Briefcase NGOs

A few months ago, I wrote a longer post for Insight on Conflict about why briefcase NGOs exist and how meaningful local partnerships are key to preventing them. I guess someone out there was intrigued by it, because I now have a shorter version of it featured on The Guardian. Click here to read it.

Having my piece out there in the world has been so wonderfully humbling. This has been an opportunity to connect with others, ask questions, and discover some interesting research that I couldn’t find when I was initially trying to look for literature out there on briefcase NGOs. I wanted pushback and constructive comments, and I got them.

I’m not finished yet, though. I’ve been wanting to write something more nuanced and in-depth and this has proven to be a great launchpad for that. A few questions running through my mind:

  • What do we do with the NGOs in a moral gray, that aren’t necessarily outright “briefcase NGOs”? This includes NGOs that may make up impact target numbers or downright lie on reports, but believe they are making an important difference. What causes the NGOs to take on these processes?
  • How do we start rethinking the way we assess impact and whether targets have been reached?
  • How do we read between the lines on impact reports? For example, a social enterprise claiming to train and create 3000 workers may only be offering them short-term jobs that don’t lead to sustainable livelihoods.

Definitely excited for more thoughts and insights from readers over these next few months, and to see where these ideas go.

An Oral History of My Mother: Understanding

Note: This was written in April 2011. I’m posting it now with some very minor edits. Given the length of the text, I’ve chosen to post this in installments. This is the final installment, analyzing and understanding themes from my mother’s experiences. Read part onepart two, and part three.

In many respects, my family was lucky to have immigrated to the United States and had the opportunities they did. Much of it was a fortuitous combination of having family already established outside of Taiwan, and chance and opportunities that came up. There were a few key themes that I took note of throughout the narrative that I would like to further discuss. They include immigration, entrepreneurship, education, culture and background, the model minority stereotype, and politics and racism.

Immigration

As has been seen from the historical examples of paper sons, many Asian immigrants have often been strategic in the immigration process, utilizing loopholes, network connections, and family. My parents were no exception. My mother was able to come to the United States due to the fact she already had relatives there and her two older brothers had immigrated before her. In addition, she had already been accepted to Queens College and was able to go on a student visa.

From there, my father was able to utilize his status as spouse to immigrate to the United States. My parents had clearly thought about the best steps to take, as they decided it would be easier for him to come as a spouse and then apply to school in New York rather than apply from Taiwan. My mother was also able to utilize her own skills and connections in the United States to help bring my uncle, my father’s younger brother, to the United States.

I found this process fascinating. While most of my father’s side of the family remains in Taiwan, my mother’s relatives had already lived in the United States for many years at the time of their immigration, setting a precedent for the maternal side of my family. Perhaps if neither of them had had relatives already established in the United States, they may not have immigrated. Family networks appear to be an incredibly strong factor in my family’s immigration history.

Entrepreneurship

I also saw a common theme of entrepreneurship that many immigrants traditionally partake in. As Ronald Takaki touches upon when describing the experience of immigrants in America, many turned to these ventures because they often couldn’t continue whatever careers they had had in their home countries. Much of this was due to language limitations and license or certification issues. In the case of my parents, there were language limitations that prevented them from taking on certain jobs, and they were students at the time of immigrating.

What was especially interesting was the way in which, as immigrants, they engaged in work they may not have in their home country or that was not geared towards their areas of specialty- in this case, law and/or computer science. They invested money in and worked in an ice cream shop, cleaned Laundromats, and worked different jobs. For them, the prospect of opportunity in general was an important driving factor.

Education

My parents came to the United States with the express goal of getting an education. Both studied for their master’s degrees, though my mother dropped out when she became pregnant with my brother. Again, with realism and practicality, they opted to study computer science because the English language demands were less rigorous and it was an emerging industry.

Education was also a way for them to immigrate to the United States- my mother utilized her admission into a master’s program to get her visa, and was then able to bring my father over. Indeed, they were among the wave of Asian immigrants who already were educated in their home countries and sought to arrive in the United States and become working class professionals.

Culture and Background

Though this interview was meant to understand my mother’s life and experiences as an immigrant, inevitably her role as a mother took over as she often worked to instill values she found important and impress Chinese culture upon me while answering her questions. She often made sweeping generalizations about what Chinese people do, while other times differentiating herself as an individual from general Chinese culture.

To my mother, much of the interview was also an opportunity to teach me. She spent time telling me about Confucius, explaining various things about our religion, and impressing upon me the importance of learning Chinese and being familiar with my culture. It was also a chance for her to express her values and opinions in a way I had never had occasion to hear before.

My mother switched between a general Chinese identity and moved more specifically to a Taiwanese identity throughout the interview. Though she would sometimes refer to us as “Chinese” in some instances (such as when she talked about looking for a language school for my brother and me), she specifically stated that she sought out Taiwanese schools. She also did this with religion, tying the Buddhist religion in with our general culture and values while also stressing that it was important I had a chance to choose my own religion.

Model Minority

What I found fascinating is the way in which my mother both embraced the model minority stereotype and rejected it. Many times throughout the interview, my mother referred to Chinese people being better at math, discussed how hard working they are, and even mentioned how Chinese people make more money in my hometown area. Much of this can perhaps be tied to the dominant narrative and is something that my mother has come to believe after more than 26 years living in America.

At the same time, she acknowledged that there are also immigrants who have a hard time making a living and life for themselves in the United States. She also took a more liberal approach to parenting, rejecting the general model of rigorous learning and training for children that is often associated with Asian parenting. In this case, she expressed disapproval. Again, this perhaps ties into the general theme of wearing and using multiple identities. There are certain aspects that my mother takes pride in, and therefore accepts as general characteristics of Asians.

Politics/Racism

As often happens when someone is asked a question about something they aren’t asked to often consider, my mother didn’t have any particular instance she could name in which the Asian American community may have been affected by the political climate at the time. However, near the end she mentioned the September 11, 2001 attacks and how Asian immigrants didn’t feel secure and also had trouble finding jobs.

She also alluded to an awareness of racial tensions in the United States, even mentioning how she goes out of her way to avoid rural areas out of fear of racism. With this awareness came an almost nonchalant attitude towards the racism she encounters in her daily life, however. She showed awareness of the fact that much of this racism comes from economic competition but also did not resist the dominant narrative, instead owning a role as a foreigner. Her nuanced view and perception of where racist concerns and resentment comes from showed that this is something she is still aware of and thinks about in her daily life, even if she does not always articulate such ideas.

