By CHEN lin
I have conducted fieldwork in Beijing three different times; most recently this year from February to May. I acted as a volunteer on a construction site, playing movies and singing songs for workers. My research focuses on intimacy and family relationships of migrant women workers. I share three stories resulting from my experience as a woman student researcher on the construction site.
“Are you a journalist?”
When I visited the kitchen of the construction site for a third time, a woman chef took a look at me and returned to her cooking, seemingly indifferent. Then a group of workers came into the kitchen, with bowls in their hands, and asked who I was. After all, the way I dressed was completely different from them, not like a worker on a construction site. The migrant woman worker said “Look at the girl, carrying a red bag the whole day, coming around here so often! She is going to play a movie here later!” And suddenly, she turned to me again. With a dubious smile, she asked “Are you a journalist? What on earth do you want to know from us?”
That was the most recurring setback I encountered in the fieldwork —— lack of trust from the subjects. My research focuses on workers’ personal narratives of intimacy and family. It is hard for them to tell me about their private life, which I think is not easy for many, and many would be altogether unwilling. I believe that the first step is to build rapport with the workers. I became very thick-skinned as I would visit their dorms so frequently. Consequently, I spent the first two months fostering a relationship and persistently, trying to find out all that happened on the site. I literally became a “stalker” during that period.
I became an Insider
One day when I came a family’s house to have meals, which had been a routine activity for me in my last month, sitting inside the contractor’s bedroom were many family members. They were gossiping enthusiastically about one worker on their team. They saw me come in and just continued to talk and laugh. After a while, one of the family members turned to me and asked “Did you notice anyone, especially Huang out there? ” Huang was the man they were talking about. “No”. “Are you sure?” he intended to make it certain, “Do not let the guy hear what we are talking about!”. “I am sure. No one!” I replied. “Well”, he returned to the discussion and talked to others, “Go on!”
To be an insider was never easy. It happened when I had been on the construction site and had known the family for nearly two months. I still remember at that time I did nothing but sit by their side and listen to their talk about another man. At that moment I realized they trusted in me because they were not worried that I would disclose what they were gossiping about. Paying frequent visits was, of course, far from enough. I did three things during these visits: talking, eating and smoking. Smoking is a part of culture among workers, men or women. I carried cigarettes with me for three months. They were more willing to talk when we were smoking. Having meals with them was another way to make connections. But the most important thing was to let them know I was eager to listen. Most of the family members did not know clearly what my “research” was about. They just knew that I was writing stories about their lives. When they got used to my appearance and my curiosity about them, they were willing to talk to me. Thankfully, I made friends with some migrant women workers who taught me things I would never have otherwise had the chance to know. This experience made me realize how important intimacy and family are to migrant women workers in China.
Between Insider and Outsider
One day I was walking with my friends Niuer and Nana, two migrant women workers on the construction site. Approaching me were several men workers, who asked me half-jokingly, “Hey cute girl, what songs are you going to sing for us tonight?” I felt very uncomfortable and unsure how to react to their flirtation. Seeing my predicament, Niuer took a step and stood in front of me, yelling at them, “Hey! That’s none of your business. I am warning you. Stop bothering her. Go away now!” She was my age and had a very strong physical build with a rather penetrating and loud voice. Those men were astonished and just stood there without saying anything more. Like many migrant women workers, that was a common experience you would encounter on the site; but the difference between us was the way we responded to it.
Thus when conducting ethnographic studies, I have always shifted between the role of “insider” and “outsider,” which was indeed challenging but engaging in the field. I was like one of them but not one of them. We would often share our own experiences, talking, laughing and crying but I would remind myself of my role as a researcher and try to detach from the sentiment.. On one hand, I appreciated my friend Niuer helping me out of the awkward moment when I had no idea about how to deal with the men’s teasing on my own. On the other hand, I felt lucky because I did not need to decide on which way was “the best” way to respond. This is because my main concern was keeping my research subjects comfortable. The confusion made me more sensitive to micro interactions between me and my subjects.
As I continue in the field, my reflections do not end here. I continue to contemplate my various roles – “stalker”, insider, and outsider, as well as woman and researcher. Thus each time I return to the field, my reflexivity resumes and drives my questions, challenging my status inconsistencies and understanding of my subjects and the field itself.
陳霖CHEN Lin is a postgraduate student in the department of sociology at National Taiwan University (NTU). Her academic interests are immigration, family, and gender. She recently finished her fieldwork on migrant women workers at the construction sites in China. She is currently writing her dissertation about two work-and-family linkages of migrant women workers at the construction site.