January 23 2009
Recipient of IP Experience Grant, Angela Chuang, Reports on her Trip to China
Thanks to receiving an ILR International Experience Grant, I was able to spend two and a half weeks in January of 2009 conducting fieldwork in Kunming, China. My work was based around my senior thesis, which focused upon the domestic Chinese migrant communities in urban centers. Luckily, I had spent the previous spring semester studying abroad in Kunming, so was not only familiar with the city itself, but also had cultivated local contacts that helped me with my research. Which definitely helped because personal connections are essentially the most efficient way and often the only way to accomplish such work in China.
So what exactly did I do there? Well, aside from the hours I spent wrapped in two comforters, trying to stay warm in the absence of any indoor heating, I traveled almost every day to the migrant district to conduct interviews and observe the community interactions – the round-trip commute could take anywhere between 1 ½ hours to 2 hours, depending on how quickly the correct bus showed up. This slum district is an area of the city in which a large number of migrant workers live and conduct business. They tend to be characterized by near-deplorable conditions and the residents live in poverty, often struggling to lead lives of subsistence.
What added some difficulty to conducting my research was the fact that many of these migrant workers are unregistered and thus, live and work in Kunming illegally. Therefore, because of their illegal status and the overbearing strength of the Chinese government, they are extremely wary and suspicious of outsiders. Numerous times, people refused to take part in my study and accused me of secretly investigating them as an undercover police officer. To overcome this problem, I used local liaisons who were trusted by other residents. The primary contact who helped introduce me to most of my interview subjects was a middle-aged woman who owns and runs a guesthouse located in the center of the district. She has lived there for over ten years and is highly respected by many of the other migrants – therefore, with her vouching for me, many people opened up to me and agreed to speak with me. Without her help, I’m certain that I would have far less data to work with. Most of my research, directed towards learning about the internal dynamics of the migrant population, consisted of informal interviews resembling normal conversations as well as participant observation. I had done something similar the previous spring for a short research paper, but it took a little while to get back into the process of doing fieldwork, which, at least in my opinion, involves overcoming a certain degree of awkwardness.
Throughout the course of my time there, I spoke with a variety of migrants in a variety of different occupations, from shoe-shiners to trash-pickers to nail salon owners. Now, what remains to be done, aside from writing the actual thesis, is to sift through the great deal of raw material from my fieldwork and organize it in a comprehensible manner without losing the emotional power of the personal stories entrusted to me. Because I found that it was impossible for me to remain completely detached from my subjects – perhaps that’s a personal flaw, but I feel that it added immeasurably to my experience. It was definitely the opportunity of a lifetime to be able to travel so far away and actually conduct real fieldwork while still an undergraduate. I don’t think I will ever regret being given the chance to do something like this.
To view Angela's proposal, blog and photos click here