Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Ethnography 101: Homeland in the Eyes of a Foreigner

I would always ask my college and graduate students in Anthropology, aside from learning anthropological concepts and theories inside the classroom, to explore places, experience cultural or social happenings, and write ethnographic accounts using the participation-observation method.
Photo courtesy of Google

I am posting in my blog with the writer's consent selected ethnography penned creatively by my students to contribute to the emerging sub-discipline of anthropology called 'Virtual Ethnography'. 

Basically, virtual ethnography is also referred to as Webnography. We cannot deny the fact that with increasing use of technology and the Internet, there is now a demand for online spaces on ethnographies.

By Regina Gonzalez

My time in Beijing for the days of May 11-15, 2012 have all been mostly spent in the old hutong area of Nanluoguxiang. This area has been known to be a part of those which had been renovated in time for the Beijing Olympics. Our trip had the sole mission of picking up my sister or spending time with her in Beijing while she was on her study or immersion tour.

            Our times in Chinaland beforehand, had been with the company with my father and brother. The last one before the trip of 2012 had been blessed with the presence of a dear high school friend who had been studying in Beijing for an entire year, hence, there being no problems in communication. He was so kind to do the job for us.

            Now that my mother and I were left with each other, to take advantage of my father’s need for certain luxuries and try out living in a traditional hutong. The traditional hutong architecture of Beijjing is located at the area near the Houhai Lake and Lam Temple. This became the area where we stayed as my mother felt more secure linearly navigating through Nanluoguxiang. Nanluoguxiang is also called South Luo Gu lane.

            Our placed was just right off the famous “commercial” lane at the end of one of the seven streets perpendicularly intersecting with Nanluoguxiang. It was called Purple Courtyard. A family-run business we had the chance of discovering through Trip Advisor in the Internet. Our arrival to Beijing had been arranged and hands-on accommodated by Lee. He picked us up from the airport, and brought us to the twisting busy streets of the hutong area.

            Our days were characterized by meals as we didn’t particularly intend to go sight-seeing. Hence, our first evening there had been spent in a nearby café which catered to foreign backpackers – as suggested by its name, Backpacker’s café. My mother didn’t want to take chances just yet as it was evening, and she wasn’t sure that my mandarin was still fluent enough to get us anywhere in which the restaurant servers wouldn’t understand a few English words at all. I told her I had the trusty Berlitz phrasebook, a pen and a notepad, it will be fine.

            And so it was! Roaming the streets that night and remembering the memories made the past time we were there as I gazed at the closed up shops were entering in. Chinese pop songs were playing faintly in the background, as if carried to the window we were seated next to by the wind. The evening wasn’t as cold as what we thought it would be and but was chilly enough to suit the warm curry I ordered. 

             Evening along Nanluoguxiang were always relaxing, until came the days my feet suffered from the flats I was using. But otherwise, it was lovely seeing Beijingers and tourists rushing to wherever, shopping and enjoying the food available from the stalls that lined the streets. It was interesting to find that during the evening of the next day, a lot of cars started passing through the narrow lane and started parking close to the intersections to the residential areas. 

              These were people selling random products such as jewelry, slippers, and the like which were similar to those sold in the stalls lined along the lane during the open hours. Perhaps there was a rule of what time these stores were required to close, and here they were selling again? But the sudden influx of men and women in corporate attire made me wonder if these cars belonged to the people who were stuck in cubicles the whole day but were racket people at night.

            Purple courtyard seemed to be our home base from the succeeding days of eating, walking the entire stretch of 468 meters from north to south side of the lane, and shopping. I could not recall the last time I had spent my days simply eating and shopping. Days on the streets left very much time to observe the people and the culture of the area.

            Mornings in the area was a little bit tricky as cafes or restaurants which served breakfast were limited. But navigating our way through the construction work going around the streets, people on bikes (those sometimes holding on to their phones and talking while biking, others with their respective pets in their bike baskets), and the rest of other random passers-by, we found ourselves a favorite breakfast café. The one thing unique about this one is the barely noticed trace of its alcoholic late-night history and the variety of fresh flowers in pots and vases on its front display. It was a beautiful sight, seeing the flowers, the open windows, the steps leading to the entrance all framed underneath the façade of a traditional hutong.

            The harmony seen in such a vision was likely to be seen in most of the hutongs-restaurants or hutongs-shops. Renovated areas for the store-fronts included the interior and the front area beneath the rafters and rest of the roof assembly of the hutongs. The place felt like a neighborhood, as one may spot residents getting their mail, sweeping the streets or the steps which lead to the entrances of their red residential doors or clear glass store-fronts.

            Mornings also meant seeing bits of major construction or repair work for the electrical lines above the lines of the windows of the hutongs or houses. Construction and renovation was on-going almost everywhere single block. This made me regret not bringing my sun-shades along.

            I knew very “standard” Chinese; well, that was how the family that ran the courtyard we were staying in put it. This mandarin of mine got us around well enough, and even still opened the opportunity of going to shops and food places where there was no English translator in sight. During the unexpectedly very warm noon time, I would be disappointed by the lack of cold beverages the area seemed to have. Iced water, and iced drinks weren’t particularly trendy in Beijing. Drinking hot tea was the norm, and perhaps this was what had to do with the frequent sight of a thin Chinese women clad in what I found to be ill-matched clothing. 

           Seeing one with whose appearance and outfit I would be impressed by was a rarity. I did not understand the sense of aesthetics of the Chinese folk; and such a statement made me wonder how on earth did they create then structures which I would find appealing and in some ways mesmerizing to look at. The residential area had about four public toilets scattered throughout the length of the lane, with appropriate street signs, trash cans. The lady whom I would see everyday collecting bottles and placing them in her basket-stroller would talk to those passing by and specifically ask for their bottles at hand.

            Finding out favorite restaurants and cafes, and talking to the local Beijing folk with my limited Chinese showed them my inclination in respecting their culture and their language. They would mention about the “trouble” between the Philippines and China, but all the hostility our newspapers back at home seemed to speak of was non-existent in Nanluoguxiang. Familiar faces were the waitresses, construction workers, poodle-owners and café-owners. Kindness was something I experienced there everyday whether in the form of one patiently repeating my phrases to teach me proper pronunciation or in the form of restaurant owners giving me free dessert. 

             Of all the little details to fall in love with, or the architecture to gaze at or be wow-ed by, this was one thing that I found surprisingly endearing. In the hustle and bustle of the evolving streets of a small hutong area, and despite the international dispute looming, the Chinese people treated me respectfully and warmly. I believed that’s what makes a foreign culture close to one’s heart more than anything else.

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