Conclusion

In the end, this oral history simply records the experiences of one female Taiwanese immigrant in the United States, my mother. It is not necessarily reflective of the general immigrant experience in America today, and must be understood and examined within its proper historical context. My mother immigrated to the United States in 1984, and got her citizenship in 1996. This was very different from the experience of immigrants today, and will continue to be different from immigrant experiences in the future. Regardless, it is important to see how sheer perseverance, independence, luck, and opportunity led my mother to the life she has today, situated in the context of Asian America overall.

Read part onepart two, and part three.

An Oral History of My Mother: Life in the United States

Note: This was written in April 2011. I’m posting it now with some very minor edits. Given the length of the text, I’ve chosen to post this in installments. This is part three, about life in the United States. Read part one and part two.

[Which historical or political events do you feel impacted you?] There weren’t a lot of political issues that affected how people treated Chinese people. Of course, you’d run into some issues  but it was more in places like- cities don’t have as much racism. Cities have a lot of immigrants. Even now we think that we would never go to the Midwest. Even now there are issues. I feel it. Just don’t go to those cities. You need to stay in cities. Like Boston, New York, Chicago. Or the outside areas. But don’t go any further. Really. Every now and then you hear news and you feel it. Some people are nice and gentle, that’s true. But some people- including those who are highly educated, not necessarily those with low education- have this thinking.

You know, to be honest. If you think about it, Chinese do work harder. They get good jobs. To be blunt, those in the New Jersey area who get paid highly tend to be Asian. White people get mad. But to be honest white people have a lot of good characteristics too. They don’t have to study a lot and can be smart too. There are a lot of those. We know that. But in general, if you run into the middle, they can’t really match up to Asians. The good ones are a lot. But in general, they are no competition.

First, Asians are smart and diligent about doing work. You get that feeling. It’s a big difference. We make a good amount of money. So we especially have this feeling. If today, we came and didn’t do high tech work or weren’t doing well, then our feelings would probably be different. So our feeling of security is tied to that. Right now we have enough money and feel secure. We wouldn’t head somewhere without a lot of people. I really like it. I like living in less populated areas. I’m not the kind of person to like really busy areas. You know I could live in a completely rural area and not care. I love those areas. But I’m afraid to do that in America. I don’t like this. If you live in an area and you don’t enjoy- if you live and you’re scared, then I don’t want that.

[Have you ever felt discriminated against?] I’ve run into some rude racist experiences. But it wasn’t very particular or obvious. But you can feel it sometimes. There definitely is. Even with you ABCs (American Born Chinese), second generation. In general we can’t completely blame others. We come from a different country and our presence affects them. But in the meantime, I also think that if they didn’t have us, this country would be doomed. Because they’ve always relied on immigrants to build up the country. So, I don’t want to replace them. I know I don’t want to replace them. I also really appreciate this area and getting this opportunity. So, I feel that I contribute and do my part. If you treat me badly, I don’t care. Because I think I’ve done my part. Without us, they wouldn’t have been able to create this country. This is true. But it’s not always easy. Your dad thinks in the future, you might go back to Asia. Your dad tells you if Taiwan and China have opportunities, take it. It won’t be bad. You can try.

From a young age, I’ve always liked this kind of work [social]. Help people. I really like it. When I was a freshman studying it, I actually did really well. Also, we also studied psychology. I really liked that too. But you know, you don’t get the chance. I’m not a very active person so I let it go. If you want to do this, I think it’s great. A lot of Chinese parents make a big deal out of your work. They think good opportunities are in jobs at Google, IT, financial, business- “Oh, my child is now earning hundreds of thousands of dollars! Good!” Chinese parents always ask, “Where do your children go to school? Mine goes to Brown.” I think, “So?” A lot leave [college] and suffer. They don’t know what they want to do.

[Why do you think so many Taiwanese people converted to Christianity?] Your uncles- this is my opinion- after so many years of observing, I think the Christians in the United States do really well. Pretty early on, they did better than Buddhists. They are also very open. Chinese people, unlike the Taiwanese, use the church to help themselves, to build their social networks. Not everyone is like this, but that’s my feeling. Even your uncles get this feeling. Because Chinese [Mainland] people come, they utilize their connections and ask for help. They want good jobs, friends, and more. This isn’t bad. This is a social life. But I think- I think we count as more traditional Taiwanese. My thinking is that our religion is freedom. I follow what my ancestors have. It’s not necessarily the right one, but I feel that they’re more generous. More kind. Not necessarily all good people, but they give us more freedom. If today you think it’s necessary to pray, you can do it. They won’t say to you, “Oh, you didn’t pray today. You’re guilty.” Christians tell you this. If you don’t believe their religion, you’re evil. This is something I can’t understand. I’m not evil. I don’t believe your god, but I’m still a good person. Don’t tell me that. But their rule is like that.

A Buddhist temple in Taipei, Taiwan.

A Buddhist temple in Taipei, Taiwan.

Your uncles have said this to me. They said they really regret I haven’t converted. But I think, “I don’t regret you joining the church.” Why? Because both their marriages in the beginning were not very good. They fought a lot. You see, your dad and I are very special, I feel. Your uncles fought with their wives a lot. Your dad and I came to a conclusion. When they argue, all they do is get on their knees and pray, and everything is ok. They really do this (laughs). They told me. So I say, “Fine. You should believe this.”

Chinese school friends converted them. And their co-workers. The people they know are mostly Christian and bring them to church, so they start to believe in it. At first they didn’t believe. They suffered for ten years. Then later your uncle became more religious than your aunt. At first it was your aunt. She even went to theology school. She’s studying it now! She’s good at studying. She can do anything. It’s great, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not against it. I’ve never told them it’s bad. I just think they shouldn’t tell other people their religion is bad. So they tried to convince us a lot. At first, we would go to church. At the time your brother was young. We wanted to bring you to meet other children. That was the easiest way. At the time, Buddhists didn’t really have that. Later on they created things like that. But by then it was too far away from us. I didn’t really want to join. I don’t like people forcing me, telling me that I have to come do something. I’ll come help you but I don’t want to be forced. For the sake of our children, your dad and I would bring your brother to church. At the time, he was really young, when we were in New York. Later on we just started to get a bad feeling from it.

We sent you to summer school. It’s not bad for you. It gives you extra knowledge and understanding. So I’m not against it. But, I don’t want them to treat us like we’re bad people for not believing in Christianity. I got this feeling after a while so I just stopped going. You know, a lot of Christians are busy every Sunday. They go socialize. You and your brother think your father and I aren’t social. But we don’t want to go to things like church. Sometimes we bring you to church. Do you remember when you were small? Every year we would take you to temple to pray. Just to let you know that this was available to you. But I wouldn’t force you too. I think- I care a lot about freedom. I don’t want to be told that I have to be like this, or this. I don’t like that. So, why am I always in the corner? Because I don’t want to have to be like that. Your grandmother has to pray and light incense every morning for 30 minutes to an hour. It calms her, I think. I’m not at that point (laughs). We just have one where we go to pray. If we see a temple, we’ll go pray. It was the same when we were in Japan. If we saw a temple, we would go pray no matter what. I think it’s great, right? No one forces you to do anything, and it’s a lot better. It’s not like Christians, who say, “Oh I can’t go in this temple. I can’t light incense.” Who cares, right? Don’t be like that.

