So?! Thoughts on Fieldwork {Book Club}

and pretend we’re eating this.

I’m writing this drinking my beloved English Breakfast with a spot of milk (can you believe I couldn’t find a decent cup of tea on the internet for a visual?! and even looked for coffee. Also a no-go.) and will picture you with a beverage, all excited to talk about Fieldwork: a novel. But know that the real action happens in the comment section. This post is throwing out the first pitch and getting the ball rolling. Last week I really enjoyed our conversation on working with other expats. If you missed it, or want to go back and keep adding to the discussion, you can.

A few people asked in the comments section if we were supposed to finish the book today. Well, yes. BUT I know that life can be busy and since we are going to talk about the book for a while, this week, let’s not discuss the very ending. Anything that happens after Norma and Martiya chat and Martiya leaves is off limits! And that gives us something to look forward to next week.

On to the chat:

  • What were your impression of the overall writing of the book. What do you think Berlinski did well? And what parts seemed a bit weak-sauce to you? (We said this earlier, but I’m going to repeat — it’s OK not to like some part(s), it makes for a more interesting discussion if we have varying opinions. So if you didn’t like something another person adored, please still comment.)
  • Did anyone else find it a bit confusing at first that Mischa Berlinski wrote the book and fictitious Mischa Berlinski was the narrator? Thoughts on this writing technique. Any other novels you’ve seen do this?
  • Berlinski (the author) weaves the story between three different groups: M’s, anthropologists, and semi-adventure seeking/wandering expats who seems a little purposeless with their lives. What  did you think about the way Berlinski presents the three groups? Were any of you anthropology majors? What did you think of the portrayal of anthropology? Can an anthropologist (anyone, really), live in a community and “merely” observe without impacting the system in some way?
  • Which of the M’s were you more drawn to? Any annoy you?
  • How does this kind of book influence the way we approach our work?
  • And the questions from a discussion guide I’m going to use: To what extent do you think David and Martiya were products of their upbringing? If each had been born into the other’s family, do you think they would’ve followed more or less the same paths?
  • Do you think there is a connection between David’s devotion to the Grateful Dead and his passion for Christianity and the mission? (from discussion guide)

Feel no pressure to answer any or all of these questions :). If there is something you want to say, “go rouge” (as long as you don’t give away the ending) and also YOUR questions are welcome! This is a discussion I see us coming back to throughout the week and adding to.

Even if you haven’t read the book, welcome to join in on the discussion or ask questions of other participants.

Now, let’s pass those pastries and thanks for reading and chatting.


p.s. I looked at the calendar today and realized, hehehe, I”m not very good at reading calendars :). We have today, the 21st and the 28th to discuss the book. Next week we’ll look at the ending and the implications of the last bit. On the 28th, we’ll look at the role of locals beliefs in our work.

Photo credit  Anne Marthe Widvey via Flickr


  1. Mikkin January 13, 2014

    I really enjoyed the book, though at times, it felt a little slow.  I found myself reading the first sentence (and then skimming the rest) in the middle of the book.  I wanted the answer sooner.  But, maybe I’m just impatient.  I think the fact that we’ve been to Thailand multiple times really added to the enjoyment of it as I liked connecting with little pieces of the culture that I knew.

    As a whole, I thought the author was very fair in his portrayal of the different groups.  I definitely felt like the Walkers rubbed me the wrong way, but it was not the way the author portrayed them, but rather my own knowledge that people like this exist.  And, I think it was more the later Walkers that I struggled with most, not the earlier “pioneer” Walkers.  In a way, the first part of the Walkers’ story when they arrived in China was like a M biography that you could find at a Christian bookstore.  It was exciting and showed their remarkable faith.  I think what bothers me the most about them is their Christian-talk language.  Having not grown up in that type of subculture, I have always been bothered by language that is “insider speak.”  In one of the early scene when Mischa meets the Walkers, the narrator cannot even understand their spiritualized conversations about conversion, faith and the work.

