Friday, July 13, 2012

A Life Enriching Experience: Feelings as an Anthropology Student

Leah, Cheung Ah Li did both her undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in our department and is about to graduate as an M.Phil in anthropology. She shares some experiences of her five-year relationship with anthropology. 

Internship at the Ethnological Museum in Vienna, 2009
I will never forget the first anthropology lecture I attended when I was a freshman. It was a lecture on “what is anthropology” by Professor Gordon Mathews. He borrowed a $100 note from a student at the front row and explained the social function of money. All of a sudden, he tore the bill in half in front of the whole class. “This is just a piece of paper!” he asserted. Totally shocked, the whole class slowly realized how insane the social world is and that people are being controlled by social norms. Since then, I have been completely amazed by this subject, which has taught me to question this world and society. 

One of the first anthropological readings that I encountered was Miner’s “Body Ritual among the Nacirema”, which is still one of my favorite anthropological reads. The article describes the cultural characteristics of a “tribe” called Nacirema. Members of the “tribe” worship a hero called Notgnihsaw. They own a sacred shrine in the place where they live and they have to visit the “holy mouth man” every year who “tortures” the tribal members. Readers may find the tribe exotic, mysterious and aggressive when they first read the article. However, the Nacirema is actually a description of American culture from an outsider’s point of view. That is what anthropology is about: the study of our everyday life from another angle. 

Yale University New Asia College exchange programme,  2010
My anthropological studies have become more interesting as I learned about other topics. Anthropology students enjoy a high degree of freedom in choosing their courses. Besides some required courses that provide students the basic anthropological understandings, the anthropology department in CUHK offers a wide range of courses that students can choose from according to their interests. They learn about all aspects of cultures, including heritage and archaeology, food and culture, economy and power, tourism and globalization, and sexuality and gender. A student is able to learn to see the world holistically (seeing how the parts interrelate in the whole), as well as investigate their focused topics deeply.   

Undergraduate Anthropological Fieldtrip to Xinjiang, 2007
Moreover, students also have many opportunities to travel and experience other cultures. Aside from various exchange programmes that students can apply for, during my anthropological studies, I spent every summer vacation in a different city conducting fieldwork or participating in internships. For instance, I have been to the Silk Road in China travelling to Gansu, Xinjiang and Shaanxi provinces as my summer fieldtrip; worked at the National Antiquity Department in Beijing for a summer internship; conducted summer fieldwork with Cantonese Opera musicians in Guangzhou for three months; and participated in an internship in the Ethnological Museum in Vienna in Austria and in the Museum of Cultures in Zürich in Switzerland. These overseas experiences not only provided me chances to apply what I have learned in class, but also broadened my horizons towards different cultures. 

What are your interests? Are you afraid of not being able to balance your hobby with your studies after entering the university? No worries! You will be able to combine your interests with studies when you study anthropology. Past anthropology students’ final year projects have displayed a wide variety of topics of students’ own choices. For example, a student was interested in soccer and investigated the culture of soccer fans; a student loved eating chocolate was able to research the trend of chocolate consumption in Hong Kong. I would like to highlight my own research on the Cantonese Opera music community in Guangzhou. I have always wanted to become a musician. However, after I got to know about anthropology, I became amazed about learning more about other cultures. My study on Cantonese Opera enabled me to enjoy both music playing and the pleasure of exploring other cultures. During my summer fieldwork, I was playing music and performing in Guangzhou with Cantonese Opera ensembles almost everyday. I experienced rehearsals and performances that I thought would have never been possible. From knowing nothing about Cantonese Opera, to being able to perform on the stage, I have experienced a life-changing moment in my life. 
Guangzhou Wenhua Park, Cantonese Opera performance during fieldwork for M.Phil thesis, 2011
“What is anthropology? And what would you like to do afterwards?” These are the most frequent questions that I have been asked, since I have chosen to study anthropology. My parents worried about my future and people wondered whether I could earn a living after graduation. However, my fruitful university life proved all these worries were unnecessary because I have had the best time in my life being an anthropology student. All anthropology majors that I know have found their passion and jobs in a wide variety of industries and non-profit organizations after their graduation. The author and critic Philip Gilbert Hamerton once wrote, “Culture is like wealth; it makes us more ourselves, it enables us to express ourselves.” Anthropology has equipped me with the skill to communicate with others and a holistic view towards different issues. I am still fascinated by the discipline of anthropology and how anthropology has altered me everyday, therefore, I believe that anthropology has provided me an intangible kind of wealth that enriches my life and will enable me to generate more tangible wealth that will be fruitful for my future. 

M.Phil Candidate


  1. My study of Chinese restaurants allowed me to eat some great meals and chat to other passionate food lovers about food.