Methodological Explorations in Researching International Marriages via Semi-Structured Interview: Indonesia and Turkey as a Case Study

Fieldworking is happy to host a guest post by graduate student, Melike Sema Alisan, on research methods, specifically some reflections on semi-structured interviewing. Alisan is a sociology graduate from the Middle East Technical University in Turkey and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in Asian Studies. She is planning to continue her academic life next semester in the Philippines to focus on the Asia-Pacific region in terms of the effects of ethnic patterns on unity and peace through education and social life including cultural diversity, social order, and heritage of art and aesthetics. A warm welcome will be waiting for you if you visit her country one day.


For qualitative research, three interview techniques help a researcher get a deeper understanding of social trends when collecting data: structured interviews, semi-structured interviews, and unstructured interviews. Whilst structured interviews have an ordered question list fixed in advance, which can not change during the interview, unstructured interviews follow an ordered question list fixed in advance, which can not change during the interview, unstructured interviews follow a topic guide, not a question list for an open-ended and in-depth style. The semi-structured interview is in-between these other two styles with ordered questions that remain flexible for changing according to the flow of conversation. In addition to the order of questions, wording can also change when needed to make the participants feel comfortable and help them to talk to generate data. Unlike the close-ended style of structured interview questions, my semi-structured interview questions include open-ended questions that can be answered in multiple ways:

Tell me about your first coming to Indonesia. How do you feel about being in this country and how do you feel when you meet with your prospective second family members; what makes you think you should live in Turkey?

Tell me more about the process of your marriage. How does it take place in the wedding process? What kind of ceremony did you have?

How many wedding ceremonies did you have? Who decided? What was the reaction of family members attended the traditional wedding ceremony? How did you organize a marriage contract and other formal issues?

How can you describe your parents-in-law’s approach to the issue of raising children?

Tell me about your relationship with Turkish people in your work life. What kind of activities you generally do when you meet with Turkish friends? What kind of different customs and traditions do you experience in Turkey? What kind of food do you prefer when you gather? How do you feel about this kind of reunion?

If I had applied an unstructured interview by directly asking whether or not they enjoyed their parents-in-law or loved the country, the only answer I could take would be shortly yes or no. On the other hand, open-ended questions asking feelings pushing them to talk more gave me a great opportunity to take answers more than I planned. Also, an unstructured interview with a topic guide like ‘marriage related issues’ or ‘children related issues’, if I had, would make me lose my control and skip some important points in the process.

My post explores semi-structured interviews in an ethnographic study of the social integration of Indonesian brides to lives in Ankara, Turkey. The target of this study is to reach 300 brides chosen from the island of Sumatra, located in the southwest of Southeast Asia and East of Java and the second largest of the Greater Sunda Islands in the Malay Archipelago. There is a high number of brides from the island of Sumatra in Turkey because, as many interviewees explained, they knew about Turkish culture and people from the Turkish Ottoman village on Sumatra named Beytül Mühadis, in which around 1200 Turks currently live (, 2015). Subsequently, the brides have held positive attitudes towards the Turkish through the support of Turkish associations like the Turkish Red Crescent (Kizilay)  for their assistance in 2004 when a 9.1 magnitude earthquake off the northern coast of Sumatra caused a devastating tsunami.

For the Turkish grooms, although they originate from different ethnicity and geography as their hometown in Turkey, the common point of their parents-in-law is their shared faith, Islam. As a conservative and family-oriented society, Turkish parents-in-law agree about the Indonesian brides and give their consent easily since it is widely believed by Turkish people that Indonesians have a strong connection with Islamic beliefs, which is a core point for them when choosing a partner.

International marriage is considered as a bridge between two cultures. An increase of social integration via international marriage as a trend has spread to Southeast Asia over the past fifty years as Asian society becomes more open and accepting of intercultural relationships (Allendorf, 2013). According to the Turkish Statistical Institute’s yearly reports from 2018 (TSI, 2019), international marriage patterns among Asian and Turkish couples in Turkey were highest between Indonesian and Turkish couples with the number 176 of registered married ones in Turkey.

Yet, I had a tough time finding literature about Indonesian-Turkish couples in terms of acculturation and assimilation processes. I have aimed to collect data on social adaptation and integration of foreign brides to assist in understanding and therefore improving their living standards by analyzing the assimilation process starting from the wedding ceremonies (Kim,2010).

Primary data was collected in two ways. Firstly, I used discourse analysis methods to examine Turkish online news and print newspaper articles.  I also explored five blogs written by Turkish parents-in-law about their memories of wedding ceremonies that had taken place in Indonesia. Furthermore, the interviewees I reached until now out of 150 couples (almost half of my initial target is done now) granted me access to their online social media accounts to analyze wedding ceremonies through their memories and impressions recalled while watching the wedding videos  and scanning through photos.

Secondly, I conducted semi-structured interviews to collect personal experiences and stories as data. In-person interviews, with brides, their husbands, and children have allowed insight into not only the wedding ceremonies but also the assimilation process during the early stages of marriage. To reach my participants, I contacted women within my established social network and continued to reach out to many people through a snowball technique, a non-probability sampling method. To clarify, the non-probability technique is to gather the samples in a process not giving all the individuals in the population equal chances of being selected since they are selected based on their accessibility or by the purposive personal judgment of the researcher. Among types of non-probability techniques, I chose snowball sampling that is when the researcher asks the initial subject to identify another potential subject meeting the criteria of the research. In my particular case, the snowball technique started with an acquaintance of a friend. This first interviewee informed me of their ‘Indonesian foreign brides’ (yabanci gelinler) Whatsapp Groups. My remaining interviews were conducted with members of this group.

I realized that conducting semi-structured interviews is not an easy job. I needed to remember many details while taking notes at the same time, and I found that I should not diverge far from my initial questions while at the same time, both myself and the interviewee found ourselves talking about some irrelevant things. The voice recordings I made, also, unfortunately, did not provide a vivid record of the interview atmosphere, so I found I needed to continue to take notes with a notebook and pen at the time of the interview.

I found that it was a good idea to have some warm-up questions while I related to daily events to put my interviewees at ease. Sometimes, I found myself in some surprising situations, which part of the beauty of qualitative, ethnographic research. In one such instance, although I had a translator with me for women who did not speak English or Turkish very well, sometimes I found women forced themselves to communicate with me without the translator and I was surprised that we did not need someone to  translate at points during the conversation. It surprised me because, despite broken English, I see people who get excited telling their memories very willingly.

Being flexible on the order of questions and topics, which is the way and system of a semi-structured interview, might give you some advantages. To illustrate, during one of my interviews with an Indonesian bride, I did not need to read many of the questions my interview guide as the interviewee was quite open and willing to talk, and she answered many of my questions through her stories. However, this way of interviewing can also easily go off-topic and sometimes I felt rude trying to guide the bride back on topic, but I knew that was within the context of my role in the interview.

I also had to be careful to not change the direction of the conversation, especially at times when I wanted to keep talking about enjoyable topics and memories with my Indonesian classmates back to my college years. For example, when the interviewee would Indonesian food, I could not stop myself from sharing with them my feelings about my favorite Indonesian foods.

A disadvantage of semi-structured interviews is that they can be hard to control and difficult to predict the answers you will get. For instance, one Indonesian bride started to insist that I interview her with her husband by claiming that her husband knew more about  the process leading up to their wedding and aspects of their marriage while I was more interested in how she recalled that time leading up to her wedding. It was difficult to keep my opinions to myself about how upset I was about she was not aware of her contribution to my research topic and also to society as an individual.

