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%