[How did you hear about the Chinese language schools?] We found Chinese school because your uncles were a part of it. It was created by Taiwanese people. We didn’t want Cantonese or Mainland schools. In New York, the school you went to was not Taiwanese run, but there were Taiwanese teachers. Because New York’s are mainly Cantonese. There are fewer Taiwanese people. But it was OK. They taught Bopomofo (注音符號). Bopomofo is Taiwan’s. So we were willing to go. This is what I’m like. I think, I come to America. I’m not like the earliest of our relatives. Uncle Taixing’s parents came and didn’t teach their kids. They didn’t want their children to learn Chinese, they wanted them to learn English and pick it up quickly. But in my perspective, I just felt, “My children are from Taiwan. Chinese. They must know how to speak Mandarin.”

Fidelity Chinese School, where my brother and I attended classes every weekend. Photo Credit:  Fidelity Chinese School.

Fidelity Chinese School, where my brother and I attended classes every weekend. Photo Credit: Fidelity Chinese School

So your dad and I- I told him very clearly. If our children’s English is bad, we have to try. But we must teach them to speak Mandarin. I don’t care. Plus the pediatricians I’ve met- foreign doctors- I asked them about it once. But really, in my heart I already knew what I wanted to do. I said, “Do I need to teach them English? We’re immigrants. My English isn’t very good. Do I need to teach them?” He said, “No, you don’t need. When they go to school, they’ll learn.” This was always my feeling. I never taught you two English. But see, lots of immigrants teach their children English from a young age and don’t teach them correctly. I think- I know. I don’t care. I’ll be careful about your education. It’s not necessarily good; I don’t push you very hard. Not like other parents. I meet other parents who have their children learn piano and other things to compete. To be first place (laughs). But I say, “This isn’t all right, do you really need to?”

Not everyone can be first place. If you push someone to be first, eventually they might come out [in the real world] and be in last place. They’re always first now because you’re always building up. Letting them go to tutors. I say, tutors can be necessary. If your grades are bad, you don’t want to let kids feel bad too much. You help them. But if from the very beginning you build up and create pressure to stay one step ahead, eventually they’ll forget how to be independent and they’ll think, “I don’t have to go because my parents aren’t pushing me. I’ll just stop.” Then they’re doomed. That’s what I’m afraid of. So I’d rather you two don’t have good grades from the beginning, don’t worry, but learn how to do it. I don’t want you to count on me to tell you to do your homework today, do it tomorrow. If one day I don’t tell you to do something and you say, “You didn’t tell me to do this!”- then I’m in trouble. Right? That’s what I think.

My brother and me. Queens, NY.

My brother and me. Queens, NY.

Now I know my bad points. Because from a young age, I came to America. I was always pretty independent, even when I was a girl. Despite the fact I lived with my parents, but they didn’t really help me do a lot. So from a young age, I always knew what to do for myself. So, I think this isn’t a training problem. Americans tell their kids to sleep alone, to do such and such a thing so their children learn to be independent. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Think about it- you two went to college. I don’t worry too much about you. Of course I’ll say, “Oh do you need this? Do you want this?” But I can’t really watch you. You’re supposed to be independent. Even your mother, I never left home until I left for college. But as soon as I went, I was independent.

I didn’t think- also when I was young I used to sleep in my parent’s bed. I think, I don’t really care what Americans say about having to do things a certain way. But, my bad point is that I know how to conserve and take care of money. I always think that you two don’t so I want to do it all for you. This is bad too, right? Because you need to fail so you can know what you’re doing is wrong. So in the end I don’t really try to control your brother. I tell him I can help him, if you don’t want it you can take care of it yourself. I take care of this for you because I don’t think it’s as important. You know? Whatever you want to eventually do, you can worry about it yourself. Because I can’t really control it. Slowly let go instead, that’s my feeling.

[Do you have any regrets?] So far I don’t have any real regrets. But you know, by this age- you see your dad has [been here] so many years. He wants to go back to Taiwan. So he’ll think, oh life in Taiwan is easy. You don’t need so much. But he knows. He thinks, “Here I make money. In Taiwan I can’t.” Also, he can work- let’s not say ten years, but at least five in his job. And of course, if today he felt that his job wasn’t secure, we would think about going back. We would do it. But right now, we don’t really want to go yet of course because you two are still here.

Also, I’ve told your dad. I’ve said, “Going back to Taiwan… Taiwan is so hot. I hate the heat.” I’ve always hated heat, even from a young age. Your dad is used to it. I’m not at all. But it’s not like you can’t live there. Once you get somewhere and live there, you still adjust. It’s not that awful.

My father and my brother. New York City, circa 1988.

My father and my brother. New York City, circa 1988.

But the biggest concern is that when we’re older, what do we want to do? We don’t know yet. We haven’t thought that far. Because going back to Taiwan doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll have a great life. We have to see. We’ll see, we’re in no rush. Because it’s not like we want to buy a house, so we don’t have to think too much. Right now we’re here; we should let you two settle down.

[Have your dreams been fulfilled?] Dreams? In the past few years, I’ve had some. I used to really want to draw. I don’t want to take classes. I see so many people, like your aunt and neighbor, who take these classes and do oil paintings that are great. But my feeling is that I can’t concentrate and do this. I like to do things on my own. So it’s like you say- socially, I don’t really like to do these things. Because sometimes other people tell you what to do. I don’t enjoy that. Also, I used to want to do art. Like ceramics and pottery. I love those. But now there’s so much to do in the house. I think I should organize things here. Like when you and your brother move out. I want to settle down and then concentrate. Plus I have my job. If today I didn’t have my job I would probably concentrate more on these things. But you still feel a lot of pressure. I don’t know. I’m not exactly at a point where I really want to do something.