Another challenge of face to face communication in interviews is that I found I needed to be ready for people to sometimes not listen to me very carefully. Although I repeated information twice about my university and department, some interviewees asked me about this information again and again. This is just one example of how important it is to remain attentive and how good communication skills are surely needed for a healthy interview.

Timing was another part of semi-structured interviewing that was hard to control. While some of my interviews lasted two hours, some took longer, and some women even wanted to meet on another day. This made me happy because it is  the best feeling at the end of an interview to see that your interviewee is not bored and would want to continue talking. It was  even better to receive text messages after interviews telling me more information they remembered later for questions. Similarly, sometimes the interviewee felt that the amount of time for the interview was insufficient to fully convey all the information they wanted to share with me. At the end of one interview, my interviewee told me, “If you come to my home, I can reply with more details, but now you asked me at the moment and I could not think of some answers immediately.” I did not realize she thought there were good/bad or satisfying/dissatisfying answers and I felt bad that I had made her feel this way. I was not dissatisfied with our interview and; she gave me more information than I wanted in the end, but it caused me to reflect on my position and the interview process.

When I began my interviews, I wanted my research to be unique and full of subjective stories. However, when one of the brides criticized Turkish people (especially men), I tried to maintain my objectivity. It was nice to know that she was relaxed and sincere and I wanted to make my interviewees feel comfortable. To remain objective while also creating a rapport of common interests, I found it was always kind to show my interest in their culture. They were happy when I would tell them that I know how to cook some Indonesian foods and that I love Indonesian dance, like the Saman Dance. Also, although my level of understanding Indonesian, or Bahasa Indonesia, is limited, it made my participants happy and comfortable to know that I was interested in these aspects of Indonesian culture. And in the moments I worried about honesty I remembered how one of my professors told me that, “Even if your interviewee lies to you, you should take what they claim since it is also a fact and reflection of the society.”

I strongly believe that the semi-structured interview method is not only helpful for the researcher but also for the participant. It provides a means for interviewees to look at themselves and their understandings of what the interview is focused on.

Needless to say, a researcher is always learning both about the topic of research and about ourselves. During one of my interviews, I felt that my understanding of Asian studies was lacking since the interviewee had traveled to every Asian country and could talk about meeting so many different people.  I felt that I should be lucky to be able to interview her and  her husband since they had visited these countries. I also learned that she traveled and gained excellent skills in observation. In the end, learned a great deal from her because of her strong ability to analyzing social realities and events.

The analyses she made about Turkey was so valuable for me. She could compare what she observed in Turkish culture to practices in other countries (like the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia). In the end, she said, “Before getting married to a Turk, I traveled here as a tourist. I was visiting before, but now I am living here as a part of this society and I go there (home to Indonesia) for holidays.” This statement is important to understand the kind of belonging she feels now and was able to be communicated through our semi-structured interview together.

Doing this project, couples felt important and special being able to contribute knowledge to the academic world (international marriage practices). Despite the challenges, qualitative interviews give researchers a chance to learn about stories from individuals’ perspectives and by seeing and witnessing other people’s lives and experiences, we can understand each other better.

E-mail address:


Allendorf, Keera. “Schemas of Marital Change: From Arranged Marriages to Eloping for Love.” Journal of Marriage and Family 75, no. 2 (2013): 453–69.

Constantin, Sandra V. “Gavin W. Jones, Terence H. Hull and Maznah Mohamad (Eds.), Changing Marriage Patterns in Southeast Asia, Abingdon, Routledge, 2011, 239 p.” Population 71, no. 2 (2016): 405.

“Endonezya’da Türk Köyü”. 2015. Hurriyet.Com.Tr, accessed 15 Aug. 2019,

Geertz, Clifford. Ritual And Social Change: A Javanese Example. [Indianapolis]: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957.

Kim, Minjeong. “Gender And International Marriage Migration”. Sociology Compass 4 no.9 (2010): 718-731. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9020.2010.00314.x.

TSI, Turkey. 2019. “Türkiye İstatistik Kurumu, Evlenme Ve Boşanma İstatistikleri, 2018”. Tuik.Gov.Tr.


Fieldworking in Real Time, Part II: The Politics of Being the Outsider-Insider

This is the second post in a series which documents and details navigating fieldwork in real time by contributor Shweta Krishnan.  

I wrote my last post six months ago, when I was about to start my fieldwork. Since that last post, my relationship with my interlocutors has evolved, allowing me to rethink some of  the anxieties I had prior to fieldwork through my actual experiences in the field.

I realize instead that the binaries with which we are initially perceived and which we initially may use to perceive our interlocutors — such as insider-outsider, male-female, married-unmarried — re-emerge and constantly shift during out time in the field. In some ways, I remain as much an “outsider” as I was when I first stepped onto my fieldsite. I am always learning that no matter how many ordinary activities I learn to master, there will always be more that I am awkward at. For example, I can now climb up to a stilt house with ease, but just the other day, I was in the middle of conversation and forgot about the fact that frayed bamboo floors sometimes crack as you walk over them, and stepped with all my force and might into a kitchen, cracking the floor. But then, here is what my interlocutors said, “Good! Now you know that part of our lives too. It happens to all of us.” That wasn’t simply reassurance, but actually a moment that helped us relate to each other in spite of and across our differences.

This brings to me to something I have been thinking about: Anna Tsing’s theory of friction. Friction occurs at sites where our differences rub against one another and produce something that allows us then to collaborate and work across these differences. Working with my interlocutors allows me to think of how fieldwork is collaboration across differences. I think my initial blog post reflects the anxieties of navigating these differences. But over the past five months, my evolving friendship with my interlocutors allows me to think of how acknowledging and negotiating these differences through everyday conversations and activities is the stuff that fieldwork is made out of.

Anxieties continue to arise and they are most smoothened over during the actual “doing” of fieldwork. For example, I am often asked why I am unmarried at 35. I still find it intrusive at first blush. For me, marriage constitutes something private. It’s a topic I would discuss openly with close friends, but brakcet away from the more public space called the fieldsite. When I learned to look past this binary that I’d embodied, I learned that my interlocutors do not see the question, “are you married?” as a gateway into your private life. To them, the answer simply confirms or refutes their assumptions of your marital status. However, as I learned to engage with this question more deeply, I learned that it could open doors to more intimate conversations on how marriage helps them negotiate, subvert or sometimes affirm gender categories. They were equally curious to learn how I negotiated my femininity, when I had no husband or children. Through these exchanges, we have both learned to work across difference, and listen to experiences that are nothing like our own.

Sometimes of course anxieties cannot be resolved. I am still unsure of how to understand and deal with the following two questions, asked in this order: Are you unmarried? Are you travelling alone? It seems sometimes particularly aggressive when young men stop me on my way to a village and ask me these questions. I can never tell—unless I know this person—if it is simple curiosity or a proposition. I can also never tell if I am being put in my place and if I am being told rhetorically that as an unmarried woman I should be travelling alone. My female interlocutors and some of my older male interlocutors also believe that some of these interactions are meant to be hostile. So sometimes, I find that I have chaperones accompanying me to fend off this unwanted attention, particularly, if I am still out after dark.

