07 March 2013

the ethnographer's subject position

Having a discussion with TR about fieldwork was just about the most productive action I've taken since being in China itself investigating those new concert halls and opera houses! She had lots of practical advice, insights about how to frame questions and my answers, and how to plan ahead. It's not uncommon for ethnomusicology students to do language programs etc. first to take that time to get acclimatized, so maybe I should't rule out that possibility.

Since TR had once asked me in passing how I position myself relative to my ethnic heritage, I mentioned how being in China had changed my relationship with that heritage. She noted that some ethnographers keep a separate journal about that personal experience, and I'm realizing that this could indeed generate insights rather than be a distraction to be shunted aside from my work. How could my being Chinese be a distraction when it's part of my subject position and I bring it to my every interaction with Chinese culture?

The military surplus store shopkeeper along the way from Xinjiejou station to Ping An'li  immediately came to mind. "But you have a Chinese face," she said wonderingly at least three times, unable to come to terms with my being so thoroughly American. While certain Beijingers pay money and time and attention at the National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA) for ownership of a piece of Western culture, here is a woman who expects that ethnic Chinese simply cannot own any large part of Western culture, or perhaps believes that one should be physically altered by that ownership to somehow have a less Chinese face. Perhaps she and the concertgoers hold different opinions. Or they share the opinion that highbrow Western culture can be purchased and cultivated, while "Americanness" cannot be.

Even the fact that the outside world is so inhospitable in Beijing (you can't breathe the air without feeling your expected lifespan shortening, the broad lanes of traffic are terrifying, the neighboring hutongs have such bad plumbing that residents use public toilets) makes the highly protected interior of the NCPA, surrounded as it is by a moat of clear water and guarded by a ticket fee, seem like a more luxurious space, and its isolation a value-added element. Perhaps that's the reason I always found myself to be the only one admiring the sky through the water-covered ceiling. Everyone else was inside to be inside, and the windows were for people outside trying unsuccessfully to look in or imagine the interior--rather than for people inside to admire the Beijing outside. My incomprehension of people's disinclination to look outside is the same incomprehension manifested by tour guide writers who bemoan the Chinese love of new indoor shopping malls--we've constructed ourselves to like the chaos and the vagaries of outdoor shopping areas as a sign of our distance from architectural machines of mindless consumerism and our connoisseurship of the kind of historical authenticity that new urbanism seeks to produce anew. But the moat, the metal detectors, the tickets, all these elements establish the interior of the NCPA as a kind of inner sanctum that protects from rather than frames the exterior world. Paul Andreu's curtain metaphor depicts a curtain closing, not opening, on a national stage where the construction of a cosmopolitan public and an "international city" is unfolding with an elite acting troupe, and that's why the curtain metaphor is readily perceived only from the outside. Inside, we are all unwitting actors, even me, the Western ethnographer.

Of course the Forbidden City Concert Hall is isolated and inaccessible, to the point that you can't even find the ticket office unless you've been shown where to look. That isn't poorly thought-out urban planning, although it would seem so by Western standards. The FCCH is also an inner sanctum, in this case of Zhongshan Park, and stands in deliberate shiny contrast to the traditional landscape design. The park's monuments to Sun-Yet Sen look to a nationalist past, and the concert hall to a project for a nationalist future.

The world outside the concert hall does matter. Beijing is a city of grand spectacles and mind-boggling vistas. It feels like it takes half a day just to walk around the block, let alone make a subway connection. The government is represented by everything from the Soviet-style Great Hall of the People to the Forbidden City (its name, "city," says all) to the several-football-fields-large Tiananmen Square to the hulking CCTV tower, miniaturized and trivialized in local parlance as the "big underpants," to the Olympic Green. No wonder the NCPA's opera house only stages grand opera spectacles, and its advertising sells visual spectacle rather than experience, emotion, meaningful moments, or music. What else in the Western canon would compete with the thousands of years of history writ large right outside the NCPA's front door?

Now I'm thinking back to that odd bluegrass concert that Patrick, Su-Yee, and I happened to stumble upon next to Aimo Town. None of those audience members looked like they'd be caught dead at the NCPA, although that might be my expectations speaking. Are they seeking a different kind of cultural capital, and if so, how is it different? Where and for what is it useful?

I lived off a street with 86 musical instrument shops. That was the outdoor shopping mall for Western music. I thought it was irrelevant to my understanding of the NCPA, but in fact it's strongly related. Those are probably the shops to which all those mothers with young children whom I saw at the NCPA take their kids shopping in order to begin their executive (as opposed to listener) musical literacy. I've analogized performing arts centers in China to massive educational machines before; Xinjiekou street is an arm of that machine.

Now I've wrestled with the elements exterior to the NCPA. What about my own interiority and how that affects my subject position, affects how I interpret data, affects how the people I interview interact with me? Being a self-declared twinkie hardly makes me a dispassionate observer in China, and instead of insulating my work from my self, I should understand how my work is a product of that self. In college, I deliberately disassociated myself from fellow Asians because I was frustrated by a lifetime of not being Asian enough to fit in with the Asians I hung out with (language fluency being the first hurdle, familiarity with Chinese pop culture being another), because of my developing belief that making associations along ethnic lines was superficial, and because I didn't understand what in particular Asian student associations could possibly want to value or preserve or foster together. I also resented people's assumptions that I was performing my Asian identity rather than my inner drive for success; no, it was me who wanted piano lessons, and no, it was only me that wanted straight A's and to go to some Ivy League, while my parents at various times discouraged both activities and told me to take a break. It's worse in a post-Amy-Chua world. No, there was no tiger mom. No high expectations. I may have led a model minority life, but it was my idea, I insist to others, although of course that is only my version of the truth.

And then here I am in China, and Chinese rather than westerners expect me to perform native Chineseness based on my appearance, or to at least perform a fluency with Chinese language and culture, merely based on my physical appearance. I longed every day to look like a foreigner in order to excuse myself from their expectations. And then I'd go several nights a week to watch Chinese people perform the actions of Western classical music listeners, even in traditional Peking opera spaces where my expectations that the historical use of the opera house as a place for social interaction lived on were shattered. I was in the ultimate position they sought--I have native ownership of the western classical music tradition and a doctoral-level mastery of it--yet my position was invisible to them. There is an irony I can't quite pinpoint about having that invisible native mastery of western music and the way my appearance belies how I developed it to both westerners and Chinese, and the fact that I'm studying Chinese people seeking to gain that mastery. I'll articulate it better someday.

Today, though, I'm at the end of my soul-searching abilities. This is not something I'm accustomed to doing as academic work.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ahh, I've been thinking a lot about some of the ideas that you talk about here (Chinese-ness, different treatment of foreigners and expectations, the whole "You don't look American!" thing) and I'm really glad you wrote this post. Next time you come back, we should meet up and talk! I find that I do my best thinking while talking to others (rather than poking holes in my own logic...) but I do agree with a lot of what you say.

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