    That said, I think it is a positive testimony to Ms that know their culture like the Walkers do.  They clearly know and love the Dyalo and I know there are many Christians out there that know and love those they minister to in a very profound way.  The Walkers are the experts on the Dyalo and Martiya and probably anyone else who asks knows this.

    David’s experience with the Dead tour was interesting to me also.  It seems like a likely portrayal of a TCK experience.  I’m not saying all TCKs will go to that extreme, but what Martiya and David have in common is their TCKness that leads them to be wanderers.  I think this is very characteristic of the TCK adults I know and it likely a common thread among those who’ve grown up in a different culture  either in M work or any other expat community.

    Anyway, that’s just a start.  But, probably enough for one comment.


    1. Christy J January 14, 2014

      I completely agree with you about the Christian-speak the Walkers continually used. I think there are so many Christians (myself included until not too long ago) who don’t have any idea how incomprehensible their language is to people that do not share their faith. It is helpful to view this through the eyes of an outsider, like the narrator in this book, so we can get a glimpse of how little they understand of what we are saying. I wonder how really understanding this kind of perspective might change the way Christians preach, teach, and talk about God and the Bible.

      1. Amy Young January 15, 2014

        I remember those early years of explain things about God/Christ/Christianity in a second language (English)… oh my word. And how at times I sounded even absurd to myself 🙂

  2. Meagan Stolk January 14, 2014

    It was an interesting read…not something that I would naturally gravitate to and there were times I had to push myself to keep on going as I flicked through some of the slower sections. Having visited Chang Mai and living in a neighbouring nation the sights and smells of the text had an added familiarity and also keep me motivated to read on. Plus Mischa’s girlfriend was a Grade 1 teacher (just like me) and the stories of her class keep me smiling with a understanding comradery.

    Though they had good intentions the Walkers also rubbed me up the wrong way – but I guess that is the idea. There was then general idea that they were above others because they were “Walkers”, God’s gift to the Dyalo. The way they spoke to those outside of their community was with a superior tone, that did not make them all together approachable, with their beliefs and experience overriding their intent to listen and receive from others. Though they did had that long lineage and experience with the Dyalo people group it does make them a group that needs some respect. At times I wanted to slap them with a book about serving alongside those you serve and at other times I started to fear that perhaps aspects of my talking and character can be viewed the same way by others – both Christians and non Christians.

    Martya was a mix of cultures and I feel for her need to find a place where she belonged (though her methods are not encouraged). She had this grand vision in her heart of finding herself while getting lost within a new people. There are those who head abroad to discover themselves….our narrator also falls into that category….and yet they are often met with more questions than answers as the jagged edges of life begin to show.

    I agree with Mikkin’s thoughts on David and Martiya both having a shared TCK experience. What are others thoughts about TCKs and how they adjust to being part of many cultures but not fully belong to any? These two characters had extreme experiences in search of culture….yet as I work with TCKs I wonder what are some steps I can put in place to aid in adjustments that they may need to face as the circle in various people groups?


    1. Amy Young January 14, 2014

      What did you think of the hinted at relationship between Mr. Walker and Martiya?

      1. Meagan Stolk January 15, 2014

        I think this hinted “sin” highlighted the weakness in Mr Walker and the temptations that can plague Christian man on the field. Being on the field can often be isolating for expat and creates a certain vulnerablity. Whether there was truth to the hinted indiscretion or not, the issue of Martiya with Mr and Mrs Walker begins to have an added strain.

      2. Mikkin Helvig January 15, 2014

        I really don’t know what I think of their hinted relationship.  In a Christian context it could mean anything from he looked at her once to an all-out sexual affair.  My guess it was more mental though.  I think it really just served to escalate the feelings of being invaded and taken advantage of for the Walkers.

