By Leigh Lawrence, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

To prepare for ethnographic research, doctoral candidates learn a diverse set of skills. From observational techniques to critical discourse analysis, we study the best methodologies to engage in fieldwork studies and document the experience. I’ve taken many classes and read countless guides on best quantitative and qualitative practices, many of which I employ on a daily basis here in China, where I am conducting ethnographic research for ten months. Although I have studied, lived, and worked in China in the past, this is my first time in this country in a new role: researcher. I’m now learning to navigate the fine lines between asking questions vs. interrogating, observing vs. staring, and not being nosy despite trying to be invited to everything. Appropriately conducting oneself as a researcher takes a significant amount of cultural knowledge, aplomb, and to be honest, trial and error. Of all the skills I have studied, practiced, and employed, there is one skill that has provided far more opportunities and data than any of the prescribed methodological practices: always saying ‘yes.’

From the get-go, I knew that I would have to employ a special type of ethnographic research during my fieldwork period. The ideal “fly on the wall” ethnographic perspective isn’t exactly applicable in my case, considering my above-average height and long blonde hair instantly attract attention wherever I go. This becomes problematic in classrooms when I attempt to discreetly enter through the back or simply walk into a classroom. From the moment I step foot onto the campus, I hear a mixture of screams and hushed whispers of “wai guo ren!” (foreigner!). The teacher, knowing of my arrival, tries in vain to recapture students’ attention through various methods – sometimes silence, sometimes yelling, sometimes banging a ruler on their desk – but the strange, foreign, and very tall visitor sitting in the back of the class is far more interesting to students than their lesson. Even after the hubbub dies down, I still catch furtive glances, pointed fingers, and sometimes outright gaping from students, no matter their age. It’s understandable – foreigners are rare in this city, and it’s even rarer to interact with one, let alone have one sitting only a few feet away from you in your class. I knew that I could never conduct the textbook example of inconspicuous ethnography, as I stand out too much; my type of research is less “fly on the wall” and more “purple rhinoceros in the corner.” However, what I did discover is that I can turn this potential setback into a strength, utilizing my diversity to gain unique access and insight.

Being a foreigner in China is difficult, but also opens a lot of doors. People are curious, friendly, and want to learn about you, why you’re here, and what you’re doing. Once you establish yourself in your host environment, the slow integration into the community begins. Over time, people become friendlier and start asking more questions, slowly transitioning your identity as a “foreigner” (literally ‘outside person’) to that of ‘friend.’ This is when the critical component of guanxi (relationships) comes into play. Guanxi is an integral part of Chinese moral and societal conduct, influencing everything from parent-son relationships to business transactions. Guanxi is somewhat comparable to Bourdieu’s “cultural capital” theory, in that both are implicit social transactions based on a person’s background, education, and social standing. The more I simply “showed up” to events or things I was invited to, the more guanxi I obtained with teachers, research participants, and locals. Once guanxi is established, doors and opportunities open up, which is precisely where I have learned my biggest lesson: always say yes. When opportunities come, be it an invitation to visit another school, a request to teach a class, or sharing information about a local conference or event, I always make myself available. Whatever the situation, I do my best to say: “yes, I would love to attend” – and then do actually attend. Even if the event is very far away or incredibly inconvenient for me, I try to keep in mind my top responsibility is conducting fieldwork research and gathering as much data as possible, so I can’t afford to miss an opportunity. And most importantly, one opportunity usually leads to another. 

Saying yes has led to significant advancements in my research. I have met new people, recruited new participants, discovered new materials, and gained substantial knowledge simply by being present in situations I otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to attend. Last week I was invited last-minute to a conference at a local school; dropping my plans, I slogged through the wet roads after a morning rain shower, taking the metro and two buses to get to location far on the outskirts of my host city. Once there I was met with mostly confused looks, loud whispers, and a lot of stares; I was very much the purple rhinoceros in the corner. Yet the conference was fascinating and an excellent source of data, so I immediately felt the lengthy trip was worth the effort. Once I introduced myself to the head teacher, thanking them for the invitation, they not only invited me up to the stage to discuss my perceptions on the conference but extended invitations to numerous future engagements that I most certainly will attend. 

Outside of research, I have also learned that saying yes has been an indispensable part of my identity as a researcher. While collecting data important, making the most of my time in China is of equal importance. Having new experiences, meeting new people, and getting out of my comfort zone is an essential part of this research period. Saying yes and being present helps the transition from “fieldwork research location” to “home,” further helping to integrate into the host community. 

Simply saying yes to any opportunity that comes my way is one of the best tools that I have employed as a researcher. A classic Chinese idiom best sums up my situation: 勤能补拙 (qin neng bu zhuo). This phrase literally translates to “diligent can fix stupidity;” more properly (and less insultingly) translated, it means hard work can overcome any weaknesses. Although I’ll never fully integrate into my host community or be the ideal inconspicuous ethnographer, working hard, showing up, and making a concerted effort to say ‘yes’ can more than make up for any perceived disadvantages – even those of a purple rhinoceros. 

Leigh Lawrence(罗葳)is a doctoral student at the Faculty of Education at St John’s College, University of Cambridge. She is a 2019-2020 US Fulbright Student Research Scholar and conducting research at Nanjing Normal University. Originally from San Diego, CA, Leigh received her MA from Yale University and BA from Arizona State University while completing the Chinese Language Flagship Program at Nanjing University. Leigh’s doctoral research focuses on the social and political influence of moral education reforms in contemporary China.

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