Not like our neighbor- she takes a lot of classes. You need more of your own thinking. She has a lot of ideas, but she’s more concerned about doing well in classes. So I think this isn’t good. I don’t like having to be like that. That’s not real enjoyment. It’s always competing to be better than other people. Who cares? At this age, who cares whether you’re good or not? That’s your own problem. I don’t care! To a lot of people, it’s like this. Life is like that. But I think, maybe I’m just not as competitive. I don’t know. But life, I think I pass through it more easily. When I’m depressed, I just find it boring. I just want to calm down. Maybe because of age, because I’m older, I get a little more depressed. I get frustrated and don’t know what I want to do. My personality isn’t like this. That’s why my thoughts are always so clear. When I’m doing anything I always have a plan. From the very beginning til the end, I know what I want to do. If I think too much, I can’t sleep at night (laughs). But sometimes, it’s your age. You can’t plan as clearly. You just go. It’s fine, Sometimes you don’t do as well, but that’s ok. I’m just adjusting myself.

In general, coming to America, we have no regrets. We really had a great opportunity. A lot of people get depressed. People we knew in college and grad school really went crazy. They couldn’t finish in school. They got lonely. A lot of money problems. But I think, if you can’t survive during the process you shouldn’t have come. So you really need to know, if you can’t do something you need to give up some things. Like your dad and I gave up some things, right? We gave up a lot.

Like sometimes you’ll want to- your dad and I are like this. We didn’t have family support. You know how Chinese people are. Like your dad and I, we try to support you so you don’t have to worry. But when your dad and I came to the US, from the very beginning we didn’t get any support. So you start to think. Sometimes I say, “Forget it. I don’t need to go out to eat.” Because I want to save money for the future. And now I know, I don’t need to do this anymore. But I still don’t like going out to eat (laughs). Not just money. I’m just very careful about what I buy. But I love going out and traveling.

When it comes to lifestyle and what we find important, every person is different. To me, if I think something is important then I’ll be careful about it. For other things, I don’t need it. What other people say about it, I don’t care. They don’t live my life. I live well already. So don’t worry what other people say about you. But also don’t say, “Oh, other people are like this, why not us?” That’s not good. And at my age, who cares? I haven’t hurt anyone. Also, I constantly help people. So I think things are good. In general, it’s not too bad. You tend to find happier immigrant cases. But a lot of people also have a hard time. Like recently, after 9/11. A lot of people returned to Taiwan. There were no jobs, and it wasn’t secure. We were lucky to come when we did. Also, a lot of people say it. They came when they did and were lucky. So they got good opportunities and a better life. They wouldn’t necessarily have gotten that in Taiwan.

My parents in Taiwan. September 2013.

My parents in Taiwan. September 2013.

Read part one and part twoFinal part coming soon.

An Oral History of My Mother: First Days

Note: This was written in April 2011. I’m posting it now with some very minor edits. Given the length of the text, I’ve chosen to post this in installments. This is part two, about my mother’s first days in the United States. Read part one, part three, and part four.

[Why did you come to America?] When your dad was in the army, at the time it was like this. Because I had a lot of relatives in the United States. Grandpa only had a brother. His family was mostly here. Then, your two uncles graduated. They studied physics and left the country. Like [one of your uncles] used to study physics. He became a teacher. But his wife was really good academically. She got a physics PhD acceptance to Queens College. She didn’t get the PhD. She got frustrated after studying, as it was very tiring. Uncle didn’t really like school, but he was very smart. Later on he studied computer science and your aunt quickly switched to that. The two of them did well. Uncle was better at computer science than Aunt. Uncle Winston came to the United States first, since he’s the oldest.

Taiwan is very small. As long as you do OK academically, you’ll think there’s a future elsewhere. You’ll want to come to the United States for more education. Taiwan is like this: you just need to leave the country, get an education. It’s not easy. Everyone is poor, unless you have a lot of money. So everyone thought, “As long as I get an education. I return to Taiwan and I’ll do well.” That’s just what people used to think. If you got a degree and went back, you did better than everyone. So when anyone got a chance, they wanted to leave.

[How did you choose what to study?] Why did we all study computer science? Because Chinese people really are good at math. Jobs for computer science were easiest. Other ones were difficult because of language issues. We couldn’t do those. At the time I studied law. I’d never studied calculus. I came to school in the U.S. and almost every time would get 100 on the exams. The first time I got 60. I was so mad. I thought, “How could I get a 60?” I was so mad. Then I sat down and memorized. Formulas for Chinese people are just too easy. I almost always got 100. I tested so well to the point where the teacher would be happy and every time he handed out exams, he would give me mine last. I thought, “Oh no! How come he didn’t give me my exam yet?”

Because the first time I tested badly, I was so upset. I thought, how could I do so badly in math? But then I got pregnant with your brother, right? In the second semester I was in calculus, a more advanced one. Everyone sat next to me, trying to cheat off my exam. I was so angry, I thought, “I’m pregnant, I’m uncomfortable. What are you doing trying to cheat off me? I should be looking at your exam!”

Then I had your brother and didn’t finish my master’s. To be honest, I didn’t have much interest. I didn’t have any idea. I think at the time I wasn’t really focused. Math I found easy because us Chinese- our math is good. So I thought that was ok. And then I had your brother and was a little- you understand. I’m the type who does what I want, but I also want to take care of my family. So your dad was already doing well in school. He still had one more year left. So I told your dad, we can’t both do this. Because every morning, there was someone who had to go work. So I went to work, early in the morning at 7 AM. I’d work until afternoon, around 2 or 3. I’d work in Westford at that place- when you were young you’d always go. The Laundromat! When you were small, dad would drive you over.

I went to Queens College. Dad came later and just applied to any school. He ended up going to NYIT. At the time he was still working. So I got the I-20 first and left the country first; or else if I didn’t leave the country I couldn’t get it. Your dad had a job. After two years in the army, he got out and went to an interview with a friend, someone else who studied law. They went to an insurance company and invited him to test for a spot while he was at it. He took the test, his friend didn’t get the position and he did. Insurance, they like law school students. They had some rules, right? At the time, he worked with something like sales. At the time in Taiwan, that was a pretty OK job. He didn’t have anything to do. And he was planning to leave the country, but hadn’t had the chance.

Queens College of The City University of New York. Photo Credit: Department of Computer Science

Queens College of The City University of New York. Photo Credit: Department of Computer Science

[What was the immigration process like?] I was working for two years before I left the country. I-20 is when you get a school application. It’s an immigrant number. It was related to education. Then you left the country. After that there were different visas. And once we got there, I counted as an F-1, which is for students. Then your dad is my spouse, so he used F-2 to come because he hadn’t gotten into a school yet. He got here and applied directly to schools. Because if he had done it from Taiwan he would have had to do a lot of different things. Here he just had to send his resume, his documents to school.

