When is the right time to speak? For how long? And in what context?

My freshman writing class at AU started off by reading A Hope in the Unseen, a non-fiction novel in which a black high school student in a poor area of D.C. defies his surroundings to get into an Ivy League school. After that, our professor assigned us to write a personal narrative paper. The important requirement was that our story included a turning point—a moment or experience when a major change occurred in our lives and/or our thinking shifted. I was barely 18 when I started college. I’d had a pretty predictable childhood of school and sports, and my teenage years were also filled with homework, friends, and extracurricular activities. Any changes I’d experienced in my life had been gradual. I had no dramatic moments to dwell upon in a 6-page paper, and indeed the professor wrote that my narrative lacked a turning point.

Toward the end of college, my perspectives on the world had grown/shifted significantly, but I still lacked much life experience. At parties I felt more interested to listen to people than to tell my own stories. Today that’s no longer true. I have plenty of experiences that I’d love to share, and sometimes at social events when someone asks about the more mundane aspects of my life I feel the interesting stories swelling up inside my skin—like balloons threatening to burst if I don’t start sharing. But in most cases, I don’t. The balloons sag, shrivel, and deflate. Why don’t I release them into the conversation?

Balloons for sale

Balloons for sale, Hyderabad, India; November 2010

The primary reason is that it feels obnoxious to start every sentence with “When I was in India/Palestine/Honduras…” (Actually, there was a girl in my college writing class who did just that. I bet her personal narrative had a great turning point.) Particularly when first meeting people and in a place like Lancaster, where most of the people I encounter have not ever left the country, that’s not the standard flow of conversation. I’m not aiming to have people tell me that I lead a super interesting life. It makes me embarrassed/uncomfortable when they do.

And while I don’t want to bring up my adventures in a boasting way, not surprisingly most people who lack similar experiences don’t know how to ask questions that allow me to talk about such things. For three years I’ve been struggling to find a way to answer the impossibly broad question, “How was Egypt/Guatemala/Mexico?” In the absence of good chances to talk about my experiences, I’ve noticed lately that when I talk to my friends I’ve become long-winded and dominating, so I should give a shout-out of thanks to people like LT, Emily, and the two Sarah’s for listening, even though I’m usually droning on about things in my current life rather than past journeys. Some more polite ways I’ve found to share my experiences have been talking to people at my photo exhibits, and also speaking with college or high school classes.

I’m quite happy to do the latter, but speaking to a group of teenagers once is different from working with them as a teacher, and I am not sure how to be effective at connecting youth to topics that are geographically far from them, and perhaps even more distant mentally. In media, school, religion, and overall culture, there are plenty of messages being sent to kids (and adults!) that outside the U.S. and Western Europe, most people are poor, diseased, or violent. Or all of the above. That is absolutely NOT how I see the world, but because my travels have been to places where injustice is highly visible, I’m especially wary that what I share will perpetuate such messages. There may be the occasional student who can take what they hear beyond the scope of the ground they are standing on, but my guess/concern is that most students will hear what I say, group it into the “that’s a shame” part of their brain, and move on to thinking about what’s relevant and real to them. The same way most Western tourists do when they notice poor people while they take advantage of the beautiful beaches and great exchange rates in “developing” countries.

Whether in classrooms or at parties, my confusion over what to say about my experiences comes from the same root: the framework with which I understand my experiences is obviously shaped by those experiences and thus different from the framework with which my listener can understand what I share. Different from my freshman year issue of not having significant experiences to talk about, my question has now become how to talk about my life.

A photo of me in Nablus, March 2010. Taken by my friend Khamees. He's someone I'd love to tell you about.

6 Responses to “Tongue-Tied”

  1. 1 ekoli May 1, 2011 at 10:48 am

    Funny. I have always wondered how much the ‘turning point’ moments that I identify in my narratives of myself are a product of looking back and reconstructing by adding meaning to what was perhaps just as random an experience as anything else. I think it might be more honest not to necessarily have a turning point moment – not to have looked back and defined yourself along the lines of a narrative appropriate to a linear plot line.

    As a big talker who really really doesn’t like talking about myself, I think now that I must have developed short pithy anecdotes to steer people away from the uncertain and private bits.

    I didn’t realize this until a few years ago a close friend said that though they are constantly talking to me they suddenly realized they didn’t know much about me. They weirdly only just realized how intensely private and reserved I am. They were a little hurt by this. I felt in this moment like the jig was well and truly up.

    I think that the way you express things in your blog is with little guile and tremendous honesty… seeing meaning in the seemingly mundane but not trying to pin to much too it… leaving your readers to just listen, not be told what it all means.

    I’m still working on that.

  2. 2 RogueAnthropologist May 1, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    Thanks for the compliment–I’m glad you enjoy my writings!

  3. 3 Mitch May 4, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    “I’m especially wary that what I share will perpetuate such messages”

    I feel like this is like what I said on another post of yours, but you aren’t creating those perceptions by telling your experiences.

    I think my central friends like hearing about your stories from elsewhere. I kind of laugh at how you refuse to bring it up, though- it seems to always comes out almost by accident.

    “I’m not aiming to have people tell me that I lead a super interesting life”

    Of course not, or else you’d lie and exaggerate ;) Be yourself!

  4. 4 Sam May 11, 2011 at 7:28 am

    “I’m especially wary that what I share will perpetuate such messages.”

    Just read your blog post in prep for how to introduce you to my students.

    Honestly, in regards to MY kids (at least), I think it’s fairly effective to be straight-forward and just…say what you said here. My kids respond very well to openness, and a good percentage of them (though certainly not all) are mature enough that, if you state that these people and places deserve so much more respect than being considered “those less fortunate than us,” they’ll probably be on board with you. It’ll seem more honest to them, and they’ll be more likely to jump on board with what you’re saying. That’s the sort of connection that I’d like to at least see them *begin* to develop: moving beyond “thank goodness that’s not me” into some level of real understanding.

  5. 5 RogueAnthropologist May 11, 2011 at 8:15 am

    Thanks, Sam. Thinking about it in terms of being straight-forward and open makes life simpler…as Mitch (above) knows, I tend to over-complicate my thoughts before I let them out! I also like the way you put is as the people I’ve met deserving much more respect than being considered less fortunate than us. I’ll probably use that language! And I guess the best way to figure out whether people (students and adults) will understand and internalize the perspective I’m trying to convey is to actually start sharing it :) Ah teaching–we’re always learning as we go, right?

  6. 6 Laura & Adm May 17, 2011 at 10:17 pm

    Hey! We feel so much of your thinking on the difficulties to communicate one’s life experiences are close to ours. Than you for sharing.

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