2018 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: Dickinson College

The “Stay-Behinds”: Village Labor and Sustainability in the New Era of Migration in Rural China

Mentors: Ann Maxwell Hill, Professor of Anthropology; Susan D. Rose, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology and Director of Communities Studies Center
Students: Alex Bossakov, Jingwen Zhang, Rachel Gross, Muhajir Lesure, Pema Lhamo Tashi, and Meaghan Emily McBride

Our project focuses on one of the under-researched aspects of labor migration in contemporary China – the so-called “stay-behinds” and their role in sustaining village life, particularly in the areas of local agriculture and an important aspect of local culture, religion. Depending on what we find, our research has the potential to challenge the conventional narrative of vitiated, hollowed out villages in this new age of mass migration to China’s cities. Our field site is a rural village in Yunnan province well-known to one of our professors. Our team, composed of 6 students and 2 professors with extensive fieldwork experience, will live in the village and, via interviews and participant observation, interact with villagers of all backgrounds. We also anticipate that our team will frequently eat with hospitable local people, providing even more opportunities for interaction. Our project in the village is enabled through collaboration with Li Donghong, an anthropologist at Yunnan University. Professor Li, his wife, and the village teachers will be our local partners in this project.

To prepare for fieldwork, students will read existing research on the Bai people who live in the village, and learn about qualitative methods, including field notes, video-taping, and life history interviews. The latter is an especially useful method since many of the stay-behinds who are still active in farming and religious activities are older people who have lived through many changes in the community. The benefits their experience brings to the community require documentation. Their knowledge and much of village history will soon disappear from local memory, if their sons and daughters and grandchildren opt to spend most of their lives outside the village community. Our students will also learn about the ethics of research, as our college has an institutional review board that carefully screens all research projects for their impact on subjects. Tangible takeaways from this project will include short videos, digitally produced posters for presentation at conferences, and more traditional research papers. However, probably the most important skill our students will learn is the least tangible. This is the development of respect for the rationality and dignity of all people who are not especially rich or powerful. The villagers are not potential “personal contacts” useful for advancing one’s career. But they are the ones who best know how to live in this particular place; they have the expertise to teach the students about their lives and the meaning they make of them. Clifford Geertz has observed that there is something fundamental and humbling about learning first hand another way of being human. Fieldwork inculcates the habits of openness and engagement, thoughtful questioning and active listening, that are invaluable in any future work our students may do.

Alex Bossakov

The SFF-funded fieldwork in Yunnan, China I completed with five other students and two professors was followed by a series of events and projects wrapping up and building upon the work we completed in the field. These have consolidated the SFF Engaging Asia Program core ideas by disseminating the knowledge learned to new audiences on our campus and via YouTube, and for me in particular, creating further opportunities for interaction with people of Asia in an Asian context and for utilizing the skills gained for academic and professional development. My work related to our fieldwork project has resulted in a photo compilation comprising a digital presentation of our project that will be presented in October 2019 at an Asian studies conference, a feature in a college publication describing the steps behind our research to a wider audience, and a fieldwork research project in India, largely building upon the skills and confidence I acquired thanks to the SFF grant.

Rachel Gross

My SFF experience bolstered my personal and professional growth through the research process and cross-cultural exchange. I also presented our research in China as a guest lecturer in an Asian Urban Ecology course at Dickinson. I was also able to help host one of our Fengyu translators during her time in the US. Because of my research experience, I feel more able to examine rural-to-urban relationships, especially as they relate to food systems. As a farmer with experience limited to the U.S, I was able to observe another farming ecology that works within a different set of politico-economic structures and a very different natural environment. The experience gave me a new perspective on my own conventional wisdom about farming. Finally, I left China with an increased competency and skill set equipping me to take part in respectful cross-cultural exchanges that, in my case, led to deeply unique perspectives and relationships. I hope to draw on these new skills in future endeavors.

All of the local youth in this photo grew up on a farm but plan to attend University and seek professional jobs. Their parents had migrated to cities for wage labor or to start up restaurants and they regularly send money back to the grandparents and children who have stayed behind. They hosted us for a fun and lively game of basketball and cultural exchange.

Muhajir Lesure

When I was doing my fieldwork interviews in India following our team’s fieldwork in Fengyu, I was using the same skills that I had learned while in China. As in Fengyu, my research assistants had to translate from many languages and dialects during the interviews. Because I had previous experiences with ethnographic work in places where I do not speak the native tongue, it was not as challenging and allowed me to formulate questions in a contextualized and culturally appropriate way. I had also learned patience in our Yunnan field experience. This spring, one of our translators in Fengyu, Jinji, came to Dickinson to present her research on Yunnan’s prehistory. When she came, Ann Hill hosted a dinner gathering where we reminisced about all of our experiences, and bonded over East Asian Studies. During Jinji’s visit, we were able to go to lunch and talk about how she was experiencing America for the first time, and some of the obvious cultural differences she had to endure since arriving. It was interesting to connect the two cross-cultural immersion processes. For instance, during our fieldwork in Fengyu, the SFF students had to adapt and adjust to the cultural practices of China and the Bai ethnic group. Here on the Dickinson campus, Jinji had to do the same. I hope I was helpful to her in making the adjustments.