        1. Amy Young January 15, 2014

          That’s kind of what I was thinking … which now has me thinking out loud. I can’t remember, were the Walkers with an org? Was there some kind of authority over them? I’m thinking that if something physical had happened, there might have been a more “official” result to their interaction. (Not saying “mere” emotional connection is “mere!”) And Mikkin I think you’re right that it helped heighten/ complicate relations between Martiya and the Walkers.

          1. Meagan Stolk January 15, 2014

            The Walkers left their organisation in China. They remained with the organisation for one year after Dr Chester’s death but when their organisation refused their request to work in the tribal valley they left it and were supported by individuals from churches back home. Their accountability was absent as they were not required to answer to anyone. Perhaps this was one of the aspects that impacted future generations of Walkers in their ministry.

    2. Amy Young January 15, 2014

      I also really felt for Martiya. She seemed so lonely — and an interesting mix of being part of a group, yet not. I loved the way she created a husband and then had him “die” so that she culturally appropriately get her own space. BRILLIANT 🙂

      1. Meagan Stolk January 15, 2014

        Yes I thought that was a clever part of the plot. She needed a way to appear acceptable by this new culture using elements of their logic and reasoning to help them include her in their community. Plus she got to escape for a while and have a holiday while not offering anyone but rather being culturally appropriate 🙂

        1. Amy Young January 15, 2014

          Once I figured out where she was going with it … I was so impressed. I’ve only been able to pull off that kind of cultural coup a couple of times :). One involving a necklace that was stolen while I was in a hotel. I was so proud of myself for never saying the “s” and having it magically appear later that day.

  3. Kimberly Todd January 14, 2014

    Haunting. This book is haunting. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel quite like this – fictional anthropological memoir?

    1. Mikkin January 14, 2014

      I definitely agree with you.  Reading it late into the night with my husband gone made me scared!!  The character of Martiya throughout the book has a haunting presence.

  4. Jessica Hoover January 14, 2014

    Haven’t been able to pick this up and start reading yet, but ya’ll are making me want to bypass everything else I am reading/doing and get to it! Words like “haunting” really make me want to find out what you are talking about, lol.

  5. Christy J January 14, 2014

    I’m not finished with the book yet (still have the last part to read), but I’m definitely loving it! I am always fascinated by stories of people’s cross-cultural experiences, and this book has so many layers of different cultures meeting and influencing one another. I love this sentence: “The field did to Martiya what the field always does: it scoured her and revealed the person underneath the encrusted layers of culture and ingrained habit and prejudice.” When I read that, I thought Yes! That is exactly what living overseas has done for me. That scouring is a painful process, but how valuable it is to be able to find yourself underneath those layers!

    At first, I found myself frustrated with the way the book was written. I wanted more of Martiya’s and the Walkers’ stories and less of the narrator. However, as the book went along, I did find that it was valuable to see their stories through the eyes of the narrator as an outsider who also understood life as an expat in Thailand. This added another dimension that made me see things from a different angle. So it kind of surprised me that I ended up liking this aspect of the writing after all.

    With as much as I have read of the book, I found myself most drawn to David’s character. I like that he was honest with himself and eventually others about who he was, and that he took his life into his own hands, searching out the truth for himself rather than just blindly following everyone in his family. After he came back to Thailand, he had a vision and purpose for his own life, instead of trying to copy his father or his grandfather. I currently teach Bible to TCK teenagers, so I see many students going through this kind of searching process. I feel like it is so important for them to learn who they are and what they really believe, and they need to be given the chance to do that without feeling like they will be disowned or cast out if they step over some invisible line.

    Martiya is a very fascinating character. I think I’ll withhold expressing my thoughts on her until I finish the book and find out the rest of the details. Can’t wait to see how it ends!

    1. Amy Young January 14, 2014

      ” I love this sentence: “The field did to Martiya what the field always does: it scoured her and revealed the person underneath the encrusted layers of culture and ingrained habit and prejudice.” When I read that, I thought Yes! ” — thanks for pulling that out! What a gem. We tell folks coming with us, that if they think going over seas is going “solve” anything or let them run from it … BIG FAT HA. In many ways i appreciate that about life overseas — it allowed me to see and know myself in ways that I might not have (hard to say since I can’t not have gone, know what I mean?)