Wrapped up within relations of care and friendship — but also with tense negotiatons of suspected hostility— I have learned to question the insider-outsider binary in productive ways. I am in one of interlocutors words, “never going to become Mising” like them; but I have now been a guest in so many homes that I am “not exactly an outsider either.” In fact, this particular interlocutor had to resolve this confusion for himself when his family wanted to invite guests for their familial celebration of the harvest. It is customary, he explained, for the family to feed people who were not of the family first and then partake from the new crop themselves. They were about to ask me to act as the guest, when they suddenly decided that I am so much a part of their home that I can’t really be treated as the guest anymore. Instead, they charged me with going to town and finding “an outsider” that could act as their guest. Similarly, a little boy, recently told his aunt that I was his sister because I had given him a bag to take to school. However, his aunt told me that the bag was thrilling to him because he now had an outsider-sister, a kin outside of the kinship structure he was accustomed to.

This outsider-insider that I have become is a comforting position. My interlocutors often retell the stories they told me before by revealing facts that they deliberately left out. Now that I am “one of them” or “a friend” they feel like they owe me the truth about what happened and why they don’t want particular incidents narrated. It is easier for me to explain to them how I can write more broadly about the issue under consideration without exposing their personal experiences to a wide audience. In a way, it allows me to write with them rather than about them, by explaining to them what I know from my positionality within the field and within the discipline of anthropology and by listening to what they know from their positionality within the field and from their own fields of expertise.

This queering of my position — not insider–not outsider — is also a question of constant negotiation. It changes every day and with everything I and they come to know about each other, the lives we live beyond our mutual plane of intersection and the lives we live in this shared plane of our existence.

The question I often have now is how does one leave the field? Does one ever leave? Seeing as our positionality is anything but stati and that it evolves with the relationships we make in the field., I also wonder how these relationships change when we leave the field physically, or when the dissertation we are working on is finished? This experience in the field tells me that I will only learn through time, what “leaving” really means. However, having experienced these subtle negotiations in the field, I feel a little more justified for pushing back in theory classes against writing practices that make ethnographic commentary on positionality yet another site to reinscribe the relative positions between “us” and “them.”

Intervening as an Anthropologist: Whose ethics apply?

My most uncomfortable encounters in schools during my observations for my fieldwork were incidents of not knowing if I should report a pattern of teachers hitting students that I witnessed in classrooms to the principals, who acted as my overseers at schools. India has outlawed corporal punishment in schools, but in the minds of many teachers and parents, it is justified as a necessary and acceptable form of discipline. In one school at the beginning of my research, it was rampant. Teachers would often hit students and the loud, “Thhwaaack” of rulers meeting supple first-grade wrists is heard sprinkled throughout my recordings. This is something I do not condone and I found myself so uncomfortable with this practice and with a few other aspects of that school that I decided to search for another school in which to conduct my observations. Since I was starting out in my research and since I had witnessed almost every teacher and even the principal hit students at that school from time to time, I decided against saying anything. I stayed silent also thinking that my role as an anthropologist is always to only observe and not to try and change the environment in which I observe any more than my mere presence already does.

However, at a different school, the one that I settled on for my year-long observations, I noted that even in the recruitment literature for prospective families there was a sentence about how the teachers explicitly do not practice corporal punishment. I found that one teacher would though. She would get frustrated by the students and on occasion, smack them upside the head, or on their backs and arms in anger. After a lot of deliberation, I decided to report it.

I asked around and consulted my friends and relatives about this practice. Many mentioned that while they were hit in school they knew that the laws had changed since their school-going days and teachers were not to be hitting students anymore. Some were even shocked that I had repeatedly witnessed this practice at such a reputable school. I built up the courage and in my last meeting with the principal, I mentioned to her that I had witnessed a teacher hitting students. I had decided to keep the name of the teacher out of it, stating that my intention was not to get anyone into trouble. I felt she should know and could address it without signaling out the one teacher. However, it turned out that she had suspected another teacher of hitting students and asked me to confirm the identity of the teacher. I gave in and assured her it was not the one she mentioned, hoping that the wrong teacher would not get into trouble but the conversation led me to reveal the identity of the teacher. The principal had also had a hunch about the teacher I mentioned and my reporting helped her to confirm it.

While I do not know if the teacher has stopped since I reported the behavior at the end of my research, it felt to me like the right thing to do even though I was a visiting researcher in their community. It was a difficult position to be in knowing that I was an outsider in the room and I was often the only other adult other than the teacher to witness the goings-on in classrooms. There is good oversight at the school though, with class assistants often in the room and the principal checks in often. But when the principal would visit, she would only sit in for short periods and everyone would be on their best behaviors. And the classroom assistants were in subordinate positions or perhaps on board with corporal punishment and did not or could not call out the teacher.

I had not intended to be a spy for the principal and I never felt that I was explicitly put into the position to report anything to the principal, but I also felt that I should advocate for the students who were 3 and 4 years old and would not know to speak up about this practice. I may have changed some aspects of the environment at the school but I feel assured in my decision to do so. Now I am working on incorporating this corporal punishment aspect into my analyses on language use. Often the teacher would get so frustrated because her role was to use English in the classroom with students who had very limited knowledge of the language, therefore creating a classroom where students often did not (could not) comply by rules, do homework correctly, or follow along in the lesson attentively. So while it was a disturbing part of my research that I hope I had put a stop to at this school, it is very illuminating for an analysis of the consequences and impacts of multilingual language education.

Losing Data or alternately A Story of Loss and Redemption: The Yellow Notebook

In one of my favorite ethnographies, Sara Dickey’s Living Class in Urban India, Dickey speaks openly to readers at the beginning of her introduction chapter about how she lost ten integral interviews— the cassette tapes were never transcribed and returned to her as promised. Starting her book and immediately reading this sent my heart racing. Thoughts sped through my mind to make sure such a horrible event would never happen to me. I thought of all the ways my data could go missing, from cross-country flights, notebooks scattered across two states surviving various office and apartment moves, or the long international flights that seem to send me into a packing panic planning for what to leave behind and what to carry around the world with me. I’ve backed up all my typed notes on my laptop and onto an external hard drive, but the thought of all the other things that could go wrong racked my brain.

And then it finally happened. When I left my field site for an extended period of time to go to my university, I had always intended to return as soon as I could. With my good intentions to return to my field, I left an embarrassing amount of clothes and books with my kind and patient friends with the promise of gifts in exchange for using them as storage facilities. Unexpectedly, almost immediately after I got back to my university, I received a message from a friend who had promised to keep a large amount of my various clothes, notebooks, and house items. “Hey, I have that yellow notebook too” was all the message said. “Oh no! I hadn’t meant to leave that! Please keep it safe for me!” was my frantic and immediate response. I even checked in as one would do with a family pet left with a sitter, “How is my notebook doing? Can’t wait to be reunited!” my messages verged on frantic, barely holding back from asking for a Skype date with my notebook.

As you can imagine by now, when I returned to my field five months later, the notebook could not be located. I looked everywhere. I checked with everyone I could think of. I even asked if I could go through my friend’s cabinets thinking, no rather knowing, that I would do a more thorough job searching than he certainly had. I wasn’t in touch with a few of the people who had originally drawn me the precious maps in that yellow notebook. One of my interlocutors had disappeared into marriage and moved to another state. Another had escaped to South East Asia to start a new profession. Another interlocutor was already a distant connection who had barely agreed to help me the first time around. So I quickly had to accept that this important collection of data was gone forever.

I decided that since I had collected those maps as data at the beginning of my research, when I barely knew what I would eventually write about, I could now go back and collect the data again and do a more thorough job this time around. I put out of my mind the doubts that this new batch of data wouldn’t be as raw or authentic as my first iteration. And I focused instead on how I was grateful and lucky enough to have the opportunity to collect the data again, which is much more than Sara Dickey and many other researchers who find themselves in similar tragic situations can do.

