Growing up as a military child, my life and my identity are the product of contact zones. Contact zones within the various countries I’ve lived in, within the countless schools I’ve attended, and even within military bases themselves. However, one of the most prominent and distinct contact zones was definitely the one I experienced in Armenia.
The wealth gap in the country was so apparent, you couldn’t miss it even if you tried. I went to school with the children of oligarchs and came home to a large, walled house in the middle of a poverty-stricken neighborhood. Stray dogs roamed the streets and elderly grandmothers sold food on the corners. This was the situation at the time I gave my speech about women in sports. My parents were middle class, they provided for all of the things I needed, and the military paid for me to attend an international school.
The contact zone between the embassy and the community of women with whom I played soccer was the one I found myself in on that night I was giving the speech. I wanted to belong to both sides of the contact zone. However, being an American, an outsider in the country of Armenia, I was definitely more closely associated and aligned with the American embassy.
Pratt, in her article The Arts of the Contact Zone, uses Benedict Anderson’s phrase “imagined communities,” when speaking of areas joined together by the same language (Pratt, 37). She explains how languages are thought to be “speech communities,” communities that are held together by a common form of grammar, spelling, etc. However, the term can be broadened to include individuals who collectively think they are a community, united by some common trait, but are in fact much more diverse than they seem. The solidarity that I had felt with these women was clearly an imagined community on my part. I had thought that were united by a single cause, and thereby part of the same community. A community of women held together by one common purpose: To open up the realm of sports, in particular soccer, for generations of other young women to come. In reality, I was much more of an outsider than I had assumed (Kyle, 3). What I thought didn’t really matter. This wasn’t my country. It was, albeit vaguely, my issue; however, that night in Armenia was neither the time nor the place for my own agenda.
As Pratt made clear, “… Our job… remains to figure out how to make that crossroads the best site for learning that it can possibly be” (Pratt, 40). Contact zones are ideal places for learning. I can personally attest to the fact that each and every contact zone will make you realize or teach you something about yourself in some unique and surprising way. However, we must be careful that we find ourselves in a contact zone, and not within an imagined community.
Looking back, there was no way I could have understood the depths at which these women had suffered in order to simply play their sport (Kyle, 2). The situation I found myself in on that night could have easily been made into a contact zone, if I had “let them speak more, share more of their experiences, and simply allowed myself to listen and understand” (Kyle, 3). If this situation had been a contact zone, it would have been optimal for learning.
When speaking of the course she taught that involved learning in the contact zone, Pratt remarks: “Along with rage, incomprehension, and pain, there were exhilarating moments of wonder and revelation, mutual understanding, and new wisdom…” (Pratt, 39). Although contact zones are messy and sometimes difficult, they challenge you. In order to learn, you have to be challenged. Your ideas, your opinions, and your thoughts have to be stretched beyond your safety zone, so that you’re forced to question their merit.
Despite the situation not being a contact zone, I still learned something incredibly important on that night. What I learned and what Pratt, through her article, reiterated for me, is that we are all individual people. We all have our own ideas, our own opinions, and our own identities. We don’t have to feel like we belong to a community in order to grow. All we need to do is challenge ourselves. Let our ideas and our thoughts be challenged by others within the contact zone, so that we can realize things we never thought of before. Let others have a voice, so that we may refine ours.
Kyle, A. C. (2016). Identity. Unpublished Manuscript. Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA.
Pratt, M.L. (1991). Arts of the Contact Zone. Profession, 33-40.