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Pursuing Anthropology Illegally: A Labor of Love, Hurt, and Rage

Published onSep 30, 2023
Pursuing Anthropology Illegally: A Labor of Love, Hurt, and Rage

In the late 1990's, while studying Arabic and Dutch at the University of Bucharest, I won a one-year scholarship to study Dutch intensively in The Netherlands. During that year, I took an optional class called “Fundamentals of Performance Studies.” In my postsocialist naiveté, I expected to learn about how to perform well at work; in other words, how to be a good, neoliberal worker – that for which the fall of communism in Eastern Europe prepared us.

The very first class discussed the Balinese cockfight, and culture as text. It asked fascinating questions, and I ventured into class discussions with a gusto I had not experienced in my other classes. I had discovered anthropology and fell irremediably in love with it.

Anthropology was not taught in my home country back then. I decided to drop my language studies, and everything else, stay in The Netherlands, and start my studies in anthropology from scratch. I went to the “aliens” police, as it is called in Dutch, and applied for a renewal of my residence permit, which I obtained easily: my good grades in Dutch Studies made me look like a deserving immigrant, and I had borrowed the money I needed to show in my bank account. As per our arrangement, I returned the money to my sponsor – a member of my family – and applied for financial support from several foundations, which helped me get through most of my first year of studies. I also worked now and then for a student placement agency that sent me out to put labels on boxes in a factory and to wait tables at the famous Keukenhof park during tulip season. I also worked in a restaurant, but the owner did not like me much (“Why are you so slow?!”), so that did not last long. (Also, I was slow because of my Spina Bifida, but not that slow).

After my first year of anthropology, I went to renew my residence permit again. The civil servant was puzzled that my residence permit had been renewed one year prior: as a foreign student, I was not allowed to change my studies. I could have continued Dutch Studies, but I should not have been allowed to move to Anthropology. To my surprise, they closed an eye to the error and renewed my residence permit without too much fuss.

As a Romanian student, I could not work legally more than eight hours a week – too little to sustain myself financially. The work from the temporary placement agency was not enough: few hours, irregular, badly paid. A friend told me of an opportunity in a language school where they needed a student who could speak Dutch, English, and French. I got the job and informed them I could only work two evenings a week, as per the law. I pressed a button to open the door, answered the phone, processed applications, took attendance, and supported the language teachers and the students in logistic and administrative matters. When everyone was busy in their classrooms, I started doing things I noticed needed doing: I made an inventory of the books we had and rearranged them, fixed small things here and there about the administration of the student databases. As I was studying SPSS – the statistics software – as part of the methodology in social science modules, I proposed to set up an evaluation system for the courses and analyzed them per teacher, level, and type of course. That is how I really learned SPSS. My work was appreciated, and I was asked to work more hours. I wanted to, and I needed to, but I voiced my legal concerns. I was told they would not declare my work. I accepted: I had to.

I ended up working there illegally for five years; I moved quickly from reception desk work to admin, then to teaching (after getting a diploma to teach French on the side, on top of my work and studies). Teaching was appealing not only because my colleagues made it look like a lot of fun and I thought I would like it too, but also because my hourly pay would at least double, so I could work less and focus more on my studies. Then I became the right hand of the new director of courses, who took the job on that condition. When she quit, I was offered her job. Although I was tempted to take it, I could not: they had to prove that I, a non-EU citizen, was a better candidate than any applicant from the EU. Of course, they could not officially admit they had employed me illegally. Overall, the job brought me joy and accomplishment, taught me how to teach – and that I loved it – but it also produced severe anxiety and depression: if discovered, I could be deported back to Romania for working illegally and would not be able to finish my studies.

But I did. I struggled working 30-ish hours per week and going to my classes. I often missed classes, and I would start studying for my Monday exams on the Friday before, with the magic help of Ephedrine pills, legal in The Netherlands (at least back then). I would study non-stop from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning, then take a nap, then study again. My grades were fairly low at first, but then improved dramatically. I even managed to follow nearly all courses in both cultural anthropology and development sociology, although officially I only had to choose one. I thought it made sense to study them both, and loved each and every course. For my thesis research, I went to Chile with the money I had saved from a few summer months of upwards of sixty hours of work per week – I taught all the intensive summer modules at the language school (eight to ten hours a day, five days a week), plus a few private tuition modules on the weekend. Back in The Netherlands after my six months’ research, I wrote my thesis on the Palestinians in Chile in a few weeks, with blood-curdling passion, literally: one chapter took me twenty-five hours of nearly non-stop writing that could have easily caused a blood clot. The adrenaline that moved me was that of a person in love.