We didn’t get scholarships, but we came and worked. So as soon as I got off the plane, I started working. I went to the laundromat and worked. We always got cash. To us Taiwanese, the money was a lot. But really, per hour we got paid around $3. It was enough. Because we came and had relatives, so we lived with them. We came with money, and any money after was from just what we earned. Dad brought money, so did I. We just started working. That’s why from early morning until late- we worked five days- six days! Worked until Saturday. At night we’d have to close the Laundromat. I worked until 2 PM, then came home. Dad was watching your brother. Once I got home, he’d go to class (laughs).

At the time it was like this- the amount of money we made was enough for us to get by. You know? The money wasn’t a lot but at the time we weren’t doing much besides for raising kids. That’s why I wonder why people today have such a hard time getting by. We didn’t really have a job. Those jobs were cash. We had school and more. But I thought it was ok. So your aunt really helped us a lot. So I try to go back and help them because they really helped us a lot. We did well. You see, your dad and I got by like this for so long.

[What did you think the United States would be like?] I had no idea what America would be like. I was a little scared, but my two older brothers were here. I was doing well. And I had so many relatives here. I knew some from when I was young, so I didn’t really remember them that well. But they treated me well. When they knew of jobs, they would let me know. When I came, I thought I was going to go back to Taiwan. Because you come and you don’t know anything. You assume you’re going to get a degree and then go back. But once you get here, you start to think, “Here isn’t so bad. There are opportunities.” Because you know, Taiwan is- no matter what, it’s small. There are fewer jobs. I don’t need a degree. As long as you’re willing to work. At the time it was 40 臺幣(New Taiwan Dollars) to a dollar. Now it’s 30. You know? That was a lot of money! If I made $4 in an hour, I had 160臺幣(New Taiwan Dollars). 4 times! Also, I didn’t even need to work full-time.

So after calculating and having your brother- you know, Taiwan is very rigorous. Studying and the competition is huge. I came here and thought it was OK, but still found it really difficult. Dad kept saying, because he really suffered. Studying for him was harder. So to me it was ok. But after talking about it I thought he was right. My relatives were all here.

Later on your dad’s brother came a year later. He applied to Queens College but people rejected him. He studied mathematics in college! But then I went to look for the dean. You see, my English wasn’t good but at the time I dared to. I thought, I really wanted to help your uncle. I went and said, “Look at him. He studied mathematics. Despite the fact his grades aren’t very good he’s taken courses in computer science and did well!” He wanted to apply for computer science. The dean was married to a Chinese. He treated Chinese people well. I went and talked to him for five minutes and he said, “OK! Next semester.” (laughs). I always want to tell your uncle, “You should really thank me.” I think I must have told him about it at the time. At the time I thought I was very brave. Because really, I’m a very shy person. But I thought, no. If I don’t help him, he’ll never get it again. Once you’ve been rejected and if you want to get admission again, it’s very difficult. It’s strange. So I just went. I didn’t know the dean. I just made an appointment and said I had a brother-in-law who applied to school and I wanted to know the reason. I just remember I went to talk to him (laughs). I said, “Look. His computer science grades are so good. It’s not right! Could you give him another opportunity? Any time is good.” Then he said, “Ok, next semester” (laughs). I thought I was so amazing. So then your uncle came the following semester. He came a year after us.

[Did you speak English before you came to the United States?] From a young age, my English wasn’t too bad. I’m just very shy, I’m afraid to speak English. But your dad’s English isn’t good and he’s not afraid to speak it. I’m more embarrassed about not speaking it correctly. Your dad isn’t. He’s ok. I think I’m ok. I understand and I’m good at guessing. When I came I was just 24. It’s pretty young, compared [to others]. And when I got here, everything was good. You know, our attitude is that everything is ok. Some people worry and think, “Oh, what do I do? I can’t make it”. I didn’t. Your dad and I found it exciting. Really. Despite our lives being very exhausting because we had no money, and to be honest, your uncle didn’t really help us. They let us live for free, but that was your grandpa’s house.

But anyway, we really relied on ourselves. When we got here we didn’t bother anyone for help. We didn’t say, “Give me money every month.” Some people do this- it happens in Taiwan. They say, “I’m the brother, I take care of the younger one.” Like your uncle, he came to the United States and lived with us for many years. He occasionally helped us with work and didn’t give us money. When we first got here we put cash in a drawer. If he needed it he would take it.

[What other kind of jobs did you have?] At the time we had an investment in an ice cream shop. The money is all gone. But at the time we had been working for over a year. So we just thought, despite the fact there was an unsuccessful investment, we didn’t really lose because we kept working there. They always paid us. It was wasted, but it’s ok. A lot of people [opened the store]- one of your uncles, Uncle Norman’s dad, aunt. They wanted to open an ice cream store and didn’t do well. Your dad and I always worked, so we knew where there were problems. But the rest of them had been working in America and didn’t see any problems. They just looked at other businesses. But your dad and I worked there and knew where the problems were. So we would sometimes do sales because we saw other businesses do it. To me it was very interesting. A lot of Spanish people came and bought [ice cream]. But ice cream is very seasonal unless you have something really special. Thanks to this I can make ice cream cake and so can your dad. I know how to make the [icing] flowers. I even went to learn. Someone came to teach us. They especially sent someone over to teach. Ellen (a relative) grew up in the US and knew her. She found someone to come especially to teach us. That person said I was the first person to pick up on it so easily, so I became the person who piped the flowers. Your dad would make the cake and put the layers on. After, I would make the flowers (laughs). At the time it was a lot of fun. We also fried chicken. Later on business wasn’t good, so we started selling fried chicken. It was all in one store.

And at the time, your dad took care of your brother and kept working. From our 10 AM opening, he would bring your brother until I came home in the afternoon at 2 or 3 PM. Your brother would stay with him in the store- at one year! He would sit in his stroller and was quiet and obedient. We did this for a year. And every day after I finished working, I’d come and keep them company. I didn’t get paid because it was your dad who was working. We would sometimes work half a day or a full day. After we finished, we closed the store at 10 PM. Then we had to sweep the floors. After sweeping, there were Laundromats next door. We would go and clean two of them. We did this all together.

By the second year we didn’t run the ice cream shop anymore because it was too exhausting. We closed and let someone else take over. They hired someone else and we stopped working. But later on it closed. We helped for a year and it wasn’t too soon after coming to the United States. So we would open stores and take care of them. Just like that. So we’ve done a lot of different things. Ask Uncle Taiwei and he won’t know anything. When they came, they had everything they needed. Lived well, had food to eat. They lived with us. Your grand uncle has a lot of money [to support them].

Woodside, Queens, NY. Where my family spent the first few years of my life. Photo Credit: Julie Platner

Woodside, Queens, NY. Where my family spent the first few years of my life. Photo Credit: Julie Platner

Read part onepart three, and part four.

