Making Connections On Campus

It has now been several months since our time in Fengyu has ended. Although I still miss the winding village roads, delicious food, kind people, and rewarding work, it’s wonderful to have spaces on campus to continue to share the experiences we had in Fengyu with others. A few weeks ago, the Sociology Department at Dickinson College hosted an event titled “Sociology: It’s More Than You Think!” where professors, majors, and minors came together with prospective majors in order to educate them about what our department has to offer. As a smaller department, we constantly strive to educate the campus community about sociology, and specifically provide opportunities for underclassmen to learn about the major and see if they would be interested in pursuing it as a field of study.

In addition to educating the campus community about what sociology is as a discipline, we also wanted to show others about the opportunities available to sociology majors. Several students brought posters about internships they had completed, and one student brought a poster from her final project for one of our research methods courses, Quantitative Research Methods. In order to showcase off-campus research opportunities, as well as what our other main research method, Qualitative Methods, looks like, I brought the poster that my fellow research team members and I created to represent our research in Fengyu. Throughout the event, I was able to speak with students who walked up to the poster, telling them about our research there and what we found. I not only discussed the experience in Fengyu with them, but also the hard work we all completed prior to the actual research itself. Part of doing research is writing the grant application, as well as educating yourself about the place you will be going and previous research done on the topic. As a student, these are all the things that would be involved in an experience like this, something important to communicate to students who are interested in doing research. This event was overall a rich opportunity to connect with students, educate them about research opportunities at Dickinson, and expose them to research completed in an East Asian context. Like sociology, our approach to research in Fengyu was largely interdisciplinary, something I also wanted to emphasize to students that I spoke with. Sociology allows students to explore a variety of different disciplines and subjects, opening them up to new opportunities that, although may appear different to what they usually study, can always be connected. I hope that events such as this will help prepare me for the upcoming poster session at the ASIANetworks Conference that I will attend in April in San Diego.

A few students stopping by to read the poster

A few students stopping by to read the poster


Me (right) discussing the poster with a student (left) attending the event

Me (right) discussing the poster with a student (left) attending the event


Overall, the event was a great success. Majors, minors, faculty and new students all enjoyed snacks and beverages while discussing all of the wonderful things sociology has to offer. As one of the five members of our department’s majors committee, I was lucky enough to be able to help plan this event. It was truly rewarding to see our hard work come to fruition through a successful, enjoyable evening. I was very thankful to have the opportunity to not only talk about the discipline that I love, but also to continue to talk about the research we did in Fengyu, two things I imagine I will never get tired of talking about.

Students arriving, grabbing some food and socializing. A successful event!

Students arriving, grabbing some food and socializing. A successful event!


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Fengyu on the ancient Tea and Horse Road: A reflection of the Fengyu Experience

         After returning to the U.S.and looking back to our field research last summer, I am still reflecting on the role religion plays in local life. Reviewing previous scholarship on Bai people, the Fengyu region, as well as Benzhu religion, I wrote an analytical paper focusing on exploring the rich and diverse characteristics of Fengyu Bai identity, which challenges the widespread idea that out-migration devastates community life and identity. Also, I examined other factors such as significant impact of state policy that treats local religion as ethnic culture. Current intellectual discourse on the uniqueness of ethnic culture is related to the perceived vulnerability of local “traditional” cultures as villagers leave for work in urban areas.  This new government policy and discourse surrounding it risks promoting the “othering” of Bai people, seen as having ancient, quaint customs, on the brink of extinction.  Moreover, the religion-as-culture program often justifies sanitizing local religion by discouraging and disparaging activities deemed “superstitious.”

Rooftop of one of the religious temples in FengyuDrawing from what we found in Fengyu and library research, I began to see how the whole notion of out-migration itself is embedded in assumptions about its consequences for supposedly vulnerable communities. I realized my previous assumption about out-migration as solely negative led me to perceive it as devastating for the local community, and interrupting village sustainability. However, in our field research, we found that out-migration played an essential role in both the modernization of the village, as well as in sustaining local religious practices.  For example, we visited a local Black Dragon (HeiLongwang) temple, a temple widely associated with the weather and water, both of which are closely related to the success or failure of agricultural production. Our guide, Mr. Yang, told us that all the local villagers contributed to the reconstruction of the temple, including those migrants to larger cities. Yang explained that although these out-migrants did not have cohesive associations such as huiguan in China’s large cities, they still have constant connections with each other as well as the village. Sending money back to build the Heilongwang temple is  concrete evidence that out-migrants are still taking the responsibility for village construction.

