The intimacy of family life

Often people in China and people in America are equally perplexed by what it means to study anthropology and do participant observation research.  

I know I can’t possibly explain it all in one blog post, but looking back I’m less entranced by the bureaucratic aspects of doing research in China (and trust me there were many), or the language-learning process, but rather the intimacy of being part of family life here in China, which has made me blush and cry from time to time.

What I’ve been seeking to do as an anthropologist studying foster care is to use the relationships I’ve been privileged to experience between foster mothers, foster fathers, their foster children, as well as other siblings and family members, as a window into describing the intimacy of contemporary relationships within Chinese families.

The author with a foster mother in Guangxi.

But it’s funny how scientific and sterile that can sound compared to the actual reality of things–getting sneezed and drooled on by CP kids as we frolic on the makeshift mats in their foster mothers’ teeny apartments, getting the sweat under my arms sopped up by a foster mother and her tissue after I arrive on one blistering afternoon, and yet another foster mom bursting into the bathroom with some toilet paper just as I’ve squatted down, exclaiming, “I wasn’t sure if you had anything to wipe your butt with!”  

With a foster family in Guangxi, Guilin.

Needless to say, these are the memorable moments, the real stuff that fieldwork with families and children is made of, and the intimacy of family life that I’ve been invited to experience, and despite its awkward moments, is quite sacred and thrilling.  The secret of anthropology is that while you’re studying these people, you’re also falling in love with them, becoming moved by their lives and their struggles, and finding that your life won’t be the same without them.

Just a few things I’m pondering as I’m getting ready to leave this place…

4 thoughts on “The intimacy of family life

  1. It’s interesting how the same experience has two different responses for you, one academic, one theological. That’s one of the things I love about reading your blog. I feel like there are at least two tracks in my mind at all times: the one that thinks about power relationships, cultural values, signifiers and translation studies, and the other that thinks my friends are funny or endearing or wonderful. I love that you play both roles and are able to meld them together on this blog. It’s a blessing to me–thanks so much for sharing.

    1. Erin,

      Just a quick note to let you know that I’m thinking of you…..I sent you a brief email response to your blog post.

      Warmest blessings,

      1. Thanks, Donna. Sorry I haven’t gotten back to you in all the busy-ness of moving, etc. Always thinking of you and prayers to you as well.

    2. Thanks for this comment. It means so much to me, and I’m so excited to discover that there are other academics out there that share my faith and a passion for people. Your blog encourages me, too, so the feeling is mutual!

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