My Thoughts on Interactions with Foreign Journalists in the Field

During the month with the documentary team, I encountered three separate foreign journalists coming to the lake to write an article about the Mosuo. The first was a Swedish woman (and a male friend) writing for a Swedish Women’s Magazine. She saw a documentary about the Mosuo and wrote a pitch that got accepted by the editor. When she organized the trip, she then contacted me and the documentary beforehand to see if we could meet up and introduce her to the local community. I was enthusiastic to help. I was excited to hear someone was interested in writing about the Mosuo people and their culture. During our last week filming, she met us at the hostel we were staying at. She asked if we wanted to join her to the local hot springs to interview a woman that’s working towards preserving Mosuo traditional culture by running an art workshop. She did not speak Chinese, so we would be her translators. Though we were busy in our final week of filming, we put this trip into consideration.

She also asked if one of us could help her conduct an interview with a Mosuo woman. My friend, Zhouyang, had come back from Lijiang the other day to look into running his own guesthouse and had been visiting a Mosuo household outside of Lige. I planned to join him again that night to get to know the family more. I invited the Swedish journalist. The three of us visited the home in the late afternoon to interview the oldest sister. She invited us in and sat us in front of the house temple. She brought with her a woven basket filled with carmel popcorn balls and rice crackers and sat down with the two of us. Zhouyang had gone exploring to check out the property.

The Swedish woman began with broad questions that I translated: “Can you explain Mosuo culture to me?” “How are woman powerful in this society?” and then became more specific: “Are you the matriarch of this household?” “Were you children born through a ‘walking marriage?'” “Do you want your sons to have ‘walking marriages?'” The Mosuo woman responded honestly, but did not give long, in-depth answers. Some questions she didn’t know how to respond. This is a problem that has popped up for me and the documentary team as well. The local men normally have more interesting opinions compared to the women. I don’t really know why. I was enjoying the conversation, but I noticed the journalist seemed disappointed. I realized it was because she was not content with the woman’s answers.

I thought about it and soon figured out why…the woman was not saying the “right” answers:

  1. The Mosuo woman was not the matriarch of the household, rather it was her brother. She said she didn’t want to be because of all the responsibilities.
  2. She didn’t mind if her sons married, it would bring a young woman into the household, which the family lacked.
  3. She didn’t know how to describe her culture
  4. Tourism is good. It had brought only good to the town.

After these answers, the journalist was obviously not happy. Although, there were two points when she gave out an excited, high-pitched “Ooooh?” That was when the Mosuo woman answered with:

  1. They were born out of walking marriages.
  2. Women have the final say in decisions

At the end of the interview, I felt like I learned a lot about this household and gained one more opinion about tourism from a local. However, she was not happy with the interview. I was a bit irritated by her reaction because she was seeking answers, instead of keeping an open mind. She had watched a documentary before coming to Lugu Lake that described the area as the “Kingdom of Women.” Her expectations were stubbornly set and she seemed to not accept my explanations of how the society has changed. With this way of thinking, she would not be depicting modern Mosuo life, rather just adding to the hundreds of other articles that talk about the same things: “walking marriage,” matriarchal families and primitivity. She would be using another orientalistic perspective to create a difference gap between the reader and Mosuo culture. When I realized I was contributing to an article that would give a false depiction of their contemporary society, I immediately regretted helping her. I do not want to help her write an article that I would not be proud of. We left the house and walked back to Lige village. I decided I would not help her any further.

It doesn’t end there…

The next day, a German journalist and his team approached me and the documentary team while we were eating lunch. They asked if any of us spoke Chinese and could be a translator. The guys said that I was their perfect (wo)man, but I first asked more about their project. Turned out the team was sponsored by German Playboy to write an article about Mosuo culture. Of course, the moment I heard Playboy, I became very suspicious, but to be honest, also a bit amused. I talked it over with the guys, and they said that Playboy does write well-thought out articles. I first jokingly asked how they knew, but then thought over about what they said. I decided I would give the Playboy journalists a chance.

We met the next night where I asked what his pitch was to Playboy. He said, “So, I’ve read that Lugu Lake is the ‘Kingdom of Women,’ but I’m here to see if Lugu Lake is also a ‘Paradise for Men.” My stomach suddenly dropped. I responded with a hesitant laugh. “Oh, yeah?” The documentary team and I both agreed that it definitely is not. Though there is “walking marriage,” this does not mean this place is the land of one-night stands and one can have multiple partners. At that moment, I did not regret helping them because I thought I could show them it’s not true. They seemed like smart guys and would use this truth as a way to make an interesting, in-depth article. Not sure if it played out that like though…

We sat with my friends, local youth. Their first question that I translated was: “Do you have ‘walking marriages’ now?” In this culture, talking about “walking marriage” with both sexes present is taboo, but my friends were open-minded and responded to such questions indirectly. Then they asked: “Do you have multiple partners?” Two of my friends became heated by this question because they get it all the time. The media portrays Lugu Lake as a place where one can get laid. This Playboy team also got disillusioned by these false portrayals of Mosuo culture, which they told me they read on the internet (of course). The entire table said they had never simultaneously had multiple partners and that one has to breakup first before pursuing another lover. The German journalist’s facial expression showed he was not content with these answers.

He responded that a driver that drove them around the area that day said he had over 30 partners in his lifetime. The man was in his thirties, they said. I translated this to the locals, who then scoffed: “And they believed him? All those drivers are liars just to excite tourists.” The journalist had a hard time believing who was telling the truth, but I could tell he wanted the driver to be right…that would work well into his article. My local friends wanted me “to talk sense” to these guys, which I tried by translating exactly what they were all saying. I hope this conversation with locals made them think over their pitch and how it could be changed to depict Mosuo culture in a more accurate light. There are already enough articles out there that sexualize their culture–why add another one into the plethora? This also leads to an ethical question: Should they accurately describe Mosuo culture, or should they write an article that would sexually excite their intended audience? I fear they will choose the latter.

Through these two negative experiences, I unfortunately am more suspicious of journalists. I understand they already made a pitch and need to follow it to get paid, but to what costs? They get money, but how about the local community that gets inaccurately depicted? These journalists were only at the lake for 3 days to a week. How can one even write an in-depth article in such little time? I’m going to avoid working with journalists from now on unless they intend to stay in the lake for an extended period of time or have actually researched Mosuo culture well beforehand.

[I never did read their finished articles. This is just my experience while helping these journalists and my thoughts afterwards. Maybe they did make interesting articles, but at the time their potential was not apparent. Please feel free to comment! I would love to hear other opinions, especially from journalists out in the field.]

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