Today, I decided to head to Shanghai’s People’s Park (人民公园) for a fieldwork for my Marriage and Family module. People’s Park is renowned for its marriage market, where distressed parents put up qualities of their unwed children, in hopes of finding their children suitable partners for marriage. I couldn’t decide on a topic for my final paper, so I thought I’d find some inspiration there.
With my DSLR slung on my neck, and a notebook and a pen in my bag, I was ready to hit the busy crowd of People’s Park. Upon arrival, a swarm of sociologically interesting sights and scenes overwhelmed me – the sheer number of elderly “promoting” their children, their conversations with one another, the umbrellas with the children’s qualifications and the parents’ expectations of their partners attached to them and more. I began snapping away. Ah, an old lady looking for a partner for her child even when she’s wheel chair bound? Take the photo quick. It’d make an interesting photograph (with a story that is).
“小妹！(Miss!), ” someone called out to me. I turned behind, slightly surprised to find an old lady who asked me, “你拍这些照是干什么的？你是记者吗？ (Why are you taking these photos? Are you a journalist?)” I thought she looked kind of hostile, probably because she thought I was another journalist, trying to dig some news about unique Chinese traditions, and taking street photos of these elderly without permission. I immediately diffused the tension with an awkward smile, explaining that I’m an exchange student from Singapore who’s just here out of curiosity. To my relief, she let her guards down, and even started chatting with me about her situation, why she was worried that her daughter would not find a partner, the imbalanced gender ratio in China and more. Later, this conversation led to the next, as I spoke to her friend next to her as well.
Not bad, I thought, this fieldwork research was progressing better than I had expected. I had felt rather jittery before coming here, because nothing scares me more than having to approach strangers, and attempting to make conversations that are hopefully sociologically valuable. But there I was, having found someone who resembled the “Doc” in a sociology classic, Street Corner Society. For the benefit of non-sociology readers, this means having found someone who is willing and able to help you infiltrate into a group that you are studying. This is perhaps one of the most crucial steps for a sociologist during fieldwork – to become an insider instead of an outsider.
2 interviewees down. I reviewed the information I received again, and figured that while the old lady and her friend provided me useful details, their circumstances were too similar. I need variety in this sample. So thereafter, I took another stroll around People’s Park. Then, I saw an old man who is advertising for his daughter and son, which was rare since most people in their generation only had one child due to the one child policy. I saw elderly advertising for their children who are studying or working overseas. I also saw a 40 year-old lady advertising for herself, plausibly the only one in the marriage market thus far.
Good. Let me talk to all 3 then. That’ll make the number of interviewees 5. Whole numbers sound good to me anyway. So, having tasted a few successes with my previous “interviewees”, I approached the lady advertising for herself next, with more confidence than I had initially.
“你好勇敢哦。你是我在这里看到的，第一个为自己找伴侣的。(You’re so brave. You are the first person I’ve seen here, who is finding a partner for yourself.)”
She let out an awkward smile.
I started to worry a little. She reacted to my comment, but did not say anything after that. How should I continue this conversation?
“你在这里多久了？(How long have you been here?)”I asked. I considered it quite a basic question to ask, since I had asked the same question to the old lady and her friend before, and this question opened them up to sharing just how worried they are about their children, because they had tried so long but to no avail.
“有一段时间了。(It has been some time.)” This answer left me dissatisfied. ‘Some time’ is too vague. For the research to be more significant, more specific answers are needed.
I knew for a fact that the conversation was going nowhere. She was not open in sharing more information. Was it because she did not trust me, considering that I was just a random stranger? At this point of time, I panicked. It’s a bad habit of mine to slur my words when I feel that I have lost control in a conversation, and especially when I feel that the other party distrusts me or does not feel comfortable around me.
“其实，其实我是个学生。因为好奇，才来这里看看的…… 嗯，我是读社会学的。所以对婚姻与家庭比较感兴趣。(Actually, actually, I’m a student. I’m here only out of curiosity… Erm, I study sociology, so I’m rather interested in issues of marriage and family,)” I explained, as if to justify the slew of questions that might have seemed strange to her.