      1. Danielle Wheeler January 14, 2014

        I highlighted that sentence as well.  And then later in the part about Malinowski, I was struck by, “For unless we understood our own culture, we could not possibly understand ourselves; and we simply cannot understand our culture from the inside. ‘We cannot possibly reach the final Socratic wisdom of knowing ourselves if we never leave the narrow confinement of the customs, beliefs, and prejudices into which every man is born.'”

        It’s a pretty bold claim.  That no one “know” him/herself without getting into another culture, but at the same time, I think we can all totally relate to the whole new understanding of self that comes when we step outside of our culture.

        1. Amy Young January 15, 2014

          Danielle I love that quotation too! The part about understanding our own culture. I have been going round and round with a friend who is American and lives in China about how much she venerates China and almost refuses to see the potential in America. Now, I’m not saying that America is it on a stick! But there is something almost idol-ic in the way she insists she can only be happy in China.

          1. Jenny January 20, 2014

            I also like the similar quotation “you’ve got to undo you preconception about the world, about who you are, about yourself, about community, about everything.” I think it’s probably taking the idea a little bit to the extreme, but especially when I was first overseas (and I notice this with my interns as well) I had preconceptions about the culture I now live in that needed undoing.  I also thought that a bit later on this quote was insightful “everyone in antro knows it, it’s an open secret that coming home from the field is as tough as going out. Maybe even tougher.”

          2. Amy Young January 20, 2014

            Thank you all for flushing out these quotations. They strike such truths, don’t they! Both on the culture and ideas we might need to unlearn and on the challenges of returning to one passport country.

  6. Amy Young January 14, 2014

    Mikkin, Meagan, Anyone — I’ve been thinking about the “pacing” comment. Do you think the slow pacing in the middle helped us feel Rachel’s exasperation with Mischa (the narrator) and that he didn’t seem willing/able to GET ON with his life?

    1. Kimberly Todd January 14, 2014

      I think you’re onto something. I actually really liked that the story wasn’t forthcoming, that waiting was as much a part of the work as the research, sleuthing, talking, and writing. It felt authentic. This is probably why I kept forgetting that the story was fiction.

    2. Meagan Stolk January 15, 2014

      Oh I hadn’t thought of that. What an insightful thought…..that makes a lot of sense to me. Being a person who likes to have a purpose and know where I am heading I would find myself tired of Mischa’s never ending holiday.

      1. Amy Young January 15, 2014

        Me too 🙂 … give me a direction and let’s get moving!

      2. Mikkin Helvig January 15, 2014

        I would probably have to go back and look, but I didn’t quite have a sense of Mischa’s time spent researching Martiya.  Was it about a year or was it two years?  It seems like he keeps putting aside other work (journalism) to continue on the case.  It does seem like he became obsessed.

      3. Jenny January 20, 2014

        Oh, that’s a really great point about the pacing. I didn’t notice the slowness so much when I was reading- I was motivated by wanting to know then ending I think. But with the discussion on it, I remember more of it now. And yeah, both Rachel’s frustration and a making it feel more like reality makes sense.

  7. Erica January 14, 2014

    I just finished the book and found it very interesting, though as others have mentioned, a bit tedious in parts. I kept asking myself, “Is this really a novel?” because of the first-person narration, as Amy mentioned in the questions above, which rather confused me at first! I really enjoyed getting to know the early Walkers but found the later Walkers kind of annoying (and for some reason I was imagining Mrs. Walker speaking in a heavy Southern drawl…). It was interesting to see the impact of four generations of one family on a place, though, and even though they were a bit hard to put up with, their passion for the Dyalo was admirable. I also found the emphasis the author gave to the spiritual world interesting, and I enjoyed seeing the evolution of Martiya’s response to it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel that gives that much attention to the spiritual realm. It’s something we ought to consider more in our work, I think.

