Letter from China: Amateur Anthropology

Fenster writes:

It is hard for the mind to grasp itself since it is inside looking out.  Consider the case of that poor neuroscientist I wrote about here, who had to reason through that he was a sociopath on the basis of data about his own mind.

Sometimes, though, you can have an experience that suggests something of how the gears work.  Like when you have a name on the tip of your tongue.  Who was that actor in the remake of 3:10 to Yuma?

Aussie Aussie Aussie Aussie.

R. R. R. R. Raymond?

Richard? Robert? Russell?  Russell?!

C. C.


Why does the R seem right somehow, and how does it head you to the name?

Better yet, consider the experience of apprehending a visual illusion, like the famous one of the old crone and the young woman.

Here, there’s a flickering that goes on as your mind shifts perspectives.  Flick.  Crone.  Flick.  Young woman.  You can feel it.

Something very similar happens in the process of cultural immersion—amateur anthropology, if you will.

My entire gestalt since arrival in China has been that of a stranger in a strange land.  Yes the people smile and carry themselves in recognizable ways.  Yes there are buildings with windows and doors and rooms, and the rooms have furniture like chairs and couches.  But everything is different—that is, it is the differences that come to the front of mind, and dominate.

It doesn’t help that the Chinese style of interior decoration seems derived from David Lynch—no conversation pits, just chairs and couches pushed back as far as possible to the walls, leaving an existential open space that is faintly threatening.

without the zig zag rug of course

I am in China at a meeting with university officials discussing higher education research in China.  I’ve been here for over a week now, in constant communication with the Chinese and only the Chinese, and still am the stranger in  a strange land.  The room has the David Lynch look.

As always, I have my translator with me, who doubles as guide and, increasingly, friend.  We are conversing through the translator, back and forth when . . .


These are just people that I know.

The feeling is as palpable as the shift from crone to woman with hat.  Cool!  Then . . .


Stranger in a strange land.


Friends talking.


Stranger in strange land.

I think this means I am in the “no mountain” stage I discussed here.

The experience of perspective shifting is pleasurable in its own right.  And it also suggests something interesting about how the mind works, the importance of perspective in understanding and how experience works in tandem with learning and growth.

I can feel it, Dave.  It is rather satisfying.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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