Friday, July 31, 2015

How Fieldwork is Like Learning to Ski

I remember the frustration of skiing when I was a college student, living in Innsbruck, Austria, during my sophomore (2nd) year abroad (learning German, of all things--an exotic language for a family of Romance language speakers!). One day I would feel like I had made tremendous progress, and could go flying down the hills. The next time, it would be awful--constant falling, frustration, no balance. I had a folk theory that after a good day, I would get cocky, and the next time on the slopes I would assume I was a much better a skier than I really was. I was falling more because I had gotten a big head. My "big head" made me unbalanced, more prone to falling. But the point is, progress comes in fits and starts. It was the same for learning German: some days I felt like I was making a lot of progress, understanding a lot and speaking fluently, while other days I felt like an idiot, unable to understand basic German.

Fieldwork is a bit the same. We tend to imagine fieldwork as the time interacting with people, collecting information, observing rituals. But actually, we spend much more time writing up our notes than we do collecting them. Or maybe I should say that part of "collecting" data is actually the process of putting them down in writing. If they are not written down, they are not really data. They will be forgotten, or worse, distorted by our evolving memory.

Twice, now, I was feeling low about fieldwork, but then fortuitously things turned around. First, I have to say, returning to a place where I had done fieldwork 30 years ago made entry to the field very easy. The second day here, a neighbor took me out to his field where he was spraying herbicide and gave me an outstanding lecture laying out all the types of herbicide and considerations on which to use when. (BTW, did you know that mice and snakes can make a hole in the boundary of the paddy field and cause the water to all drain out overnight? Interesting.) He was not someone I knew before; I had just met him the night before, at a nighttime tea gathering with my host family. He was kind enough to say, "Tomorrow I'm spreading herbicide; do you want to come and see?" It was all because I had the bona fides of my hosts.

Still, finding informants is still not that easy. I can't expect my hosts to take me around everywhere. And sometimes it can be hard to meet and find people to interview. People are busy, and they don't necessarily see any point in explaining things to an anthropologist who does not know anything. And some times, my foreign language abilities combined with lack of knowledge of farming and the normal confusion of human conversations conspires to make me look really dumb. Two days ago, while interviewing a man who runs a nursery, the conversation switched from planting red beans (adzuki, or 紅豆) to a machine that he was using to put seeds in a plastic tray with small cones of dirt. I said something like, "You use this machine for red beans?" and I saw his face turn, either contemptuous or frustrated at my ignorance, and he said, "That is not how we plant red beans!" Actually, I knew that, which is why I asked with such surprise. They used to plant red beans by hand, lifting the soil up with a special tool and putting seeds 2 cm under ground so birds could not get at them, but now they plant closer to the surface, even just by broadcasting. I felt bad that I had looked foolish, and made him wonder if he was wasting his time. Of course, he was a busy man, so yes, talking to me was a waste of his time. In any case, we had interviewed his son, who is a very impressive pesticide vendor, very knowledgeable, articulate, and patient, so messing up on the interview with his father was not too bad, but frustrating. Then I've spent the last three days mostly editing and coding transcriptions of recorded interviews. They are so rich, and there is so much to learn, that I'm spending hours in my room, listening, writing, and searching on the web for pictures of bugs and vegetables that I don't know. And, last night, I did not know who to interview next. I have two interviews next week, but had nothing for today.

It is true everywhere, I believe, that if you have an introduction, people will open up to you. Introductions are less important--and less common--in the US. But in Taiwan, if someone simply says "I know this guy, Joe, from the Chinese University in Hong Kong, and he wants to talk to you," people are generally remarkably hospitable. I mean exceptionally hospitable, and open. Of course everyone always presents themselves in a good light, but there are some people who are quite cautious, while with an introduction, they will also discuss contradictions and what is really going on. (Some Mainland scholars I once brought to Taiwan for a workshop said that "Taiwan is fieldwork paradise" (台灣是田野天堂)--though southern Fujian was also very good, at least for research on religion. The Taiwanese custom of drinking tea in small cups, and sitting around while chatting, makes fieldwork very pleasant. (Unfortunately, that style of tea drinking is often called 老人茶, old-people's tea, suggesting that it increasingly does not fit a high-pressure world with little true leisure. Even when you are not working, you are supposed to be "doing something" or going somewhere, not sitting around drinking tea and chatting.)

