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Issue 89. The Journey Home December 27, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Place.
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When my father started to lose his memory, it was as if he gained an entirely new set of memories. He remembered travels to Egypt that he had never taken, visits to France with his father (who had died when my father was 14) and explorations of India and Hong Kong. Wherever we took him, he recognized as a place he used to live many years ago. The house he and his father built — he was pretty sure — lay just beyond that hill, or around that corner.  My father died nearly 13 years ago, and now it’s my mother’s memory that no longer quite works. But she is planning a journey.  She wants to go home.  She waits for the bus that will arrive to take her as far as the home of her aunt and uncle in Philadelphia, who will surely be happy to put her up overnight, and she thinks of other places she can stop on the way home. All these stops are with family and friends who have long since passed away.  And no matter that we are there to visit her, she seems to believe that she is visiting us. This is not her home, and there seems no way to make it such.  

I-95, heading north

As my husband and I drive back north on the same route we took last week down to visit my mother in Florida, we both fully agree that it’s good to be going home.  But the journey home is also quieter and more reflective than the journey away from home. We still notice a few new things along the way, but we mostly recognize places we’ve seen before.  Mostly we think about where we’ve been and about what we’ll do now, after we get home. This is a transition place, or at least we treat it as such. And there is more than a touch of sadness to it. 

I think many study abroad students also experience this sadness on their flights home, perhaps especially those who may have felt ready for some time to go home. Homesickness happens to many people, but going home never really erases that experience, nor does it exactly promise a new beginning in the way that going away from home sometimes does. Going home concludes the journey and re-establishes our connection with this place. Driving home from Florida, we had many moments when we said, “Now we are home.” First when we reached the familiar places on the New Jersey turnpike we knew we were close and with each familiar landmark or recognizable space we renewed our feeling of being home. We identify ourselves as part of this place, and our lives move in this space and among the people here.     

For some reason, as the New Year begins, it is common in the English-speaking world to sing a song from a Scottish poet about not forgetting old acquaintances and times gone by. I feel the same nostalgia with the old Beatles’ song that goes “There are places I remember….”  My mother remembers her aunt’s house where she lived for a while as a young woman before she was married. She remembers that she was a student at Southern College, a boarding school in Virginia that disappeared long ago, so sometimes she supposes she is there now, and that the school year will soon be over and she will be going home. So she asks again when the bus will come, the one that goes past that house in Bowling Green. Knowing that these places no longer exist, and that these people are long gone, I am the one, not her, to feel their absence. And I dearly wish that I could drive her home.


Issue 87. What we forget December 2, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Communication.
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Benedict Carey’s article in Tuesday’s New York Times is interesting on many levels. It describes research conducted by Nigel Gopie and Colin MacLeod, both based currently in Toronto, involving memory experiments with University of Waterloo students. In these experiments, students had trouble remembering to whom it was that they told particular facts or, especially, pieces of personal information, even as they remembered the information they told. The theory seems to be that the mental resources used in telling someone the information leave insufficent resources to pay attention and remember who that person is.

Psychology as a field of study is often studying how the human brain works and the assumptions seem to be that findings like these are connected to the overall biological similarity of humans rather than learned social behaviors. In this case, the assumption is that all human brains have similar capacities and will function in similar ways under similar conditions. I have to admit: I frequently remember things without the important context of  who else was there. Is this human nature? Am I that self-absorbed? Do I talk too much to remember?

Or am I just a product of my individualistic North American culture? In his book, The Geography of Thought, Richard Nisbett described his discovery that his Japanese students consistently were better able to recognize objects when they were paired with their original background, while students from the US focused on a central object and seldom noticed or could recognize the background, and he followed up this an other observations with research that tends to confirm the existance of culturally different patterns of thinking between Asian and Western cultures. 

This leads me to wonder if there are culturally different patterns of forgetting, as well. In the United States, for example, it is often assumed that people will easily forget the names of aquaintances they haven’t seen for a while or have only recently met. Therefore at many conferences, at large parties, and even at some churches, people are encouraged or expected to wear name tags. Is it because we expect no emotional connection with these people that we expect to forget their names? Probably so, because our context for relating to this person is also limited to that particular location or event. And so we are always impressed when someone we know only in a limited context somehow manages to remember our name. We feel much more important.

What happens when we go abroad and cannot remember the unfamilar name of the person we just met, and cannot remember what we told him or her about ourselves? If we forget these simple things, what else are we missing about the context in which we are meeting someone from another culture?

Issue 65: The Smell of School May 4, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Place.
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pink_bookWhile cleaning out some files the other day, I came across an old article by Michael Paige in that strange blue-violet type made by a ditto machine. I realized that part of the educational value of the piece, in addition to whatever Michael had written, was its iconic value as a representation of the culture of education in the baby boomer years. Stacy, my incredibly bright and competent graduate school intern, had never smelt the dittoed quiz passed overhead to her by the student seated in front of her, or walked past the principal’s office where the dittos were being run off for whatever class needed them. It was the smell of school, though the odor has long left the Michael Paige article. I know because I automatically lifted the page to my nose. Nothing. Only then did I start to read the article and appreciated the fact that this ditto had been very neatly typed. There were no obvious remnant scratches that signaled a corrected typo. I felt like a curator from Antiques Roadshow, with an impressive knowledge of some ancient technology.


Jaipur picnic 1991

Much of our experience of cultures and places is sensory, and the sense of smell is one of the strongest ways we experience a place.  My memories of India include the smokey, spicy smells that I sometimes discover lingering in fabric or clothing made in India. And there are emotional memories that this scent evokes, much stronger than the memories evoked by photos like this one, taken in Jaipur late in 1991. The colorful saris against the beige ground are striking, but if I could smell the burnt edges of the naan bread baking inside those barrels again, I would feel myself taken back to that picnic on the mountain.

When people have trouble adapting to a new country and culture, or have trouble accepting immigrants moving in next door, they often complain most strongly about body odors, cooking odors, or the cologne that they may use.  An American host mother once told me about her dilemma of feeling nauseated at the family dinner table by the smell of the Sri Lankan exchange student’s cologne. She didn’t want to say anything to the boy, but at the same time she was so overcome by the odor that she could hardly eat her dinner. It wasn’t enough for her to know that this was just one of those cultural differences.

As Rachel Herz pointed out in her book, The Scent of Desire

“Our responses to the scents of one another profoundly influence almost all our social interactions and relationships. The feelings that emerge when we catch a whiff of someone else can range from unconditional love to repugnance and prejudice.” (Chapter 6)

So what is a host mother to do when she wants to love a newly arrived exchange student but is repulsed by his cologne? In this case, the host mother managed to communicate her feelings without perhaps wanting to do so, but she seemed less able to interpret the students feelings when he seemingly spontaneously stopped wearing the cologne after a few days.  For her, it seemed that a problem was thankfully and quickly resolved.

Although this happened decades ago, I would not be surprised if the scent of that particular cologne still leaves traces in their minds that would immediately recall for both the host mother and the student the way they each felt in those first days together.