Tag Archives: fieldwork with children

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…

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Like a child

There are days that I find doing fieldwork with children really trying.  

When I walk into a cramped room, and children are strewn about the floor, unoccupied, with dead, long looks on their faces, my heart hurts.  When I see many of them, especially those with disabilities, struggling so hard to communicate with us, and I see the ways we all fail them, I have my doubts about God and humanity.

And then there are days like one this week, when I become so utterly consumed in holding the hands of a child with CP who is so eager to walk, and taking each step with her that I literally can’t think of doing anything else.  Children are wonderful in the way that they demand our attention, and they force us to put our thoughts at bay to focus on the present, where they live.

It was hours that this young girl and I walked about the tiny living room of her foster mother’s house, toddling past her three foster siblings, and she tipped her head back, laughing at who knows what.  But that laughter was contagious.  We sat on the floor, and perhaps because I couldn’t understand the dialect her family was speaking, I became part of her wordless word, and in awe of the way in which, despite her inability to speak, she could pick up so quickly on all of my motions, even my mood.

When it was time to leave, I had to hear the words three or four times before they registered.  Perhaps this is not the way fieldwork should be done, allowing oneself to become lost in the daydreams, the world of a child.

But I keep thinking if I can do one thing this year, let it be to live like a child, to enter her world, and to be a companion, who, despite all my inabilities to make everything better, patiently and wholeheartedly, walks beside her.

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