An Oral History of My Mother: Part One

Note: This was written in April 2011. I’m posting it now with some very minor edits, thanks to encouragement from Angilee Shah and Karolle Rabarison via Twitter. Given the length of the text, I’ve chosen to post this in installments.

An anthropologist I once met in Nairobi, Kenya told me that the most important thing we can do in our line of work is have a strong understanding of who we are and where we’re from. Thus when the opportunity came to do an oral history, my interviewee choice was clear- my mother. My mother has always been the influential figure in my life, the one who has raised me to become the person I am today. I approached this interview from a variety of roles- firstly, as a daughter who wants to better understand her mother; secondly, as a professional about to move to another country, eager to learn more about what it’s like to live in a country unfamiliar to one’s own; lastly, as a student and historian, trying to understand and analyze historical contexts and culture. In the process of analyzing this interview, I found that I was unable to tangle these roles from each other. They played a role in my interview with my mother, as did the multiple roles she’s played in her life affect her responses, which I will analyze in a later post.

MotherMy mother, holding my brother Matthew and me. Queens, NY.

[Tell me about your childhood and family.] I was born in Tainan, Madou. Tainan is a city. We lived in the suburbs. Grandpa was a government- not government, but at the time it was more like an official government job. He was in telecommunications. At first he was a teacher- actually, he was a reporter. He would write things. At that time in Taiwan, communications wasn’t very good and the newspapers didn’t have a lot of freedom. After graduating from high school he did these things. He took an exam and tested into telecommunications, which at the time was a pretty good job. So we moved to Tainan.

Grandma was also in Madou. She was always a housewife. Grandma went- did she go to high school? I can’t remember. Grandpa went to college, at the time we called it Kong Zhong. Just like online colleges. Online certificates. It was called Kong Zhong University and they could use radio. Every now and then they would go to school. He got Tainan College’s [certification]. It was pretty good. Grandpa loves to study. My grandfather and grandmother were- my grandfather passed very early. Before I was born. My grandmother kept living with us until she was 94! You know. That grandmother, she- I think at the time they had a business, making 酸菜 (pickled vegetables). She didn’t have a job for a long time, just kept living with us. Very long time. Lived with us until she passed away.

[What kinds of chores did you have?] I had to sweep a temple. There was a temple next to my elementary school- what was it called? 孔子廟(Kong zi miao), Confucius Temple. It was Confucius. Confucius means teacher. So, for Chinese, Confucius is very very important. We must respect. You know, Tainan is like how I said. There are a lot of temples, a lot of historical sites. There aren’t just Buddhist ones. They count as really old ones from, you know- Holland. They attacked us and controlled us for a while. Long time. There are a few temples. That were castles. We just kept. The Confucius temple is to remember Confucius.

This area, we just happened to be next to it. So every week, we took turns sweeping. Because we were next to the temple it was our duty to clean it. It was just a temple to remember Confucius, but it was very important. Now China and Taiwan respect Confucius.. So on teacher’s day- my birthday happens to be teacher’s day- 9/28, Confucius’s birthday. So that day, no matter what, we always got a holiday. So, that day now – we used to go sweep and then go to an assembly. Teachers, students all went. Everyone would go in and have a ceremony. It was very simple. Everyone was just there talking, you know. We had to go to ceremony. Now on Confucius’s birthday it’s even better. Everyone wears the traditional clothing and goes to pray. For the sake of religion- it’s very traditional, that’s a better way of putting it. From a young age I just grew up by there.

[Describe your home and living conditions.] Compared to other people, we were ok. Grandpa’s job counted as secure. But at the time people really were poor so we were frugal. Like my family lived in one room. Everyone was together. After, we moved. At first I remember we had two rooms. Grandma and grandpa were in one room and I lived with them. In Tainan, our first house. The outside room, my grandmother lived in. And then we had your two uncles! There were only two rooms! It included everything. The kitchen, bathroom were all outside. Our Madou house was bigger. But it was in the suburbs and we had no choice.

I had chickens in Tainan! Grandma raised them for eggs. It was really fun. There were two stories, you went upstairs [to get to our house]. Downstairs was rented to someone for business. Everyone lived on the second floor. It was a little dirty, there were a lot of bugs. It was weird. After we took apart the second floor ceiling and created a new room for us to live in, they didn’t do a good job. Before that, living on the second floor there were no problems. The attic upstairs had bugs. It was scary. I got bitten a lot! And then in the back- it was a concrete house- there was a small space. It was very small. You could shower, do whatever. Grandma raised chickens. Behind the bathroom in a small space. On the second floor. It was funny, right?

There was a bathroom. Here was a kitchen (drawing image on paper). The house was long. Very, very long. In the front was the bedroom and living room, that’s it. In the back was a small kitchen and bathroom. Next to the bathroom was a half open space, so in the back we could raise chickens. It was fun. We raised a few cages. It used to be like this. Because we were poor, no one could say they wanted to eat chicken and just go buy one. Everyone raised a few. And then they laid eggs. So really, it was pretty good. You just needed to keep it clean. Now we have so much space, but who would do this? But really, if you can take care of the space and keep it clean, it’s very good. Now the chickens eat those things [hormones]. They didn’t use to, because we’d raise them ourselves. We’d feed them scraps, which was no problem.

I even helped grandma kill chickens. So scary! Grandma would grab it. I would help her hold the chicken. She would cut the chicken’s neck to let the blood flow out. She would collect the blood. And the blood, you let the rice soak up. It was so good! Really! They didn’t waste the blood. Because for the Chinese, you know, everything can be used. And at least the chickens were clean (referring to hormones) because we raised them ourselves. But you know, there were a lot of issues. People at the time were very frugal and careful. Like showering, it was a bucket where you boiled hot water. Just take a quick shower. There was no shower, not much. There was a tub. We fashioned our own. Then we boiled a ton of water. Then we’d start with the men who would bathe. After they were done, it was my turn. We would all share the water, we boiled a lot. Of course beforehand we’d splash water on ourselves to get clean before going in to bathe. It was pretty good, you know? The tub was very high. One person would sit down and it would be up to here (motions). This saved a lot. But in the Chinese perspective, this wasted a lot of water. So everyone would wash together. Grandma would boil a pot of water and keep boiling. We used to use wood and then bring the water over. It was actually really fun and interesting.

[What did you want to be when you were young?] When I was young, I remember I wanted to be a teacher. How strange. At the time they thought being a teacher was a good job for a housewife. Secure, and gave you more time with family. Education. I remember- when I was young I didn’t exactly really want to do something. Just thought being a teacher seemed pretty good. But then I got to college and didn’t think that anymore. I thought being a teacher “not easy”. Because I kept tutoring. From freshman year on I kept tutoring. After graduating high school I went to tutor the neighbor’s children. After doing this I just thought I wasn’t very interested.

