About

As I walk the streets and roam the web of China, I share snapshots from my fieldwork on Bytes of China. My list of longer thought pieces can be found on my Writing Page

I am currently living in China, following students and migrants as they process information and desire, remaking cities and rural areas. I investigate media and memes in their collisions with markets, governments, and local thugs.   [More about Bytes of China.]

Here's a video of the most recent talk I gave about my research at LIFT in Geneva, Switzerland, "Dancing with Handcuffs: The Geography of Trust in Social Networks". In this talk, I analyze the changing conceptions of trust through the story of a college student who threw shoes and eggs at the government official who oversees internet censorship in China. 

Read more about my research. My analysis of culture and technology can be found on Cultural Bytes. And my personal blog is Hi Tricia.

The views expressed on this blog do not in any way reflect the position of any of my funders, past employers, the Chinese government, the US government or the Fulbright program. 

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My research is generously funded though a mix of university grant programs, state initiatives, or industry research.

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Thursday
Jun232011

How I was treated on the subway when I was doing fieldwork as a migrant worker 

One of the people I've spending a lot of time in my fieldwork is Yang Jie. I wrote about her a few years ago when I met her on the street selling traditional Miao clothing and trinkets in Beijing.

Today, we both got on the subway together to head to one of the places she usually goes to sell her clothing.

She was carrying a bag over 70 pounds on her back. She is 5'2. She has the frame of someone who has been through a lifetime of work, a resilient body that could withstand hunger. I was carrying two bags for her also. Yang Jie also was carrying an plastic container that looked like it had been found on the side of the road - it had dirt encrusted into its crevices.

When we got on the subway, the passengers were not very friendly in giving us space to put down our bags even though the train wasn't crowded. When Yang Jie put her hands on the pole, passengers moved away from us.

I was dressed to blend in with Yang Jie, so I looked like a migrant street seller also.  There were no seats when we first got on the train, but then at the next stop two seats opened up. Yang Jie spoke loudly and told me to come over. Several people turned their heads to look at us.

The minute someone speaks and the second you glance at how a person is dressed, you can more or less make a guess what kind of background they have. It doesn't take long to see that Yang Jie is a probably from a village, is poor,  and part of a minority group.

Like Yang Jie, I am also darker skinned, so I had no problem blending in with her.  If you looked closely enough, the only give away that I wasn't really a migrant worker would be my manicured and painted red toe nails (this is something I am not willing to give up even when I'm doing fieldwork!).

Alhtough, I forgot that there was one more give-away and I found out quickly after we sat down.

When we sat down on the empty seat, I accidentally lightly brushed my backpack against the man sitting to my left. I immediately apologized.  But he didn't respond, he just looked alarmed that I had touched him and gave me a glaring look that told me immediately that I shouldn't even be sitting near him. He wiped off the part of his arm that my bag had brushed as if I had dumped dirt on his suit.

His action alone made me super conscious of my physical condition -  the dirt on my toes, my oily face, and my blackened clothing from working with food vendors. I hadn't showered in two days and that's all I kept thinking after he looked at me.  I glanced around around and saw people staring at us. I immediately made a boundary in my head and called them "city people." As Yang Jie kept talking, I kept noticing the "city people" in their daily showered bodies, freshly washed clothing, and dirt-free toes.

I then received a text message so I pulled my phone out. I immediately noticed the man next to me look at me curiously - he saw that I not only had a smartphone, but probably what looked like a real iphone (it is a real iphone). I texted back to my friend in English, and this is when he became super aware that something was off - it's hard to explain the look on his face, but he just kept looking over my shoulder as if his eyeballs were going to pop out. He then looked at  Yang Jie up and down and then at me up and down.

The more he looked, the more I just glared at him and the more upset I became. I wanted to say out loud, "what are you looking at? Do you have a problem? Aren't we too dirty for your eyes?"  But I was with Yang Jie and I didn't want to make a scene. I'm sure she receives this kind of treatment every day and she has learned to ignore it. It angered me that I could feel his judgement seeping onto me, and I could feel that the minute he saw me texting in English his level of disdain at me decrease. Texting in English in combination with owning an iphone are signifiers of an education and he picked up on it immediately.

