Number Our Days, Me, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
BYU Papers,  From The Archives

Life as I Didn’t See It

I think my college path had been leading me to journalism long before I knew that theatre wasn’t the path I wanted to take. At the time, I thought I loved theatre for the excitement and the spectacle of it all, but what I really loved was the storytelling and the transformative power of seeing myself in another person who was different from me. Reading through these old essays has given me an opportunity to see how my life has been slowly led to where I am now.

The very first essay I wrote for a college class was in summer of 2012. I took three classes that first semester: Quantitative Reasoning, Beginner’s Ballroom Dance, and Introduction to Anthropology. While each of those classes impacted me in some way, Anthropology 101 from Prof. Richard Buonforte was probably the most crucial class to take to kick off my college career. It changed the way I see people.

Life as I Didn’t See It: An Essay on Social-Cultural Anthropology

By Savannah M. Hawkins

Learning through the eyes of a Jewish lady:

Over the course of learning about social-cultural anthropology, I feel like I have learned how to observe the world in a new way: to see things not just as they are, but why they are. The ethnographies that I read touched me in ways that I had not expected. Originally, my reason for taking this course was to fulfill certain university requirements. What was gained is far more valuable.

In reading Number Our Days by Barbara Myerhoff, the level of emotional investment was strong. As one travels along this journey with Myerhoff to understand the center people and herself, it is easy to feel compassion for the trials they face. The pleasure the center people take in knowing that their children and grandchildren have been able to move up in the world- having a higher education and a greater understanding of world views- is darkened by the sadness they feel from being left alone. When the center people go home at night, it is usually to an empty apartment, where they wait until the next day when they can be amongst their friends. This book showed how underappreciated the older generation has become. How is it that we can easily forget all that they have done for us? How can we throw away the very thing that has allowed us to have the freedom we now take for granted? Questions like these have plagued my mind since reading Number Our Days, and I’ve pondered a bit on the subject. What I am doing that honors those who have gone before me?  Am I forgetting the struggles my parents and grandparents went through so that I could have the opportunity to gain a better education? I feel it is necessary to pay better attention to the way I use the opportunities I have been given, and to the way I treat my parents.

There are so many things that can be learned from the center people.  Although they grew up in extremely difficult circumstances, they look back on their childhood with such love and fondness. Shetl life seemed so simple and ideal. To me, my childhood was wonderful. My family had hard times financially, but we never went hungry, lacked clothing, or even toys to play with. The attitude of looking back with a positive eye is one that I admire in others and see in myself.

One of the things I have noticed that is similar to the lives of these elderly people is something that I learned from my last seminary teacher when we were discussing the Old Testament. He explained that the reason for the commandment to “Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land…”[1] was because of how easy it was to leave the older people behind when the Israelites were crossing the desert. The old people would slow them down and it became convenient to leave them to die- or in some cases, kill them- so that the rest of the family could continue on their journey at a faster pace. In a sense, the center people resemble this. Their children scarcely visit them, nor do the children invite their elders into their home as much.  Because I had the ability to enter these people’s lives through Myerhoff, I feel disheartened by the way they were treated; like they had nothing to offer. I can see that they have so much to offer, and so many stories to share.

The center people also delighted in their work. Schmuel was a tailor and found so much joy from sewing [2]. This shows that no matter what you are doing, you can be happy. He still had sadness, but he lost it for a while in his work.

It is so fulfilling to lose yourself and go to work. When I have moments of distress it always helps for me to stop and do something different for a while. Service is a curious thing. One does service to help others; however the ones serving get more out of it than the ones being served at times. Barbara Myerhoff must have felt this when she was among the center people. She had a difficult time deciding if she was there as an anthropologist, or there on a personal quest, because she got so much out of it. I’ve spent some time in the Y Serve office on campus, helping to cut out pattern pieces for teddy bears. Even though I will not get to see the finished project, I have felt the joy that comes with knowing I have done something for someone else.

It is interesting to see how the center people respond to gift giving and donations. If you are given something, it meant that you were lacking in that area. However, if you gave something, it was wonderful because then you were helping another. When boxes of matzo were donated to the center by the temple, instead of handing them out to the people, the center’s director, Abe, knew perfectly well how to handle the situation. He stacked the boxes in a corner, without saying anything. When he was asked about them, he replied: “I’m selling them, I got them cheap. What do you think they’re worth? Whatever we get we can send to Israel.”[3]

The desire these people had to serve their country, to help others who were struggling, is inspiring; it reminds me of the men and women who serve our own country though the armed forces.

Survivor’s guilt introduces itself in this way. While the center people are grateful for living in America, they wonder why they were the ones who were able to escape. Why were they special enough, or bad enough to stay on this earth? This is a question a lot of people, not just elderly Jews, seem to have in their minds about life. Sometimes we wonder why bad things happen to good people. This is a lesson in life that without the gospel of Jesus Christ, is hard to learn. As a Latter Day Saint it is understood that we go through trials to strengthen us: to learn and to grow.

Perceptions of Culture:

I had the hardest time reading though The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures, because of how well written it was. The way Anne Fadiman wrote this ethnography made it seem like I was there with Lia Lee and her family. My heart broke along with theirs.

