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Questions I get asked everyday…

By Tom McDonald, on 20 July 2014

Tom asking (or maybe being asked) the questions (Photo: Gillian Bolsover)

Tom asking (or maybe being asked) lots of questions (Photo: Gillian Bolsover)

For the past 14 months I’ve been living in this rural town in north China, conducting ethnographic research on how social media is affecting life here.

However, many people in the town have never had a foreign friend before, let alone one that can speak Chinese. People are extremely inquisitive about me and life in the UK, and I generally spend much more of my time answering their constant questions than I am able to ask them my own research questions and hear their answers.

Below are the questions I tend to get asked on an almost daily basis here in the town. I’ve decided to publish them on this blog partly because even though I am really bored of having to answer these questions again and again, they remain interesting both because they reveal some commonly held ideas that many people in the town hold regarding the rest of the world, while also helping us to learn about some of the important concerns of rural Chinese life (food, family, work, history, politics).

  • Why are your eyes blue?
  • Why is your skin white?
  • Why is your hair yellow? Is it dyed?
  • How many brothers and sisters do you have?
  • Do westerners just eat bread and drink milk?
  • Do westerners always eat raw meat?
  • Are you unable to eat Chinese food?
  • Wow! How come you know how to use chopsticks?!
  • What religion are you? Do all westerners believe in Jesus?
  • How much is your salary in a month?
  • What is the average house price in the UK?
  • What is the area/population of the UK?
  • Can you get used to living here?
  • Do you miss home?
  • How old are you?
  • Are you married?
  • Why aren’t you married?
  • Do you like Chinese girls? Are they pretty?
  • Why don’t you get a Chinese wife?
  • How many children are you allowed to give birth to in the UK?
  • Why does Britain always invade other countries and do whatever America does?
  • Do you think the Diaoyu Islands are China’s [territory]?
  • Why are you here?
  • Are you a spy?
  • What cars do you drive in the UK?
  • What is the weather like in the UK?

While some people may interpret these questions as showing that people in my fieldsite know very little about the rest of the world, I think the questions make a lot of sense and actually show how interested in the outside world my friends here are.

In addition, the incredulous looks my friends give me when I ask some of our research questions in our interviews, such as ‘does social media increase or decrease your interaction with people who are significantly richer or poorer than you?’ sometimes makes me think us researchers are the ones who are asking the stupid questions.

But then maybe there is no such thing as a stupid question. Almost anything you ask can help start a dialogue which will end up helping you to learn more about the people in your fieldsite. As the old adage goes: ‘one can but ask…’.

The age of the amateur?

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 3 January 2014

cooking

Image courtesy of Chris Zielecki, Creative Commons

Well into the thick of looking at what people post, there are the obvious recurrences of photos of family, friends, selfies or being seen somewhere, like a club, event or on holiday. There is also another genre that I think begins with photos of food. There are lots of posts of food at restaurants, but there are also lots of photos of self-prepared food. In Trinidad, there is definitely a sense of photos being posted because they are a ‘Trini’ dish, but what of cakes and cupcake decorating for example, that aren’t particularly Trini? Especially being the last week of the year and Christmas week, there are more photos of ‘things I have made’ than usual. The ‘things I have made’ genre also extends to parties, weddings and baby showers- social gatherings, where trinkets on tables, flower arrangements, gifts for guests are also the products of assemblage by individuals and not commercially bought as finished products (which, I suppose would be ‘things I have bought’.)

We have started asking informants what they think of things posted by others. Sandra, an admin assistant in her late twenties, mostly posts photos of things she has cooked or baked. Another informant looked at images only of her posts and described her dishes as cosmopolitan and therefore, Sandra must be or aspires to be a cosmopolitan person. One of Sandra’s friends posted origami Christmas decorations to her wall with paper that Sandra had bought her for her birthday. Another friend volunteers to make party trinkets and decorations for their friends and posts them on her own timeline, so following the chain of associations by following one friend’s post to another friend’s timeline, we can start to assume that this is a crafty bunch of friends that have a shared interest in DIY.

Razvan and Danny discussed some time ago what Facebook might mean for commercial photography and for professions such as the wedding photographer. With camera phones and quick filter apps such as Instagram, any photo can look good and is instantly available at no cost. Instagram is not big in my fieldsite in Trinidad, but photography for the social pages of newspapers and Facebook are. Photographers go to fetes, events and parties, photograph people and post them, so individuals don’t have to pay anyone for professional photos to be taken. Some of these photographers are amateurs themselves who build their profile by branding images and posting them on Facebook.

The two weddings I was invited to during my last period of fieldwork also had invitations made, not from a commercial design firm, but through a Photoshop savvy relative who simply printed the invitations at the local office shop (and one of the couples posted photos of the invitation on Facebook). Printed Christmas cards are also a long standing tradition in Trinidad, and this week, I have seen a flood of posts of Christmas images and photos of people modified by an editing app that surrounds the image with Christmas-themed borders and decorations.

Of course, like any observation, I would need to systematically investigate the genre of DIY and ‘things I have made’ further, and its relevance to social media. The town of El Mirador is still a place where brands and the amount spent on commercial goods are indicators of status, but there are also conversations around ethical consumption, waste, and environmentalism that are resulting in a small DIY subculture. It also a town where DIY has been valued for at least two generations, with the building and modification of homes; painting, renovation, and adding extensions (where men and their relatives do this rather than hiring work men). The key difference is that for the previous generation, such forms of DIY weren’t able to be shared and catalogued through a platform like Facebook. Homes had to be visited in order to be appreciated. But now, I don’t have to eat one of Sandra’s magnificent cupcakes to appreciate the time, creativity and labour she has put into it.

Reflection on fieldwork perks

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 19 November 2012

Divali Diyas, photo by Jolynna Sinanan

And so I have left the rest of the team to start fieldwork after 8 weeks of debating, arguing, listening, learning and laughing. One of the joys of doing comparative work is that in the introductory phases of navigating the field, observing, counting and hanging around, I can still hear 8 people’s voices in my head (I suspect that this time next year it will be replaced by the 150 voices of my informants.)

One of the joys of doing ethnographic research on social networks is that you get invited to lots of social events. This week as in many other countries, Trinidad celebrated Divali – the Festival of Lights. As one of my colleagues on the project said a few weeks ago, ‘anthropology is the most romantic of disciplines’. That resonated with me this week, I was invited to a religious festival by a family, clean all week, cook all morning, eat lots of food, catch up and at sunset, light dozens of tiny diyas and scatter them around the garden.

Social events are also a wonderful source for conversations, everybody is in good spirits and wants to talk to you. It’s one of the situations where you are in a great position if you aren’t familiar with the significance of the event, you can get several interpretations and explanations in one setting. The more questions you ask, (clever or otherwise) the more people want to jump in and correct you or each other. Fieldwork in Trinidad at this time of year is littered with upcoming celebrations, we are now into pre-Christmas, Parang (‘indigenous’ Christmas music with a Spanish flavor) parties are snowballing, Soca songs for Carnival are beginning to be released, Mas Camps for making costumes and the pan yard for practicing steel drums are beginning to open. Not to mention the oodles of cooking and eating.

I am working, I swear.