But I was a bit stymied in trying to interview one important organization. The person I had met at a farmer's meeting had seemed aloof at the time (but he was also going to be a speaker, so it was not necessarily personal). But when my assistant contacted him to schedule an interview, he transferred us to his assistant, who said that they are very busy now, as this is the busy season. This was patently not true: this is a slack season. Most land is planted in "green manure," a plant that will be plowed under in a month or so before they plant red beans. So now is the best time for interviews. She--and he--clearly did not want to bother with me, and was using a ridiculous excuse to avoid simply saying "No." Fair enough. But how should I proceed? So I asked my host if he could give me an introduction.

I expected him to make some phone calls and tell me who to see, maybe next week. Instead, he called right then, and his friend turned out to be the head of the organization I wanted to know about. His friend, it turned out, was not busy, so invited us over for tea. So we hopped into the car and drove over there. Fortunately, I brought my recorder, because we ended up staying there for an hour and 20 min, and had lunch (simple but tasty 便當 box lunches). Though I had not prepared detailed questions, we had an open ended interview and got a great perspective on red bean farming. What a coup! We not only met the boss, but were introduced to his secretary, and were told to ask her for any help in the future. And, in the office, a woman I had known 30 years ago came forward and we re-established a connection, so I can call on her if necessary as well. So, from feeling a bit stuck and down, I've come back with an excellent interview, and the introductions and connections for future follow-ups.

So fieldwork is like skiing. Some times, when you feel down and like you are not making progress, a burst of progress or luck will come along. Progress comes in spurts, like "punctuated equilibrium." Even in Taiwan, where the fruit is sweet and conditions are relatively easy.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Bragging and Culture

Midwesterners are self-effacing. We are not brash like New Yorkers, or self-promoters like many Californians. If you don't ask a Midwesterner directly, they will not tell you about their work, their latest promotion, or about other successes. Having grown up in Indiana, I find that I only feel comfortable talking about myself if it comes up naturally in a conversation. When people find that I speak a foreign language, they will often chide me for not having told them. My response is always, "You did not ask." How can I tell people that I speak Italian without it sounding obnoxious?

Chinese culture also is self-effacing, but in different ways. In Chinese contexts, the proper response to praise and flattery is to deny that the praise is true. I'll never forget my Chinese teachers in Beijing bursting out laughing when, to their comment that my fiancee in the photo I gave them was very beautiful, I said "Thank you" instead of the culturally appropriate denial "哪裡" (literally "where" but meaning "No, you are too kind.") Similarly burned into my memory is Teacher Zhong telling me that his wife could not cook, and that the food we were eating was not very good, just country food, when instead it was a banquet with many delicious dishes. Mrs. Zhong came in, delivered another dish, and agreed with her husband! "Yes, I can't cook; this is just poor country fare." If I ever said that about my wife's cooking, I think she would be very angry.

So it is very odd, to me, that there is a style of bragging in China and Taiwan that seems to violate this modesty. There are not a few men (it is usually men) who will openly brag about how many people they know and how important they are. Recently I met an old acquaintance who had to tell me that, in the years since we last met, he had become an important person. He literally said, "I'm now an important person." Many parents will openly brag about their children's success in school. I met someone recently who informed me that his two children not only both attended National Taiwan University, but majored in the most difficult majors to test into. I used to have an informant involved in politics who would say to me, "I have a lot of friends" (我的朋友很多). In a relational society like Taiwan, having "a lot of friends" is important and very valuable; this was a way of bragging. And yet, to an American ear, it comes across as boorish, even childish. It is like little boys on the playground arguing about whose father makes the most money or has the biggest house. It does not make me say "Wow" but "How pathetic; why is this person overcompensating?"

Americans do brag, but except for outliers like Donald Trump, usually it is done indirectly, like by name dropping ("When I was talking with President Obama last week,..."). Photographs of oneself with famous people are also sometimes used, though many consider that crass. The one place where Americans do brag directly is in Christmas letters, where they let distant relatives and former friends catch up with what they have been doing--listing all the places they went to on vacation, how much fun they've had on their boat on the lake at their summer house, and that Junior was accepted at Harvard. But precisely because the letters are impossible to write without sounding like bragging, they have a mixed reputation, at best. People seem to like to receive them, but also to complain about them.

