When a four-year old toddler run towards you and ask you why the sky is blue, why the chicken can’t fly and how we make babies, these questions will give you a headache. Still you feel you have to answer to the kid and to find a reliable response that will probably trigger many more questions. The “why” and “how” questions period is tricky and will make you sweat. However in my country, this headache is probably also a very sweet moment, when one discovers the world around him and wants to understand it.
Many different types of formal education exist and I am not here to judge which one is better or worse. However the place of the “why” into the education seemed to me, before moving here to Laos, highly important.
And then the culture shock came. Working in the academia is very enriching; we keep on learning every day we keep on challenging our mind and trying to find answers for problems, we want to uncover. To find solutions, we need to know the context, the environment, the action and the issues surrounding those actions. To know all of these elements in a new culture, we need to live with it, to try to understand it and we need lots of observation. Thus, my favorite question, or the one, like a four-year old toddler I am constantly asking is “why” or “how”. How do you cook papaya salad? Very important since I have craving for that. Or how do you communicate with your superior? Another very crucial one when discussing about planning and budget. Or simply while doing field work, why do people act in such ways?
However these questions, here, are very few raised. Few academics will ask why and how when doing their field work. Also the list of the facts they will get, often very good, will not trigger any kind of understanding on the reasons behind. Local people are also showing very little interest in understanding the motives. The way they think and their culture do not drive them to question but more to observe. Another very strong shock I faced was understanding the questions. Some questions that made lots of sense to me were totally unclear to my interlocutor. The mind has then to run for another way of asking and thus it becomes very important to understand the context in order to try to find out how the people will understand the question.
So when I go to the field or correct a proposal, my strong push to ask “why” and “how” every two sentences is often disturbing my counterpart and this is the way I got the nice nickname of the “why” lady.
Eventually, since I love to do that and to discover different cultures in academia, I would ask you, How do you cope with understanding the motives when the situation is different from what you know? When doing field work in your own country, would you face such issue, and how do you feel about it?