Experiencing The ancient Tea and Horse Road on a raining day

Potteries and stove in houses alongside the Tea and Horse Road

The idea that out-migration does not necessarily devastate community life could be illustrated by historical evidence. During our last days in Fengyu, we were able to visit the ancient remains of the Tea and Horse road (Chamagudao). There are still people living alongside that road, and their houses remained in a traditional form for accommodating horse caravans and the traders.  From some informal conversations, we learned that there is still a room in their yard especially built for caravan traders as they traversed Tea and Horse Road.  During the old days, traders used food to trade for their accommodations. After learning about Fengyu’s historical connection to the Tea and Horse road, I realized that in the history of our village, one of the principal stations on the Tea and Horse Road, the interactions with Han people and other ethnic communities were nothing novel to local Fengyu Bai people. Instead, its past laid the basis for their fluidity of character, enabling them to adapt to the new out-migration trend, and at the same time keep maintaining their local community. The Tea and Horse Road, also known as “The Silk Road in south China,” can be dated back to the Northern and Southern Dynasties (CE 420-589). It enabled trade activities between the Bai, some of whom ran their own caravans, and other local groups that were part of the Tea and Horse network. Since the southwestern part of China, of which Yunnan province is a part, is one of the areas where the tea bush originated.  The Tea and Horse roads connecedt the villages along the caravan route with other areas within and without China. For example, the northeastern road (Dongbeilu) started from P’uer, Mojiang, and Yuxi , and led toward Kunming (nowadays the capital of Yunnan), and transferred goods to other significant northern cities in China such as Beijing and Shanghai. The Southern Road (Nanlu), led in the opposite direction, starting from generated from Simao, to Jinghong, and to Daluo, finally passing over what are now the borderlands of  Burma, Thailand, and to the west, Hong Kong. These roads served an important function by linking different villages and regions, which indicates the long history of goods and population exchange within and between regions. From the existence of such a room in the old house we saw, as well as the historical records, it is clear that Fengyu villages have a long history of engaging in town-to-town and international trade.  These connections are not ancient history, but actually quite recent, as the old house on the caravan trail attests.

Therefore, the negative impact of out-migration should not be overly emphasized. Conventional scholarship points out that the loss of one’s unique religious practice as a consequence of the migration experience and people leaving the village creates unique vulnerability of Bai community and risks inviting state intervention into regulating local religion. While concerns about state manipulation are not unfounded, in my analytical paper I argued that the state support for local religious institutions provides communal space for the creation and continuation of local networks.  These networks comprise a  significant part of community conservation. In sum, I encourage future researchers to incorporate a multi-faceted perspective when approaching the topic of migration and  religion to avoid oversimplification.

In general, I am really grateful for having the opportunity to learn more about Fengyu people’s personal perspectives on the out-migration phenomenon. Together with their narratives as well as scholarship, I am able to gain a more thorough understanding of Fengyu people’s experience of out-migration instead of relying on others’ representations their experience.

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Back on Campus

Several weeks after our group returned from our August fieldwork in Yunnan, China, supported by a grant from AsiaNetwork, we organized an on-campus event to showcase our research.  While we prepared a poster for this event – to be recycled at the AsiaNetwork meeting in April – three of the 6 students who were back on campus did a power point presentation and discussion with the Dickinson community. They were Meaghan McBride, a Sociology major, Jingwen Zhang, an Environmental Studies major with a minor in Women and Gender Studies, and Rachel Gross, a major in Environmental Studies and Food Studies, as well as a farmer.

3 girlsOur research in Yunnan focused on a Bai community and the sustainability of its farming ecology and culture in the contemporary era of out-migration to China’s cities. We continue to work on this project through further research on the phenomenon of “hollowing out” of China’s rural villages and returning to our transcripts and other ethnographic data.  Also, four of the students who went to Yunnan enrolled in a half-credit course in fall 2018 that was a follow-up to our August fieldwork. Each of them wrote a fieldwork-based research paper with topics ranging from the environment to religion. These papers are also useful as we continue to work on analyzing our field data.

