Stories of Impact

5 Questions for Professor Sarah Besky

by Saanya Jain '19, Storyteller for Good
November 10, 2015

Professor Sarah Besky is alternately described as a “goddess” (by her students), as “a thorn in corporations’ sides” (by herself) and as an anthropologist (by the rest of the world). 

She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown and author of The Darjeeling Distinction, an ethnographic study of the lives of tea plantation workers in India. Here is an anthropological look at her journey from coastal Connecticut to lush Nepal and back to Providence.

Saanya: How did you become interested in the field of Anthropology?

Sarah: I was in college and I’d never heard of Anthropology. I took this class because my friends were in this class and I thought, “Oh, this will be fun, whatever.” And it just clicked. It’s that time when you’re kind of questioning where you’re coming from, you’re questioning where you’re going, and it kind of intervened at this point in my life and the framework just made sense. Just asking about the world – asking about it, not telling about, not knowing about it, how it should or shouldn’t be — but asking about it. I realized I had all these questions about the world and my place within it.  I love my job: I get to travel, I get to live in mountains, I get to live in Calcutta and I get to chat with people and drink tea. It’s pretty much as good as it gets.

How did you become interested in India and tea plantations, and what was your experience like there?

I was always deeply concerned about issues of class and inequality, growing up in not an affluent family, in not an affluent place. I had parents who worked in unions - my dad’s a lobsterman. [As an undergraduate,] I got this grant to go wherever I wanted to, do whatever I wanted to do for the summer. The farthest place I could get away from coastal Connecticut was Nepal. I went back after I graduated and worked for a year in the first public library in Nepal. I couldn’t go back and work in the rural areas I wanted to work in because of the civil war, so that brought me to Nepali-speaking India.

People in my field site were amazing because they understand that you’re learning. You never take yourself too seriously when you have the language prowess of a third-grader. [Some days], I thought “I feel so much better — I feel like a sixth-grader today!” You check your sense of importance because you ask dumb questions, or you use the wrong word for something and everyone giggles. You learn to use that as productive conversation.

I saw on your website that you are planning on expanding on your research in Darjeeling. What is the goal of your research, and do you see it as a tool for social change?

I see myself in terms of working for social change or working for justice [by] telling stories about the world. As putting those stories out in the world about other people’s lives, especially people who don’t get represented very often, and for me, that’s tea workers. It is hard to do something by myself, [so] where I feel I have the most effect is talking to people in the industry. I [want to] constantly poke in their sides, give them more information and write things that are accessible to them.

After the book came out, I talked to lots of tea-buyers who were kind of taken aback by what I had written. Not in a bad way.  Not challenging [it], but more like, “I went to that plantation — it’s really like that? Now that you say that, I kind of saw that, so now tell me more.” That’s where you start — there’s no easy answer.

As a professor, how do you hope to inspire your students?

I have a lot of goals. My biggest is to encourage students to think about what they don’t know about the world and to ask questions of it. To just step back and think about complexity. To reflect on the messiness, to be with the messiness and not try to make things neat. We so often answer questions based on what we already know about a problem, not necessarily the newly acquired knowledge about that problem. This goes back to your question: we think as individuals we can solve problems. Sometimes, you can’t. Many times, you can’t. To be okay with that, [and to] reflect on the problem in and of itself as a problem, first and foremost.

Do you have remember thinking, “This is why I’m an anthropologist, this is why I do what I do” at a certain moment that stands out to you? What was going through your head at that time?

This is kind of a weird one. I was in the Detroit airport, just sitting, waiting for my flight. I saw these Bhutanese refugees from Nepal walk by with their chest X-rays to show that they didn’t have tuberculosis. They were so visibly lost, asking people but no one was helping them. Finally I saw them and they were talking to one of these airport people, and the airport person [says] “I can’t do this.” So, I go up to them and ask them, in Nepali, what the problem is. The airport employee just looks stunned. She stutters: “Wait, what are you doing?” The refugees are telling me that they can’t find their gate. So I turn to the airport employee and say: “Don’t worry, I’m an anthropologist!” and I escorted the family to their gate. It is one of my favorite moments. And it just seemed like the most appropriate thing to say at the time!

It’s really everyday, little interactions that make being an anthropologist awesome, because we don’t do grand gestures. We don’t have experiments, monumental interventions — [just] these little daily interactions. Every cup of tea is awesome. Every time I get to sit and chat and hold the baby and talk about whatever.