveloped us.
“You know, it’s alright if you want to call me Nancy,” I told the students. “You don’t have to call me Professor,” I said. “Honestly, I don’t really like it.”
The Burmese youths listened without a murmur, unfailingly polite and attentive despite the enervating heat. No one said a word. Unsure how to interpret their silence, I was about to continue when a young woman spoke up. Her tone was hesitant.
“But you are our Sayama, our teacher.”
Okay, I thought to myself, okay. Give it up. I am the professor. Besides, I must be the age of their grandparents. I do understand – deference and formality are central to everything in this culture.
By the time of my trip to Myanmar, formerly Burma, the military regime had been in power for more than fifty years. Higher education had been effectively destroyed. The once elegant grounds of the University of Yangon were littered with broken bottles and piles of trash, the dried grass scraggly and uncut. Venerable ancient buildings crouched behind walls topped with razor wire and shards of broken glass.
Before I traveled to Yangon, I knew nothing about daily life in a police state. Once there, armed soldiers monitored my comings and goings, morning and evening. This was the familiar world my students had grown up in. No ordinary citizen could get a passport but that did not stop the young adults from hoping desperately to pursue their studies in Tokyo or Singapore or Ithaca. I was in Yangon to help them develop the academic skills they would need – if their dreams should ever come to pass.
I smiled at the courageous young woman who had spoken up to say, “But you are our teacher, our Sayama.” She wore a lavender silk longhi; other girls wore pearl gray and coral silk. Of course she was right. I should let them call me Sayama, the term of respect.
How on earth had I come to be sitting in that unlikely classroom? After I returned from Mexico, decades earlier, the pleasures and demands of teaching became the heart of my work life. I felt incredibly lucky to have landed where I did.
Then, decades later, I was visiting with a friend who had gone to Rangoon (now Yangon) in the 1950s and remained involved with Burma ever since. As she launched into an account of her current projects my friend suddenly stopped and turned to me.
“Do you want to come on my next trip? Burmese youth need to learn how to be successful college students. Why don’t you come?”
Yes, I said, I want to go to Yangon. Yes.
Preparing for the trip, I worried. How could I possibly be useful, an outsider with no useful background? No Burmese language? Would it be safe? Once I arrived in Yangon there was no time to worry. The students were not the same as undergraduates in the U.S., not at all, but their situation was recognizable. I knew how to help young people figure out their next steps. The military dictatorship had inflicted untold costs on education, and it wasn’t hard to see all that the Burmese students had missed. My teaching would be valuable to them, maybe even powerful.
That afternoon when I suggested that the students call me Nancy, they had been reading Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist whose work I love. At one point in Geertz’s essay he defines culture as “webs of significance.” For Geertz, those webs consist of the beliefs and meanings that we spin in public places in our particular cultures, whether on the queue for theater tickets in London’s West End, at a daycare center in Brooklyn, or in a Buddhist temple in Mandalay.
“Can anyone think of an example of a ‘web of meaning,’ I said. It was an unplanned question, the kind of thing I would easily ask my students at home in New York. In Yangon, it dropped like a stone. What was I thinking? What if some stranger had put me on the spot that way: name an idea that you use to make sense of things in your everyday life. I could do it, probably, but then could I identify where it came from? Could I say how that belief of mine fits into broader cultural systems, the skeleton of meanings that holds us up?
And besides, my thoughts were speeding in the quiet classroom, how can you “see” your own beliefs if you have nothing to compare them with? It’s hard to be aware of isolation until the isolation is broken; the young Burmese in that classroom had no experience of an outside world.
No one spoke. Not even the young woman in lavender.
The silence seemed to last forever. I was on the verge of starting over when a brave young man named Maung, a boy, really, looked up. His shiny black eyes met mine.
“I think I like this,” he said, “I like this notion of webs, cobwebs of meaning.”
This had never happened: the Burmese students I knew never spoke directly to the teacher. Authority is fierce in Myanmar. Adult citizens do not express their views in public gatherings, much less in conversation with a foreigner. The threat of arrest is always present; surveillance, and the caution it instills, is taken for granted. Parents teach their little children to have what they call “stone face.” Show nothing. It was beyond impolite, it was unsafe and sometimes perilous to meet another person’s eyes. Yet Maung had looked right at me when he spoke.
“I think I like this idea, this culture,” he said again, as though he were tasting a new food for the first time, relishing it. “But,” Maung was speaking longer than I had ever heard a Burmese student speak, “what would Professor Geertz say about my sister?”
I must have raised my eyebrows; people tell me that I show everything on my face when I’m teaching.
“My littlest sister is reincarnated from our father’s mother,” he said calmly, a slight smile on his face. “Our grandmother. What would Professor Geertz say about that, Sayama Nancy?”
It’s not that this could never have happened at home. It might have, although it would not have been the same. Rather, Maung’s belief in reincarnation brought me up against profound differences in how we understood things – precisely the kind of cultural difference I had hoped the students could think about – and exposed my own unwitting assumptions. Why had I thought that they wouldn’t grasp the idea of alternative beliefs, merely because their government did not permit them to travel?
Maung and I did communicate that afternoon. The atmosphere was stifling and close, yet Maung’s words were like a current sparking in the airless room. I smiled back at him. He had just called me “Sayama Nancy,” he’d almost called me by my first name. Maybe I laughed out loud, enjoying the play of his mind.
Reincarnation was a silky strand in the gorgeous web Maung was spinning. How swiftly he connected the anthropologist’s notion – that culture is composed of shared meanings – with the Buddhist beliefs he had learned, perhaps during the year that he, a good Burmese boy, might have spent in a monastery when he was five or six years old.
“What do you think Geertz would say about your sister, Maung?”
I could have posed that question without a thought at home. In Yangon, it was shocking. Silence. Every face turned towards me. Oh no, this is terrible! What’s the matter with me – why did I press him like that? I gathered my thoughts, unsure whether to simply apologize or try to respond. Maung’s question was a great one. Hard.
Then, as though a gust of cool dry air had swept through the room, Maung met my gaze and answered me.
“I think that Professor Geertz, with his cobwebs of meaning, would like to know much, much more about my sister,” he said. “I think he would find her very interesting, Nancy.”
The discussion with Maung was remarkable. The exchange reflects my belief that teaching demands deep connections between individuals, their questions and their thinking. As I recount the conversation here, the words seem akin to ethnographic writing. That is, they attend to the meanings that experience has for the people involved. This kind of writing is intricately intertwined with whatever else is going on in a life – in this case, in my life. The story speaks for the person I was when I went to Yangon, the person I wish my father could have known.
Joe left me a few things when he died: the pen and ink map that illustrates his journey around the world, a jade stamp that Madame Chiang Kai-Shek gave him on that same trip. But the mementos are not what matter.
Traveling to the other side of the globe to teach in Burma was the closest I will ever come to following the flight of the Gulliver. I will never be able to show my father my notebooks from Chiapas or Yangon, the writing that reveals the person I became. But something else ties me to Joe, something he said that I hold close. I hear the words clearly.
“If you write the story,” my father said, “if you tell whatever is happening as best you can, then the writing lets you experience it again, as often as you want. Then you’ll find out what it means to you.”
It all started in Zanzibar.