This event, sponsored by the Community Studies Center and the Center for Global Study and Engagement, was as an opportunity to connect with Chinese students on our campus.  In addition to posters around campus announcing the event, our global studies office sent out special invitations to students from China.  We wanted not only to present our research but also to get to better know students from China and hear about their experience at Dickinson. Our group’s experience in rural China was so positive that we wanted to be sure that our Chinese students felt welcomed to Dickinson.  We promised everyone who attended a cup of the famous Pu’er tea, a gift from out hosts in Yunnan.

guestsConversations over tea and snacks were facilitated by Global Ambassadors, students who have returned from abroad and serve as advisors for Dickinson’s international programs.  In addition to faculty and the presenters, about 30 students attended our event.


We are looking forward to the arrival of Jinji Wei, one of our research assistants in Yunnan.  She will stay on our campus for 2 weeks in late March/early April and work with us on our research

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Final Blog Update

Our last few days, as a group, in China were spent exploring the city of Dali and Kunming. This was a good closing to the trip after spending two weeks in the village conducting fieldwork. Let’s just say, I really enjoyed my time with this China Practicum cohort. I learned a lot about my personal self, but also about the external environment and socialization I was apart of during this time. It was extremely awesome to see our fieldwork come into fruition after two semesters of writing proposals and actualizing what this experience would be like. My favorite part about doing this research was the fact that we did not really set any expectations in terms of what we were coming to find. In a conversation with Ann Hill, she mentioned that some anthropologists will go do fieldwork and ask very specific questions, because they have one goal in mind; they are trying to prove one contention they have made. However, that is not what we did with our time, we went in having done readings prior to our experience in Fengyu, Professors Ann Hill and Susan Rose shared their experiences and observations when they visited Fengyu a few years back, but we went in with open minds and a willingness to listen to a diverse pool of interviewees’ perspectives. Doing so, we were able to acquire a deeper understanding of some of the challenges and benefits of sustainability, tradition (religion and culture), food and the impacts of out-migration on the village.

I am looking forward to working with more diverse groups such as our China Practicum group, and am extremely grateful for the success of our research experience. This practicum allowed me to prepare for study abroad in India this upcoming semester, because a big component of my study abroad is conducting an independent research project. I was also given the opportunity to live in a village that is unlike any place I have been, likewise with where I am studying in India. I am also sure that this trip was helpful for me in ways that are unfathomable at this moment in my life, but will arise in moments that I find adversity.

After the group departed from Kunming, I stayed in Kunming for an additional week and explored the city by myself. I am glad I made the decision to stay in Yunnan a little longer. While I was here, my fondness for Kunming, and Yunnan as a whole, grew more and more. Throughout our research experience, we saw the reoccurring theme that rural China is the backbone and building blocks of major cities. I understood this on a surface level for awhile, and only in the context of American agricultural practices. This was very clear in this additional week that I stayed behind in Kunming. I saw a lot of similar practices in the city, that I saw in my time in the village. Especially in terms of food production and the influence of Yunnan minority groups’ food practices in major cities. This makes a lot of sense in the framework of our research, considering we were focused on out-migration and the impact of out-migration of villages. When people are leaving their native villages to work in the city, they are likely to bring along the culture (whether that be food, religion, etc.) with them. So, thinking about out-migration impacts of city life is particularly interesting too. It would be fruitful to talk to out-migrants who now live in the city, and think about the ways in which they bring their culture and native lifestyles with them into these big cities.

Anyway, in the following weeks I will be retrospective of my experiences doing this fieldwork adventure, simultaneously existing in an environment that I have never been in before. I will do a lot of this retrospection in my 10 page analytical paper, documentary and my personal travel blog. Big thanks to EVERYONE who contributed to this project. We all played an integral role for each other (for personal growth and knowledge development), but also in our research practices and routine. Everyone expressed an undying sense of curiosity that allowed this research to be provocative, thought-provoking and moving for all of us. Thank you all.

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Beyond the fields of Fengyu

Our fieldwork is now over. We have all headed to our next destinations – Boston, Philadelphia, Shanghai, Lijiang, Delhi. Some already there, others stranded by stormy weather (read: me). Our fieldwork over the past few weeks has been an illuminating experience – on a personal and on an academic level. All of us came from very different academic backgrounds yet were able to come together at the intersection of what we cared about. We explored niche topics in our own fields that we might not have paid much attention to in a different setting. Many challenges came our way – hard to evade, considering we were working with multiple interpreters to overcome the double language barrier of Han Chinese (Mandarin) and Bai. The relationships that were at the center of our work most certainly constitute a learning experience for all of us that we can readily transfer onto our next academic and professional aspirations. As per the requirements of the Freeman grant, this blog will focus on career/professional preparation.