Moving forward, I plan to participate in the Mid-Atlantic Region Association for Asian Studies meeting that is taking place at Dickinson in fall 2019, where I will present the finalized version of my ethnographic short film and talk about my future endeavors as an academic. As I transition into my senior year at Dickinson, I have come to realize I am increasingly interested in East Asian cultures and society. After graduating, my goal is to move to Japan, where I plan to study Japanese society and apply my Environmental and Food studies knowledge as a way into a better understanding of Japan. Next semester I intend to enroll in a Japanese language class, and after I graduate, I hope to start a new journey living and traveling throughout East Asia for research and education. Although my travels throughout China were short, I really came to deepen my infatuation with East Asian cultures and the diversity of such cultures.

Enjoying freshly made baozi buns on the street – one of our favorite breakfast places in Fengyu.

Meaghan McBride

Our research in Fengyu gave me the opportunity to study a very relevant topic: migration in an Asian context. The two fields, migration and Asia, are new to me. I further developed knowledge of these topics following the research through experiences on my college campus, such as a half-credit course offered by our professors to process the data and write final reports that placed our findings within the context of previous literature. Furthermore, through events such as departmental outreach programs for my sociology major and an all-campus presentation of our research, I gained oral speaking experience, improving my communication skills and ability to succinctly and effectively communicate our findings. These events helped prepare me for the ASIANetwork conference in April 2019. The conference was an important time to further practice these skills, as well as connect with other researchers and improve my knowledge about current research in Asian contexts. I also learned more about Asia thanks to the research presentations of one of our translators from Fengyu. Thanks to Jinji Wei, I have come to understand more about Yunnan’s prehistory. Jinji presented her academic research about Chinese bronzes in English to our campus community. It was empowering to see her present research in a new language, and important to continue the exchange we had with her in Fengyu on our campus, showing her what life is like in the United States.

In short, I am overall very grateful for this research experience and the skills and opportunities the SFF has given me. The collaboration, teamwork, and oral and written communication skills I gained through this process helped me get hired for my post-graduation position at a consulting firm. My ability to collaborate and work with a team, as well as present information succinctly and effectively, is an important skill for this career path, something my interviewers saw I had, largely due to my ability to tell the story of our SFF research project.

Dickisnon Students Interveiwing Grandma B.
Grandma B telling her life story

Pema Tashi

My work in the field explored the role of religion in preserving village sustainability and cohesion in the rural town of Fengyu, which is located in the China’s southwestern province of Yunnan. While in the field, I was keen on observing how trends of rapid urbanization influence China’s 21 st century era of migration. I used the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) as a point of reference to draw connections between the historical influence of government policy in the region that included the revival of the local Benzhu religion in the 1990s which now dominates many of the small villages within the Erhai Lake Region of Yunnan. Although our library research indicated that ethnic minority villages were “hollowed out,” our findings contradicted this claim, as Bai culture seems integral to Fengyu identity. Individual interviews confirmed that religious tradition functions as a valuable source of social cohesion and identity for all villagers, stay-behinds and migrants as well. Temples are important sites of village-wide rituals and family celebrations. As we observed in the case of Benzhu traditions and those of the San Jiao Gong (a temple housing three religious traditions), village temples provide public spaces for singing, dancing, and feasting for all generations. The activities associated with Benzhu temples are explicitly Bai, and are invoked in conversations as markers of Bai identity.

In the future, I am eager to pursue my passion for research and higher education, most likely in China or other areas of East or South Asia. Not surprisingly, the SFF experience has had a tremendous impact on both my immediate plans and long-term plans. Immediately after our Fengyu fieldwork, I continued studying Mandarin Chinese at Peking University. I also found that now I have the ambition and know-how to continue pursuing other grant and fellowship opportunities to teach or research abroad. If I am able to prepare thoroughly, I plan to apply for the ELA (English language assistant) program through Fulbright in either Malaysia or China during my senior year at Dickinson. I am also interested in looking further into CLS, or Critical Language Scholarship.

Collaborative Calligraphy Creation

Jingwen Zhang

In my research paper for the SFF project, I focused on the rich and diverse characteristics of Fengyu Bai identity. Its resiliency challenges the widespread idea that out-migration devastates community life and identity. I found that other factors, such as state policy, have a significant impact on local religion-as-ethnic culture. In China, current intellectual discourse on the uniqueness of ethnic culture, and its link to talk about the vulnerability of “traditional” ethnic cultures as a result of out-migration, risk promoting the process of “othering” of Bai community, as well as justifying the religious sinicization promoted by the Chinese government.

Back on campus, reflecting on our fieldwork, I realize that the impact of our experience in Fengyu extends far beyond that small village in southwest China. I myself have become more interested in conducting anthropological fieldwork using an ethnographic approach. In the fall semester following our fieldwork, I took courses in cultural anthropology, Chinese diaspora, and archaeology. In addition, I applied to participate in an ethnographic research methods course for my senior project on children’s education in China, reflecting something I learned and practiced in Fengyu. Also, since I am graduating this semester, I am seriously considering applying to graduate school for an anthropology degree. Right after I graduate, I have an internship in China focusing on developing education curriculums for migrant children. I am looking forward to applying the skills I learned from both my anthropology classes and the ethnographic experience in Fengyu in my research. Whether or not I get accepted to graduate school, our SFF research in China will always remind me of the beauty of connecting to people, and the ways of interacting with people different from myself.