An important theme in our last module of the ANTH 300 course has been looking at the idea of what’s natural and questioning it. Through our discussions and the authors whose works we read, we came to this realisation that nature is a social construct. Our idea of what’s “natural” is created and constantly revised by us. For example, the idea of men having body hair is natural, but it’s somehow unnatural when women have it— who decided that? We did. What’s natural is also culturally specific, for example: Eating the meat of goats, pigs and cows is natural in the western society, but the idea of consuming a dog, or a cat perhaps is considered a taboo. Well technically, meat is meat, so why should it matter which animal it comes from? Yet, eating one animal is natural, and eating the other isn’t. The point here was that we create what’s natural, and we have the agency to deconstruct or de-naturalise it just the same way.
There are two instances that I encountered during my research where this theme seemed really relevant. The first one was when I was sitting with my colleagues Tim (who’s interview you can find under the ‘video series’ tab). We were just in the office, doing our work and we spoke briefly about my project, since I had interviewed him a couple of days ago. In the middle of that conversation, he asked me:
“So what’s your Indian name?”
“Oh right, so what’s your English name?”
“I don’t have one”
“What? That’s so weird, why don’t you have an English name?”
“Well people from my country don’t really have English names, that’s basically what my entire research is about— how some people have English names while most others don’t.”
What’s shocking here is that Tim thinks its weird that I don’t have an English name. On the other hand, the entire reason I started this project was because I thought it was weird that some people did have English names. We both had opposite ideas on what was weird and what was natural. It’s because I grew up in a place where no one had English names, so the entire concept was foreign and unnatural to me. Tim, on the other hand, had grown up with everyone around him having English names, so he assumed that people from other parts of the world also had western names, finding it unnatural that I didn’t have one.
The second instance was when I was interviewing my roommate Yiqiu (please find related video under ‘video series’ tab). After the interview got over, Yi told me that she had grown up thinking these names were normal, but after all the questions I asked her, somehow she found herself questioning that and said that “there’s nothing normal about this”. She narrated an incident from her previous summer in Shanghai. She was interning with a firm and everyone in the office had English names. She was the only one who didn’t have one, and a guy (who was also Chinese) told her that she should get one and that he’d help her get one. She didn’t want an English name, because she couldn’t find any name with the same meaning as her traditional one, and didn’t think a generic name like ‘Susan’ or ‘Jennifer’ would do justice to her real name. She was shocked at the supervisor’s persistence, considering he was Chinese himself. She also noted that everyone in the office referred to each other with their English names, which again she found unnatural given that everyone was Chinese in that setting. Lastly, Yiqiu claimed that she didn’t use an English name not because she found that oppressive, but because she couldn’t find a name that really held the same meaning as her real name. Initially, I had assumed that her non-conformity had to do with her not liking the idea of these names and finding them authoritative, but instead she didn’t have one simply because she couldn’t find one as beautiful as her original one. Towards the end of the interview, during our discussion off camera, I noticed her questioning these ideas and really wondering if it was natural at all.
I think both these experiences were interesting for me, because I viewed this topic from a new lens: one that de-naturalises.