My own interests are currently messily scattered but can be coherently described by categories such as human rights or global justice. I am interested in writing, or, in more professional terms – journalism. My major at Dickinson is international studies, though I’ve ventured into upper-level English and sociology courses during my first few semesters. All this can be aggregated to point me in myriad directions, among which the humanitarian sector and investigative journalism stand out. It is not mere chance that Fengyu, and our work in the village over the course of two and a half weeks, happens to fit in the context of my interests, experience, and aspirations quite neatly. Unsurprisingly, what all of us got from the fieldwork is transferrable to almost any professional path each of us could plan to undertake.

Certainly, for me, it’s near perfect. Numerous conversations with ordinary people, grandmothers, street cooks, children, students, teachers, principals, local officials were an opportunity to interact one on one with people unlike us, teaching us how to navigate the unexpected and lead productive conversations. Simultaneously, we had to make sure our questions were concise and appropriate on a personal, cultural, and academic level. We had to establish just the right amount of intimacy with our interviewee and do that through our interpreters. The applicability of this type of complex conversation is easy to see. It requires a good grasp of one’s environment and intentionality and reflexivity in dealing with one’s conversation partners. From the world of journalism – where such human work on the ground is a necessity – to the everyday office environment, there is undeniable value in this sort of awareness.

As a group, we’ve also talked a lot about cross-cultural communication both during afternoon meets up on the porch of our hotel in Fengyu and in some of our blog posts. The phrase cross-cultural communication has almost become a hackneyed term – especially in workplaces – that is mentioned without much further reflection. In Fengyu, we saw the real value, as well as the real challenge that this can be. A lot was required from both sides during our interactions with interpreters but overcoming what frustrated us revealed the importance of this type of communication. We now appreciate the patience required on both sides and the need for extreme open-mindedness and adaptation. We have honed our ability to express information in ways very tailored to the people on the other. This translates into the capacity for flexible communication that is invaluable in any professional environment, especially those that expose one to people of myriad backgrounds.

The size of our group – 6 students –  in addition to the supporting faculty and staff, allowed us to form research teams when necessary. This comprised grouping according to our academic backgrounds and interests to focus specific interviews in a particular direction. The topics we covered ranged from family structure to food consumption and production, from cultural and community dynamics to religious practices over time. We made use of the diversity of our majors, minors, and certificates – international studies, food studies, American studies, sociology, women and gender studies, among others. In each interview, we identified those who would be strongest to lead the line of questioning, those who would interpret, and those who would deal with video and media handling – the composition of interview teams varied every single time we approached somebody. The ability to identify each other’s strengths, team up accordingly, and execute the task at hand seamlessly within our small group will certainly stay with us as a valuable skill.

Because of the multidimensionality and interdisciplinarity of our fieldwork, the usefulness of our work extends far beyond the fields of Fengyu. A multitude of complex interpersonal interactions and plenty to manage, delegate, synthesize, organize, and create sums up any professional environment. These skills help pave my way forward, as I advance in fields that require communication with people in circumstances unknown to me, people whose interests might not align with mine, or people from whom I am divided by physical, cultural, or other barriers.



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Chinese Language: Skill Building

Pema 2nd for left

Pema is 2nd from left enjoying our welcoming banquet

These past three weeks, our team traveled through Kunming, Dali and Fengyu of China’s Southwestern Yunnan Province. Each of these various mountain communities consistently engaged our active and subconscious observational skills. Communication was both an imperative and unavoidable aspect to the success of our oral history interviews. The attention we channeled towards even the most trivial interactions helped develop this skill set. We also observed how Professor Hill and Professor Rose approached cross-cultural interaction from both of their anthropological and sociological backgrounds.

Entering our research program as a Chinese minor, I was always excited at the prospect of putting my four semesters of classroom knowledge to use. After overcoming the initial shock of entering a Chinese speaking country, my ears began the slow process of adjusting to unfamiliar tones, sounds, and forms of expression.

In the very beginning of our research I was reluctant to practice my Chinese. I was afraid of embarrassment. I didn’t want locals to question my identity because I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t want to feel useless when a classmate asked for a translation. Most of all I didn’t want to feel incompetent. Allowing grades to confirm my inability to speak the language, I grew accustomed to fear mistakes. The weighty importance which my Chinese curriculum placed on weekly examinations didn’t help.

