Me, in the field

Some of my earliest memories are in my parents’ tavern. My father bought the It’ll Do Bar from his father, and my sister and I spent hours playing in my Dad’s office while he did the morning books. I was still young, maybe twelve, when I followed my dad through the bar on the way to his office one afternoon and we stopped and talked with nearly every customer on the way. Some of them I had met before but forgot, all in all I was visibly disinterested in making small talk.

When we got to his office he turned and scolded me for forgetting names and such a selfishly aloof attitude. He drilled into me that our business runs on caring about people, generously and genuinely listening to their stories.

I thought about this moment often while I was in the Philippines. It was one of those fundamental why I am the way I am experiences of my childhood, something I’ve always known about myself but perhaps never dug up and deeply examined. Fieldwork changed that.

This post scrutinizes and celebrates not my education or training as a researcher, but my character and background. Who I am, and why that matters. It took some time to string together, but the theme weighed on me for most of my time in the field. It’s one thing I thought about often while squished in the multicab on the way to the city or patiently waiting in the foyer of a government office… but rarely contemplated before I began. I’m sure mentors attempted to warn me, but I was oblivious.

Fieldwork forced an intimate interrogation of how I listen and engage. I found it peculiar—and, truth be told, awesome—that I was most grateful for influences from my roots, rather than the technical skills picked up since then. Like being raised with a family bar business and parents who deeply value authentic connection. For my parents, there has never been any difference between an on and off-the-clock persona, they are consistently warm and conversational. I relied on their lessons every. single. day. In interviews I only had moments to cultivate rapport, convey how truly thankful I was for the conversation, and establish myself as trustworthy.  In the back of my mind I was constantly thanking the good ol’ It’ll Do and my tribe of rowdy, talkative, compassionate Palagis for all the practice.

This research project is unique in that it required me to adapt to two distinct spheres of Filipino society. Out in communities, one-on-one interviews could blossom into focus groups or group activities. With a gaggle of people, the scene was at risk of losing purpose and dissolving into chaotic energy. In partnership with Phoebe, we transitioned from conducting research to performing it.

In high school, I was a theater geek. A proud thespian and active member of the drama club. It’s a passion that’s oddly slipped out of my current life but in the field I found myself recalling small techniques from my theater days. A good portion of acting is about paying attention, actively noticing nuanced behaviors of those around you and nimbly reacting. In potentially chaotic gaggles of participants, I felt as though I was on stage, responsible for captivating attention and simultaneously seeking the truths others were sharing. It was playful and exhilarating.

In government offices however, I turned downed the whimsy and turned up the deference. When I wasn’t in communities, much of my time was spent talking with those I label decision makers, a broad category of people who have touched the where, what, why, and how of Tacloban’s relocation projects. Filipino culture, particularly within the government, is more hierarchical than American. It requires switching to Sirs, Ma’ams, and titles, like Engineer Shaye. Those unfamiliar with formal addresses may find “Ma’am Isabella” clunky to say, but I’m very comfortable with titles: the Air Force has engrained me with a natural tendency to address others with rank or respectful appellations. Experience with government formality helped me to quickly pick up on the Filipino version and, as I sought to study the way decision making unfolded for relocation, recognize where those institutional process may have influenced outcomes.

Much of that sounds lovely, but I’m not a research-bot perfectly designed to tackle fieldwork in the Philippines. There were moments I bumbled, tenacity wavering, and many times I felt truly challenged. Research, at least the type conducted up and away from a computer, required every bit of grit I own and some borrowed from a collection of supportive friends and family. Especially in networking and scheduling interviews, I had to go far beyond my comfort level to consistently, persistently, pester participants. Make no mistake, essentially all Filipinos are crushingly kind. But they’re also busy. Then once I actually did get to talk with people, pride in my chatty cathy abilities threatened to totally veer the meeting off script. I’ve got far too many recorded conversations about the American election,what my accommodation was like in the city, and what so-and-so likes to do when they visit their Aunt in California. It’s a little funny, but also troubling considering I’m interested in listening to their opinions, not my own.

Finally, I’d have to be naive to ignore the fact that my research was impact by more than just what I said or how I carried myself, it was also impacted by how I looked. I’m young and a woman, but a particularly young looking woman. Most people I encountered were astounded to find out I’m over 20. I counterbalanced my juvenescence with the announcement that I’d finished my first engineering course (their process of becoming a PE is a little different than ours). Still though, I was a bit peculiar. Add in my foreignness (despite my elation about palagi meaning always in Tagalog) and I often felt my respondents were a little curious about me. Perhaps that curiosity allowed me to explore my own a little further than I otherwise could.

 

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