[What was it like being a woman in Taiwan?] There were fewer job opportunities for women at the time. I remember Grandma, she only graduated from middle school. But at the time for women, having a middle school education was already really good. I remember she only had middle school. Grandpa had high school, and then went on his own to school. Grandma did have a job. At the time Taiwan had more jobs working in the sugarcane industry. At the time it was seen as a very good job. Grandma worked until she got married. After marrying she just stopped working. For people at the time believed, as long as your husband had a job you didn’t work. So Grandma just had kids right away and didn’t work. But the job she had before that was also pretty good. She was kind of a clerk. Grandma could also make clothes really well. Young people at the time would learn these things, how to sew, make clothes. So for a while she looked for part-time jobs. She would go to factories, help people sew, help people hem. She brought some home to work.

Because at the time you know, Chiang Kai-Shek had come to Taiwan. He was pretty good for Taiwan’s development, made it very strong in those years. Despite the fact everyone says he was like an emperor- what’s it called? Like when people say- you know how England is controlled by a king? Monarch. But your dad and I both feel that he really improved Taiwan so that’s why Taiwan has money now. He was president when I was born. It was always him. Until I was in high school, he passed away. He really influenced us a lot. In school, a lot of the Taiwanese attitude was that he was an invader. But from a young age to older, this was affected by my education a little, but I feel that he really helped the Taiwanese a lot.

Grandma and Grandpa thought he was ok. They didn’t think he was bad. We had a government job so that helped. But their mindset wasn’t the Taiwanese mindset, it was Japanese. Because before Chiang Kai-Shek came, the Japanese had controlled us for a very long time. They really respected the Japanese. They knew they were Taiwanese but felt the Japanese were very strong, that kind of feeling. But us, the second generation, didn’t have that feeling. We felt the Japanese were the real invaders. We learned this in school. But to us, we looked at it as, Japan strengthened Taiwan a little. But they treated the Taiwanese badly and killed a lot of people. If you gave any indication of wanting to fight, they would kill you right away. Also, they killed a lot, a lot of people. But similarly, when Chiang Kai-Shek came a lot of people were killed. This I understand. So it’s not that I’m being unfair. I know this. But at least after so many years, even with his son, they all did a good job. Compare to people now who keep fighting, who say they want independence for Taiwan. But this isn’t possible. Why? It’s too small. This island, if we don’t rely on China, in the end all the China people come and nothing will be left. It’s scary. The economy is linked. So you need to respect these kinds of issues.

[Where did you go to school?] Your dad and I went to Zhong Xing University. Now it’s called- Zhong Zhen? I don’t remember. But Taiwan has a few more famous public schools, and ours counted as one of them. Like private schools are not good. It used to be like this. There were three or four schools that were better, so I went to a top school. I used to study social work. I tested into it. I really liked it. In Taiwan you had to take an exam, like how you take the SAT. And then that test, you could choose what school you wanted to go to and what level. I could have gone to the best school for another major, but I didn’t like it. It was politics. I really had no interest. I didn’t choose this. So I chose to study social work. Honestly, my grades were only ok. I just happened to be able to attend. Below that there were a few more I had no interest in.

Every time I took a big exam I did pretty well (laughs). Your dad didn’t test as well. He used to study history. His history is very good. That’s why he knows Chinese history so well. He had a lot of interest in this. But you know, in Taiwan studying the arts, no one thought there was a future after graduation. Unless you were a teacher or studied some more to be a professor, there weren’t any jobs available. His dad told him to transfer. I also transferred to law. Taiwan’s law was very good at the time. Your dad and I were both at the same school. We both transferred to law, but were in different classes. But because we were both transfer students we would go take some of the same classes. At the time we were sophomores and took freshman classes. That’s how we knew each other.

We didn’t have to be lawyers. There were a lot of government jobs you could test for. But we didn’t really have interest. But people at the time, you had to listen to your parents because you had no options. We just did it this way. At the time I kept thinking I could still study and do social work. I really liked it. I still do. But at the time you would think, “Forget it”. Because at the time you still listened to what your parents said. That’s how it was.

Read part two.

Rapid Ethnography

Traditionally, the idea of ethnographic field work involves an extended period in a natural setting, where over time a complex picture of nuances and culture emerges. This is something that can be difficult to do with corporate clients, as what is necessary is a quick picture that is inexpensive and considered efficient. However, this does not mean that ethnography can’t be conducted. As Sam Ladner states in this fantastic post:

The major “contaminators” corporate ethnographers face isn’t so much a lack of time… but a lack of theoretical context and a lack of systematic method. When researchers add a robust theoretical framework to their corporate ethnography, short time horizons can be mitigated. By adopting a rigourous, systematic practice, corporate ethnographers can also improve the chances of producing insightful results.

This is where rapid ethnography comes in. The challenge behind rapid ethnography is that one must enter with an idea of what is being studied, rather than having time to test basic assumptions. There need to be ideas of what kinds of behaviors, vocabulary, and attitudes to look for, which can take form as a field guide. This can help direct the field team to understand what to look for. In other words, you’re conducting a type of focused ethnography. While this doesn’t quite capture the same richness that long-term ethnographic field work can bring in, rapid ethnography can be appropriate in certain contexts.

Hubert Knoblauch shares a great chart on the differences between conventional ethnography and focused/rapid ethnography:

Conventional ethnography Focused ethnography
long-term field visits short-term field visits
experientially intensive data/analysis intensity
time extensity time intensity
writing recording
solitary data collection and analysis data session groups
open focused
social fields communicative activities
participant role field- observer role
insider knowledge background knowledge
subjective understanding conservation
notes notes and transcripts
coding coding and sequential analysis

So, what are some main elements of rapid ethnography? There are five main ones I’ve chosen to touch upon: informing with theory, narrowing the focus, creating the team, using multiple techniques, and analyzing throughout.

Inform with Theory

As Sam Ladner says, inform what you’re doing with theory. What frameworks can you use to enter and understand what you’re studying? What background information do you already have? You may not have the time to develop a deep, on the ground experience informed by months of information, but you can use theory and background information to hit the ground running.

Narrow the Focus

This article by David Millen on HCI ethnography talks about the importance of narrowing the focus of the field research before entering. By using theory, you can understand what questions you’re trying to answer and activities you want to focus on.

Narrowing the focus also involves identifying your key informants. Identify a few informants by finding people who have access to a broad range of activities and groups, and who can articulately speak on behaviors and activities to make note of. This will help reduce the time spent in traditional ethnography, which tends to take a wider approach. An informant who is aware of a community but is liminal, or a “fringe member”, will be more likely to take an etic approach and share valuable insights.