Entering Fengyu, I allowed myself to not internalize mistakes. I owe this to the patience and welcoming nature of the Bai locals. If I spoke incorrectly, I felt like I was given the time to try again. As the program progressed, I became more and more comfortable blurting out whatever came to mind. Correct or incorrect. By the end of our second week in Fengyu, I found myself at ease making mistakes. I started to ask more questions.

Watching how our translator (Jinji) struggled to communicate in English helped this process. I found the extensive effort she made to express herself clearly  as particularly encouraging. Always flip-flopping between English and Chinese, sometimes a mix of the two—Jinji was persistent. Eventually I felt more comfort in rearranging sentence structure and choice of vocabulary. After reinterpreting “failure,” I found new appreciation for learning and using a new language and less blame for the obvious gaps in my knowledge.


Jinji, PhD Student, Yunnan University and our interpreter

Before leaving Fengyu, I felt like I had practiced more colloquial Chinese than my entire “intermediate” year of study. Whether or not this is true, my sentiments reflect the positive transformation I noticed in my relationship to learning, practicing, and studying Chinese.

The people of Fengyu gave me the space to build my confidence. I have always internalized the daunting characteristics often associated with learning the Chinese language. In Fengyu I learned a fundamental truth about learning any new language. The process is fluid and the learning curve is hard to track. Also, in the long run, grades reflect only what you allow them to. They are not necessarily conclusive representations of your capability. The Fengyu people helped me believe in this and my ability. On top of leaving Yunnan with my first taste of field research, I have also left more prepared than ever to start my semester abroad studying Chinese at Peking University in Beijing.

Final Dinner, Hosted by Teacher Yang

Dancing into the night

Post-Dinner Dancing ft. Mudidi & Ren’s Grandmother

Lunch at Benzhu Temple

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Cross-cultural inter-species interaction

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Life History Prep & Translator Interaction

Benzhou Temple in Fengyu

Group Photo Benzhou Temple in Fengyu

After an early morning wake and baozi break, the team divided into two groups by research interest. Rachel, Jingwen, Muhajir, and Matt took off into the mysterious blueberry fields of Fengyu for agriculture & production related inquiries. Alex, Meaghan, and I reviewed a separate collection of “Life History” interview questions back at the hotel.

Before our first exchange with any village representative, Professor Rose and Professor Hill encouraged us to prepare a thoughtful selection of 7 questions which would organize the general flow of our upcoming interview. Despite the consistent unpredictability of anything planning-related, the act of reviewing questions would nevertheless help further familiarize us with our material. Additionally, we figured composing a structure to the general flow of our questions could save us from having to sit politely through excessive amounts of unsolicited, off-topic rambling.

Simple enough…(or so we thought)

Our previous sentiments ran unopposed…that is until we encountered the dense, 4-page list of life history questions. These questions covered broad aspects of family structure, gender politics, government policy, and religious practice within the village community. Our challenge was to identify the questions which would best illustrate how ongoing trends in out-migration impacted these different facets of village life & identity.

Throughout this cross-cultural process, it was necessary that each of us recognize any previous subconscious bias/baggage we may have toward the Fengyu people. Although we entered Fengyu having discussed a handful of scholarly articles for basic reference, upon arrival it was clear that we needed to root our questions in everyday language and ideas.

In light of reconsidering the unlikely success rate when approaching interviews from an academic lens, listed below is a set of reference questions we used to guide us through cultural and linguistic barriers.

  • How does your interviewee identify him or herself?
  • How does this impact the phrasing of your questions, if at all?
  • Which selection of questions will most effectively open them up?
  • Are there questions which may embarrass them?
  • How can you break down your question?
  • How do you avoid structuring bias questions?

In an ideal world, we would have enough time to ask any of the naturally, “ah-ha” last-minute questions which usually serve most useful. Realistically, the villagers who are intrigued-enough to accept our offer are doing us the favor, and meanwhile cannot devote all of their time to us.

Ren and Jinji, are our indispensable Bai and Chinese language translators. They serve the crucial role of bridging the language gap between ourselves and the majority population of Bai locals who speak fluent Bai or Chinese. In theory, by bridging this gap, they help make our lives easier.

In practice, the second part is not always true. Working along their side I have realized that the more patience and encouragement we show them, the more accurately translated, better communicated, and successful our research will develop into. Learning begins here with our translators.