This led me to reflect on all the data that has been lost that never made it into the manuscripts it was intended for. It also led me to reflect on how my data saving tactics became relaxed in the field. I followed what I had laid out in my research proposals and IRB applications, which was that my data would remain in a safe and locked place, but what about keeping my data safe from myself? Safe from me moving continents or changing apartments? I’m more than grateful that my story has a happy ending and I was able to more than make up for the lost data in my return trip to my field. But it gives me pause to think about backing up, copying, and securing data in the future and how common of a story it may be for us to lose pieces of our data in the process of losing ourselves in our work.


Work cited:

Dickey, Sara. 2016. Living Class in Urban India. Rutgers University Press.

Fieldworking in Real Time, Part I: Taking a Break, Self-care and Self-indulgence in Fieldwork

This month Fieldworking is happy to introduce the first post in a series which documents and details navigating fieldwork in real time. This post, by contributor Shweta Krishnan, outlines what planning on the cusp of entering the field can look like. In a few months she will update readers with a follow up post on the questions she poses in this piece. Check back for new work on fieldwork and data collection!


So far, I’ve only done three summers of fieldwork. My long-term, 12-month long fieldwork period is just coming up. But as it becomes more and more imminent, I find myself asking if I know how to break my time up while I am in the field so that neither I nor my interlocutors unnecessarily exhaust ourselves. I do not mean that I need to create a timetable which carefully tabulates what I will do every week or month and how each of these will contribute towards my overarching research questions. But I am talking about taking time between these organized and required tasks to breathe, take a break and just be. A plan for self-care! Such breaks, I think are necessary in order to remain healthy and restful during the course of the fieldwork. I also believe they will ultimately strengthen my capacity for being more present in the moment when my interlocutors talk to me, and my ability to listen and be more attentive to what they are saying, indicating and doing. Similarly, these breaks might just give them an opportunity to carry on as if I were not around, and then circle back to me after working on their tasks with focus.

During the past summers, I have been very grateful for the time that my interlocutors have given me. I work with a small agricultural community in Assam’s Brahmaputra valley. My interlocutors are extremely busy people, splitting their time between their fields, their looms, their cattle or pigs, and their family. Some of them also work as tour guides. Additionally, there are always boats to make, roofs to thatch, bamboo furniture to make or repair. So, when they take time to sit down with me and talk to me, or take me around their villages I am aware that they are stealing away from other tasks, some of which are lucrative and others are personally fulfilling. Talking to me falls into the latter category, one of my interlocutors told me one day. It pleases him that he is able to speak about his life, and yet, this means he has to take some time away from his routine and fit me into his schedule.Even if he—and others—try to multitask, they are often slower when I am talking to them than if they were working to the rhythm of the songs they sing while weaving cloth or transplanting crops.

Similarly, while I am very grateful for the time they give me, sometimes I find myself wondering if my time in the field can be paced differently. There are days when I start really early, and while I decide to give myself one task—such as follow one interlocutor around—I find myself being invited into other homes, and almost organically slipping into other tasks—such as doing a spontaneous group interview with curious women who first decided to check me out and then decided to talk to me about my research. While some of this is definitely the result of the novelty of our relationship—though I’ve known then for three years, I see them after long gaps each summer eliciting much excitement—some of it is also because of the excitement that both they and I feel about the topic of my fieldwork. I am documenting their everyday lives, and that is something that is understandably as anxiety-provoking as it is intriguing and stirring for them. As for me, this is my first ethnography, and so I am just as often on edge as I am in control and working smoothly through the situations I find myself in. So, very often I pack my day with tasks to make sure I don’t slip up; I never say no to an invitation for fear that I may offend someone, or for fear that I may never have the opportunity to explore that avenue again, or out of the sheer thrill that I feel when I think this invitation will help me examine my own data in new ways.  So sometimes, I forget to take a break and allow the exhaustion to hit me only after the summer session is done.

As I stare at months and months of upcoming fieldwork, I wonder how I need to manage my time and energy better, and be better aware of their time and efforts as well. Two things strike me as I write: one, of course, at this point, everything is hypothetical. I’ve not been in the field for months on end yet, and maybe things will pan out differently from how they do during my summer visits to the field. Maybe—and I hope not—I will find myself having too much time on my hands and desiring some of the attention that I did get in the early days of fieldwork. Secondly, I wonder if negotiating breaks will bring up and call for a recognition of methods my interlocutors use for pacing their day.I once mentioned to one of my interlocutors that I liked taking long walks by myself. As it happened, so did she. But then she quickly told me that some of her friends thought it was wasteful and somewhat self-indulgent of her to leave her kitchen and her home and go down for a walk by the river. She then tried to get some of them to join her, and while three of her friends began accompanying her as often as they could, they still could not completely shirk the guilt. Taking a break from work and walking by the river without a purpose was seen as an act of self-indulgence, not self-care.

I am not a stranger to these ideas. I too grew up in a home, where I’ve seen men take breaks, but have watched women work—or find something to work on—nonstop. My mother and I have joked about how breaks make her feel useless and guilty. They also make her feel anxious, because she begins to wonder if she has all this time because she has completely forgotten to do something. Again, a break becomes an act and a sign of self-indulgence and not self-care.

So, here is a concern: I know—because I’ve been told at least by six interlocutors—that my labour is appreciated. They can relate to me because of this common sense of purpose—they work; I work. When they take a break from their work to help me with my work, they tell me it makes them feel good and useful, even while they are sitting down and resting. So, if I want to take breaks, and become “self-indulgent” because I’ve unlearned the sense of guilt that runs in my family and have learned to see “self-indulgence” as “self-care,” how will that shape my fieldwork? Alternatively, if my fieldwork actually functions as a break for the women I interview, for them to talk about themselves and reflect about their lives, then how do I tell them I need to take a raincheck without making them feel ignored or without offending them.

Again, it is not a question I can ask myself before I begin fieldwork. It is not something I can negotiate  except when I am already in the field, feeling that need for a break, for some alone-time, when I can do nothing and when I can just be. It is only in those moments that I will know how to take that break—how to be subversive about it, or how to negotiate it. Maybe I can learn from my “self-indulgent” interlocutor. Or maybe with more time in the field, I will learn how one takes a break while doing work? Perhaps there is something to the singing, and learning to move to the rhythm of a love song while bending over vegetables or harvesting rice. Maybe it wraps in mindfulness in ways that I don’t yet understand. Perhaps it allows for conversations on exhaustion that are experienced, embodied and expressed differently from what I would term labor, pause or self-care. These are of course questions that can only get resolved in the field. But if anyone has thoughts, I’d love to hear.

To Talk Like Them

Introduction by Jessica Chandras

I met Tian An Wong, a mathematician from Malaysia, during my fieldwork in Pune. While he has since moved on from his postdoctoral fellowship in India, we continue to have discussions about theory, fieldwork, and power dynamics unique to living abroad from our home countries. He shares a keen anthropological eye and penchant for analyzing the different ways he has settled into life in foreign countries throughout his career. I chose to include a journal entry he shared with me as a blog post here, presented with some light edits, because it speaks to dimensions of life abroad and the identity negotiations that occur in the process. In his writing, Tian An explores his relationship with English while adapting to life in the different countries his work has taken him. His blog post addresses layers of assimilation through speech as an embodiment of existing power structures of (post and neo) colonialism around the world.


‘This is America, speak English.’ You can probably feel the sting of these words if you live in the US and speak a language other than English. In fact, you might even feel it too if you speak only English, but not the right kind of English. You are other.

