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November 15, 2004

Would You Like Some Tea? - A mini-ethnography of whats brewing in London

Thursday, 11th November
Kitchen for Apartment 5C
Dinwiddy Hall
London. 7:00 p.m.
The flag is gone. It�s the first thing I notice, although it takes some more time and someone else pointing it out to make Taru realize. The wall now gapes rather uncomfortably making the clock on the next wall seem even more precarious than before. I wonder again why it hangs from the overhang rather than on any of the blank walls that these residents are anxious to fill up. Probably because it is the first thing you see when you walk in through the door? Taru told me a story about how he would walk into the kitchen each time he needed to know the time when he didn�t have a watch. I wonder if the clock is that important to the others?

Lee is there when we walk in. She�s by the electric kettle looking rather involved. Almost as if she hopes it will deliver something more than hot water even as her gaze does not stray too far from the rising temperatures on the thermometer. We nod out greetings. Its nice to see that she finds me familiar already. We talk about the cold. It IS cold today. Has she been out? No, in the room all day but her radiator does not work too well. I notice that she has one of those pseudo pashmina shawls you find on every street corner these days, draped around her shoulders. She carries it differently, making the fabric go around her as many times as possible. I�m sure it has more to do with keeping out the cold than making a fashion statement! She shivers slightly as Taru goes to the table and I walk past her to get the tea out of the cabinet and wash the teapot that lies in the right sink.
Taru talks to Lee about radiators. How she should tell the front desk if she is not happy with hers and they will come fix it. He got an extra one in his room now but that�s also because he knows the student representative. But Lorraine was having some trouble with hers as well and she complained. The maintenance guys are supposed to stop by later today she�d said when we met her earlier. If she gets an extra one maybe Lee could have it once Lorraine leaves the apartment in December. But Lee really should try now as well. Lee�s nod, or was it almost a shrug, is lost to Taru as she turns to pour the hot water into her mug.
I start to refill the kettle just as Tom walks in. Greetings all around. Tom would you like some tea?, I ask. No thanks, but hot water would be nice. I don�t quite comprehend what he wants instead of the tea but I fill up the kettle all the way.
Tom: So Lois has taken down the flag.
Taru: (turning to 180 degrees to look at where it used to hang) oh really? I just noticed. Why?
Tom: I don�t know he didn�t tell anyone.
Taru: But then again he didn�t tell anyone when he hung it up either.
(They all laugh).
Taru: I was thinking that since Lois had his Portugal flag up, maybe we should all hang up the flags from our own country. At first just that flag alone was funny but then I got used to it. The wall looks sort of empty now. Maybe he took into his room to remind him of home or to give him strength when he feels homesick.
Tom: Or maybe he just doesn't want it hanging in the kitchen around us anymore. Not that we made fun of it. Actually that�s not true. We make fun of him but that�s because he�s Lois. We make fun of everybody.
Tom is leaning against the counters on the right. There�s a small fridge, a four burner electric stove, a sink with a cabinet underneath and some cupboards overhead. An identical segment lines the left wall but this section has an extra counter. Lee leans against the wall on this side of the room. Taru is seated at the table, away from the window, on the chair that�s almost broken. There is only one other chair placed out right now. The rest are stacked up behind Taru. Yet the table is large enough to fit a couple more around it. There had been some talk earlier of trying to steal a square table from another apartment and exchange it for their round one. The plan has been stalled for want of kitchens in the residence accessible at night. But more space is needed it is generally felt, to accommodate the many visitors and �honorary� members of this kitchen community.
I hover around getting together all the tea things. As the water starts to boil, I ask Lee if she would like some. She declines and shows me her cup that has large tea leaves already in it. So is that green tea? No its actually a kind of black tea she says. Meanwhile Tom is again asking Taru about how to cook the lentils. Sick of his rice and potatoes diet he�s decided to experiment. He tells of how he was talking to his brother earlier in the day and telling him about his culinary plans. �Lentils?? Why ever would you want to do that?� the brother had asked. �Because its cheap. And I�ve seen my flatmates make some and it seems easy� Tom reports having replied.