Since entering China, then Fengyu, our cross-cultural interpretation and communication skills are of continual importance, from the most basic of interactions to collaboration with our translators. Since we are encompassed in a culture so distinct from ours, it may never register how continually we are processing body language, facial expressions, and hand gestures throughout the day.

Although this constant processing may leave us exhausted, it is without a doubt rewarding and that the more time we devote to recognizing general frustration with our translators as rooted in different cultural understandings and communication, the more practiced our attention to cross-cultural exchange will be. In the end, this active reminder to practice patience will set us in a better position for successful collaboration with our translators. As a result, it will leave us far happier with both our final product and research team.

Since the beginning of our interviews it has been wonderful to see how well the relationships with our interpreters have developed. I am sure that this positive trajectory will continue into our final interviews.


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The power of baozi

With tripods, cameras, and two packs of milk in hand, we headed to Grandma B’s house. Only a few days earlier, we were eating breakfast baozi, when someone on the street pointed a finger at me, made me stand up, and, moments later, pose with the very woman whose house we were now on our way to visit. This became Grandma B, in accordance with U.S. fieldwork protocols. We had been invited to her house, but first, we had to pass by a print shop to get some prints of the photo of Alex and Grandma B to give to her  – of course, not my idea.

Our fieldwork will comprise a combination of a lot of spontaneous meet ups on the street or at street restaurants that often lead to invitations into people’s homes, as well as not-so-spontaneous arranged interviews by our helpful friend, Yang Tao, a high school principal and a member of the Party. The serendipity of meeting Grandma Baozi during breakfast on the streets of Fengyu led to one of our first official interviews.

Preparation for that interview comprised some intense, cross-cultural and cross-linguistic preparation,  at times very revealing, at times quite frustrating. Our list of questions was a life history,  with a focus on the effects of out-migration on family structure and cultural, religious, and agricultural practices. We worked with our interpreters to simplify questions and challenge the unnecessary complexity of their academic tone. When asking about gender relations over time, for example, we deemed it more useful to avoid articulating questions in the abstract, and instead ask more specific questions related to the practicality of everyday life whose answers would reveal valuable insight into gender relations.

Preparing for and conducting interviews with locals is incredibly multidimensional. With more elderly people like Grandma B, communication involves the minority Bai language, Mandarin, and English. Those conducting the interview ask the question, our first interpreter translates the question from English to Chinese for our second interpreter who then translates the question from Chinese to Bai. Grandma B responds in Bai, our second interpreter translates the answer from Bai to Chinese, our first interpreter translates the answer from Chinese to English. That is the ideal, streamlined situation but the reality is often far more hectic and prone to confusion, misunderstanding, and miscommunication. A carefully phrased question can easily lose its carefully-constructed phrasing by the time it reaches its addressee or, in a worse case, reach its addressee altered in substance. Information moves slowly and various amounts of it are lost along the way. In reviewing notes after the interview, we stumbled upon a few minor but sharp discrepancies and internal contradictions, indicating the way information moves around in interviews like this.

We went into the interview with Grandma B having read research about labor out-migration from Fengyu and with a number of ideas about how that might affect community (bearing in mind there is no direct translation for the word community). Like most of our interviews, we asked Grandma B to tell us about her life. So far, an oral history approach has been the most productive way of conducting interviews with locals – especially the elderly – except when the interviewee in question has specialized knowledge and experience in a relevant field (like local officials, for example). Grandma B (87) traced her parents’ generation lifestyle, comparing it to her own generation’s and that of later generations. Her parents belonged to a “landlord” family and had a rich life due to their land ownership. Following collectivization – which, according to her story, occurred with a significant delay in Fengyu due to its rurality – conditions for continued wealth dissipated. Her children’s life was different – they had to engage in farm work and were unable to get an education – partly because they were occupied with making a living, partly because girls could not go to school.

Grandma B confirmed the pervasiveness of labor out-migration, adding an extra category of people to those who move out of Fengyu in search of better or different opportunities for work. Her children lacked an education like many of those who leave the village with skills, and currently live in an urban environment, sending back a limited amount of support money for her own livelihood. While many families’ remittances go to the construction of large new houses in Fengyu, her children take turns to send 100 yuan per month – a telling detail about the skill and income bracket of her children, bearing in mind their lack of education.

As she recounted her past, she shared how she has tried to eat moderately and use excess money to travel with friends. Right above her stood a frame full of pictures portraying Grandma B in different locations around China – the Great Wall, the Forbidden City – each time in her traditional Bai clothing.

