In December of 2016 going into January of 2017, I had the opportunity to travel to Guangzhou, China, in support of an ILR honors thesis regarding modern youth worker consciousness in China. Working with Professor Eli Friedman, I drafted a proposal to conduct field research and embarked to the other side of the world the morning after my last final to begin working on it. My goals for this travel experience were to explore modern youth cultures, to better understand migration and work, and to improve my own proficiency in Mandarin Chinese.
As a Chinese American, I have a working knowledge of Mandarin as it is spoken at home. However, having been born and raised in the US, I did struggle at first to communicate. Citizens would look at me and assume I was Chinese. It often startled and amused them to hear me stumble over simple phrases and speak with an accent. Questions of identity for the children of immigrants because of growing up in an American culture with varied ties to the motherland are always present in daily life. However, these questions gain new insights when placed in the midst of youth living parallel lives in a culture that is only semi-familiar.
Due to the independent nature of my research, my international experience was unaffiliated with any organizations or schools, though I received much help from Professor Friedman’s various contacts at Sun Yat-Sen University and throughout Guangzhou. Every day was different. Some days I hopped from one subway line to the next, reading translated directions off WeChat to find which bus will take me to a specific neighborhood to meet a friend of a colleague who may have some insights on my topic. Once I got in touch with a few people and got more comfortable speaking, I explored streets heavy with motorbikes and people who were nice enough to let me talk to them about their lives.
Since I was traveling alone and on a tight budget, I chose to live in a hostel for around $7 a night in an 8 bed female dorm. Despite the sound of it, I was very comfortable in this situation and met many Chinese friends this way. During the day, I would go off to pursue the latest thread in my research, returning at night to talk about it with people in the hostel. They would often cook communal dinners, help me type to people on WeChat, translate directions, and wander around with me. If I had questions, I often asked them, as they were familiar with colloquial language and written text as well as intricacies of the culture. Most of these friends came from different cities and different backgrounds. Their one connecting factor was that they inexplicably had infinite time in Guangzhou. Some were avoiding boredom at home, as they still lived with their parents; others were taking time off school, and some were on romantic honeymoons away from home. Spending time with them allowed me to be immersed in a unique form of Chinese culture, that of the youth interim, in which I found some stability and comfort.
I met many people and had many conversations in my 5 weeks in China. It was very common to meet someone once, speak for a minute, and add one another on WeChat to meet up again. Once, while wide eyed wandering the streets of a migrant neighborhood and recording footage for a visual project, I met two men who asked for a photo. After explaining that I was Chinese American and in Guangzhou researching for a senior thesis and filming a project, they immediately added me on WeChat, bought me an iced tea, and invited me to come back for a meal when they were off work. One of them worked in a garment factory in a nearby building and invited me to come film and interview workers there. When I asked if he was sure it was ok, he responded, “Yes, yes! Of course, we are all friends here.”