Semi-Native Anthropologist?: Fieldwork Encounters and Positionality in An Ethnic Village in Southwest China

By Yu Luo (Yale University)

During the initial stage of my fieldwork, I spent most of my time learning how to draw Buyi ethnic batik with my village hostess, while watching Korean idol dramas dubbed in Mandarin. Perhaps commonly seen elsewhere, this scene nonetheless does not merely represent the globalizing circulation of Korean dramas, or mass media alike, to a remote corner of southwest China. Nor does it simply capture the ways in which some locals are maintaining their unique handicraft skills and ethnic identities. My lived experience with what seems to be a juxtaposition of “tradition” and “modern,” of “local” and “global,” in retrospect, served as a reflexive arena to ponder on my positionality, vis-à-vis the people and the community I study. Mirroring the world that has enabled me to be in this particular place studying this group of people, fieldwork encounters embody the complex ways in which systems of difference intersect.

Born and raised in Guizhou where I returned for fieldwork, I was not a complete “outsider” to the landlocked, multiethnic province in China’s southwestern periphery region. Despite being registered as a Buyi minzu (nationality) on my citizen ID, I have grown up in the city to which where the elder members of my family had moved decades ago. Unable to speak Buyi (a northern Tai language), I have had seldom contact with our Buyi kinspeople in the countryside. Whereas villagers in other Buyi areas that I had visited earlier labeled me as “more advanced Buyi” or “pseudo-Buyi,” the villagers in my fieldsite kept referring to me as the “Han girl,” no matter how I tried to justify myself with a Buyi background. Such boundary drawing and differentiating made me feel a power dynamic in which I was the one being marginalized and Othered.

An everyday scene of my village hostess drawing batik. Photo courtesy of Yu Luo.

An everyday scene of my village hostess drawing batik. Photo courtesy of Yu Luo.

Needing to study the Buyi language, I took down in a notebook all the words and phrases my village hostess taught me. Meanwhile, watching her draw batik was among the initial fieldwork experiences that sparked both my intellectual interest and an interest in learning the craft. As I exhibited my willingness to try batik making, she found me a piece of cloth to work on. Learning to draw batik from a local senior female relieved my uneasiness at the outset of my fieldwork, as I tried to “fit in.” For many young female anthropologists, the question of “What is the socially acceptable role in the local context?” not only exists as a methodological inquiry, but also often poses logistic challenges. A young female traveling alone from a fair distance to their village seeking to study local “culture” seemed questionable to some villagers, as I appeared out of a seemingly random context. Hanging around and having conversations with various male villagers, moreover, did not help me from being regarded as an anomaly. It turned out that a young woman learning handicrafts from senior females may be more appropriate in local perception.

The process of learning batik-making as well as the language indeed became a rite of passage for me seeking to transform into an “insider.” As I continued to pick up Buyi vocabulary while making batik with my hostess, the intensive immersion contributed to the locals’ gradual inclusion of my presence. In the meantime, I learned about the interesting ways in which they discussed the characters and settings in the TV dramas we were watching in reference to their worldviews and family ethics. My hostess started calling me “our village girl” in conversations with elderly women, who saw me drawing batik and were amazed by my ability. Our batik-drawing was later joined by my hostess’ daughter-in-law, who married into the family from a nearby Buyi village during my fieldwork year. Nostalgic for the bustling days doing migrant labor in the coastal areas, which contrasted with the “tedious” countryside, the daughter-in-law nevertheless grew to be interested in making batik. My hostess said that it is what every Buyi girl used to do.

My village hostess wearing the Buyi traditional costume and displaying batik-drawing during an annual Buyi festival. Photo courtesy of Yu Luo.

My village hostess wearing the Buyi traditional costume and displaying batik-drawing during an annual Buyi festival. Photo courtesy of Yu Luo.

Alongside with language as an explicit identity marker, locals regard the Buyi batik and costume in general as pertaining to a group of “authentic” ethnic people, especially in regards to the Han and other ethnicities. Moreover, the batik drawing scene has become tokenized in the production of all sorts of photographic and artistic compositions exhibiting local Buyi culture. In the recent few years, female villagers have been asked to put on the Buyi costume while making batik at festivals for the purposes of state promotion and tourism development. What’s more, my hostess has also suggested taking a photo of me drawing batik in the Buyi costume, akin to recording an in-situ souvenir.

What are the broader implications here? Historical and contemporary connections between the community and the anthropologist working and writing about it do matter. If what we call culture is the essential tool for making self and other, then how shall I construct an ethnographic self, given that the “other” I study is a changing part of me to some extent? It is a self that is caught in between, at the intersection of identity and power difference, in a shifting ground of knowledge production and cultural representation. If there is a certain common set of perceptions and “local knowledge” shared by the villagers and me, what about the complex values and structures of feeling that differentiate us? Could the other be simultaneously represented as a self through ethnographic engagement without repressing or dismissing other forms of difference as in “native blindness”?

As an anthropologist with lived experience in the region, I find it crucial to understand the productive shifts between the anthropologist’s self-identity and the fieldwork process, as well as the multiply-positioned roles that the anthropologist assumes in the field. The batik-making experience I encountered sheds light on the dynamics of the fieldworker’s rapport, acceptance, and access to ethnographic information. This reflexive stance would continue to inform me in the actual process of ethnographic writing, as I pursue the textual modes and meanings of representation and juggle between speaking “from” and speaking “for.”

Yu Luo is a Ph.D. candidate in socio-cultural anthropology at Yale University. With a focus on the Buyi ethnic minority, her dissertation research looks at how cultural and natural landscapes are reconstructed and branded under conservation and development schemes in late-socialist southwest China. 

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