Last month, I returned for a visit to New York City - to visit friends, see the city at Christmas, and, of course, to do some research on visual rhetoric at the International Center for Photography. My wife and I saw some old friends, and visited some of our favorite places in north Jersey and NYC... but we also decided to try something new.
The first obstacle was the language barrier. We spoke no Korean. The first several members of the restaurant staff apparently spoke only very limited English. We were offered a choice of seating, but - unable to get understandable details on what each choice meant, it was a coin toss for us. We chose upstairs, where we were seated and given menus. We chose from the menus and placed our order - one choice that had the word "beef" in it somewhere and another that had the word "chicken" in the description. In fast order the service began...
A square portion in the center of the table between us was removed to reveal a pit, which was filled by an attendant carrying (through the midst of the dining area) two rectangular metal boxes of flaming hot coals, like a scene out of the book of Revelation. This certainly helped us fend off the New York December chill! And then, plates of foods of various types, beef, chicken, onions, and a dozen things we could not identify with any certainty. The server put the meat on the grill for us and left us to our devices. Should we put other things on the grill? Should we take the meat off? Turn it over? What was that mushy white stuff? We asked a number of questions to a number of servers, each of whom was patient and friendly and had only the slightest clue what we were saying, but offered some bits of knowledge that varied in relationship to our question from "close" to "not even in the ball park." However, with no other diners nearby to observe, we cobbled each bit of knowledge into a skeletal guide to navigating the Korean food before us.
We were absolutely out of our element. We had no comfort level in analyzing or categorizing the elements of the meal. We were inarticulate. We were uncomfortable.And yet, we EXPERIENCED the experience. We have a grand memory of learning something that was "non-sense" in many ways, yet gave us a "new sense" of Koreatown that we couldn't have gained through a visitor's guide. As we watched our hosts flow through this world with complete fluency, we were enlivened by the complete "otherness" of ourselves as strangers in this strange land.
This week in my research I ran across an article entitled "Creating Real Presence: Displays in Liminal Worlds" by John Shotter, in which he says...
CLAM students - you will, of course and necessity, be involved in analysis through many of the experiences of this term. HOWEVER - don't let the "requirements of academic discipline" misdirect you completely from allowing these experiences to "speak to you" in uncanny, indeterminate, and "other" ways. From time to time, relax the limits you might feel constrained to impose - and take off your ethnographer's hat for a bit - and just EXPERIENCE the experience before you. (You can always write about it later!)
Have fun - and do good work!
7 years ago