Meanwhile I hand Taru his tea, place mine on the counter on the left and give Tom a quizzical look with the kettle in my hand. Thanks he says and has me pour some hot water into his cup. �That�s all I�ll be having right now. Gotta go for a run.� Only now do I realize that Tom is in trainers. Also he does not have a sweater on. Perhaps that�s also why he won�t sit down.
Lee and I are taking about school � hers and mine. What courses are we taking, how we like it so far, what out plans are � we each ask and reply in turn. Taru has told me beforehand that she doesn�t talk much. He thinks its partly a language problem, but also that she is perhaps shy and the others in his apartment are not, so perhaps she feels left out. I�m glad that she is talking about her life at SOAS now. She wants to know what I�ve seen of London so far. She hasn�t seen much herself in the two months she�s been there. Its mostly school and back for her. But its different if you have someone to explore with I say. I�m sure I would never have done this much walking around if I had been by myself. So are there many other Chinese students around? Not really, Lee replies. At least not first years. There are some seniors but she doesn�t really hang around with them.
We all drink our brews in silence for a while, each one contemplating where their conversation last left off.
My invisible assignment hat comes on. I take in once again the �Kill Bill� poster that hangs opposite the erstwhile flag. I know that is Taru�s contribution. Lorraine�s cupboard right next to it has three postcards on it. They all look like reprints of indigenous Mexican art. I know this was part of another failed decoration plan. It had been suggested that each person �put stuff� on their cupboards to mark it but also to make the kitchen look better. But as the first function became redundant with familiarity, the second faded in priority. Lorraine was the only one who had responded. Then again, she is the only one who has not decorated her room, she had said, since she would be leaving so soon. Its interesting then that she marked her spot in this common spot but did not feel the need to do so in her private living space.
Tom is asking Taru now if the fasting period is over. It�s a return to the lentil conversation because Taru offered to be there when Tom makes it the first time. Eid is in two days even though there is still some confusion about the exact date. Taru laughs and tells the others about Ayesha�s parents visiting for the holiday. She has put her stock of alcohol and cigarettes into his cupboard for the meantime. Her family, even though they are liberal Muslims would not be amused. Taru thinks it has probably more to do with the fact that Ayesha is the oldest and herself feels she has to set an example for her siblings, especially for the youngest brother who is now at the vulnerable age of sixteen. He has asthma like her, but he should definitely not smoke.
I can picture the scrap of paper with the cartoon on it rather than see it. Its on the felt board that hangs also next to the erstwhile flag. The two were roughly the same in size, which is why I think now the gap stands out even more � the board has nothing to throw it into relief. The paper has all the legitimate and honorary members listed with a descriptive squiggle next to each name. There is also some competition as some have two or more of these attached to their names; very often a story of accusation and defense. For instance Lorraine�s name has hastily sketched next to it a Mexican flag and also an American flag. There used to be flames going up around the latter I was told, but they are now whited out. She also has a diet soda can drawn nearby. Ayesha�s cartoon I remember is of a disconsolate smoker seated by the kitchen window. Tom�s is of a cup of tea, apparently his most staple gastric intake.
The one other item on the felt board is also a site of contestation. It is the frontpage of a British tabloid with George W. Bush caught in one of his characteristic �baffled� expressions. The headline says �How can 59,000,00 people be so� and the original completion of the sentence is now whited out to read �misinformed�. But a postcript to this adds an expletive to the original print and now says �damn dumb.� Lois had put up the newspaper originally. Ayesha had made the first censorship and Taru the addendum.
Seeing me look at it again, Tom brings the topic up.
Tom: So what was it like being in the U.S.then?
Me: Very depressing actually. Its almost like for a week everyone was in shock, at least everyone I knew.
Tom: Yeah that must be hard.
Taru: But you know its different because there were also so many people who didn�t vote for him except that you never meet them.
Me: Yup. Its easy living in the big cities and thinking that everyone is like you. But actually we have no clue what the rest of the country is thinking and that�s really scary. I don�t think I would live anywhere in the States except New York.
