Guest blog by Dr. Caroline Joan (Kay) Picart
Author of Inside Notes from the Outside
Watch her interview on The Woman's Connection YouTube Vlog
"In Between East and West," is an attempt to paint, in broad strokes, some of my experiences as a Cambridge Fellow in England, beginning with being a molecular embryologist, and shifting to concentrate in History and Philosophy of Science. It attempts to evoke the experience of the loneliness of being a female Filipino expatriate, living within a culture both strange and familiar, racked by sharp pangs of homesickness, haunted by a sense of guilt over not being "nationalistic" enough, or of having left behind all that had formerly grounded one in the hope of finding, perhaps, a better way of life. Once again, categories of "inside"-ness and "outside"-ness proved porous at numerous levels.
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What I remember most about the journey from the Philippines to Cambridge, England in September, 1989, was the 15 hour flight in which night and day merged into an indiscernible blur. Cramped and squinting in dim light, I remember avidly going over a familiar cell biology book in an attempt to brush up on the basics. As I contorted my small frame into every imaginable position humanly possible during that 15-hour flight, I remember reflecting over the trajectory of events that led to my exodus. Though I tended, naturally, to gravitate toward literature and the humanities as a young child, it was the ambition of becoming a doctor in order to help cure my mother's deafness that steered me in the direction of biology once I was in high school. I dreamed of being similar to Jose Rizal, one of the country's national heroes, famous for both his medical skills (a colored illustration depicting him checking on his mother's ear was shown to me when I was seven years old), and his stirringly expressive prose (he wrote two of the country's finest novels written in Spanish by a Filipino, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo).
Joining LIKAS (Lingap Para sa Kalusugan ng Sambayanan-a group of medical professionals and students using primary health care education as a way to build politicized communities) launched me into being the editor of the group's journal for a number of years; and eventually, being one of two student government representatives for all the student organizations on campus.
Yet as my involvement with the vortex of student politics grew, particularly within the maelstrom of the tightening control of the desperate Marcos regime during the early to mid 1980s (alongside the deepening of my mother's unhappiness), I found myself gasping for an interior space into which I could withdraw from the perpetual onslaught of so many lived experiences of suffering. That interior space was initially provided by my literature classes, and later, by my Philosophy classes, with their rich and intense probing into questions that the practice of medicine, and of scientific experimentation raised, but could not answer. Fr. Luis David, a professor in one of the classes I took, was kind enough to urge me to plunge directly into a master's degree in Philosophy, despite the fact that I was not studying for a B.A. in Philosophy at that time. Through his encouragement, the semester before I graduated with my B.S. in Biology/pre-medical studies, I accepted a scholarship to do a master's degree in Philosophy, and was promptly recruited to teach in Zoology by the department from which I had earned my B.S. degree. After a semester of taking graduate classes in Philosophy, the department chair in Philosophy also recruited me to teach an introductory Philosophy course; then another colleague begged me to apply for a lectureship teaching basic Astro-Physics at a monastery because their teacher had suddenly resigned. My development into a professional "cyborg," as one who juggles language games and epistemological lenses across disciplines began early.
When both my department chairs in Biology and Philosophy asked me to consider going on to do a Ph.D., my all too humanly youthful ambition kicked in. "Why not do both?" I thought. I reasoned to myself that because scientists tend to peak, statistically anyway, when they are "younger" (i.e. in their 30's or early 40's), and philosophers appear to achieve their most enduring insights when they are of a ripe, mature age (with the exception of a few like Spinoza of course, but Kant was set up as the paradigm case of the model philosopher at the Ateneo), I thought it would do me well to plunge into scientific inquiry first, and then philosophical reflection later.
"You may never marry," my father warned in his worried, paternal way. I shrugged and started submitting the fellowship applications.
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I was one among many "bright eyed and bushy tailed" new students who attended the orientation at Cambridge in 1989. "Culture" and "History" (with a big "C" and an equally monumental "H") seemed to permeate the very air we breathed: we worked in a laboratory not far from the drafty but historic building in which Watson and Crick formulated the Nobel prize-winning model of the DNA double helix; we had easy access to the famous Queen's and King's College Choir Christmas concerts; luminaries like Umberto Eco, Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Dawkins were among the international scholars invited to campus.
Yet I was quick to learn that amidst the polyphony of accents and languages, not every accent or nationality was equally valued. Even Shri Lankans and Indians spoke with a distinct British accent; yet even then, many of them were never quite part of the "inner" circle somehow. I found that a London working class accent was silently condemned as "indecent;" and that as soon as one uttered even a syllable, particularly if one was British, invisible cultural radars scanning for clues revelatory of one's class were turned on. An "American" accent was also spoken of with thickly ironic humor, or an understated shudder.
Dating and relationships with the other sex constituted yet another frontier. When I was in the Philippines, I had practically never "dated," as such. I had gone off to see a movie or two with a seminarian friend, but these were young men who were seriously thinking of becoming priests and were thus "safe."
