This text was written in Helsinki as part of the flash ethnography series. Struggling to pull together the last chapters of my book, China’s Return to the Village, this piece came to mind in my effort to dismantle a writer’s block that has developed over the years. This block carries a sort of gender bias, making it difficult to narrate the closest relationships with my female interlocutors during fieldwork, such as the one I had with Beiyun.
Location: Helsinki / Meili, Southwest China
My friendship with Beiyun started six months into my ethnographic fieldwork in an ethnic minority Dong village I call Meili nestled in the mountains of Southwest China. We spent almost every morning and afternoon together, sitting on her front porch – a common space for social gatherings in Meili.
When it was just the two of us sitting on Beiyun’s porch, we chatted about anything that came to mind. As we spoke, we kept our hands busy with needlework – Beiyun tailored Dong blouses while I practised embroidering flower patterns with beautifully intricate, shiny silk thread.
Village gossip and daily affairs were common themes of small talk. Sometimes Beiyun turned to more personal issues, including her struggles to remain a pious daughter by choosing not to follow the waves of villagers going to work and earn money in China’s urban factories while her father was in ill health.
Beiyun particularly liked to steer our conversations towards her concern for my singlehood – a theme that continues to dominate our online messaging four years after my fieldwork in the regular voice messages we send to one another.
“Your work is finally stable, so what’s wrong with you – why can’t you find a boyfriend? If you wait too long, they will all run away, and then you are suddenly old”, Beiyun says.
I laugh and give an exaggerated long sigh.
“Here we go again! Beiyun, I am no longer young. So, what am I to do about this? You love returning to this topic, and yet this problem remains unresolved. But since you asked, I have recently been trying to get to know someone. We are just friends at the moment. I want to get to know him first. I’m not sure where it’s going to take us,” I respond.
“Just tell him. You need to tell him straight out: “Treat me right!” Just tell him, tell him straight out!”, she encourages.
“How can I tell him straight out? I’m too shy”, I counter.
“Well, I’ll tell you what men are really like. When you are getting to know one another, they are all chatty and say, “Yeah, yeah,” to everything. But then, when you get married, he will change his ways. You need to tell him straight out: “Treat me right!”
”Take my husband for example. Before we married, he told me he gambles because he is not yet married. That’s what he told me! That he gambles because he is a bachelor. But look at him now – to this day, he still gambles!”
”Hey, listen. One thing to remember – don’t find a man who drinks too much. He’s going to be drinking all the time. He’s going to be drunk, and then he’s going to love the thought of hitting you”, Beiyun advised me.
“But you’ve left me wondering. You are advising me to find a man who treats a woman right. But how do you think a man should treat a woman?”, I ask.
“He is someone with a soft heart. And with a good temper – someone who doesn’t hit people,“ she concludes.
Beiyun learnt to stay away from men who gamble the hard way. I was well aware from our many conversations on her porch that her husband’s gambling brought severe financial and psychological hardship to her family and their marriage.
As a continuous source of conflict between the two, there was no room for Beiyun to challenge his addiction. Staying in the village meant she also had few opportunities to escape it.
Idle talk with Beiyun informed me of the circumstances in which she, and many other women in Meili, live to this day. Her warnings of finding a man who does not gamble, drink, or hit people were not coincidental.
I never saw signs on Beiyun that she faced physical abuse, although I did see it on numerous other women. In a village where many men have learnt to solve their problems with violence, I saw the bruised faces and the pain on women’s bodies that masculine pride carries.
And I was complicit. When spending time with those men, I remained quiet about the violence they enacted.
According to Beiyun, our friendship is tied to our mutual zodiac sign. We were both born in the year of the ox, about which she often reminded me by calling me her little sister, meimei. I had just turned thirty, and Beiyun was twelve years my superior.
Regardless of this serendipitous connection, I got to know Beiyun through the many afternoons spent with her father, Old Yang Shengke, at the beginning of my fieldwork. Old Yang was one of the few educated villagers of his generation.
We spent many afternoons on his porch skimming through his ancient Buddhist philosophical texts and his calendar drawings that marked cosmological calculations for each day going as far back as China’s first emperor, over two thousand years ago.
Old Yang enjoyed presenting these books and lecturing me about his grand philosophical ponderings and calculations. He also took pity on me for not having more female friends close to my age group in the village, which is why he urged his daughter, Beiyun, to befriend me.
Time spent with Beiyun was more personal than afternoons with her father. I learnt that small talk on women’s porches allows for different forms of socialising that can often carry hidden messages.
Among women, small talk becomes a way of warning others to avoid their mistakes. As anthropologists, we are supposed to seek these moments – and find meaning in them.
For me, our conversations got under my skin, and their ”meaning” became as much about me as the people around me. It’s this intimacy of friendship and storytelling on Beiyun’s porch, now continuing online, that reminds me of why I do ethnography.
This intimacy also holds me back – underestimating my ability to form meaning as an anthropologist and keeping my writer’s block intact.
What are Ethnographic Postcards?
”Ethnographic Postcards” began on the small island of Vallisaari as part of a writing workshop during a University of Helsinki anthropology discipline outing held in May 2022.
The workshop was inspired by anthropologist Alisse Waterston, who prior to the outing on Vallisaari had just visited Helsinki to present at the Anthropology Visiting Seminar.
Her paper, ”Making Knowledge Accessible”, explores how anthropologists can take on more experimental formats and efforts to communicate the work we do. To apply what she taught us, we walked along Vallisaari’s coastal trails and shared our experiences and emotions associated with writing.
Ethnographic writing can be very personal and ignite unexpected feelings when diving into stories and experiences that have been gathered from the field.
Writing makes visible what we do know, but it also sheds light on the possible wrongdoings of the ethnographer – making the writing process a daunting task to start with.
Writing groups are a space where one can share feelings of joy and success, but also of fear and procrastination – all things related to the process of (ethnographic) writing.
We met once a month with the aim of writing a standalone piece of no more than 1000 words within forty-five minutes. Also inspired by Professor Waterston, we used Carole McGranahan’s online series of Flash Ethnography in American Ethnologist as a prompt.
Everyone who participated usually came to the collective writing sessions with an idea about what they were going to write about – a person, scene, conversation, place or subject based on each person’s fieldwork.
As works in progress, the purpose of these writing sessions was to turn these ideas into life; to see how they catch the light.
This series of anthropological stories is the outcome of our writing sessions. We take postcards as a metaphor to share personalised events.
Similar to the postcards mailed as souvenirs from another place that showcase an iconic city landscape or monumental site, our postcards evoke memories from the anthropologists’ field sites.
AntroBlogi in English
AntroBlogi has always been adamant about promoting the use of the Finnish language in sharing academic viewpoints and knowledge produced within Finnish anthropology. With this series, AntroBlogi has opened the door to experimenting with other languages too.
Finnish anthropology hosts researchers from all over the world – and AntroBlogi should be a virtual space for everybody making a difference in the local community.
This does not mean that there will be less Finnish language content on the site nor that we will try to pivot to a global audience. Similar to the ”Ethnographic Postcards” series, we want to keep our publishing work open-ended so that it keeps evolving together with the discipline and the local academic community.
- Writers (What are Ethnographic Postcards): Suvi Rautio & Emmi Holm
- Editor: Emmi Holm
- Proofreading: Maija Sequeira
- Podcaster: Eemi Nordström
- Layout: Niina Ahola
- Image: Suvi Rautio’s album
- Featured image: Niina Ahola/OpenAI Dall-E 2