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A question, analysis of

calamityschild's picture

What brought him here?

That was the first thought I had when I realized exactly who I had struck up a conversation with. He was a talented, older, highly educated man. I was a young girl in high school, who had ordered an Americano instead of a cappuccino because the extra 75 cents still meant something to me. It had been like any other day at my favorite local coffeehouse, but that day, I feel impulsive enough to talk to someone new.

What could he be doing?

He had spent time at some of the best institutions in the world. He had patents to his name. Time magazine had applauded his work. The man I was talking to was so impressive, so accomplished, that I had to wonder what he was doing in my quiet town, as if Exeter, New Hampshire wasn’t attractive enough to bring in people with a bigger life than the ones most of us live.

Mary Louise Pratt might have recognized a contact zone in this exchange. She might have recognized our immediate differences and labeled the connection as being an asymmetric one. However, as I remember the most interesting stranger I’ve ever met, I do not recall it as feeling imbalanced. It began as an innocuous question:

Are you a writer?

He had told me he was, sort of. He clarified, telling me that his work is in academia. I revealed that I was a student, and that I would be starting college in the fall. He asked me what I wanted to study. I said that I was considering political science or philosophy. At the mention of philosophy, he was visibly entertained. In his own undergraduate career, he had studied physics and philosophy, the latter being a field of study that he recommended I pursue, crediting some of his success to the skills he acquired in those classes. This is a moment that I believe Mary Louise Pratt would have appreciated. She has endorsed the artful utilization of contact zones in the classroom to establish “ground rules for communication across lines of difference and hierarchy that go beyond politeness but maintain mutual respect” (Pratt 40), and in the moment that the man I was talking to offered me his approval of my prospective major, there was an instance of mutual understanding and community. He had asked me a question this time. This was the communication in which I was using an element from his own person, his education in philosophy, to make myself relevant in his life. We found common ground in our interests despite our vastly different records of accomplishment and positions of power.

He had a multitude of insights and experiences that I could have benefited from. He had the ability to do something for me, from his position as an educator and a professional, though I knew that I could do nothing for him, and even so, he wanted to know more about me. I did not have the more interesting story, and yet, he was interested.  He let me retrieve the specificities of his timeline and informed me on the development of biophysical technology. This contact zone was my temporary entrance into his world, one of high-profile names and next-generation technology, one of expertise, sophistication, and maturity. His sphere of existence overlapped with mine at this point, in a coffeehouse, informally, without reason. The dynamic of the connection I made lacked the cross-cultural context of those “spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other” (Pratt 34) described by Pratt, and the connection was made so briefly that there was hardly enough room for dialogue that delved deeper than pleasantries and relatively impersonal questions, but I could understand that it was him, not I, who was the dominant party in this exchange.

Pratt might have expected contact zones to arise in more structured settings, where dialogue is not as organic, and where there is a greater polarity of dominance. My experience was not quite “an example of a conquered subject using the conqueror’s language to construct a parodic, oppositional representation of the conqueror’s own speech” (Pratt 35) in the way that contact zones have been imagined, but rather, a smaller-scale borrowing of someone else’s position of power, a brief foray into a world that I owned no property in.

When he left, the two employees who had made our drinks and I huddled over an iPad at the cash register to watch his Ted talk. The video began to play, and the Ted slogan appeared: Ideas worth sharing. Pratt has offered the classroom as an ideal site of exchange over the contact zone, where students can “[have] the experience of seeing the world described with him or her in it,” (Pratt 39) a kind of cerebral incarnation of the zone that emphasizes intellectual discourse. Though the classroom can be well-suited to serving as a location of transculturation, it is also true that different fronts, ones as casual as a coffee shop, can provide spaces as effective as the classroom for the all-important conversations to be had that overcome divisions of privilege and foster a better meeting and agreement of separate identities.

Everything that made his story more interesting and more valuable than mine was an experience worth sharing--that extension from a place of ability and access to a place lacking both is a gesture ingrained into Ted’s mission statement, and one that was realized in my own connection with a man whose career involves breaching that perimeter of the contact zone.