As we know, there are many ‘Englishes,’ and not all of them are equal. British English, first of all, is the most well-regarded of English accents in the US, and which the movie Love Actually pokes fun at. Canadian English is seen as being on a somewhat equal footing, like a friendly neighbor, while accents like those from Brooklyn or Boston are viewed with a kind of nostalgia; they represent the working class and a fading era. Then there’s Spanish English, which is looked down upon as dialects or pidgins, and forms the stuff of comedy like the Adam Sandler movie Spanglish; alongside other Englishes like Konglish (Korean English) and Hinglish (Hindi English). This hierarchy is intuitively obvious to most people, and as such, embedded in the way we speak English is the history of the colonialism and imperialism writ large.

I grew up in Malaysia, so my brand of English is known as Manglish. It is most known for being peppered with ‘lah’s at the end of sentences. This reflects the richness of our cultural mixing, with Malay, Chinese, and Tamil cultures: the use of ‘lah’ can be traced back to any of these three linguistic sources, each in their own right.

Taking part in the massive brain drain, or outflow of skilled persons from Malaysia, I had left my home country over a decade ago for study, beginning at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York called Vassar, and only returning for short visits to family. In recent years, I’ve also lived and worked in Germany and India, where English also operates, but in vastly different ways.

This time around being back in Malaysia, I met a lot of so-called US returnees. People who had studied or are studying in the US and are now back, whether to visit or for good. Some of were my parents’ friends who had studied in the US a long time ago, and now had children who were doing the same, and were back on holiday. Basically, like me. The strangest thing, was their range of accents. Each one was a different hybrid of Manglish and what I started calling ‘Vassar English’, which frankly, signifies a certain northeast USA variety of whiteness. (Let’s be real: the accent that we often think of when we say ‘American English’ is a marker of whiteness, popularised by Hollywood, which is largely white.) I realised, to my dismay—and my college friends affirmed this to me later on—that I, too, talk like this.

But I code switch. I speak an approximation of Vassar English to my US friends and also anyone who’s not Malaysian, and if I’m honest with myself, to myself. That is what troubles me. To code switch into another speech pattern is to conform to a certain way of speaking that makes communication easier, and lots of people do this, even going from a Southern accent to a Northeast accent. But to have Vassar English be the accent I use when speaking with someone not from the US, to have it be a kind of a ‘default’ voice, betrays something much deeper.

I talk to myself like I am from the US. I think and read in this voice too.

So Manglish is no longer my natural state. Part of this has to be, because one half of me now—my spouse—is from the US, and sounds ‘white’, as it were. I conducted a  Skype interview the other day with someone from the US in this voice. I laid it on thick. I performed this whiteness, and if you ask me, I performed it well.

This all begs to be theorised, for nativist rant pieces to be written about it. But at the same time it is so raw, so personal. It gets tied up in identity: how do we see ourselves and how do we see others depending on the way we sound. If you don’t speak Manglish when you speak English to a Malaysian, can you be Malaysian? Is this just everyday cultural assimilation, played out in my own vocal chords? There is a banality to this, in that for such a linguistic shift to occur, one does not need to go so far as to be rejecting one’s home culture, the way holocaust survivors refuse to speak German anymore, even if it were their mother tongue. I just have to want to fit in at school, or at work.

The simple answer is that we are complex, that culture is complicated, heterogeneous and fluid. But there’s much more to it: the power dynamics, the supposed privilege of having studied or worked in the US, the need to conform to speech patterns in the British empire and her white children (but not her colored children). That last one especially. Living in India afterwards, I don’t find myself picking up so much of an Indian English accent, much less attempting to talk like an Indian. (Does this count as ‘going native‘?) In fact, because of the association of Indian English accents with stand-up comedy (think Russell Peters) and caricatures on TV (think Apu in the Simpsons), it seems almost insulting at times to try to imitate the accent as a means of conforming. Indeed, an easy way to get laughs in comedy is to ‘do an accent’.

More crucially, while I have learned to use phrases that work only in Indian English so as to be better understood by my listener, like ‘the food was very less’, in no way has it become embedded in my own personal speech pattern. That is, I don’t talk like that when I’m not talking to an Indian. It seems like what passes as the gold standard, the Englishes to aspire to, are those such as British English, US English, and maybe also Canadian or Australian English. Of course, to speak of things like ‘British English’ already assumes too much about what English in Britain is, and how English Britain really is.

In freshman year of college, I started to notice my speech pattern conforming to ‘Vassar English’. This bothered, or at least intrigued me enough to make a cold call to a professor in linguistics in the Anthropology department; I simply showed up at his office and asked what was going on with me. That was our first and last meeting. He gave me the words to describe it: speech accommodation. That was probably the right answer, but there’s more to it, isn’t there? There’s other words like assimilation, conformity, stop asking me to repeat myself, or stop laughing at the way I said that.

In a way, it’s Ashis Nandy’s intimate enemy all over again [1]. We can see the power relation working through a kind of internal oppression. Or is it suppression? Because not only do languages contains worlds, but so do speech patterns. The way I say things tells a story of where and who I’ve been, and in completely code-switching to Vassar English, I erase myself. I sound white, or at least I can pretend I do until someone asks where I’m from. Or until I slip up and pronounce certain words with the wrong intonation or emphasis.

But back to power. Why don’t I conform to Indian English or German English, say, where I have lived in after my years in the US? Here’s a piece of the puzzle: because I’m not being asked to conform in the same way. In empires like the US and England, we’re asked—or ordered—to speak English because of the country we are in. You’re in America now, speak English. It drips of nationalist, settler-colonial arrogance. Of course, you’ll get this rhetoric just the same if you were, say, a Syrian refugee living in Germany. You get othered.

No one is holding me at gunpoint—though sadly this seems like a more and more plausible scenario these days—demanding that I speak ‘proper’ English. Rather, the many microagressions and the internalized oppression work to extract a conformity to the imperial standard. The migrant self is sacrificed at the altar of whiteness—erased, replaced with a pale imitation of the white man. And erasure is a feature of the colonial project, new and old: accepted history is told by and about those in power. Those who immigrate to the US after the pilgrims inherit the same amnesia about the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of black folks, and the continuing xenophobia towards Arabs, Asians, and anyone south of the border. Just as the pilgrims arrived on terra nullius, so did later immigrants receive a US history that starts with Columbus as they swore allegiance to the flag. You are in America now, speak English.

And then, just to remind you that people of color are perpetual foreigners in the US, I still get asked by people in the US, Why is your English so good? I have come to learn that what they mean by it is: You are very good at talking like me. How did you do it? The answer, as we now know, is because I am scorned, I am laughed at, I don’t get a job when I don’t talk like you. I don’t like to be othered; I conform. Sure, we can call it speech accommodation, which is a nice and neutral textbook term, but really it is the intimate enemy at work within, whereby I discipline myself in the hopes of being accepted as a loyal subject of the empire.

Therein lies the folly of asking for authentic Manglish, because in fact, there so clearly isn’t one. In Malaysia, everyone’s English is other to someone else. Malays and Chinese and Indians speak an English accented with tones and phrases of their other tongues. In the same way, to ask for a monolithical US English is an exercise in blind nationalism, for it means to constitute the US imaginary by a mere handful of allowed accents. But of course, this happens all the time.

Then there’s people like my friends Sarah and Sheng who retain their Malaysian accents so well. They came back to Malaysia right after college. There’s something about that which I admire: the US did not hold enough of a fascination for them to want to stay. They weren’t so impressed with the American Dream. I, not so much. I might deny it, but I’m quite sure that I harbour an inferiority complex about not being (or not trying to be) successful in the West. I don’t know how I maintain it, with my postcoloniality and also the way civil life is unraveling there. Is it a kind of a Stockholm syndrome that makes one want to please one’s oppressor? Comparing myself with them, it becomes clear that this psychological oppression is imposed upon myself through a desire to assimilate, to be like them, to talk like them. My own tongue betrays the extent to which the US holds power over me.

