“The other ambassadors warn me of famines, extortions, conspiracies, or else they inform me of newly discovered turquoise mines, advantageous prices in marten furs, suggestions for supplying damascened blades. And you?” the Great Khan asked Polo, “You return from lands equally distant and you can tell me only the thoughts that come to a man who sits on his doorstep at evening to enjoy the cool air. What is the use, then, of all your traveling?”
This passage, excerpted from Italo Calvino’s fantastic novel “Invisible Cities,” encapsulates, I think, the existential guilt of every state-sponsored anthropologist. And for the past few months, I’ve been grappling with this same question. While many of my Fulbright peers are busy eradicating infectious diseases or resolving violent conflicts or converting trash into potable water, I’m investigating an unequivocally esoteric academic topic in a country that most people couldn’t locate on a map. So, how do I find fulfillment in my research when only a handful of people, if anyone, will ever see the results, much less find value in them?
Frankly, I’m still searching for a satisfactory answer to that question. And while it’s easy enough for me to identify the individual skills and competencies that I have developed during my time here – e.g., a solid grasp of the Russian language, a better understanding of investigative journalism techniques, and a renewed patience for other people – these are all decidedly selfish accomplishments. That being said, I am also motivated by the optimistic hope that someone, somewhere, will find interest in the stories I am attempting to document from this forgotten republic. While the results of my research may not address a critical crisis afflicting our planet, I remain hopeful that they will help to satiate another fundamental human desire: our desire to make sense of the people with whom we share this planet – and to find the threads of commonality that bind us together, despite our differences.
So, while Marco Polo never directly addresses Kublai Khan’s question, I’ll leave you with a Clifford Geertz quote that, while a bit trite, comes awfully close:
“It may be in the cultural particularities of people — in their oddities — that some of the most instructive revelations of what it is to be generically human are to be found.”
Besides, marten furs are so 14th century.