Creating the Team

Having a team to interact with the data being collected and produced is crucial here. Team members who have experience conducting field work and interviews will give you an added advantage, as you won’t have to spend as much time training. However, there is benefit in bringing on people who aren’t specialized in anthropology or the topic you are researching, as they will come from an outsider’s perspective and be open to different ideas and perspectives.

Multiple team members also allow for multiple perspectives, which can lead to a richer interpretation of data. When in the field, team members can split up into smaller groups to cover more area. Different topics of interest can be assigned for a more specific focus.

Use Multiple Techniques

Using multiple techniques can touch upon different data points and increase the likelihood of making connections or discovering useful data (Millen 281). When doing rapid ethnography, multiple techniques will optimize the insights you collect in a short period of time. Methods include maximizing according to activity peaks, involving interviewees in the production of data, snowball sampling, and the use of video.

  • Maximizing according to activity peaks allows for a greater intake of information. For example, if you’re trying to observe how women use cyber cafes and engage online, at what times do the largest number of women show up at a cafe? Take advantage of this activity peak by going out and conducting field work at that time.
  • Think about how to involve the interviewees in the production of data. Methods such as cognitive mapping, where informants draw maps to describe a geographic area, relationships, or ideas, can reveal valuable insights into interpretation and context.
  • Snowball sampling, where interviewees are the ones to recruit and refer future interviewees, cuts down on the time it takes to find participants. While it may not lead to a representative sample, it’s helpful when working with a population that is difficult to locate and also provide insights into how social network are constructed.
  • Video can also serve as a powerful way to triangulate and review data. Ellen Isaacs writes about the value of rapid ethnography, where she touches upon how video was used in three different rapid ethnography projects. As Isaacs points out, “By going over the video immediately after recording it, we noticed many rich and subtle activities that were lost on us during our initial observations… It was through the systematic review of the video that we generated our most compelling insights and built up evidence for our findings” (105).

Analyzing Throughout

Conducting analysis in tandem with rapid ethnographic field work is important under a limited timeline. Having one space to share all the information that is gathered on a daily basis with which the team members can interact will also allow for ongoing group analysis. This can be complemented a structured questionnaire for team members to answer each day along with a more free-form, coded approach. By analyzing throughout the field work period, one can quickly identify gaps in learning and work to rectify them. While this may not be the most perfect of methods, you can validate your findings by showing the information you’ve gathered with other informants or those you are studying (Isaac 106).

Concluding Thoughts

Rapid ethnography, though sometimes denigrated as shallow or a quick fix, is certainly not easy. While you may not be able to capture the same richness of interpretation as in traditional ethnography, there are still several methods a researcher can undertake to conduct meaningful research that can reveal insights and discoveries for more informed policies, products, and programs.

References

Isaacs, Ellen. “The Value of Rapid Ethnography.” Advancing Ethnography in Corporate Environments: Challenges and Emerging Opportunities, Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press, Inc., 2013. http://www.izix.com/pubs/Isaacs-RapidEthnography-2013.pdf.

Knoblauch, Hubert (2005). Focused Ethnography. Forum: Qualitative Social Research. http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/20/43.

Ladner, Sam (2012). Is rapid ethnography possible? A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography. Ethnography Mattershttp://ethnographymatters.net/2012/01/26/is-rapid-ethnography-possible-a-cultural-analysis-of-academic-critiques-of-private-sector-ethnography-part-2-of-2/.

Millen, David R. (2000). Rapid Ethnography: Time Deepening Strategies for HCI Field Research. http://onemvweb.com/sources/ethnography/rapid_ethnography.pdf.

On Ethnography

Since I was a young student of anthropology, I’ve pondered the idea of ethnography, and in truth, I still do. From time to time, I like to go back and read definitions of ethnography, almost as if to reassure myself of the idea.

What is ethnography?

Ethnography focuses on cultural interpretation and processes. It examines context, ambiguity, and meaning. I like how Brian Hoey describes ethnography, saying, “The ethnographer goes beyond reporting events and details of experience. Specifically, he or see [sic] attempts to explain how these represent what we might call ‘webs of meaning’ (Geertz again), the cultural constructions, in which we live.”

The American Ethnography website has a great selection of quotes describing ethnography. My personal favorite is this quote from Clifford Geertz:

From one point of view, that of the textbook, doing ethnography is establishing rapport, selecting informants, transcribing texts, taking genealogies, mapping fields, keeping a diary, and so on. But it is not these things, techniques and received procedures that define the enterprise. What defines it is what kind of intellectual effort it is: an elaborate venture in, to borrow a notion from Gilbert Ryle, “thick description.”

What the ethnographer is in fact faced with—except when (as, of course, he must do) he is pursuing the more automatized routines of data collection—is a multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit, and which he must contrive somehow first to grasp and then to render. And this is true at the most down-to-earth, jungle field work levels of his activity; interviewing informants, observing rituals, eliciting kin terms, tracing property lines, censusing households … writing his journal. Doing ethnography is like trying to read (in the sense of “construct a reading of”) a manuscript—foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries, but written not in conventionalized graphs of sound but in transient examples of shaped behavior.

How is it different from design thinking?

When I explain what I do, many ask me about design thinking. I sometimes joke that anthropologists are the original design  thinkers, or that design thinking has appropriated elements of ethnography. But, this post sums up the difference beautifully:

While ethnographers and designers – and, especially, those that work across research and design — share a number of common perspectives (such as empathy, storytelling and human-centeredness), their fundamental orientation is, in fact, quite different. While ethnographers seek to understand and describe the cultures and practices of specific communitiesdesigners must take a more generative approach in order to create new products, services and systems.

While design thinking is quickly taking over a prominent space in the field of international development and human empathy with fellowships like IDEO.org attracting incredibly talented individuals, I think ethnography continues to play an absolutely crucial role in understanding culture and processes.

Ethnography pays attention to context, with the understanding that what makes sense in one context may not make sense in another. Want to design a solar energy product for people in an urban setting? The implications may be different in rural areas, whether in terms of practices, beliefs, or culture. This applies not only to products but also programs and policies. Ethnography gets deeper into the questions, especially the ones no one thinks or knows to ask. To me, that is the ever-standing value of ethnography, and why I choose to pursue it.

Welcome

This is my space where I attempt to structure my thoughts from the last few years conducting fieldwork in various communities, dodging riots and tear gas, international development experience, and more, into something cohesive. Expect posts on effective international development, ethnography, community engagement, obscure cultural narratives, and whatever else is interesting me at the time.

For my day-to-day, unfiltered blog where I post about anything and everything at my whimsy, click here.