Maybe there’s something to be said about this sort of a love-hate relationship: Do I hate the West because I care about it, or because I aspire to it, or because I think capitalists have achieved better than the Marxists. (Do I really?) Or consider another friend of mine, Stanton, whom I met in Shanghai last month en route to Malaysia. He seemed to be doing well there, these past four years. He too studied and worked in the US for many years, then later decided to move back to Shanghai, and doesn’t think much of the US as a place to live. Maybe the best way to provincialize Europe [2] is to not talk about it. But I guess that’s what Asia as Method [3] already proposed. Theorize Asia through Asia; no need for the dead white guys. The only thing, is that if you don’t talk about Europe, you risk Europe not talking about you, and you have to be okay with that. It’s not a big price to pay, if you consider the fact that the whole point is to actually not care about them at all.

But—and here’s the rub—we have to care. Chakrabarty already points this out. For the workings of the empire pervade our present and future lives whether we like it or not, and we cannot be blind to them. We cannot let it have its way, and be satisfied with the US (and British) empire collapsing in on itself as one might hope it will in this political and ecological climate. You see, even if the West crumbles in our time, another master will move in to fill the void. That is why resistance is the only way. Revolution works sometimes, but a revolution is a singular event more than anything else, it does not sustain itself. But resistance, on the other hand, is a methodology, a way of life, that continues to find allies and make friends in solidarity.

I must decolonise myself, disabusing myself of all the internalised oppression and suppression, and find new worlds in different tongues.


Works cited

[1] Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism

[2] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference

[3] Kuan-Hsing Chen, Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization

Logistics and Comfort while in the Field

When building our lives in the field, there are many aspects to take into consideration apart from the logistics surrounding research and data collection. I recently found myself in a scramble for accommodation while returning to my field site for follow-up research in the summer months between my two years writing my dissertation. Plans changed, something fell through, and I needed to quickly find a low-cost place to stay where I could write. I’d be staying for less than two months and I knew I was very picky about where I wanted to stay based on knowing what I needed to be productive. It was important to me to have a workspace at home, knowing I’d be writing for extensive periods of time. I also needed to be able to cook, exercise, and be walking distance from groceries since I do not have a car or bike while in my field. With so many moving parts to bring together, I started asking other fieldworkers what they found they needed to stay sane and productive in their fields.

When I started to ask other researchers what creature comforts are necessary for them or how they create spaces of comfort while in the field, I learned that it was important to carve out time for ourselves outside of our roles as researchers in our daily lives while in the field. Hobbies or activities are important outside of data collection, reading, and writing. For me one comfort I required has always been to live in a place where I have some privacy and would be able to cook. For me, cooking was a welcome release from the strains of language studies and research. It was something that I could have control over in my personal space when so much was out of my control in my research.

This is a topic that is rarely addressed and verges on the taboo as it assumes we, as full-time researchers, are taking time away from work by doing other activities. But it is important to maintain a balanced life while researching and making sure our accommodations suit our needs and finding activities to do outside of research are good ways to maintain balance while researching. Perhaps these aspects should be considered and discussed as “para-research” activities since keeping good mental and physical health and knowing one’s limits aides in the research process. I asked two other researchers questions about how they made their work spaces and research locations comfortable for themselves and what activities they engage in to keep their sanity while working in a home away from home.

Shweta, a PhD candidate in anthropology, found that some specific decisions she made about her living space while conducting ethnographic fieldwork were attributed to her gender. More than for her own personal comfort, she did not want pressure to be on her hosts to constantly treat her specially and worry about her safety as both a guest and as a woman in the small village in northeast India where she conducts her research. Men, she said, could share a room and hosts would not worry so much over their safety and security. But as a woman in this village, she wanted to have her own room and a kitchen to have a space away from the gaze of her interlocutors and so that hosts would not feel pressured to worry about her knowing she would know how to fend for herself if she had her own, personal space. In previous visits to her field she found that as a guest, she was often given the best pieces of food or fed delicacies and fussed over constantly. Shweta knew that for a longer period of time in her field site she would need a space to “turn off” from ethnographic work and also have her personal space, and a level of comfort and freedom that she was used to having to be productive. Having her own space, she hoped, would also help to incorporate herself into the daily fabric of the village to be treated more closely to a local than as a special guest staying with a host.

Amanda, a PhD candidate in history also working in India, mentioned that it was always important to her to incorporate physical activity into her routine. Wherever she lived in India, she made sure to be able to commute by bicycle and find a gym or take part in other forms of exercise that would keep her active and offset the long hours she spent sitting and working in archives. As she stayed in a relatively conservative provincial capital in India for her research, she mentioned that it became important to her to make time to travel and visit friends in other cities to have respite from the isolation she felt working in her city.

Food and access to amenities also came up in my conversations with Amanda. She found that while working in the archives in a conservative area in her city that there were no suitable options for her to find meals. The archives were connected only to an all-male madrasa where she was not allowed to enter and eat. She structured her day so that she would eat before working in the archives but then plan to wrap up work only when she said she, “Couldn’t take the hunger any longer,” and would have to venture off, in the intense heat of summer by bicycle, to find a late lunch. What often happened was that she would lose energy to return again to the archives, which also closed relatively early. In the afternoons she would complete other work, relax, and try to exercise. Amanda perfectly justified her routine, though she said most people in her field spend whole days in archives and when she mentions her routine she felt that she was not working as much as her colleagues. She was never prepared in her classes for this kind of archival work and realized her days would look radically different if she worked in a larger archive in India or in archives based in the UK or the US where researchers have access to all kinds of amenities and the archives are kept open for long hours. However, spending more time in the archives where she was working was untenable for her due to her gender and location.

The topic of extracurricular activities and hobbies as well as needs for maintaining comfort, productivity, and even sanity during research should to be brought further into conversation to better prepare new researchers for the field. It should be made known that it is good to have hobbies and to engage in activities outside of data collection and research to make sure that one does not get burnt out from overworking. These topics should also be discussed further among well-seasoned researchers because it helps us to better understand how others manage working for an extended period of time away from our usual comforts and how to make a home away from home.

Reading and Resting to Write

As I’m in the thick of writing my dissertation, I’ve been reflecting on the writing advice I’ve received, my own anxieties about writing, my goals, and what seems to be working. In this post, I’ll reveal some of my writing habits and advice that may seem a bit contrary to the advice I’ve gotten. This is to show that there isn’t any correct way to do this as long as we complete the task and are proud of accomplishing it. There are many different roads to the final destination.

Since I was young, I’ve wanted to be a writer. I’d write stories for fun, draft poems, and was even told to “write an essay” by my dad whenever he tried to get me to occupy myself in place of turning on the television. In many ways I’ve fulfilled my dream in my career so far. But somewhere along the way I’ve gotten onto a course of scientific writing that feels sterile and clinical. Coupled with dry writing, I’ve gotten advice from many sides to “make sure to write everyday!” While this is excellent advice, I’ve found that it doesn’t work so well for me. I either feel pressure to write and then don’t write and feel bad, or I write something I don’t like or isn’t productive just for the sake of getting something on paper. I know writing just to get into a habit of writing works for some and sometimes getting anything down can end up being helpful later. I prefer to wait until inspiration strikes.


