I am delighted to welcome writer Cileme Venkateswar to anthropod. This is the third post in my series on doing fieldwork with kids, and in it Cileme (who I introduced in Part II of this series) reflects on what it was like to be the kid of an anthropologist who travelled a lot to do fieldwork.
You grow up differently as a kid of an academic, that’s just kind of a given. There’s a certain drive you have, a desire to know more about the world, a determination to succeed in the things you find joy in that I’ve only ever seen so fiercely in children whose parents have similar professions.
But being the kid of an anthropologist in particular? Now that’s a whole other ball game.
I can safely say that I wouldn’t be who I am now in any way whatsoever without my mother’s influence as an anthropologist. I’ve learned some of the most important life lessons I carry with me as a now almost 21 year old from the anthropological teachings I witnessed and the research I was privy to as a child. Growing up, it was just me and my mum and so when it came to her doing fieldwork, there weren’t a whole lot of options for what I would do. It was simple. I’d just go with her.
Travelling from a young age is its own lesson. Before the age of 15, I had been to New Zealand (obviously), Australia, India, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, the UK, the USA, Nepal, Portugal, Germany, France and quite possibly more that I don’t even remember. It ingrained in me from a very young age the vastness of the world and how much more there was out there. I was surrounded by so many different languages and cultures, heritage and traditions that even if I didn’t understand them, I was immediately curious about how their lives differed from my own and how much diversity existed around the globe.
Kids aren’t inherently patient, not in the slightest, but annual 12 hour plane rides, long taxi commutes to various places in numerous cities, waiting in long queues, having to amuse myself for several hours during book launches, research interviews etc., certainly helped improve what little patience I had as a child! It also produced a remarkably active imagination. I learned to sit in my own corner and make up stories in my head. I carted my imaginary friends around the world with me, having my own adventures in each new location we visited. I began a growing collection of books picked up cheaply in roadside book stalls and airport shops that helped foster a love for storytelling, complex characters and literature, a love that remains today as I study English and Creative Writing at university.
But one of the things I’ve only recently started to appreciate having learned solely from the situation of my mother’s work in academia, is my ability to converse with anyone, especially adults. Adults speak to kids a very particular way, stick to a select few conversational topics and often use that annoying, high pitched, slightly condescending tone of voice, laughing at the interesting and often naive answers they receive to their questions. Children rarely notice, but as a child of an academic, you’re constantly surrounded by adults in scenarios of meetings, pot luck dinners, fieldwork, or random encounters during a normal day. The asking about school, the ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ and the interest in what books you’re reading grows old pretty quick when you have several pot lucks a semester and you’re encountering the same adults each time. For a while, it’s easy to be amused by the luxury of getting to watch Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network on Sky TV, or running around playing tag outside with the other kids. But eventually, it reaches around 10 o’clock in the evening and the only shows on the television are reruns of episodes you’ve already seen, half the other kids are either asleep or have gone home, the high schoolers are bored of babysitting you and have taken to answering questions about their own subjects and university applications, and you meanwhile want another slice of the pavlova on the dessert table but unfortunately, there’s a group of lecturers from a department you’ve never heard of standing there and you have no segue into asking them to help you reach the cake tin. It’s around that point that you realise you’ve got to bridge the gap between child and adult and just find a way to talk to them without them looking down at you like a silly little kid.
Somewhere between the ages of 8 and 11, I suddenly gained the ability to proficiently and fluently interact with adults outside of the regular ‘child questions’, whether I knew them or not and whether we had common ground or not. I talked about travel, about what they might be researching and what my mum was researching, about where in the world they’d been and where in the world I’d been, about the things I didn’t understand in the books I read, about the stories I was writing, about whether I wanted to be a journalist or a novelist — anything and everything I could hold an almost adult conversation about. It never occurred to me that this was a ‘skill’ of any sort until I was much older. Only in the last few years of my life have I realised that people my age don’t just hold conversation with adults much older than them (even now with so much more to talk about), that it isn’t normal to be able to go up to a perfect stranger and find common ground, sparking a friendship. I’ve had so many friends pull me aside after a seamless conversation with a tutor or a lecturer and whisper ‘How did you do that? How did you know what to say?’ It’s so much easier now, as I can converse about politics, history, literature, climate change, generational differences, activism … but it all stemmed from the ability I decided to cultivate as a child.
Some of the things that have shaped me the most profoundly are the experiences I’ve had because I accompanied my mother in so many aspects of her job. I’ve played soccer with boys living in slums in India even though they didn’t speak a word of English nor I a word of Bengali. I’ve spent half my childhood wandering around university campuses playing make believe and dragging those same invisible friends to every country I had the privilege of visiting. I’ve been changed and impacted by each and every culture and experience I was enveloped in and would be so much lesser of a person without it all. This was all a part of my life out of necessity — me going with my mother was the only option either of us had for when she had to travel or go to research. But to any and all academics out there with kids: honestly. Even if you have other arrangements you could make, don’t rule out taking your kids with you, especially before they reach high school. Getting to see the world as a kid is unlike anything else, and they learn lessons that are invaluable and unteachable in any other circumstance. Believe me. We become better people for it.