The entire exchange challenged assumptions that Fengyu is or was isolated and not open to the movement of people. While others have communicated a sense of relative isolation of Fengyu in the distant past, it seems movement nowadays is the norm – whether for work or leisure. In fact, the two reinforce each other for obvious reasons, as remittances flow through the fabric of village life. Both Grandma B and subsequent interviewees have pointed to people’s emotional attachment to Fengyu and their dedication to contribute to the village and the livelihoods of its residents. Nevertheless, there’s an almost universal recognition that there are better and more profitable opportunities in bigger cities and there is no hesitance nor stigma associated with their pursuance.

Farm work – the traditional means of sustenance in the village – is increasingly less appealing to locals. Grandma B herself has abandoned farmland that is either rented out or given to the somewhat mysterious Blueberry Company, a Dali-based firm that utilizes large swaths of land around Fengyu for mass production of blueberries, or to relatives and friends.  To some degree, there was a lack of clarity here as to how land is used and whether those who use it pay for it, but that is part of the experience of working across multiple language barriers even with the use of interpreters.

The interview offered much more, but this is an outline of those elements that have coalesced into the larger patterns of evidence we get as we interview more and more people. Our conversations continually confirm, in rare instances deny, and most often calibrate the larger narratives about labor out-migration and its impact on community in Fengyu.

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Interactions, Collaborations, and Serendipity




What is amazing about research and fieldwork is that you go in having done some readings, discussed the topic of study and have a sense of what you are going to be looking for but simultaneously, you really have no idea what to expect or what your final outcome will actually look like.

In the past 12 days, I have found myself in the most random positions and have taken on roles that I did not imagine being in prior to arriving on this fieldwork journey. In this blog post, I will discuss what I expected before the trip, how the unexpected has changed and challenged my expectations, and what I have been doing since arriving in Fengyujie.

Upon arrival to Kunming, Yunnan, China, I anticipated things to fall into place exactly how I envisioned and exactly how the tentative schedule outlined. I expected things to be exactly how I had read, and I expected all the things I read about to be validated and reified through my interactions with the local community. However, I have been challenged in ways that I could not have fathomed prior to starting this project. A main example is the fact that translating is hard, especially when translating between three different languages. It is almost like playing a game of telephone, except not really because in the game of telephone you are expecting someone to mess up and incorrectly deliver the message, but in fieldwork and interviews you want things to be smooth, proper and concise. This has not completely been the case when trying to translate from English to Chinese to the minority Bai language, and vice versa. Don’t get me wrong — it has been a challenge, but as a group we are finding ways to mitigate the language barrier challenge and get the most out of our interviews and interactions with people, whether this comes from discussing what might have gone wrong during the interviews, or finding ways to reframe our questions so that they are best translated and answered when we are asking nuanced questions.

Another example is that I came in expecting to solely focus on food. However, thinking that I was devoted to one thing has offered its own challenges. I am realizing that I do not want to limit my findings by only being interested in one theme, and realizing that if I am open to understanding the culture and life of Bai people, I can get a more holistic understanding and insight into life and culture in Fengyujie. My most useful and impactful moments here so far have been the serendipitous ones. The other day, we unexpectedly got into one of the most memorable, intense, yet friendly and fun basketball games I have ever been apart of. Playing this game with local Fengyujie youth showed me that there are many ways to overcome a language barrier. I felt closer to all of them in a way. The basketball game attracted so many people into the park we were playing in, because of course, we were yelling and being cheerful. I could not help but smile the whole time, and laugh my socks off at how terrible we all were at playing basketball.

Yesterday, we were invited to the local calligraphy union where some of us interviewed native Bai men and others admired all of the calligraphy posted throughout the facility. At the end of the interviews, we had the privilege of watching the men do calligraphy, and then we were all given the opportunity to write something meaningful on the canvas as well. I did not expect this at all, but it definitely made me feel closer to the community and even more welcomed into the village.

Throughout my time here, I have taken on one of the many roles of filming and documenting our interactions with the local community, fun activities, and some of the interviews we have done so far. I have always wanted to be apart of a documentary, and I feel like this is the perfect time to practice and see what I can do with videography and editing. I am excited to see my footage and the footage of others who have been recording compiled in a full-length documentary that others can watch and vicariously re-live what we experienced in our China mosaic. I am so looking forward to what our last week in China holds. I cannot wait to see what we find as well.

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