From January 10, 2010: Over the past few years, I’ve been intrigued by fences, those things that separate, delineate, alienate, isolate. I want to know why they are there, what (or who) they are protecting, what (or who) they are keeping out (or in) and why. Always why. I take photographs of fences all the time. I’m thinking of a photo essay (book) on fences.
My thoughts today, however, rest on the unseen fence, the invisible (but not) boundary between university faculty and non-faculty. I have crossed over that fence, unlocked the gate, crawled between the barbed wire. I’m on the other side. The inside. Scratched, bruised, and bleeding. But I’m on the inside.
When I think about crossing those fences, or those borders, I think of assimilation. In large measure we think we must lose ourselves (our culture) to be a part of the new place. For example, I have to pretend to be like those on the “inside” of the fence if I’m to fit in, assimilate. If I’m like them– if I don’t stand out– I can stay. If I am who I am, not really like those on the “inside,” I run the risk of being outed, of being banished to the “outside.”
Oddly, being a new faculty member feels just like that. I’m sure that being a student can feel like this. I’m certain that being someplace new can feel this way.
When I lived in Japan, I crossed the literal border between nations. I was in another land with another culture, another language, another way of being. Try as hard as I might to assimilate into that culture, I never could. I would never been subservient enough, petite enough, have dark enough and straight enough hair. I’d never be Japanese enough. Ever. Even if I had desired to lose myself, my name, my heritage, my culture, it wouldn’t have been enough. I would always be the outsider, the guest, even though I was on the (physical) inside.
I wanted to assimilate– for the sake of my marriage– but I wanted to retain what I thought were the best parts of me. At that time, in my mind, assimilation wasn’t possible. There could be no blending of the best. It had to be one way or the other, not both. Eventually, though, I did become a bit of both. Living in Japan had a significant impact on who I became. It had to. Crossing that border and living in a land so different from my own changed the way I looked at the world. It changed the way I look at myself. It still does.
It’s like drinking black coffee. You add a touch of cream to the black coffee. Suddenly, that black coffee isn’t black coffee any longer. It’s a little lighter, a little smoother, a little more tasty (if you like cream in your coffee). You can’t remove the cream, though. The coffee has changed, and it can never go back to how it once was.
Living in South Texas, borders are highly significant– given the close proximity to Mexico. While that literal border is important, my overall concern is different. When we cross the border (or cross the fence), we are not leaving one sphere for another. It’s not that simple, not that black and white. We don’t suddenly change when we cross the line; the change happens slowly. We are bringing the best (and worst) of ourselves into a new space that may or may not be willing to accept our differences. We are blending cultures. One influences the other. One bleeds onto the other. Each culture battles to retain the best of itself, while fighting the domination of the other. The Other. Culture becomes a weapon, a commodity, a tool with which to separate, to alienate, to hurt. It becomes a border, a fence.
I’m thinking of a series of essays about border crossings and pedagogy. (Moving beyond Pratt’s “Contact Zone.”) What can borders teach us? What do they teach our students? Do we allow them (ourselves and others) access to the other side? Do we let them in? Do we keep ourselves out? Do we have literal gates that keep students away from our institutions? Do we have metaphorical gates? Why? Who do those gates protect?
Note on the image: I took this photograph in 2007. I was driving down a country road outside Fort Worth, Texas. The textures of splintered wood, rusted metal, and sharp barbed wire told me to “stay out!” The pad lock sealed that message. However, it could have been possible to get over that fence. It wouldn/t have been that hard, but the effort of the message, “stay out!” made me not want to try. Scaling the effort wasn’t worth the effort.