Modern society, where we deal a lot with strangers and people who do not know us well, does require a certain ability to present ourselves. I've noticed that Chinese students have a very difficult time writing the personal essay for college and graduate school applications. They are often a bit too hard hitting: from a Chinese point of view, Americans are self-promoters, so many students go all out and really sell themselves. They say they are the best in this or that, that their teachers were very impressed by their project, (and of course that they promise to work hard). They come across as a bit over the top to an American ear. This to me underlines how cultural the self-presentation is, and how difficult it is to calibrate it for a foreign audience.

One side of me tends to look at the Chinese practice of bragging as socially awkward and low class, not mainstream Chinese culture. But it is common enough that I am not sure what to make of it. Certainly polished individuals do not do this. I think what I find jarring is that it is the exact opposite of the modesty expected in most contexts, so it makes me wonder why people think it is OK.

With workplace homepages and Facebook and other social media all giving us more chances to present ourselves, finding the right tone is more important than ever, because if you do not put information out there, you don't exist. But if you do it poorly, you're a jerk. But what seems to be a jerk in one culture might be be appropriate in different culture.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Mainlanders in Hong Kong, and Cultural Sensitivity

There can be no doubt that Hong Kong has become much less welcoming towards Mainlanders. There are many reasons for this, from the large number of tourists and shoppers who have crowded parts of the city, changed the ecology of shops, and made rents rise, to simple resentment that formerly poor neighbors are now rich. There is no doubt that a kind of Hong Kong provincialism contributes to this too. But there is also a kind of Mainland arrogance that many do not even recognize as such.

Recently an article by a financial sector employee who moved from Hong Kong to Shenzhen has circulated widely (here is the Chinese, and here is a translation in Foreign Affairs). Most of the article takes the tone of a disappointed fan. He says Hong Kong is no longer on the cutting edge, no longer the place for dreams and for the future.  That may be true, but it is also true that Hong Kong looks bad in comparison to the rapid growth of the Mainland, but that the Mainland's growth is not sustainable.

What struck me, however, in an otherwise gentle commentary, was this passage:

[B]ecause I speak Mandarin, I’ve endured hostility and nasty glances from service people in [restaurants and supermarkets], and had several instances where I heard my taxi drivers insulting me in Cantonese. I wanted to get angry, but ultimately tolerated it. They think I can’t understand Cantonese, but thanks to my seven years in Hong Kong, I not only can understand but can speak fluent Cantonese. It’s just that I normally insist on speaking Mandarin — it’s my mother tongue, I’ve already spoken it for 20 years before coming to Hong Kong, and it’s my habit. If I need to change it to be accepted, to fit in, doesn’t that show that Hong Kong society is sick?

Well, no, it does not show Hong Kong society is sick. It says to me that he is arrogant and insensitive and expects everyone to speak Mandarin.  Just because Hong Kong is now part of China does not mean everyone has to speak Mandarin, as he seems to assume. If he can speak Cantonese, why does he not do so?!  It is precisely because of his attitude--that Hong Kong people SHOULD speak Mandarin--that people in Hong Kong are increasingly resistant towards using Mandarin. It is one thing for Hong Kong people to try to use Mandarin to communicate with visitors when they don't speak your language. But it is annoying when these visitors come and make no effort to speak your language and assume you should speak theirs.

I have always complained about Americans who travel abroad and comment at the "low level of English." If you want a high level of English, I say, stay home, or go to England.

The problem goes back to interpretations of "One Country Two Systems." In Hong Kong, that is interpreted as meaning Hong Kong can continue to use Cantonese (as is, in fact, legally the case). But some Mainlanders, perhaps affected by the triumphalist news media about 1997, think that because Hong Kong is part of China, they should be able to use Mandarin in Hong Kong.  Of course, Hong Kong shopkeepers would be smart to use Mandarin to cater to their clients, and many do. But it would help smooth ethnic relations if Mainlanders did not take it for granted that everyone should use their language to speak to them in Hong Kong. To willfully refuse to use Cantonese, like the author of the above piece, is quite arrogant and culturally insensitive. I myself mix Cantonese (which I speak badly) with Mandarin precisely to try to "fit in" and to recognize that I am an outsider in Hong Kong, but trying to fit in. I think if Mainlanders did not just assume everyone speaks Mandarin, and used Mandarin with a demeanor showing they knew they were speaking an outside language for Hong Kong, that would help Mainlanders be better accepted in Hong Kong.

But I can just hear the above author's reply: "Why should I; I'm Chinese, and I'm in China." And that's the rub; he comes across as arrogant in Hong Kong. And he does not see it, or understand why.