Reflecting upon this story, I think this experience served as a fascinating moment for me to watch how technology works as a signifier for class, lifestyle, or respect.  Iphones (at least real ones) are still really expensive phones and when migrants save up for a year for an expensive smartphone, they usually are not dressed like me because they tend to work in non-labor intensive conditions like factories, restaurants, or hair salons. I saw the man's face change when he saw me pull my iphone; so the big contrast between how I was dressed and the technology that I owned was something that didn't make sense to him within this context.

I also started thinking about how migrants laborers begin to form their own categories about city people versus village people or people who wear suits versus people who wear working clothes. And I had to remind myself in that moment as I became fixated on the man's categorization of me that not all "city" people were similar. In the underground tunnels where rent is 350RMB/month - white collar workers make 1000RMB/month - the same as Yang Jie - a laboring street seller. Their income is the same but their outer appearances are radically different. To begin with, the white collar worker has access to a shower while people like Yang Jie who live in urban villages do not have access to a shower.  Their work also requires them to wear different types of clothing. So these catagorizations are misleading, but they can often be formed in moments when we feel the weight of a situation and need to make sense of it.

We all form categories about the world. I'm reminded now of Leigh Star's and Geoffrey Bowker's work on the power of classification as an enforcer of institutionalized ideologies in their amazing book, Sorting Things out: Classification and It's Consequences. Their main argument is that "all category systems are moral and political entities" that create and enforce beliefs and practices in our everyday lives. The way we see the world is constructed based on our experiences.

We have a moral and ethical agenda in our querying of these systems. Each standard and each category valorizes some point of view and silences another. This is not inherently a bad thing—indeed it is inescapable. But it is an ethical choice, and as such it is dangerous—not bad, but dangerous. (Bowker and Star, 5-6)

We are used to viewing moral choices as individual, as dilemmas, and as rational choices. We have an impoverished vocabulary for collective moral passages, to use Addelson’s terminology. For any individual, group or situation, classifications and standards give advantage or they give suffering. Jobs are made and lost; some regions benefit at the expense of others. How these choices are made, and how we may think about that invisible matching process, is at the core of the ethical project of this work. (Bowker and Star, 6)

I tried to imagine how would I see the world if I experienced this every single time I got on the train. Would I become bitter, would I form over-arching categories about "city" people so that I could make sense of how I was treated, would I essentialize anyone who looked like they were well dressed or showered?

When I try to think about these questions I am even more amazed at Yang Jie's life. When we first met, I looked like what I had just categorized as a "city" person. I was working as a visiting scholar at the China Internet Network Information Center and was wearing office attire every day. I showered everyday and always had clean clothes on with high heels. And still, Yang Jie treated me with respect. She didn't put me into the category of "city person" or "rich person" or "white collar worker."

What I remember the most about meeting Yang Jie is that I didn't have to prove myself to her that I wasn't  judgmental or didn't look down on her. Often times when I meet migrants  and they know that I'm not a migrant, I work very hard to make sure that I convey to them that I don't look down upon them. It takes a lot of energy and trust to convince someone that you see them as equals. Sometimes the social divide is too great in their minds and I am not able to convince them otherwise. Sometimes I don't get enough time to spend with them to build the trust and to show them that I am not one of "those" people. I can always tell when people still don't believe that I see myself as their equals.  When this happens, I am not able to do in-depth ethnography because people don't open up to me when they don't feel comfortable. They often give stilted answers and just aren't willing to share their stories.

Back to the discussion of technology. Marketing creates our desires for the the newest and shiny products. In all possible advertising spaces in China from subway walls to the the exterior of buses and shopping malls, posters showing off the wonders of 3G smartphones are everywhere. We are seeing the creation of desires in the making - the desire of a smartphone.

My experience illustrates the type of power a piece of technology can convey in everyday life. Will first time smarphone owning migrants experience the same kind of treatment I received today? Will they notice people giving them better treatment once they pull out thier cellphone?

I remember in high school when I got my first pager, I tried to find every way possible to let students know that I owned one. I was bullied in high school for being one of the few Chinese faces in a all white, middle to upper class suburb. So I yearned for any kind of signal that would convey that I was also able to participate in a smiliar lifestyle. I even recall one time in AP History when I purposely left my pager on so that everyone could hear it ring. No one paged me that time.

I predict that soon we will see 3G shanzai smartphones flood the market, but the question is how much do the current non-elite users of 2G feature phones really need these smartphones? Of course this is a bit of a rhetorical question because in the end how much do any of us really need our technologies. None of can really objectively answer this! Do I really need Cat Paint on my iphone? NO! but YES! YES because it makes me really happy to draw cats flying over my friends' heads.  But the more interesting question is to find out how migrants construct their own technology needs. How do non-elite users describe their reasons for transitioning from a feature to a smartphone?  What does the transition from a feature to a smartphone mean for them? Will it provide them with greater economic opportunities? Will it allow them to stay in touch with their families more easily? or will it create new problems? I'll find out in the next year as I watch the transition. I hope to catch people right as the shanzai smartphone enter the market and do some before and after ethnography.

I also thought of Anil Dash's Last Year's Model campaign. Maybe we need something similar here in China!

_______________

Stay posted for my piece next week where I respond to Nokia's CEO who made a comment that 90% of the world cannot afford a smartphone.

UPDATE JUNE 29, 2011:  My thoughts on Nokia, Smartphones, and the other 90%

 

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Reader Comments (18)

I loved this story. It's interesting also as a note on ethnographic method that it is when your blending in fails and you becoming a strange "unnatural" object that you get the most interesting reactions. Playing with this difference and inhabiting two (in the passengers mind) irreconcilable positions at the same time can be a fruitful performative aspect of ethnography.

June 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermonki

the true lack of education comes from the person who claims an identity for someone based on what they are wearing. my question is do we move with technology to stay away from those identities of being identified as a Yang Jie? we moved from flip phones to smart phones for convenience and accessibility to the other technologies of the world... (i.e internet).. is it to difficult to be using an old phone because of the looks you will receive. Who are we staying connected to the world at large or the class that has accepted us?
Awesome Story I so love that Yang Jie is Yang Jie loving herself in her world

June 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTechno Tech

I'd just like to state for the record that I'm a "city person" and I definitely do NOT shower every day.

June 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterapplebean

it's fascinating that people of lesser means (migrant workers, poor, etc) so often have a much higher level of integrity and respect for others. I have noticed this myself a little bit, and even more in reading books like Factory Girls and reading your stuff. I have tried to understand this myself .... One explanation I have come up with is that when people have more material things, money, power, social status they do not feel they need to have as much integrity or show as much respect to others since they can fall back on the material things and power, whereas people with less wealth and in lower 'social status' need to hold on to these basic values since it can help in some cases, although for the most part it will just be abused. Other explanation is that people in lower social brackets are just more kind and better people .... society these days is so fucked up that in order to be in a high wealth bracket you kind of have to be an A-hole???!?!?! Of course these are all generalizations and just hypotheses to explain some overly generalized observations, but just some thoughts..... Another comment: the guy on the subway and the others were looking down on you and he was brushing his coat off to make you feel bad ... but I think that his shock and looking you up and down when you took out your iPhone is understandable and not necessarily limited to tech, it would be like someone wearing migrant clothing and unshowered breaking out a wad of 6000RMB or carrying an LV purse or some other kind of luxury thing. It would just seem out of place and somewhat mind boggling. I do agree that smartphones are a major status symbol here though, in that sense they are very similar to luxury bags and designer fashion etc

June 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAbe

"The more he looked, the more I just glared at him and the more upset I became. I wanted to say out loud, "what are you looking at? Do you have a problem? Aren't we too dirty for your eyes?" "

Haha. Welcome to how every "lao wai" feels in China every single day. Most of us just become immune to the staring, the comments, the whispers, the rudeness.

June 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWang Yi

Great article Tricia! I totally agree with Wang Yi...read this and thought wow this sounds exactly what it feels like to ride the subway as a foreigner in China. People looking over your shoulder...the shock and surprise that I text and weibo in Chinese. The 90%+ of people that will sit anywhere else before sitting next to me.

You'll find a lot of foreigners become quite bitter and leave China because of the daily, unavoidable series of situations like migrant workers experience on the subway.

There were two rider reactions that I found pretty interesting. 1) is everyone's response to you getting on the subway with poor personal hygiene and with large amounts of what is essentially freight and 2) the reaction of the rider when he saw your iPhone and texting in English.

I've explored their origins in my blog "Outcasts on Chinese Subways."

June 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLarry Salibra

Tricia asked me to share this story regarding technology and social status (and face):

A friend in Guangzhou (local Guangzhou guy who went to grad school abroad in the States) occasionally goes to upscale clubs to meet girls. About 90%+ of people in those clubs have iPhone 4s and the others have expensive Androids. Most guys just open their iPhone 4 to the dialer screen and give it to the girl to "ask" for her number. My friend is afraid to ask a girl to enter her number into his phone, because he has a China Telecom freebie phone instead of a pricey smartphone.. So instead he asks her to tell him her number in his ear, memorizes it and then secretly enters it in his phone when she's not looking.

iPhone 4 = status

June 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLarry Salibra

@WAng Yi and @Larry Salibra thanks for commentating!

Yah you guys are totally right that Lao Wai are stared at all the time and that sometimes it can get tiring when all you want to do is blend in.

(please forgive me as a turn the lao wai into a broad category of "Lao Wai" to make my point)

I'm not negating the difficulties that Lao Wai go through as international people living in a country with very few Lao Wai. But I just think that the kind of privilege and power in the situations that Lao Wai experience are too vast to even compare to the power in the situations that migrants experience.

Lao Wai are being stared at because of the position of privilege that Lao Wai hold as a foreigners who have the opportunity to be in another country and learn local language and customs.

It's important to remember that Lao Wai are stared at not out of disdain - rather I think most Chinese people are
1.) curious because they haven't seen a lot of Lao Wai before
2.) admire any Lao Wai who can speak any kind of Chinese (even if muddled) - they are absolutely just fascinated by Lao Wai. And Larry they are probably even MORE fascinated by you because you speak great Mandarin and you also write in Chinese. They are curious how you do it so well!
3.) view the Lao Wai as mysterious and exotic

I don't think that Lao Wei leave China because they go through what migrants experience - the kind of treatment that migrants go through day and day out could never be comparable to what Lao Wai go through.

Lao Wai are super super small minority in China - most people are just curious or afraid of the unknown.

Migrants in China number in the millions and millions - they are everywhere! but they are often made to feel unwelcome in their own country because they are unable to blend in or don't have access to a clean shower at that moment.

And anywhere you go, if you are the minority and if people who look like you are more on the rare side - then staring is to be expected.
When I do my fieldwork in Mexico I absolutely do not blend in. I am stared at all the time and people want to come up just to look at me because a Chinese looking person has NEVER even been in their village before! Sure there are some people who are rude and aren't cool but overall my attitude is that staring is quite normal in a place where you are more of a rarity.

June 24, 2011 | Registered Commentertricia wang

As a native chinese, I agree with Tricia's analysis on the seemingly similar treatments (totally different motives) laowai experience on subway or any public locations as migrant workers, though the part "... because they... don't have access to a clean shower" is a bit off in a sense. Even if Yang Jie just had a shower, didn't smell or look dirty, she'd still be categorized as a migrant worker and would be singled out. It's from her clothing, her baggage, her behaviours. Lots white collars feel superior to these workers so keeping a distance can serve the purpose of that superiority. And like you mentioned, Yang Jie yelled for you on the subway to take the seat. Even though most other people would do the same, to yell for a friend to take a seat, it'd attract much more attention if it came from someone who didn't blend in, like Yang Jie. Discrimination against migrant workers is not that different from some city people in the west laughing at country people, like "were you raised in a barn". Though it's well hidden nowadays, the more "civilized" people looking down upon the poorer, weaker, less-educated still exists in the developed countries, maybe just taking a slightly different form.
As for Larry's blog, I'm not sure it's very valid. First, the subway systems in china weren't built to accommodate the middle/upper class. It's just the need for city development, like the railway system. Second, personal hygiene is important in all public places, but many chinese choose to ignore it, not only the migrant workers. It was difficult to have access for shower before, and it is still not that convenient/comfortable for a lot of people, compare to the western standards. If you go into some average households in china, you'll realize what I mean. Though I have to acknowledge that women are becoming more aware of their hygienes now. Yang Jie received dirty looks or avoidance out of discrimination against her class, not because she broke some social norm like wearing shorts to a black tie party.
Just some thoughts.

June 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSY

thanks @SY - you make really great points and was much more articulate than I was in my comments!

and one more thing @larry and @wang yi - I forgot to mention is that I think there are a diversity of Lao Wai experiences . In my comments above, i was primarily speaking of the white male experience in China. So what you both described as being "othered" by Chinese in terms of constant staring and etc is an experience of all Lao Wai in China. I see it happen all the time and at times it much feel like no matter how much time you spend here you will always be stared at which would frustrate I think most of us.
But the level of frustration that you both communicated that many Lao Wai have with being othered is a white, male Lao Wai experience.

What' interesting is that when I speak to Blacks or Latinos- I have NEVER heard them speak of having the same reaction to being othered in the same way as white male Lao Wais. Blacks and Latinos will tell me how much they get stared at, but it's never coupled with this frustration and often times entitlement that I hear from white males. I have only heard of white males saying "I can't take it in CHina anymore, I hate being stared at and people are rude. I need to move back to the states."
I think that one of the reason Blacks and Latinos are not outraged by being othered or making it a focal point of their China experience is because they are already used to being stared at and policed in their own country, the USA. White, male Lao Wais are frustrated with being othered in China precisely because they have not experienced this kind of othering and categorization before in the US. White and male is the ultimate pass in the US.

My Black and Latino friends often speak of the relief they feel when they come to China. They prefer to be stared at out of curiosity instead of danger. They prefer being treated as objects of exoticism instead of objects of fear. And this is something that I have witnessed closely living and working in Black and Latino communities in the US. For example - my Black students in the US constantly have to worry about being racially profiled by the police while in the China its' not a concern. Everyone is followed equally in a store; the workers often wait on your every move ( which I find to be overbearing at times when I just want to browse the racks!)
I have counseled students who have been charged with crimes when they were mis-identified as a "black male with a white t-shirt." These stories are just too common in these communities - but this is not something that white males have to deal on an everyday level in the USA. So I understand that for a newbie white, male Lao Wai it must not only be shocking but possibly traumatic when constantly stared at over a period of time when all their life they haven't dealt with that public stare - but that's the privilege that comes with being a white male in the US.

What concerns me is when white males travel throughout the world and feel entitled to be invisible - as if their skin and presence should function like their passport - moving through borders seamlessly.

This is not to say that each and everyone of us, regardless of skin color, go through some type of othering or personal trauma that shapes the unique ways we view the world. And it is too often that many white males go through intense bullying for being gay or being associated with gayness. The privilege of maleness as defined by a hyper constructed and homogenous form of masculinity in the US is also a weight unto itself. When one breaks the code of white maleness, the punishment can be deathly.

@larry the fact that you have dedicated yourself to staying so long in China speaks to your resilience! You must let other Lao Wai know what to expect so they can have more realistic expectations like you. and yes your story is freaking awesome. I wish I could interview him! haha

June 24, 2011 | Registered Commentertricia wang

@Tricia Wang

As an African American male, or Black American Male, I truly don't mind the stares. I've become quite accustom to the stares, and have found If I return a brief non-threatening or awe filled stare, many older Chinese males realize how ridiculous their actions of staring are. Once people recognize despite my large muscular body and dark skin, I'm only a man, they don't stare...as much.

