Doing Fieldwork in China: Chapter 6 — “‘An Open Lhasa Welcomes You’: Disciplining the Researcher in Tibet”

Doing Fieldwork in China, edited by Maria Heimer and Stig Thogersen. Chapter 6:  “‘An Open Lhasa Welcomes You’: Disciplining the Research in Tibet” by Emily T. Yeh

I like the first quote in this chapter:

‘An open Lhasa welcomes you.’

‘An open Tibet celebrates the 50th anniversay of the peaceful liberation of Tibet.’

‘An open Tibet welcomes you.’ –Street banners, Lhasa, summer 2001

My Thoughts:

For aspiring Tibetologists or China researchers planning on working in sensitive areas (Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, other places), this chapter is for you. Yeh is also an American Chinese. She discusses her perceived identity in the community and how her assistants manipulated her identity during interviews for different reasons.

Yeh first introduces “the politics of fear,” a scare tactic commonly utilized by the Chinese government in sensitive areas around the country to control its population, and even anthropologists. She became so engrossed into the local community, that she subconsciously got affected by the fear of always being listened to (on the phone or in public) and being watched (by undercover police, etc.) that her local friends also believed. “I found myself constantly under self-surveillance,” she writes. This “politics of fear” is a common trend that the anthropologist should be aware of before entering their desired fieldwork site. Locals may not be willing to talk to you in fear of being watched, especially if you are known to be American or at least “look” American (aka white).

Yeh also goes into detail about how her Chinese heritage was able to unintentionally “conceal” her in the crowd. Her friends and informants would bring this up and oftentimes try to assist her in getting fake IDs or allowing her to illegally stay in their homes because “no one would know,” they would say. Even her official affiliation would not mention she was American in paperwork and just use her Chinese and Tibetan name. When conducting interviews, her assistant would lie that she was actually a distant Tibetan relative, so to make the interviewee more comfortable and (blissfully) ignorant of their interviewer’s connection to the United States. Yeh did not find his ethically accurate to lie about her identity, especially when conducting research, but many of her assistants would argue it was for the best of her informants, who would get in trouble with the government if it was known they spoke with an American researcher.

There’s a lot of red tape when conducting fieldwork in sensitive areas. Yeh’s Chinese heritage was able to assist in bypassing some of this red tape, but for the non-Asian researcher, this would be a completely different story.

In Lugu Lake, I am different. I have blue eyes, light-brown hair, pale skin, and 5’8”. Wherever I go, people stare, whisper, and laugh. I am treated different because I am viewed as an outsider. At least, Lugu Lake isn’t considered a “politically sensitive” area. I also am fairly fluent in Chinese (and learning the Mosuo language), so that it’s easier for me to gain respect with the local people. Though I do face difficulties for being psychically different from the local population, I think the researcher that has the most difficulties in building rapport within a community is Chinese Americans who do not speak Mandarin fluently. Native Chinese somehow connect Asian Americans who do not speak fluent Mandarin with someone forgetting their history and heritage. They also sometimes rudely treat them as stupid.

It’s a phenomenon that I fortunately have never experienced, but I bet there are blog posts or other writings on how to deal with this challenge.

Yeh’s chapter focuses on the idea that sometimes the researcher has no control over how their identity will be read and interpreted. For her, she didn’t know if her interviewees would acknowledge her American citizenship with her assistant’s obscure introductions. And if they did realize she was American, who would they interpret that in responding to her questions? For me, my main issues is being taken seriously. I’m still fairly young and I am a woman, which may get in the way of being respected by high male officials. It is out of my control how a cadre or local will identity me, but it is in my control to gain their respect through daily interaction.

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