Just Another Day of Fieldwork in China - Student singing for money on street

I felt off today. Everything was making me annoyed.

The grey air full of deathly toxins seemed to bother me more than usual. The bus exhaust in my face made my eyes sting. Walking on the street didn't seem faster than the sidewalk. Every pivot I made seemed to slow me down. I was totally off rhythm - motor bikes were blocking every possible space and bicyclists seemed to cut me off at every exploit to move ahead. It wasn't even hot but I was sweating just from the effort required to push through the crowds. A plume of kebab smoke enveloped my body, i knew I would smell like a stale fried piece of meat instead of my soap fresh body wash.

Congested bodies bumping into each other with no care for who is pushed or ran over. I walk past the bus station depot and I feel so tiny. Rows of buses waiting -  I could easily be squished in between two of them  and no one would help me, just like no one helped the 2 year old girl in Foshan who was ran over twice. The officials here would probably cover up the accident. What horrible thoughts I am imagining.

I am such a ball of negativity. I shouldn't be out in public right now because on any other day none of this would bother me.

Then then a voice pushed through the crowded space of sounds. A singing voice. But not the typical high pitched and stuffy karaoke voice. This voice was deep and honest. It was a young voice that carried itself through smoggy air and into your ears.

I walked up and saw that a crowd had gathered around the voice.

He was a young male. Like everyone else from my own world, I was drawn into a pause.  Crouching on the street with one arm awkwardly resting on his leg - the hand seemed to dangle. His microphone hand rested on top of his other arm. His body was compacted to take up minimal amount of space.

There were no obvious visual clues for why he would resort to singing on the street for money. His jeans appeared clean, his hair was long but not oily, his sneakers weren't falling apart, his color on his shirt remained true to its original black color, and his arms and face were not spotted with dirt.

He never looked up at the crowd. Not once did he turn around to see that there was a crowd of around 50 people on the steps in front of the mall standing and listening.

He wasn't a performer; he didn't have the air of a young street musician whose love is to sing for a living. To sing and ask for money, this was not his doing. Circumstances must have forced him to take his voice to the street. His voice was strong yet so unprepared and so unaware of how it could stop even a crowd - it grabbed me so much that I didn't even realize he was singing to music until he used a remote control to change the track for the next song.

I stepped through the crowd to read his hand written sign that was held down a money box.

I am a poor student from a mountainess rural area, I lost my father when I was young. My mother brought me and my sister up, she sent us to school. My sister got into Wuhan University of Technology, but because of economic problems my sister couldnt' go to school and had to work with my mom in the city. Then my sister got really sick and went into the hospital. The doctors tried their best to rescue her. But her sickness has made our family even more poor. So now I have to take one year off to make some money. Thank you to all who can donate money. I will always remember you.

This is the beauty of living in a city with streets that are alive. The streets hold stories. And even when you're feeling grumpy, you'll be given a distraction long enough to remind you of all the souls who share the world with you.


Fieldwork can be tiring and difficult on the body. I've been trying to slow down so that I don't become the grumpy anthropologist who no longer appreciates her own field site. But no one ever talks about this - how to be emotionally and physically healthy in long term fieldwork. We hear stories of anthropologists going off into their field sites, immersed into everyday life, and then they return to society with goodies of insights.

But what if everyday life is wearing on you? What if everyday life is wearing on the people you spend time with? What if it all feels so heavy that you forget why you are doing this fieldwork in the first place?

How do I keep my observations alive when what once seemed to be an observable distance is now hovering over me - like the sulfuric smelling smog that just makes me feel nauseous the moment I step outside?

I worry that I will begin missing stories like this young student.  If the conditions in my own fieldsite begin to annoy me, then that will be a bias what I observe and that could prevent me from seeing many moments that would've otherwise stood out to me before.

I just co-started a new blog with Heather Ford, Jenna Burrell, and Rachelle Annechino.  It's called Ethnography Matters. Well be talking about some of these issue on our blog. This inspires me to create a category with tips on how to remain balanced while doing fieldwork.

In the meantime, I will reflect on what my wonderful advisor Barry Brown suggested: for every 3 days of fieldwork, I should spend 2-3 days writing and another day resting.

Well it's been 6 months into fieldwork and I have yet to follow his advice.  I think this is a good time to start.

It's time to remind myself what a magical place I am in.