As a Black American male, the only thing that is truly annoying is the ignorant people who automatically think I'm a 非洲人. However, once I identify myself as American, I receive preferential treatment and most native Chinese respond in a much more friendlier manner.

Currently, I live and work in Jiangsu province. I get stares with every little step, I take. Yet, behind every stare their is someone willing and wanting you to practice your Chinese and engage in a conversation.

As for your comments concerning being stared at, by law enforcement or anyone else, as a black man in America. In the states people stare out of fear, anger, or envy, and if you stare back there are a few basic outcomes; 1)violence 2)harassment 3)imprisonment

Life in China is good. A cheap cost of living, price controls, no Facebook, etc. So I find myself confused why so many laowai complain.

June 24, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter李永鹏

Read 'Black like me' by John Howard Griffin. A similar book on your experiences, particularly if you were to go around different cities in China, would be most interesting.

June 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark

The difference between rural life and urban life in China is not only one of the biggest in the world it is also growing. The government, so it seems, is having trouble narrowing that gap despite using many measures such as investing great sums of money in rural areas. Check out Laowaiblog to read more about rural/urban differences in China: http://laowaiblog.com/the-relocation-puzzle/

June 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlaowaiblog

Great story with some very interesting comments and issues brought up. We've featured it in our Best of the Net Weekly: Our favorite China travel stories from around the web on ChinaTravel - The people's guide to China. Thanks for sharing Tricia and keep up the good work!

June 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChinaTravelBlogs

Awesome post Tricia. I too have witnessed similar social interactions in China. As a tourist whose looks do blend in, I have had my share of stares or glares and locals making comments as if I wasn't even there - so acceptable in China.

June 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterF.L. Feimo

I love this story and I'm so happy that you've had this intimate, uniting experience with Yang Jie. Can't wait for more of them!

June 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHeather Ford

Many thanks for the very interesting post!

Just wanted to add another thought to the Laowai experience section. It is true that the white male is the most spoiled group (of which I am one) of the laowai. But not all (or even most?) of white males in China come from the US and the aversion to staring can be explained not only through the racial relations context in the US.

I come from a corner of Europe where you don't sit next to a stranger in the bus unless there are no other seats available or just chat up strangers because that's perceived as weird and invading someone's personal space. And you don't usually stare openly even if there's something that interest's you. That's why it was difficult for me in the beginning, suddenly I felt like being in the center of attention and always had the suspicion that maybe I'm cheerily walking around with traces of this morning's toothpaste on my face or something. Some people can't get over this feeling and leave.

The above, of course is not about rudeness on the behalf of Chinese, but adjusting to differing norms. But the experiences of some of my Asian and African schoolmates are much more mixed and do include openly rude behavior like thumbing noses at them, leaving the adjacent seats when they sit down in the bus etc.

But yeah, even that is not much compared to what the migrant workers have to endure.

June 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertoehk

One interesting angle on this kind of situation is the notion of cleanliness, which may be associated with belonging or not belonging rather than actually washing often. I taught in Chinese universities in Wuhan from 1998-2000 (Zhengzhou 2007-2010), Sometimes Chinese colleagues would pay a courtesy visit to my apartment, but always refused tea. Puzzled, I thought about it and bought disposable paper cups. After that, everyone accepted tea, and I guessed with some bemusement that the foreigner was thought to have low standards of hygiene. Observable public hygiene in Wuhan at that time (spitting, littering etc) was pretty awful. Later in South Korea I found that this "unclean foreigner" thing was sometimes a fetish. In one small Korean city I was effectively barred from a public swimming pool. In 1950s Australia, my father often told me as a child that Indians were "dirty" (he was almost disarmingly frank about his racism, but worked happily with all kinds of people). A number of Chinese acquaintances have quietly told me the same thing about South Asians. Maybe we all need to smell similar ^_^ .

June 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterThor May

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