When I first arrived in Cambridge, I was a little surprised at how much amorous interest seemed to be such an overt component of even brief acquaintanceships. Once, I drew a British female friend aside and asked her why it seemed as though everyone seemed interested in jumping to the next level a little too soon. She remarked that one thing British girls learn early is to give the "right cues." Laughing or smiling a lot, directly returning a gaze, or even lightly touching someone on the shoulder to stress a point (all of which I did without giving these a thought because I did them with friends, both male and female in the Philippines), in this culture, were considered signs of romantic interest. I found, to my all too Filipino Catholic surprise, that though holding hands in public was considered scandalous, secretly jumping in bed for one night stands was not. Involvements, for the most part, seemed brief and very intense, much like wartime liaisons. Reflecting in retrospect on the situation, part of it could be explained by the difference in gender ratio. On average, there were about two or three males admitted for every single female admitted to a Cambridge college within the university system, and the reason for this seemed to rely more on tradition rather than entrance criteria results. For the undergraduates, whose lives revolved around eight week cycles, there was an intense pressure to excel in everything, from academics to being part of the right clubs, to bedding as many attractive people as one could. And with the environment being as cosmopolitan as it was, when semesters were not in session, everyone literally went home to different countries, ranging from Malaysia, to Germany, to India, to Australia, and South Africa, among others. This made keeping relationships beyond the eight week mark somehow more complicated.
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Other than the social and cultural scene, there was much in Cambridge to take in. During my first semester there, I was lucky enough to be able to churn out results that looked extremely promising. I was part of a team working on isolating a hypothesized neurorepressor, "pisoffin," which seemed localized in the chick brain.
As a devout protégée, determined to be a consummate insider, I remember well the long hours in the library, during the day, spent trying to catch up on the latest literature; and then later, at the laboratory, the vagaries of trying to get exactly the right mix so the cultured cells would grow before the properly experimental part could be done. And once the experiment began, there would be no stopping because all other variables had to be held as constant as possible, and there had to be sufficient samples for the findings to prove convincing as indicative of a larger trend. At first, I did not mind the long hours in the laboratory, inhaling stale air steeped in the cloud of various types of chemicals. Neither did I mind what sometimes turned out to be 15 hour stints at the laboratory, where I could, if I were lucky, catch an hour or so of sleep by using my arms and hands as pillows, cradling myself as I slumped over desks, waiting for the next step of experimental intervention. This was fairly common for laboratory work.
Later, however, as my health began to suffer, and my lucky streak at producing results seemed to be undergoing a slump, I asked for some time off from my supervisors. By then, my supervisors, "silently beaming" about the results I had initially produced, had approached other laboratories on possible collaborations in order to generate a possible article for Nature, one of the most prestigious journals in the field. They were too invested in not being beaten at publication, and my request was thus denied. When the latest test I ran failed to produce the same promising curve of a direct correlation between the amount of pisoffin and the rate of growth cone collapse, I decided to take matters in my own hands. I wrote a long letter to my supervisors, explaining that I needed two days to rest, and left them my laboratory notebook, which had all my results thus far recorded in it. When I returned, two days later, I found that what had been projected as my dissertation research project had been parceled out in bits to four other students working in the laboratory, and that I was powerless to reclaim my project back.
When I did speak with my supervisors, one pointed out that this was too big of a project for one student, and that I could surely not test for its parameters all alone. The other, more honestly, spoke of the pressures of grant writing in order to generate funds to keep the laboratory going. "Look," he said, his steely gray eyes glinting. "When you run your own laboratory, you'll understand, and you will do exactly what we have done." They needed to publish the results quickly in order to be able to cash in-both prestige-wise and money-wise; all else, including the possibility that I could not gain a Ph.D. because they would already have divested my project of its claim to "originality" by the time I would be up for defending my work, were secondary considerations. They were not "bad" guys; they were simply trying to survive a system "red in fang and claw." I suddenly realized that within the British mentoring system, there was no such thing as student rights; a mentorship was traditionally based on an implicit trust of the mentor, and if that were violated, the only option open to the student seemed to be transferring out.
That realization, combined with health considerations (physical and emotional exhaustion, allergic reactions to chemicals) eventually made me decide to shift gears. Perhaps it was also the realization that given the same circumstances and the same pressures, I would be very similarly tempted to do the same as my supervisors. Despite the fact that both my supervisors in Molecular Embryology thought I could finish the Ph.D. in two years by reinforcing the gains of my first year there and urged me to stay, I decided to shift to the Department of History and Philosophy of Science.
At first, the shift was once again a dizzying, euphoric whirl; I greatly enjoyed the plunge back into philosophy, and found sociological inquiries into how scientific claims become authorized as "Truth" simultaneously fascinating and disturbing in their implications. Despite the fact that I was unanimously awarded the "Wolfson Prize," an award given to the best student based on competitive essays judged by faculty readers both inside and outside the department; despite the fact that several faculty members urged me to stay and finish the Ph.D., and despite the fact that I was one of the few graduate students to have a paper in review for possible publication, I requested for a year of respite in order to sort through my priorities. I thus left Cambridge with an M.Phil. in 1991, tentatively leaving the door open for a potential return.
Perhaps more so than the fact that I found my intellectual interests shifting (I found that I gravitated more towards Continental Philosophy, and Cambridge proved to be a stronghold of the Analytic Anglo-American tradition), I was plagued by more fundamental matters. I had seen that even Cambridge Ph.D.s were not guaranteed instant jobs, particularly in the competitive area of Philosophy, and particularly in merry old England. After having been away from the Philippines for two years, I knew re-entry would be very difficult, and I had no illusions about the economic remuneration of returning to teach in the Philippines. Being at Cambridge had been an enriching and educational experience, but it had also robbed me of many of my former certainties. The concept of "home," which had formerly been a fluid, rather than a stable, entity, now seemed even more porous. After two years of being in England, with brief trips to Germany, France and Spain, in which I was always a "foreigner" and in which I hardly spoke Filipino, I longed to be enclosed in a culture, but I knew, even before I returned to the Philippines, that this was impossible. As a young woman, I had always been a little too independent for Filipino culture to be able to fit imperceptibly into its fabric. After a few months of convalescing at my parents' home, I decided to accept a position as a teacher of English at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea.