The Blindness of the Native

A few months ago, Olumide Abimbola, wrote an excellent column about becoming so used to a place that you no longer notice the obvious or everyday things that make the place unusual or noteworthy.  He wrote:

There is a thing about being so close to something that one does not see it anymore. Anthropologists normally refer to it as going native. You have gone native when you no longer see the obvious things anymore, when the things that an outsider notices stares you in the face but you are no longer able to see them. This is usually because you have developed a blind spot for them, and they have become normal, almost natural.

There is also the other kind of blind spot, the kind that comes from being native. Anthropologists know about that too very well. Since we study people, we know that studying people of ones kind comes with the added requirement of being able to stand back and look critically in order to see things that would be obvious to foreigners, but that are not obvious to the native.

Abimbola is writing specifically about anthropologists and their work, but I think anyone who lives in a foreign country for an extended period comes down with native blindness.  I noticed a mild case of it in myself a few weeks ago when I bought a pair of headphones.  Wanting to make sure they worked, I asked the salesman if he could open the packaging so I could test them out.  He obliged and I ended up purchasing them.  About two seconds after I left the store the salesman swung open the front door and flung the packaging into the street, doing his part to keep Chennai garbage strewn.  (Indian advertising uses the words “eco friendly” a lot, but nobody seems to care about littering; I’ve seen more unicorns in Chennai than public garbage cans.)  It’s a tiny example, for sure, but I’m certain I overlook dozens of incidents like this every day, as I slowly and inadvertently train myself to not see.

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5 comments
  1. Ludwig said:

    I’m mildly curious about how long you’ve lived in Chennai, that you’re still noticing people littering. If it’s more than a couple of years, congratulations to you. This “blindness of the native” thing is just amazingly insidious. A non-native friend wrote this some time back, that struck a similar chord.

    • Vali said:

      To be honest I come and go from Chennai a lot, spending a total of about two months a year here. The frequent absences are probably keeping my native blindness at low levels. (I’m just native nearsighted, for now.)

      Since writing this post, I’ve been trying to re-notice the things that my brain has blurred into normalcy. First thing I re-noticed today: The rifle toting guards seated next to every ATM machine. Somehow, they don’t make me feel any safer.

  2. Ramesh said:

    Congratulations to you and Nithya – sorry we couldn’t make it in May.

    On the other hand – natives do notice when my daughter Kavita for instance, walked about 1 block while we were waiting to renew their passports at the US embassy in Mumbai to pitch a small plastic bag into a trash can (well there was one to be found, I despite being a trained non-native couldn’t find it), but she did given her stubborn eco-friendliness did.

    Ramesh

  3. Alina said:

    Hi Nithya. I was on MIT’s urban studies website and they linked your article in the Indian Express from March 09. I thought the article was really informative and then googled to see if you blog – and voila! To my delight, you do. Great blog and love your insights. I myself grew up in the States and currently work in Urban Planning in Pakistan. It’s been quite an interesting experience. I’ve only just started reading a few posts, but do you write on how it feels to be working in a developing nation when you’ve spent most of your life (I’m guessing) abroad? I’d love to read about those. Cheers.

  4. nraman said:

    Alina -thanks so much for your feedback. I do have a few posts in there about that issue, but I’ll try and post more. Also, I should really try and post more in general!
    — N

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