When conducting fieldwork, most anthropologists will have to eat with their host. Blogger Nadya Karimasari elaborates why this matter is not as simple as it may sound.
What I like most about my preliminary fieldwork is the interaction that it brought. Eating together is one of the most essential ways to build a relation. Providing food for a new ‘guest’ or ‘stranger’ is not just a simple act of hospitality. Through food, the community that I lived with offered to have a relationship with me. By eating the food they offered together with them, mostly on the floor, I opened myself up to commit to this new relationship and be more than just a guest or stranger.
The generous act of giving and taking food is not to be taken for granted in every setting. In the first days after I arrived in a remote highland in Aceh, I spoke with a man from the city who worked for a development agency. The first advice he gave me was the following: ‘Don't eat with them. Bring your own bottle of water and cover the top of your glass.’ Why so? ‘This community still strongly practises sorcery. They will poison you with their food. I immediately got ill after eating their food,’ he explained.
I can't imagine people like him doing anthropological fieldwork in a remote area. Of course, social research is not only about trying to understand the community, but also trying to understand ourselves as a product of our social context and interaction. If he were a social researcher, he would have to be more aware of the origin of his judgement. For a researcher like me, this small conversation says a lot about the interaction and non-interaction through food.
In my case, I never did get any stomach ache, did not get any food poisoning, nor did I experience any sorcery. I ate whatever they ate. My hosts almost always ‘forced’ me to have some more. The more I ate, the more they felt appreciated. When I was feeling full, they would frown, ‘oh, our food was not tasty enough!’
Of course, I wanted them to be sure that I fully enjoyed their meal and our little moments of feast together. But I also needed to be careful not to let my stomach become too full, because it would mean that I would have to go to the nearest river... and, let me assure you, this ‘river’ thing is not any less complicated.
Nadya is a PhD candidate in the Sociology of Development and Change Group.