What has been working for me so far is a slow approach to writing. I write in fits and spurts. I also know I write best in the morning, so if I spend the morning doing something else, I most likely will not get to writing that day. There’s many days or sometimes weeks where I’m reading through notes or working on other tasks entirely. On a good dissertation writing day when I’m starting out on working on a chapter, I jot notes first, usually in the form of outlines and ideas, and then begin my drafting process by bringing together parts of other papers and notes I’ve written in other places. This is not actually writing per se and just a lot of copying and pasting. Once I get going, I usually hit a good stride and keep going until the task is done.

If I’m working on a deadline I can usually work well setting aside two hours every morning for writing. While I consider writing for two hours out of a whole day as a good writing day, it is very little time devoted to the task. I am working hard on seeing this as progress and not as wasting the rest of the day. Therefore I find it useful to split my attention. I work on other tasks or other goals to accomplish. I also make sure to go on walks and jogs to try and inspire ideas and connections. This has been my pattern for the conference papers and chapters of my dissertation that I’ve drafted so far. So while my process includes thinking about my work and writing everyday, it does not necessarily mean that I write everyday.


To help with the clinical and dry style of writing I adopted in grad school, I’ve been trying to read more fiction by authors whose writing styles I greatly admire. I’ve been trying to make this an even more productive task (because reading fiction does not feel like work and feels more like I’m shirking my responsibilities rather than bulking up my skills) by reading South Asian fiction literature. This helps me to see how authors weave stories into what I view as ethnographic detail about the region of my work. I’ve also read other dissertations on my topics or based in India, and the words of one of my advisors is always in my mind, “Everything in anthropology is primary data.” Maybe more than just a more descriptive writing style will make its way into my dissertation. On the other hand, maybe not and that’s okay as well.


I often have the notion that everyone else is working harder than I am. While this may be true, in my field I made sure to take time to “turn off,” meaning that while I could easily see every interaction I had from grabbing coffee with a friend to buying vegetables could be a potential entry in my fieldnotes, I quickly became exhausted wearing my anthropologist hat all the time. I’m sure I was also exhausting company for those who spend time with me while I was “on”—asking questions and gleaning information wherever and whenever I could. This is why I make sure to take time or even days off from writing or thinking about writing to rest and do other things. I find time to do enjoyable activities like watch movies and visit museums and spend time with friends and family. I often cook and listen to innumerable podcasts as well. Most importantly, I remind myself to not feel guilty for doing these activities instead of writing or thinking about writing. That is key. The task is not so overwhelming but the guilt can be. I remind myself that the time spent resting will actually help my productivity and energize me for the next bout of writing which may happen when I plan for it or may come to me out of the blue.

Storytelling and the Politics of Reflexivity and Reciprocity

Late in May 2017, I took a walk along the Luit with M. I’d met her the year before, but we hadn’t had a conversation then. She had simply returned my perfunctory salutations and we had gone our separate ways. This year, I ran into her again, and she invited me to tea. As her husband H, brewed black tea for us, M asked me about my ethnographic work in her village. When I described my interest in understanding how riverine erosion shaped indigenous practices in Majuli, the island she has been calling home for over ten years now, she nodded and said, “you will have to experience the river with us.” That was my plan, I told her. I would be spending most of 2018 and 2019 in Majuli, getting to know how the Brahmaputra and its many tributaries, including the Luit slowly ate Majuli’s grounds and how in the wake this erosion of land created a crisis of identity among the indigenous communities. Two days later, M decided to give me a preliminary tour of Luit’s banks to prepare me for this upcoming year.

During this walk, M, with no invitation from me, began to graciously share her story with me. She told me of her childhood, her relationship with her siblings and parents, her marriage to H, her children, and then of her dreams to form a feminist collective that would form a source of support for Mishing women in Majuli. She was very particular that this collective would draw on Mishing history and not on the general experiences of all women in Majuli. As we walked home, I asked her if I could write her story in my ethnography. “Ho,” she said, immediately. Yes. She did not think much about it. And at a later date also added, “I tell you only what I think you need to know to write your story about Mishing people.”

In the months that followed, I’ve had conversations with very experienced anthropologists on the trouble with writing about “Mishing people.” One of them asked me to think of writing as the gift we give to our interlocutors in sharing their story with the world. He added very sincerely, “You don’t realize just yet how grateful people can be when we can share their story.” But this raises a methodological question about storytelling itself. We do live in a time when storytelling is acknowledged as a form of speaking to power. But what stories do we tell, and how much is that shaped by what people want to hear? In a blogpost written in 2010 and entitled, What is left of Queer, feminist writer Yasmin Nair examined how immigrations stories are produced, critiquing both the right and the left for reinscribing certain aspects of immigrant suffering, in an attempt to underscore their own roles in “allowing” or “disallowing” immigration. As Nair notes, these stories are not really about the immigrants, but about America.

One could argue that that is policy. This is ethnography. They may be stuck in a room of mirrors. We are reflexive. But we don’t have the privilege or the means to live in a world where the politics of one realm that shapes our lives doesn’t shape the other. I wonder then, as a woman who has often had to fight being subsumed under assumptions made about my nationality, ethnicity, caste, gender both in India and in the US, how do I tell the story of another woman whose life is also unfolding at the intersections of gender, race, caste, tribe, nationalism, but in ways that are markedly different from mine? How can I practice “reflexivity” as ethnographers are warrant to do, but write an ethnography which doesn’t make sense of her story only through categories that are normalized through my experience? How do I write this ethnography so that the story she entrusted me with remains hers, and does not become the story of an entire tribe, and certainly not mine?

These are of course questions ethnographers have been grappling with for many decades now. One of these many crises within the field culminated in the ‘writing culture’ movement. Close on its heels, there were other works, I admire: Abu Lughod’s essay Writing Against Culture, Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon’s edited volume, Women Writing Culture, Kamala Visvewaran’s Fictions of Feminist Ethnography. And many more, of course: books, blogs, essays, lectures, discussions on this anxiety that cruises through the bodies of anthropologists. The extractive nature of what we do—taking/receiving stories, objects, images—haunts many of us, as it should. It reminds us of our history: anthropology’s entanglement with colonialism, the power relations within which those early ethnographic stories were extracted. But in spite of our many reflections, we are never going to be completely free from these anxieties. We can aspire to become responsible storytellers only by learning from our collective failures. Never are we more aware of the challenges and failures than when we are in our fields, when we are doing anthropology, or ‘anthropology-ing’ like one of my friends likes to call it.

But it is this very idea that anthropology can be a verb that raises questions about the process. Let’s take this act of gift giving, for example. If my writing is a gift I give my interlocutors, then isn’t it an act of reciprocation? M, shared her story with me without my even asking for it. Isn’t that where this cycle of giving gifts began? And of course, she gave me her consent. While that might satisfy the IRB requirements, we must know as feminist scholars that consent is given and received within a set of power relations, and therefore is almost always incomplete. Therefore, even when the ‘gift’ is ‘willingly’ given, do we not stand the chance of reiterating colonial methods and breaking the cycle of care, friendship, and dignity if we embed the ‘gift’ within discourses that reinscribe difference in problematic ways. And thus, coming back to what reflexivity sometimes precipitates: the story of the “other” as told in relation to the positionality of the ethnographer. (For more on how feminist ethnography too errs, please read, Gillian Rose’s essay, Situating Knowledges: Positionality, Reflexivities and Other Tactics [1997]).

