In response to Richard Newton’s essay on religious studies as a field of critical study, Maya Aphornsuvan offers a long-form reflection on personal agency and the discipline’s line of inquiry.
I lived in Thailand until I was 18. When I was in kindergarten, we were required to wear a uniform everyday. Girls had to wear a sleeveless dress, and I absolutely hated it and felt uncomfortable, so I would wear a green and white-stripped t-shirt underneath my dress.
My teachers tried to stop me; they said I wasn’t obeying the rules and rules were put in place for a reason, but my mother stood up for me every single time.
“She has the right to wear whatever makes her comfortable. This is just kindergarten. What’s the worse thing that’s going to happen just because my daughter isn’t wearing the correct outfit?”
Good question. What was the worst thing that was going to happen?
I never found out, because eventually I complied and got rid of my shirt. I don’t remember why I did so, but I remember getting a huge round of applause from my teachers and classmates the day I did it.
I had to wear a uniform until I graduated from high school, and I never thought much of it. It was a good feeling, never having to worry about what to wear the next day. It was nice having someone tell me what to do. It was nice until my last semester of high school, when everybody was figuring out where they were going to take their life next. It was nice until people were applying to dozens of schools, taking dozens of exams to make them qualified for the next step.
It was nice until I realized I was the complete opposite of them. I took one exam. I applied to 2 schools. I didn’t get in to either, and I didn’t really care that much.
It was nice until one day I decided I was going to be angry, because everybody wanted to know what my next step was going to be but I didn’t have answers. For the first time in my life, I was truly lost. I had no sense of direction.
I felt ill, everything I was breathing in was polluted and I needed to leave whatever it was that I grew up with. I needed to get out of the system that had been making decisions for me my entire life. I needed to find a new physical space that could give me the chance to escape everything. So I bought a plane ticket, with no return date, and came to the United States. I came as an open book, ready to write my next chapters along the way. I had nothing planned for me, and it was the most refreshing feeling ever. After all, what was the worst thing that could happen?
I was raised Buddhist, so I’ve always believed in the cycle of life and rebirth. I like to think of my life in the United States as a rebirth version of myself, of my identity. So it was interesting, when I started off my new life thinking I was over my life in a uniform, only to find that people in the United States had their own uniforms to wear.
High school, followed by college, followed by a full time job. That was the most common uniform I saw. People started to throw those uniformed ideas to me, and this time I didn’t have anyone to back me up and say, “What’s the worst thing to happen if she doesn’t do that?”
Good question. And I had every intention on finding the answers to that question by coming to college, and purposely not studying anything that had a designated path to it.
I hate uniforms, so my hatred led me into interesting classes. I was stumbling around, but I was aware of my surroundings even when I wasn’t making sense. I was looking for answers, and everything seemed to point to the unknown. Then I learned something in my Biological Anthropology class that gave me a starting point on finding those answers:
Science teaches us to observe our surroundings and write those observations down. Then we do experiments to see if our hypothesis can stand. If it passes multiple experiments, we call it a theory. But science never aims to prove anything. Science doesn’t give us a glimpse of the ultimate truth; science shows us what the answer to our current question is.
But science is always changing. The answer we receive today could be wrong in 25 years. We see no light at the end of the tunnel because we must not assume that there is an end to the tunnel.
Religions teach us to close our eyes and feel those observations. In them we don’t do experiments to see if our hypotheses can stand because we don’t have a hypothesis to begin with. Religions, when felt in our most sincere and vulnerable moments, give us a glimpse of timeless ultimate truths. However, the process of getting those answers varies from person to person, belief to belief. Religion tells us that there is an end to tunnel.
At my most vulnerable state, I want to learn about all the religions in the world, all the faiths and beliefs floating around, so that when I have questions— and believe me I have tons of questions floating around—I have the power to control which process I take to achieve those answers. I want answers, I need to see the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s the kind of person I am.
But if everything is pointing to the unknown, I want to know why. I want to know what the unknown is.
That’s why I don’t want to wear a uniform anymore. Those uniforms make decisions for me, those uniforms make me blend in. Those uniforms make me walk a straight line instead of stumbling around. Those uniforms don’t have an unknown destination. I’ve had enough of that.
What am I to do with a degree in religious studies?
Who knows? I’m not doing this so I have a career ready for me as soon as I step out of school. I’m doing this so when I leave college, I will have already built up a part of who I am and I won’t be fumbling and tumbling and lost. I’m doing this so I am prepared for anything that comes to me.
Because when I graduate, some of my questions will already be answered, and some will be in the process of getting answers. But I’ll know what to do to find those answers. I won’t need to pause my life and run away. I will leave school knowing that I will be able to resist any other uniforms that come my way, and Religious Studies is the starting point of all that.
And honestly, what’s the worst to happen if I am a Religious Studies major?
Maya Aphornsuvan ‘18 is a sophomore at Elizabethtown College. She is a Political Science–Religious Studies double major with interests in media studies, social justice, and comparative religions. She serves as the production assistant of the podcast, Broadcast Seeding.