The most intriguing conflict, and the reason for the title of the ethnography, is that of the barrier between cultures. I wonder if Lia’s outcome would have changed if there had not been a barrier of language. One thing that saddens me is that to the doctors, Lia was just a case. She wasn’t Lia Lee: the child, but epilepsy.

There were moments when I could side with the family, and times when I could side with the doctors. The reason it was so difficult for me to get through this ethnography is because I couldn’t pick a side and stay with it. I could not be completely against the doctors, because they had a hard time dealing with the language barrier, and Lia’s parents would not always follow instructions. I couldn’t stay mad at the Lees, because, in some ways, what they were doing helped Lia more than the doctors did. They knew their child.

After Lia’s 16th admission to the hospital (when it was realized that she had septic shock)[4], I was reminded of a time in my life when doctors had misdiagnosed a severe ankle fracture as a mere sprain. The doctors had insisted I walk on it, but it was excruciatingly painful to do so. The day I finally got the courage to grin, bare, and walk on it, I remember my oldest brother yelling at me to not put any weight on my ankle, because the doctor had called earlier that day with the news of my ankle being fractured. About 9 weeks after this, when the cast I ended up with finally came off, my ankle was perfectly fine. In situations like mine, and that of Lia’s misdiagnosed septic shock, it becomes extremely easy to point all of the blame at the doctors, and hate them for their mistake. If I had put too much weight onto my ankle, it could have broken my growth plate. There would not have been cause to sue the doctors, but we would have been angry with them if my growth plate was broken by following their instructions. One of the important things that I have learned from this ethnography is that doctors are humans, who sometimes make mistakes. We do not like when this happens, but that does not mean that they do, either.

In the eyes of the doctors, the Lees were the ones being unreasonable, while in the eyes of Nao Kao and Foua, the doctors were not living up to the title they possessed.  The doctors were supposed to fix Lia, but they did not.

Looking at the situation from both points of view, I was unable to decide what I really felt about it. I was sad for Lia and her family, but I understood the doctors. If anything, what I feel I can take from this ethnography is that not only it is important to know that there is a difference between cultures, but also to make an effort to understand those cultures.

Life As I Didn’t See It:

It’s important to be observant in life. Over the course of my 18 years on this earth I’ve felt like I have been more observant than the average person. I usually remember the names of the people I meet, even if we only talked for a moment. I catch on to signals other people give off quite easily. I also notice when others are in need of something specific. Although I’ve felt this way, I have now been taught how to be more observant. Yes, people do things a certain way, but do I really know why they do it that way? One way to find this out would be to simply ask them why they do what they do. I think that this would be a fun experiment to try: to walk up to strangers whose behavior differs from my own, and ask them why they do that. Some may think I am a lunatic for asking them, but others might be happy to indulge me in my quest to understand people. Along the way, I could also make new friends. It’s important to make these relationships, but you cannot do that if you do not make an effort to meet them.

First impressions are crucial in the way we interact with others and in the way they interact with us. In less than thirty seconds of meeting someone, we make the judgment of what type of person they are, and if we want to befriend them. In the past, I have let this get the better of me. One of the specific times I let the thirty seconds get the best of me was one Sunday, about 8 years ago. I went to my Sunday school class to find a little girl sitting down, with a chalkboard eraser in her hand. She was patting it all over the chair she was sitting on. From that moment on, I decided that she was a trouble maker and I did not want anything to do with her. A few weeks later, I had found out that my family planned an after church lunch with that little girl’s family. I protested with all my might, informing my parents that she was not someone I wanted to be around. Even with all of my pleading, the lunch went on.

The funny thing about this story is that, while at the luncheon, she and I became good friends. Later on in our friendship, our parents found that we were distantly related. This just shows that you should never fall victim to those thirty seconds. I have been more cautious of my own first impressions since reevaluating that experience and I have caught myself when I make such judgment calls on others.

Social-Cultural Anthropology has shown me new ways of understanding people, or at least a new way to try to understand people that, before this course, I would not give a second glance to. While I thought that I was observant, I have realized just how blind I have been. The things that I want to change about myself after taking this class are difficult to put into words on a piece of paper. Our Professor, Richard Buonforte, made a very clear point when he said that what we have in our minds is three dimensional; when we read our own writing, we know exactly what we are thinking, so it all makes sense. What we need to realize is that paper is only two dimensional. We need to ask the question “Did I write what I meant to say?” The emotions I have felt and the impressions that have been made on my life seem so complex. I am still unsure how I really feel about how this course affected me. It is a slow process to figure it out, but I am starting on that journey.

I am grateful for the wonderful opportunity I had to take this journey with all of you at my side. Your thoughts have given me insight and new perspectives. If I had the chance to do this all again, I would not hesitate to jump right in and get my feet wet. I have laughed, cried, and wanted to scream at the top of my lungs at some of the things we have read. It was a comfort to know that I was not the only one going through those emotions. I have learned so much from you, from Barbara Myerhoff, Schmuel, The Lee family, and the Merced doctors. Not just about living life, but observing it. Thank you, for sharing your hearts with mine.


Savannah M. Hawkins

[1] King James Version of the Holy Bible, Exodus Ch. 20 Verse 12.

[2] Number Our Days, Myerhoff, Barbara, 1978, Needle and Thread: The Life and Death of a Tailor.

[3]Days, For an Educated Man, He could Learn a Few Things, pg. 128.

[4] The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures, Fadiman, Anne, 1997, The Big One

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