By Jay Kirell
Today was my second day back at college after a 13-year hiatus as a full-time student. It was my first class in the third of my four classes this semester – Anthropology 103: Peoples and Culture of Asia.
I’ll be honest, I had no idea what to expect from this class when I chose it. I figured since I spent a year in central Asia I had a functioning knowledge of at least one section of the continent.
The course description online said it was about the study of India, China, Japan and Southeast Asia. Why not give it a try? Sounds interesting, at the very least.
I arrived at basement-level classroom about 20 minutes early. There was one other person there. Slowly people started to fill it. Interestingly, all of those filling in the seats were women, about a dozen in all – very culturally mixed, and me, of course.
The class was supposed to start at 2:55, but it was well past then when the door opened and in walked just about the last thing I was expecting.
I’ll admit I wasn’t sitting around pondering what the professor of an Asian Anthropology class was going to look like. I hadn’t given it any thought at all.
But what I wasn’t expecting was our professor to walk in looking like this:
Picture a man dressed like this, but about 20 years older, with glasses and a beard.
Our professor walked in, apologized for being tardy and began to pass around the course schedule. He began to explain the objectives and outline of the course and then spoke at length about his background. He’s an expert in the rise of Islam in Southeast Asia and has traveled back-and-forth between his native New York and Malaysia/Indonesia researching the mix between Islam and local Asian cultures.
After plugging his book – (brand new and a steal at $75), he asked if there were any questions. A few students had normal questions about upcoming essays and other coursework. Once those were asked, the professor said he wanted us to go around the room introducing ourselves and why we’re taking this class.
I had to ask my wife about it afterwards. She said that’s a common thing in Social Science classes. I was dreading it though, and for the 10 minutes I sat in the back of the class, awaiting my turn to introduce myself, I wondered what I should say.
Should I bring up that I’m a veteran and fought in Afghanistan? Am I going to offend the teacher, other students? Am I wrong for thinking they’ll be offended?
All this went through my mind when the professor’s eyes finally locked onto mine, signaling my turn to speak.
“Hi, I’m Jason,” I started. So far, so good.
“I’m a returning student. I was last here for two classes in 2003 and before that from 1996-99.” Good, good.
“I….um…just got out of the military,” I said, looking down at my desk. Aww, fuck.
I looked up and found the professor scribbling something on his notepad. I looked down at my desk again. I was certain he was pre-assigning the F.
“I spent a year along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and I’m taking this course because I thought since I had firsthand experience in the region it would be good to learn more about it,” I said, and as I looked up again the professor was locking eyes with me.
I had no idea what he was going to say. I felt frozen. I didn’t dare look around to room to gage anyone else’s reaction. I was already the only male student in a class full of woman, now I was some strange war-fighting military guy in a class of Anthropology majors.
I felt as out-of-place as Obama at a tea-party rally.
Then the weirdest thing happened. The professor, who had been locking eyes with me, smiled. He started to ask me questions about my time there, what I learned, what I thought this class could add to my experience.
I wish I could remember exactly what he said, but I think I was caught so off-guard by his reaction that I fumbled just to come up with a coherent response.
He seemed genuinely interested and encouraging, which – of course – he was. There was no reason for him not to be. He’s an anthropology professor who just discovered an older, military veteran who spent time around his area of expertise. It’s not every day that walks through your door.
It is pretty shameful I thought I wouldn’t be welcomed in the class just because the professor is a Muslim and an expert in Islam. I’ve never felt that way about any group of people before, though I admit since I’ve gotten back to the states I haven’t had a ton of interactions with people who follow Islam.
It’s a weird feeling when the subconscious biases you carry just erupt all over you like a volcano.
I know it is not, in the larger scheme of things, that big an issue. I didn’t say anything that let on that I had any biases. I nodded at the professor and he nodded back as the class was dismissed. Two people meeting for the first time, though only one probably spent the better part of the afternoon pondering the encounter.
Self-reflection on my own person biases. Not a bad lesson from the first day of an anthropology class.