Taru: Really its like most of America has no idea about the rest of the world. And they have no desire to also.
Me: I once met this lady in Texas who had never even been outside her own state. And she was proud of it! She said the furthest she�s been away from home is 200 miles.
Tom: But you know there are some people here as well. I was reading an article the other day by an American lady about why she voted for Bush.
Me: So why did she?
Tom: You know, security and all.
Taru: So what�s it like here?
Me: When does Blair go up for re-election?
Tom: Some time early next year. But its different here. He will definitely win.
Me: But I thought he was really unpopular because of all the war and America stuff.
Tom: Yeah, but the alternative, Michael Howard is much worse. He�s a real conservative and people hate him.
Taru: So Blair seems better in comparison. But his policies are also dodgy aren�t they?
Tom: Yes some of the people within the Labour party also criticize him a lot and I think by and large the party really needs to rethink itself. But he is still the best option.
Taru: And there is no chance if anyone else leading the Labour party in the next election.
Tom: No not really. But see there might be someone strong from the Liberal Party. We don�t have that two party system here.
Me: I know, but could that person actually defeat Bair?
Tom: No but there is a good chance that they could move into the opposition. That would make a big difference, especially in relation to ties with America.
Taru: It sort of sucks that the rest of the world doesn�t have a say in who is President in America since they have such an impact on the rest of the world.
Me: Not only that, think of all the people within the United States who didn�t vote for him. Ninety five percent young voters and first time voters voted for Bush. Its also sad because there really was mass scale mobilization on campuses. Our university was like this sort of Democrat base. Kerry even came and spoke on campus. But where did that all of us. And also 90% African Americans and most Hispanics voted for Bush. What about them?
Tom: Hey so I heard Bush speaks Spanish.
Taru: Really? I don�t think so. He probably can�t speak it straight and has to read it out.
Me: But then does he speak anything straight? I don�t know about his language abilities but I do know that during both their campaigns Bush and Kerry would say the odd thing in Spanish.
Taru: Its almost like a small concession to the fact that there are minorities in America and they need to reach out to them.
Tom: but see that�s where Blair is different. He actually went to France and made a speech in French at the parliament there.
Taru: I think that�s where we all are different from the Americans. Most of us have a second language. Even the Europeans.
Tom: Its a little different here again from the rest of the continent. Far fewer britishers speak a second language than the rest of the EU citizens.
Taru: Yeah, elsewhere most people at least know English.
Tom: I guess that�s it with people thinking of English as this universal language. That�s why Americans and Britishers think that they can get by.
The conversation dwindles of at this point. I think partly also to do with the fact that each of us have finished drinking whatever we were sipping on. Lee has been listening to this whole exchange but has not contributed anything to it. As I take Taru�s and my cup to the sink I ask if anyone wants more tea. Lee shakes her head but pours out some more hot water into her cup. She wraps both her palms against it like she is still cold.
I look at the watch and see its been 45 minutes since I entered. I decide then to make this �the session.� I signal to Taru that we should leave.
As we are walking out Tom calls after us, � Thanks for the brew. There�s nothing like some good hot water.�

Themes to be developed/ explored further:
1. Politics of Space � the utensils and refrigerator shelves are unmarked and shared though each of the inhabitants of the apartment have their own cupboards. Yet the objects to do with the material world of food making is the most harmonious. The more interesting contests take place over the imaginative spaces of the kitchen. Who puts up what where and why? Also these assertions are not unchallenged. The flat mates have obviously developed a system of retaliating to each other. While most of this is in jest, there is the concern of making this space polyvocal. Also how much of the surprise, and the fun, comes from the fact that a lot of this comments, inputs are anonymous, that one must actually guess the contributor to know whose politics it is?
2. Politics of Food � food still is a central concern though in this arena. In the cartoons that describe each resident, the description provided usually pertains to a food habit. There is also observance of each other�s cuisines, exchange in recipes, suggestions for improvement. Yet is this exchange multidirectional? Are all people as flexible in their diets? Is everyone willing to experiment in their cooking to the same degree? Which kinds of suggestions are welcome and which ones not?
