Wednesday, July 3, 2013

On Memory, Or the Importance of Fieldnotes

This post is a personal account of how memory, as discussed in the above video, effected my recollections of fieldwork once I came home.

The importance of taking detailed notes while in the field and doing interviews was stressed in every methods and research class I took throughout my college tenure. I never doubted my teachers were right, but as with many lessons, knowing something intellectually and understanding it experientially are two very different levels of knowledge. On an intellectual level I knew what these professors were saying was correct, but it wasn't until recently that I experienced the reality of it.

When I returned from Taiwan I did not immediately start pouring through my fieldnotes because, quite frankly, I had more immediate concerns. I did remember being in Taiwan, of course, and so I spoke about it frequently with friends, family, and colleagues. (Well, frequently in those first few weeks, but more than that and people start to get real bored hearing about it - this is a common occurrence travelers run into upon returning home.) During this time I mostly recounted how great the food, public transit, people, and nationalized health care were, among other awesome details. I loved Taiwan so much I couldn't wait to get back and in fact, planned on returning at the end of this past semester.

At the end of the semester I was offered an extension on my job in Milwaukee and denied a grant to go back to Taiwan. I was happy with how this turned out. By this time, I was adjusting back to life in the USA and I had started going through my fieldnotes in an attempt to finally start writing my dissertation. (I do kinda want to graduate eventually.) This contentment with fate was not just about adjusting to life back home, however, it was also about what I was discovering in my fieldnotes. In short, my notes, in large part, did not reflect the stories I told in those first few weeks. 

In my memory Taiwan was an exciting 2+ year adventure and I could easily see myself settling there permanently. I do recall both ups and downs, but my overall impression was very positive. I felt healthier from the food, weather, and lack of a personal car. I felt respected as a teacher. I felt like a lady when out with the boys. I felt my horizons expanding. Now all of this is true, but it does not reflect the day to day reality of my life in Taiwan. When looking back through my notes there were endless days of tedium in the office, uncomprehending managers, frequent loneliness, heat sickness, near weekly bouts of diarrhea (it is no wonder to me now why so many people said I looked near anorexic when I first came home) and frustration with communication problems and cultural differences. 

I find this gloss in my memory especially interesting seeing as I distinctly remember what I used to do to cheer myself up when I was feeling down. See, ever since I was a small child I had always dreamed of living on an island with palm trees. (I don't remember why I wanted this, but knowing my childhood self it probably had to do with some book I had read.) When I was feeling lonely or sad in Taiwan I would simply go for a walk or a drive in a cab and look at the palm trees and remember that I was literally fulfilling one of my childhood dreams. How many people can say they have done that? Even now, the memory of this accomplishment makes me smile :)

I am not saying life in Taiwan was bad. It was actually great. It was not, however, the magically perfect existence I sometimes remember it as. In reality life in Taiwan was about as good as my life in Milwaukee. It was very different, but it really wasn't better. There are a lot of things about Taiwan that I think America could learn and vise verse, but I think the pros and cons of each balance out. If the right circumstances came about I could still see myself living in Taiwan, but then again, I can honestly say that about anywhere. There are really only two important factors I want in my life and location simply doesn't register on this list. 

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