A few months later, I started my Masters at the University of Paris VII, followed by my first PhD attempt. To obtain my first residence permit, I relied on sponsorship from the same family member: she would send me the required 400 euro monthly (a stupid formality: that amount would not even cover the rent of my small apartment in Paris), and I would send it back. My previous work allowed me to put aside some money, and I didn’t need any extra. Fairly quickly, I obtained a work permit and could sustain myself financially by teaching French, again. I told my sponsor she could stop the monthly payments because I was making triple the sponsorship amount by working legally. When I applied for the renewal of my residence permit to start my PhD, it was denied: I was asked to prove the sponsorship had continued for the entire year. My more lucrative – and this time, legal – work as a language teacher did not matter. I became a sans-papiers. I worked illegally again: I taught French, English, and Dutch privately. After three years of struggling with the consequences of my illegalization, including poverty, I dropped out of the PhD program and went back to Romania, traumatized, hurt, broke, and disappointed. Many of my professors at the university were activists for migrants’ rights, but I never considered asking for help, out of shame.

I did manage to get back into academia, something I knew I wanted ever since I discovered anthropology twenty-five years ago. PhD in hand, postdoc of three and a half years in Germany, followed by another period of precarity filled with short-term teaching contracts and fellowships. I have now been precariously employed in academia for nine years, and moved to two different countries with my family. There are innumerable stories in between, as I moved to Germany for my postdoc and then to Ireland for a temporary teaching position. As I write this, I have only six months left of my current temporary contract as a lecturer, and while I am awaiting answers on a few options, I cannot be sure I’ll have a job come January.

And sometimes, that puts me in a state of unspeakable rage.

Perhaps intellectualizing the rage I feel will get me through this, yet again. So, I want to bring my earlier stories of illegality during my undergraduate and early postgraduate studies together with my current predicament of precarious knowledge migrant from Eastern Europe. I am far from being a singular case: see the powerful collection of heart-wrenching stories of migration and academic precarity by Olga Burlyuk and Ladan Rahbari (2023). But the rage I feel now at the anxiety of not knowing, for the umpteenth time, what I will do six months from now feels familiar. It is the same rage I felt in The Netherlands while awaiting the announced fiscal inspection at the language school where I had to work illegally if I wanted to pursue anthropology. My twenty-five-year-old body grew white hair back then, fearing that if the tax inspectors crossed databases with migration files, I would be spotted and deported. It is the same, also, as the rage I felt in France when, as a sans-papiers, I was trying to re-legalize (perhaps better: de-illegalize) my residence. On the phone with various civil servants, when the answer to all my questions was “Non, ce n’est pas possible,” rage got to me: something must surely be possible! The answer, a few times, was: “If you don’t like it, you can go back to your country.”

My stories, I think, illuminate the entanglements between precarious (il)legal work / residency and academic precarity across borders and the pursuit of anthropology as a vocation. These entanglements are mediated – and revealed themselves to me – through emotions. I wrote of rage, but there is also hurt, and, invariably, at some point or another, there is love for what we do. Love that we cling on to, against our own better judgment: “‘vocation,” “passion,” “drive” portend enslaving forces. These entanglements have their own agency, too. While I traversed all these experiences of illegality while pursuing anthropology, they also traversed me. They sowed seeds of feelings of inadequacy, out-of-placeness, and expendability, but they also bred a well-founded, all-powerful rage that shaped my academic and political self, as well as my research and my practices of teaching and pastoral care.

While I write from a place of hurt, vulnerability, and rage, I also acknowledge the transformative role of my stories of illegality while pursuing anthropology. I use them regularly in my teaching, and often, they inspire my students. They do catharsis work for me, but they are also productive of connections that do their own labor of turning hurt and rage into love. I know that students feel the rage when I tell these stories, but they feel the love, too. A few weeks ago, a student wrote to me:

I just wanted to send you this mail to thank you for your classes. I feel very lucky to have had you as a teacher throughout the year, thanks to your ethnography courses. You made me love sociology and anthropology even more so when I thought it was impossible. You created such a safe place for everyone. I think you are the perfect example that it takes one person to gain confidence in your work and yourself more generally. I feel blessed to have encountered your path, you brought such truth and importance beyond the classes thanks to your life story, your experiences and your infinite strength through your research work. 

And I am left in tears, with a tenderness that I needed right now, for sure, but also with the troublesome thought that I might just have helped ignite in someone else the passion that made me pursue anthropology at all costs.

Work Cited

Burlyuk, Olga, and Ladan Rahbari (eds.). 2023. Migrant Academics’ Narratives of Precarity and Resilience in Europe. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers.

Harri son:

Your journey into anthropology is both fascinating and inspiring! It's amazing how a single class discussion can ignite a passion that reshapes your academic and personal trajectory. Your story underscores the transformative power of education and the unexpected paths it can lead us down. Wishing you continued success in your pursuit of anthropology! Visit website

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Peter Kyle:

A Labor of Love, Hurt, and Rage" delves into the complex ethical and legal issues surrounding unauthorized anthropological research. It explores the motivations, challenges, and consequences of conducting such studies outside established protocols and regulations. This thought-provoking narrative reflects on the intersection of passion, ethics, and societal norms in the pursuit of academic inquiry, raising important questions about research ethics and cultural sensitivity.