3. Politics of Language � each inhabitant of this apartment hails from a different part of the world and therefore speaks in an accent disctinct from the others. How does this polyphony play out in conversations? Does everyone understand each other to the same degree? Do people feel equally inclined or adept to partake in the talk that goes around? Who gets the more say, and whose word is taken on which subjects?

I did not then go into the field with my notepad. In fact the people in the field did not even know that I was on �project� when I was. I was a guest who then went back to her room and wrote about one of her times in the kitchen.
There are multiple reasons why I made these choices � the first being a very practical one. Given that I was to be there for five days, how would I choose a half-hour slot that would be optimal to my project, which was the observance of the politics of shared space as manifest through food. It became fairly obvious from my first moment there on that it would be almost impossible to find all the six inhabitants �naturally� in the kitchen at the same time. It was based on this that I made my two crucial decisions. First I would not force an unnatural configuration of people because of my project. A completely spontaneous congregation at any given time would give me a good indication of the schedule of the kitchen - who goes in there are at what time and for what? To what extent is this independent of the schedules of others. Having decided that how would I know what was the best time? I wanted to go with instinct on this one. Given that I was there over an extended period of time, I obviously had the choice of more than one instance to write up. I decided to go with a segment that would be most interesting to my project. This �interest� level revolved around a number of factors � how many people were there in the kitchen, what they were doing, how long they were there for and what, if anything, did they talk about? I realized that multiple situations might present themselves, each one better than the last. The strategy that I evolved for myself was that I would make a preliminary write up of each time that I thought worth further development and only at the end of my trip, when all the possibilities had exhausted themselves, would I expand on one for my fieldnotes for my assignment.
Having explained the method, a quick note on the final choice. This section was the most promising for a write up precisely because it offered enough variations within a few constants for it to satisfy a sustained, cohesive reading. Firstly there were the same players in the scene roughly for the entire length of the half hour. No one just walked in and out quickly, interrupting the scene and not interacting with it enough. This uniformity of time gave me the chance to observe each player over the same time period and see how their activities evolved through it. Also the fact that each of us were there for the same reason � to get something hot to drink to keep us warm, provided a unity of action on a very basic level. Yet the differences in the brews itself was interesting. What did choice of beverage say at about our lifestyles at that given moment? Also how much did we share and influence each other�s choice? The same activity engaged in by al of us, helped me focus on the variations each of us brought to the routine.
That said there are a number of challenges I encountered while actually writing up the fieldnotes. It was easy enough being in my social role in the field, but it was hard to directly transfer all that information into my academic role. Also scholarly concerns kept cropping up into my work in solitude that had not been there in the field. How to organize data, how to build a coherent narrative, how to deal with issues focus and yet bring the background into the narrative as an intrinsic part of it? The final resolution is perhaps a lot less self � reflexive than I would like it to be. On reading the work over the first thing that strikes me is that I seem to have a fly-on-the-wall approach. I don�t reflect much on my feelings and thoughts during the event but rather undertake a direct reportage of the actions as the unfold. There was also the question of temporality. How do I represent two conversations that were taking place simultaneously? While it is fairly obvious to say that the filed researcher cannot be everywhere at one, there is a part of us that keeps track of the periphery. In what form do we include this added knowledge that may not be the result of direct eavesdropping, but rather of more diffuse attention? And finally there was the issue of conversations. Without a recording device, it is impossible to report verbatim. Yet can close reconstructions of conversations make the same claims to veracity as transcribed interviews do? Also to what extent does one try to indicate the accents, idiosyncratic speech patters, slang and vernacular usages made by other people without actually keeping exact record? Are one or two �pilot� examples sufficient?
For this assignment I decided to go with what came the easiest, and then to look back and reflect on why it came so naturally. So while the construction of the piece is obvious, it is more a narrative coming from my strengths that I am acquainting myself with, rather than weakness that I have not yet explored or fortified.

Posted by at November 15, 2004 11:49 AM