Treat People as Humans, not Specimens

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 seriously doubt if I can ever do qualitative research work or journalism 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 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 never master, but I’d gladly take today’s encounter as a lesson anyway.

Should we believe in the arts?

Today marks the final lecture for my theatre module on Singapore English Language Theatre (SELT). But after one whole semester learning this module, I have arrived at more questions than answers.

My professor firmly believes in the power of theatre in bringing hidden sociopolitical issues to the foreground. He asserts that because Singapore is a highly regulated country, and arts defy regulations by nature, any form of performing arts is bound to be subversive. Hence, the arts, especially theatre, is often closely monitored.

At the start of the module, I was easily convinced by his thread of argument, especially because I was drawn by the powerful pieces of theatre works. But towards the end of the module, I started to question it.

Could the reason why the arts is so heavily regulated be that it has the power to point people to a perspective of truth they never knew exist, when it may not be based on actual facts? Due to the liveness of theatre, the audience is directly implicated and invested into a play. Even if the play has Brechtian elements in it, the playwright inevitably places his own bias into the play with a specific purpose in mind, be it directing the audience to other perspectives or to make them question the current state of matters.

Percy Bysshe Shelley once said that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Given the power artists hold, the next question is this- Is this power legitimate? When I pick up a play, or watch a play, how can I be sure that the playwright has done extensive research before claiming to reflect social realities? Arguably, artists reflect the social reality they see through their eyes, and hence have no responsibility in depicting the society as it is. If plays merely reflect the playwrights’ perceptions of the world, doesn’t that undermine their power in evoking change in society? Additionally, it is claimed from the start of the module that SELT provides a window into Singapore society. How do we judge the validity and reliability of the narratives that are meant to parallel actual issues in the society in these plays?

Personally, I think these are difficult questions to answer. Ultimately, I think it boils down to the responsibility of the playwright. Still, I do see the need for regulation because theatre, if handled carelessly, can be a dangerous tool. Even though SELT often criticises how the Singapore identity is constructed, it will be ironic if the plays that are meant to expose different narratives are based on mere perceptions that could have been constructed in the playwright’s subjective perspective as well.

For example, in Chong Tze Chien’s play, “Charged”, he exposes the underlying tensions between races in a highly confrontational manner. However, while playwrights constantly challenge the notion of multi-racial harmony in Singapore, should there not be a reason for being appreciative of at least a certain degree of peace between races in Singapore? The other day, in the lift, I met a Malay family. I pressed the “open” button for them and they greeted me with “thanks”. That could have been any other family of another race and it would have made me as happy and grateful nonetheless. I admit that I do not fully understand the customs and traditions of other races very well, but this degree of harmony is something so difficult to achieve in other countries. Should this perspective not be represented or respected then, just because it is cliche or mainstream? But I do agree that this perspective of mine does reveal beliefs that are subconsciously ingrained in me, which I will probe further in the later part of this post.

Additionally, there are two other means to reach a plausible solutions for the above questions. First, my sister pointed out a good point that we should believe in the competency of the audience in viewing the show critically. My concern has an implicit assumption that the audience will not be able to identify the biases held by the playwrights.

Second, in my Methods of Social Research lecture, I learnt about the value of Biographical Research. Biographical research “takes the individual as author and source of evidence, collect and interpret personal narrative, discourse, and story in order to understand the individual life within its social context”. Similarly, the question of validity and reliability arises. How objective can one person’s account of society or history be? This time, my professor suggested that perhaps biographical research is valuable precisely because it represents partial reality. For example, “Oral History”, which is the “collection and study of historical information about individuals, families, important events, or everyday life using audiotapes, videotapes, or transcriptions of planned interviews” may only capture personal perceptions, but personal stories often include very rich data that cold hard statistics cannot fully capture. Furthermore, these personal “oral histories” are part of the history making process, as they are parts of a whole.

This parallels art in the sense that we should value it as a medium to uncover deeper interactions between people, that facts cannot illustrate. Perhaps, there is nothing wrong with treating each of these plays individually, and valuing them more as platforms to give each playwright a voice to the issues to show that these voices exist, and less as plays that are representative of the population.

This whole debate with myself unexpectedly brought light to the subconscious beliefs that I have held in my life thus far. Perhaps, I have been living in a bubble that assumes everything is perfect in Singapore, in which I have been termed as naive. Perhaps, the unspoken preconception that artists are troublemakers instead of able instruments for positive social change have been ingrained in me. Perhaps, the idea that arts should rightfully be regulated has been one that I have unknowingly conformed to, simply because that it has been the master narrative I have grown up with. These may account for the cognitive dissonance I experienced when I attended SELT lectures. But at the very least, it takes such moments for beliefs to be brought to light and that is the first step before I can evaluate if these beliefs are justifiable, or not. For that, I am happy to have learnt something about myself from this module.