As we parted ways on the banks of the Luit, M left me with this feeling that she had told me a story about Mishing people, not just her story. And yet, I know her to be very different from other women who have spoken to me? How do I write her story then? How do I perform reflexivity? If I perform a kind of reflexivity to describe myself in terms that are recognizable in Western academia, and then her in similar terms, haven’t I simply played into this politics of imperialist recognition? Can I however write her story as her story, one indigenous story among others, that does not need to be made sense of by comparing it with mine, but could perhaps be sensibly situated in a web of stories that shared the context? Can I be present in the scene and not in her story? Can I break free from the idea that she must feel grateful to me for translating her story for Western academia? Can I think of this gift cycle that binds me now to her until I have reciprocated and perhaps after that too as a form of responsibility for writing differently?

Reflexivity became a part of ethnographic writing so that the white male anthropologist may not remain unmarked. However, in practice, reflexivity has played a role in strengthening notions of cultural relativism. We are taught to make sense of our ethnographic interlocutors by reflecting on the “differences” that sets them apart from us, the ethnographers. In most cases, this method places the ethnographer in the West, and the interlocutor in the ethnographic “elsewhere,” reifying the locations of the West, of this “other” place, and of their related “distances.” But I am not exactly located in the West, in my life. I benefit immensely from being a part of Western academia, and yet, I it remains only one of the many places that shape my sense of self. However, I do know what it feels like to be read as a text, to be translated, so that my everyday life within Western academia makes sense to my colleagues and professors. I would be doing my interlocutors in my field site a great disservice if I inflicted the same violence on them. It would be poor reciprocation for taking me into confidence.

How do we then write an ethnography that makes our positionality as story tellers transparent, and yet  does not make us the primary site of inflection in our own stories? In one of our conversation a professor from whom I have learned a lot told me that writing must be humble. Perhaps, this is what Abu-Lughod means by the “ethnographies of the particular” (1991): stories that make sense within the social contexts which imbues these experiences with meaning, and will lose that meaning if extracted, interpreted, translated. I must be in the story only as much as I am within the matrix of the social context which elicited that story. Perhaps, this is what Donna Haraway (1988) means by partial, incomplete, situated knowledges: both the ethnographer and the ethnographic interlocutor are positioned in relation to each other, partially transparent, partially opaque, to each other and even to themselves. A gift that has the humility to admit the limitations of knowledge over the other might perhaps begin to repay the kindness we are shown when strangers take us into confidence. And perhaps this is a kindness, we shouldn’t forget even if, over time, these strangers become more familiar, and finally, our friends.


Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1991. “Writing Against Culture.” Pp. 137-62 in Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present, edited by R. G. Fox. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Behar, Ruth and Deborah Gordon. 1995. Women Writing Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Clifford, James, Ed. 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectives.” Feminist Studies 14(3): 575-599.

Nair, Yasmin. 2010. “What is Left of Queer: Immigration, Sexuality and Affect in a Neoliberal World.”, May 12, 2010. Accessed from on Jan 21, 2018.

Rose, Gillian. 1997. “Situating Knowledges: Positionality, Reflexivities and Other Tactics.” Progress in Human Geography 21(3):305-320.

Viswesaran, Kamala. 1994. Fictions of Feminist Ethnography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Leaving my Fieldsite

By lucky chances, conscious decisions, and some unlucky twists, I’m winding down a consecutive two and a half years in my fieldsite and preparing to go back “home.” In this time, I’ve learned and changed more than I am able to put into words (though I have to somehow manage to put it into a dissertation) and I’ve progressed through four stages of fieldwork—language study, research, analysis, and writing. Through all of those different phases, I made what feels like a normal life for myself in my field. Now it is finally time for me to leave and I’m working on processing a whole suitcase full of emotions and experiences. In this post, I want to outline the decisions I made about leaving that helped me to transition into the next phase of my studies and career.



My transition from full-fledged writing to wrapping up and leaving the city I’d called home for two and a half years started about a month before my actual departure. Some of my close friends were leaving town and I realized their exits marked the beginning of my final goodbyes to people I’d grown close to. So, while I was still working on writing, I began to think about my own exit and return to my other home. I made sure to wrap up a draft of a chapter in order to end the year on a high note but after that task, I decided to leave my academic work aside for my last couple weeks in my field. However, in order to not go completely crazy or have sadness consume me, I kept a low stakes project on hand to split my attention from my packing and farewells. This allowed me to spend my last couple weeks still academically productive, but also able to have flexible time to do tasks outside my normal routine knowing that there would definitely be visits and tasks that would pop up unexpectedly.



One of the tasks that I decided to take on in my last week was a whirlwind of shopping. Apart from buying gifts to bring back to family and friends, I also made time to do a lot of shopping for myself. I learned I could get nice professional clothes in India, so I used that as an excuse to re-vamp my wardrobe for my return in an economic manner. In my attempts to mentally prepare to return home, I began a process of nesting for my new place back home too, I decided to bring pieces of my field back with me to put around my apartment in the US. I made time to visit some of my favorite shops and finally picked up textiles and objects I have been eyeing for months in anticipation for my return that will gently remind me of the home I made and loved for over two years. I also made sure to stock up on some of my favorite foods and other little things I’d grown accustomed to while living in India. I figured having some of these things by my side would help to make the transition less difficult.


Enjoying my favorite things

Shopping also provided me a way to go around the city one last time, which I enjoyed with new eyes knowing I’d be leaving it soon. The plans I made with family and friends also centered on making sure I visited some of my favorite restaurants, cafes, and landmarks. It was a nice way to give closure to the city and also spend time with friends. I also enjoyed visiting some of these places alone to reflect on my time spent in the field and tried to take more pleasure in things I began to take for granted from sunsets, street dogs, plants and fruit that first seemed exotic to me, and even traffic.


Saying goodbyes

While this may have been the most important thing on my list when leaving a city in the past, this time I tried to not stress myself out by planning individual meetings with everyone I had interacted with over the last couple years. I tried to see people at group gatherings to say goodbye to friends. I also started a process of saying goodbye early and let people know that I would probably be busy and that I would love to stay in touch by email if I wouldn’t be able to meet them near the end of my stay. I figured it was going to be both emotionally and logistically hard to say goodbye to everyone who has made my stay meaningful and important, so I compromised by having a relatively open schedule for myself instead of making appointments to visit everyone one last time in a rush on my last days. While I’ve done the mad rush to cram in as much as possible in the past, I find it is not as meaningful as a heartfelt note or a more relaxed visit well before leaving. I do wish I could gather everyone I know and see them on my last day, but I also know myself and the limits of my sanity and emotions and would expect a harried meltdown if I had tried to go through with that.


Envisioning a return

I recognize the way that I said goodbye to my friends, family, and interlocutors in my field is a privilege because I also expect that I’ll be back in my field for a short follow-up stay relatively soon. It was helpful for me to not see this departure as a final goodbye but as an ellipsis until the next time I visit to do follow up work or come for a relaxed vacation. This is a privilege I have from working in a place where I have roots and a city that is relatively easy to reach from all corners of the world. I know my plans to return are a luxury not granted to all of us, and while for me a return trip also may not come to fruition, it was helpful to imagine one as I planned to leave.


Trying to be normal

Overall, I kept telling myself that life goes on. Everyone I was interacting with in my last couple weeks were working their own jobs and sticking to their normal schedules, so I tried to stick to mine and keep in mind that the world did not revolve around me as much as it seemed that removing myself from a city that became my home should be the biggest thing in the world to me and everyone around me. Rather, I kept telling myself that this was always part of the plan and that I knew this day would come. I made time to reflect on my feelings and especially to acknowledge my accomplishments, proud moments, and fun memories.