Doing Fieldwork in China: The Good and the Challenges

Doing Fieldwork in China: The Good and the Challenges

Team Development and Innovation arrived in Hangzhou after spending a week in Beijing attending numerous academic talks arranged by Professor Teets, Lewis, and Liang. Our first week was completely full, mornings and afternoons. Of course, we raised our expectation and also thought that the research process in Hangzhou would go as smoothly as the first week.

We were very wrong. Team Education and Team Environment both ran into quite a handful of challenges because of the nature of field research and the research site that we had chosen. Team Education started diving into the project by initiating contacts with school administrators and local officials, hoping that they could provide first-hand experiences as experts in vocational education. The first time contacting a school, all team members sat around the interpreter, ready to record the meeting date and time. It was an empty call. We sighed but moved on to the next school on the list. This time, someone answered but said we need to provide an official letter proving that we are indeed researchers. Unfortunately, informing them that Middlebury College is partnered with Zhejiang University and our professors collaborate with several regional scholars was just not enough.

“Before coming to China, I knew that connection is important but I didn’t know that connection is everything,” said one of our team members. As outsiders, it’s already difficult enough to do research in China. It’s even more challenging because of the current political climate. President Xi Jinping’s Strike Hard campaign has made a lot of officials conservative. Many of them don’t want to draw any attention to themselves by talking to researchers from any foreign country. On top of that, Hangzhou is hosting a G20 conference where many countries around the world will come together to discuss international financial and monetary policies and global economic development. Thus, G20 has become Hangzhou local officials’ first priority. None of them was willing to talk to us. Not able to move forward was very frustrating.

The story doesn’t end right here. We kept on searching for more different avenues. Perhaps, the most valuable lesson we’ve learned is adaptability. Under the guidance of Professor Lewis and Teets, we switched our lane and started looking for scholars in the region instead. If one door is closed, somewhere out there another one is opened. Though cheesy as it sounds, it’s very true. Many phone calls later, we were able to talk to more school administrators, teachers, students and local officials because one door of opportunity opened up.

Successful phone calls

Of course, field research is not complete without experiencing the complex social interactions, cultural shock, customs and regional problems that we would never experience in a traditional classroom setting. The team has been making friends with the local people in the village we have been calling home. Many of us had never come face to face with duck tongues, chicken feet, pork blood and the horror of “Wifi is not connected” and “VPN is not detected”. Hangzhou is developing very drastically and it’s fascinating to see that this city is able to preserve artifacts and historical and scenic places. While constantly fighting the mosquitoes, humidity, and thunderstorms, we managed to visit Leifeng pagoda, Longjing tea village, Lianying temple, Xixi Wetland, Botanical garden and the most famous West lake.

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The last week is approaching and we will be analyzing the data that we collected. The team has been working incredibly hard. We research together, do laundry together, travel together, eat together, get frustrated together, get excited together and most importantly we have each other’s back when facing obstacles. Not only do we earn hands-on experiences as researchers, we also earn a team and a lifetime friendship.

A trip to Longjing Tea Village



From Students to Researchers: A Humble Journey

We left our campuses in California and Vermont in the United States as students and suddenly became researchers in China overnight. Of course one might take a more philosophical approach to this shift, as we never really stop learning and in a way we are always students of life. But the shift was quite sudden and the responsibilities doubled over night, so while we are still technically students on a summer internship, we also became researchers trying to figure out how to make sense of uncertainty. One thing is for certain: we have left the bubble of our campuses and have been thrown into the the messiness of the field.

The faces of researchers. Middlebury Institute visits the Stanford Center at Peking University.

It must be said that our work is made easier by the immense support and guidance we are receiving from our professors, Wei Liang, Jessica Teets, and Orion Lewis. Without their work we would be completely lost. As we learn more and more that fieldwork is a fluid process rifled with unforeseen obstacles (a foreign bureaucratic system, iffy internet, and swarms of mosquitoes to name a few), we are being guided by our extremely knowledgeable and competent professors. While they are assisting us in many ways, they are also expecting us to do professional work equivalent to what a Ph.D. candidate might do in her own fieldwork. While this is great pressure, we are also extremely honored by their trust and excited by this opportunity to grow.

Two weeks into our research journey in China, we are just beginning to understand what it takes to be researchers. We spent the past semester in our own campuses doing background research and literature reviews from the comfort of our own homes. We read everything we could get our hands on for our topic and struggled to understand how we could contribute to the knowledge already out there. How could we be value added to the work that researchers before us had already done? Who were we, simple students, to think that we could contribute something of substance? The desire to prove ourselves and our excitement combined with some healthy humility and self-doubt has guided our efforts so far.

As we start to contact potential interviewees for our research, we are learning how to present ourselves as researches and not simply students. We are learning to build up our own confidence while also being completely open to the process. Making mistakes and adjusting our aim accordingly is part of the journey (as in all areas of life!). We are learning how to collaborate when our views differ from that of our colleagues and keep our cool when a whole day of work is shot due to faulty internet. We are figuring out that research is often two steps forward and one (or more) steps back and that the dance is necessary to the process. We are experiencing growing pains, yet we are adamant to move forward as we learn to transform into our new roles and identities as researchers.

Field Notes by Giulia Zoppoat, Development and Innovation Team Lead

Great Sichuan Dinner With MIIS Alums Last Week

I would come in and say wow we had such a great dinner last night with all of the Monterey alums. It’s so great to see the expansive Middleberry network in Beijing. Hopefully we can continue to develop these connections and leverage team Middleberry for the benefit of our future graduates.  If anyone else is working in Beijing, feel free to respond to this post and we’ll put you on the list.

Go Team Middlebury!!

Alum Dinner

The Traveling Classroom Begins

We’ve had a series of trainings on research methodology and our students have reviewed the literature and developed research designs for their project.  Now comes the fun part: implementation. Fieldwork begins on June 7 with a series of guest lectures.  We will continue to workshop research designs and receive training on qualitative and analytic techniques from Dean Beryl Levinger, of MIIS’ development practice and policy program.  This will definitely be a different experience for us leading students on the challenges and adaptations required for field work in China.  Keep up with our dispatches and field notes to see how they reflect on the process.  I’m confident we have a good team in place that is ready to go.

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