Currently, my stand is more conservative than liberal on the question of the role of art and artists. However, these questions will continue to stick with me, and the answers will be constantly evaluated, as I approach the arts in the future.

Humans and Faith

In my secondary school or junior college days, my teachers (usually teachers teaching an arts related subject such as general paper or integrated humanities) often told us, “There is no right or wrong answer.”

I was often confused when my teachers do so because when we eventually arrived at an answer, there were times when they simply frown and said, “Hmm.. not quite right. ” In those times, I still believed that my teachers had an answer that they were inclined to believe in their minds and hoped that they were able to steer us in the “right” direction.

After a sociology lecture on Methods, Types and Paradigms for SC2101 (Methods of Social Research), I finally understood what it really means when a perspective to an issue is neither right nor wrong. As teachers or students, we may have subconsciously understood this concept, but have never really understood why.

Dr. Feng explained that in sociology, there are 3 main paradigms: Functionalism, Conflict Theory and Symbolic Interactionism. Functionalists believed that “society is a system, in which each part performs a function to serve the whole”. Conflict theorists believed that “society is a field of confrontations between people dominating and people being dominated”. Symbolic Interactionists believed that “society is a stage of communication with a shared meanings system, which comes from social interaction. ” All these 3 perspectives can be used to understand a social phenomenon. No matter what beliefs one holds which leads him or her to be inclined towards a perspective, no one can say that any of these 3 perspectives are wrong.

The question is: Why? Why does the study of the natural world often leads us to one single answer but not for the study of the social world? Why does the study of cells, atoms, atmosphere, energy etc require so much more objectivity than that of the study of inequality, genders, power relations etc.?

The answer lies in the characteristics of humans. Dr. Feng notes that humans are non-examinable and non-debatable. This is because the psychological processes of humans are invisible. As such, the things we note about another person may not be true. They are inevitably based on assumptions which are influenced by our own cultures, subjective experiences, knowledge and beliefs. I was once fascinated by a quote by chinese scholar, writer and poet 王国维 (Wang Guo Wei). He wrote, “以我观物,故物皆我之色彩。” It skilfully encapsulates the idea that everyone’s perception of the world is coloured by his or her own subjectivity. In other words, we can only attempt to understand others via an understanding of ourself. But it is questionable whether we truly understand ourselves as well.

This issue got me thinking about the study of religion. Perhaps, religion is a human need simply because humans need a simple and perhaps even convenient answer to all the questions we cannot answer. I was reminded of an excerpt from Mitch Albom’s book, Have a Little Faith.

“Look, if you say that science will eventually prove there is no God, on that I must differ. No matter how small they take it back, to a tadpole, to an atom, there is always something they can’t explain, something that created it all at the end of the search.

“And no matter how far they try to go the other way – to extend life, play around with the genes, clone this, clone that, live to one hundred and fifty – at some point, life is over. And then what happens? When the life comes to an end?”

I shrugged.

“You see?”

He leaned back. He smiled.

“When you come to the end, that’s where God begins.”

“When you come to an end, that’s where God begins. ” Personally, I believe that God exists. However, what I do not know is whether we perceive God to be what God really is. Perhaps God is not omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent or benevolent. Perhaps he is just a supernatural being without all the values and meanings we have attached to it.

I do not know a lot about religions. Considering the nature of the study of human society,  I doubt that I can ever know more about religion with any confidence that what I know is “correct”. But after this lecture, what I now know is why it is so difficult to understand the society and a subject like religion.

Dr. Feng concluded by sharing with us the story of the elephant and the blind men. (Source:

Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, “Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.”

They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, “Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway.” All of them went where the elephant was. Everyone of them touched the elephant.

“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.

“Oh, no! It is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.

“Oh, no! It is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.

“It is like a big hand fan” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.

“It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.

“It is like a solid pipe,” Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

They began to argue about the elephant and everyone of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated. A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, “What is the matter?” They said, “We cannot agree to what the elephant is like.” Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all those features what you all said.”

“Oh!” everyone said. There was no more fight. They felt happy that they were all right.

This story is commonly known among everyone. Yet, its concept is not easily applied and exercised. As humans, we have to acknowledge how small we are and how limited our perception and knowledge of the world is. It is as true for the wise men to say that all the blind men are right as it is true to say that all the blind men are wrong. The only thing we can do and ought to do is to suspend our own judgement and be open and more tolerant of other perspectives.

After all, there is truly no right or wrong answer.