Just back from the U.S. and the body rebels. Jet lag forcefully reminds us that the body and its functions are not under “my” control because if so, this nauseous compulsion to sleep would not creep over “me”. Inquiring minds want to know; who laid down?
We speak of culture shock, but in practice the jolt of awareness that becomes cross cultural–we will not speak of “reliable”–knowledge may be something as banal as the taste of water or the brush of straw brooms as property management employees remove fallen leaves each morning. Indeed, one of the pleasures of jet lag is that it reveals our dependence–taken for fact–on a finely calibrated, but ultimately unwieldy instrument to navigate abstract social arrangements. What constitutes a work day or acceptable behavior or even reliable conduct ultimately presupposes an attempt to control the uncontrollable.
Early into fieldwork, those heady years when Shenzhen was field site but not home, I caught a cold. New acquaintances diagnosed 水土不服 which literally as “water earth not submit” and might be colloquially rendered as “not acclimated”. Poetically speaking, this body rejected the water and food of its new environment, refused what it needed to live until it adapted not only to strange flavors and clocks, but also to microorganisms and local germs. A strange and uncomfortable beginning, but there you have it; the ethnographic is achieved through embodied dislocations. What we know, we know because we came, we saw, we coughed.