She simply nodded her head. I immediately knew that I was fighting a losing battle here. Should I let the conversation end? But she’s the only person advertising for herself at People’s Park here. Since it is so rare, I have to put this in my findings. I just have to. How many weeks, days, or months has she been here? Has she tried finding a marriage partner through dating apps instead? Aren’t the chances of finding a marriage partner here much smaller? Why is she still here then? Why is it her but not her parents who are here? I still have so many questions left unanswered. I can’t just stop the conversation here.
I decided to try again, “你想要来这里是你自己的意思吗？还是父母要你来的？你的父母会担心 –？(Did you come here on your own accord? Or were you pressurised by your parents? Are your parents worried – ?)”
She cut me off – not rudely – and said, “你能不能不要问了呀，你问了我心里很难受。(Do you mind if you stopped asking me questions? It is making me feel very upset.)
That was clearly the last straw for her. I halted, expressed my apologies hastily, and walked away.
I couldn’t quite remember where I headed to after that, except that I ended up finding on a rock in the middle of nowhere in the park, and sat there sobbing uncontrollably for god knows how long.
‘WTF were you thinking?’ I asked myself again and again. A pang of guilt hit me real hard, because I suddenly realised how hurtful my questions must have been to her for her to let out such a begging request. What’s worse was that I had not even realised it prior to her stopping me.
It had to take this much for me to start empathising with her. Now, imagine for a moment that you’re unmarried at the age of 40. That’s notwithstanding the fact that you are a female in a culture where women are expected to wed before the age of 30. Here you are at People’s Park, having mustered all your courage to find a partner for yourself. Most people here are desperate parents, and you stick out like a sore thumb. Streams of people walk by, evaluating you from your job, your educational qualifications, your hukou status to your height, your weight, your face… basically everything. You don’t quite like that, but you do it anyway not just because you “have time to spare” but because you buy in the idea that time is running out for you as a woman. Single children are often unhappy when their parents advertise for them. You are different though. You don’t mind it that much. In fact, you choose to find a partner by yourself. Because the one thing that you want more than anything else is to be – happy. The thing is, you have been doing this every week for weeks and months now and still, nothing much has changed.
One day, out of the blue, a wide-eyed student approaches you, and commends you for being brave. Should you take that as compliment or mockery? She asks you, “How long have you been here?” Should you tell her you have been here for months and still nobody wants you? She tells you that she’s a sociology major. So she’s speaking to you now because…? Because you’re not ‘normal’ like everyone else in society? How should you feel about that? She asks you why you are here. Is that even a question? If you were happily married like most women of your age, is there a need to be here at all? And the worst of them all – she asks persistently, with an irksome oblivion of the luxury of time she has as a lady right in the dawn of her youth. How small must you have seemed to her?
I imagined how hurt I would have felt had I been in her shoes, and these thoughts crushed me. It might sound a tad too dramatic, but it is close to, or I can say, downright unethical to exploit someone’s pain just for the sake of “research”, not to mention in such an insensitive and crude way. The whole time, I was so caught up with fulfilling my interviewee count and quenching my thirst for answers to “important” questions, that I overlooked the most important but taken for granted fact that here in front of me is a living breathing being with a personal history unbeknownst to anyone but herself.
When I eventually calmed myself down, I tried making up to her the only way I knew how to, which was to write. I took out a piece of paper, wrote her a letter expressing my sincerest apologies, and had just enough courage to hand it to her. I had always known spoken language to be my nemesis, but I had wished then that my written language could heal in someway or another.
Never embarrass your respondent; your respondent is your priority; talk through sensitive topics empathetically so that your respondent will be open to sharing more, my teachers say. Yet, no amount of lessons can prepare anyone for the real deal. I won’t deny that today made me doubt if I can do qualitative research work or just about anything that requires me to speak to people a lot in the future. That to me is quite very tragic because as much as I desire to connect with people and understand the intricacies that come with them, I unfortunately still lack the means to do so. I’m not new to this realisation that has gnawed at me for years and years now, but that’s a topic for another day. Conversing with grace, and above all, tenderness, is an art that I might very well take a lifetime to master, but I’d gladly take today’s encounter as a lesson anyway.