    “Fictional anthropological memoir”–a new genre for me for sure! I find the work of anthropology, at least as it’s depicted in this book, to be in some ways similar to the kind of work we do, though obviously with different motives. I think we can definitely learn from Martiya’s mindset of being a learner, and I think we (OK, I) can also identify with the boredom and annoyance that sometimes accompanies living among a people that is not my own.

    1. Amy Young January 15, 2014

      Erica, yes, yes, yes, on the spiritual world! When i realized I’d “blown” it and goofed on the calendar, I realized it really is an opportunity to spend a concentrated week looking at just this — not that I want to shut down any conversation here! My meaning is, yes, I think this is something we should each consider and then share what the “boys in the basement” and the Holy Spirit stir up 🙂

  8. Julie B January 18, 2014

    I just finished the book and as others before me have mentioned, got a little bogged down in parts of it.  I agree with so many of the previous comments and also highlighted the previously mentioned quotes as well.

    A couple of thoughts I have had:  As a TCK myself (born and raised on the “field” until high school graduation – with a couple of years in the States), I  saw many of my friends wander during the college and young adult years as they tried to “find themselves”.  For some reason I have always been practical, grounded and a planner – and have never really experienced the labels so many TCK’s have.  (Beginning to think I must be the exception).

    I also wonder if the rather authoritarian family environment of David’s family might have something to do with his need to get away and find himself?  Seems like there were a lot of rules but not much affection in the family – and everything of any value was connected to M work. I have seen many of my peers growing up who were very hurt by the fact that the ministry was everything and their needs were minimized.   I have also seen non TCK’s who are raised in the church and in a legalistic and authoritarian family without a lot of love and connection, do some of the same things with “wandering” or rebellion or “trying to find themselves”.  They want to get away from the family as soon as possible it seems, as the rules are oppressive.

    My other observation that made me a little sad, was how the narrator viewed these Ms as rather strange.   I get it that we as believers are viewed as “strange” often – however, it seems that the Walkers made no attempt to relate in any kind of a  relevant way with the other expats especially as they could only use their “Christianese” in conversations.    It appeared like the Walkers knew everything about trying to reach the Dyalos but could not relate to other expats.  I have found living overseas, as much as I am committed to working and reaching nationals, my expat unbelieving friends are also a place where there can be very fruitful ministry just by living among them, befriending them – much as I would do in my neighborhood at home in the States.  Just as my friends in the States don’t really understand what on earth we are doing over here, many of my expat friends also find it puzzling.  What a delicious opportunity to live out our faith!

    1. Amy Young January 18, 2014

      Julie … thanks for the thoughtful comment! You raise a great point that labels like “TCK” are just that — labels and behind each one is a real person with a unique story. Glad to hear a bit of yours! Mikkin and I were last night discussing the other point you made (were you reading our minds?!) — like you, we were surprised / disappointed that the Walkers made no attempt to share their faith with Mischa. I appreciate that they weren’t pushy, but given the amount of time the Walkers and Mischa had together, surely there were openings to have genuine conversations that weren’t forced. He even seemed surprised by it. Love how you ended your comment :)!

  9. Jenny January 20, 2014

    I really like that the book was written from Mischa’s perspective (incidentally, his name is from more of a Russian background so it would have been interesting to hear if there was any TCK or similar cultural experience in his background). But back to his perspective- I think it help the book feel more real and in a sense as the reader to take with more seriousness his comments and insights on cultural interaction. I haven’t read much else in this style- though I read recently that it was first used by Dante in his “divine comedy,” though in my opinion not nearly with the same helpful effect as by Mischa.

    1. Amy Young January 20, 2014

      Jenny, I don’t know much about his childhood … but I do recall reading that he is living somewhere in Europe now, so seems to be a cross-cultural theme to his life still. And I agree it helps the book to feel real … I often had to remind myself this was a novel and not a biography I was reading! Sign of a good author, eh?!

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