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 Z├╝rich 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

Thursday, July 12, 2012

In the Press: Arguing, Learning, Waiting

For the past five years, Prof. Gordon Mathews has been giving classes to African and Pakistani men caught in the asylum-seeking process in Hong Kong. Has been living a tough life here, each of these "students" has his own story, being true or not. However, they have almost no chance of having their stories recognized by the authorities and gaining legal status as refugees to begin a new life. In International Herald Tribune, Prof. Mathews talks about their debates in class, and the struggles of these students :" students and I argue in class, then go our separate ways: I live my life, and they wait to live theirs."

Source: International Herald Tribune. To see the full version of the article, please click here.
These Muslim and Christian men are in their 20s and 30s, well-educated, well-informed about world affairs and highly vocal. We don’t spend much time on the rules of the English language. Instead, the classes have become discussion sessions about social and global topics.
I begin each class by asking a question. “Who is a better friend to Africa, the United States or China?” “What do you think of gay marriage?” “How do you know God is real?” My students then argue passionately with one another and with me for two hours. When class is over, they go back to being asylum seekers.

It’s a tough life. Upon entering Hong Kong and declaring to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or to the Hong Kong government that they qualify as asylum seekers under the U.N. Convention Against Torture, they are sent to a detention center for several weeks. When they’re let free, they’re given a pittance of aid — around $270 a month. They are forbidden to work, although some find illegal jobs as dishwashers, delivery men or peddlers.
The best bet for most of my students is to try to marry a Hong Kong girl, which would enable them to reside here legally. Sometimes I offer tips to the clueless, who ask questions like: “I want to meet a girl, but how?” or “I am Muslim, can I go to a bar and drink only orange juice?” or “I met a girl but she doesn’t know I’m an asylum seeker. Can you lend me some money?” Sometimes I offer small financial help.

Meanwhile, my students and I argue in class, then go our separate ways: I live my life, and they wait to live theirs.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Invited Seminar: Is there an Anthropology of Tourism?

Prof. Nelson GRABURN 
Professor Emeritus, Anthropology & TSWG, U C Berkeley 
"Is there an Anthropology of Tourism? Interdisciplinarity in the Twenty-first Century"
6 Jun 2012

Is there an anthropology of tourism? This was the core question in that Professor Nelson Graburn addressed in his invite seminar on Thursday June 7th. Graburn pointed out that most of the early contributors to the Anthropology like Dean Maccannell do not have a background in Anthropology. Graburn also notes that the anthropology of tourism in interdisciplinary by nature. This is due in some part to the need for mixed methodology in tourism Anthropology.

Graburn points out that the nature of tourism is such that participant observation is impossible to carry out on the tourists themselves, as the life of a tourist at their destination is only temporary, as they are only in a place as tourists for a few days, if not a few weeks, whereas participant observation requires the anthropologist to build rapport. Thus, anthropologists who study tourists have had to use different research methods. Some anthropologists have engaged in brief participant observation with tourist groups at a destination, others have engaged in interviews with tourists after they have returned home.

Graburn notes that more recent anthropology research has taken into account larger factors of political economy that are out of control of individuals and how these factors influence the everyday lives of individuals. The examination of the impacts of tourism fits into this global political-economic framework. Further, many ethnographies are now multi-sited. Thus, following the tourist while they are travelling and then back at home post-travelling is a legitimate method for carrying out ethnographic research. These developments point to a change in the discipline of anthropology that allows for an anthropology of tourism to exist as a genuine subfield in anthropology.
At a multidisciplinary food studies conference I attended, in just recently, I saw students from other disciplines including communications using ethnographic methods in their research from folklorists to students in communications to students in interdisciplinary food studies programmes. Anthropology should not be defined by research methodology alone. Given the changing research methods used in other disciplines, it would make sense for anthropologists to adapt a similarly flexible attitude towards the methods that they use in their research. Thus, there is no real question of whether there is an anthropology of tourism. It cannot be said that the anthropology of tourism does not exist just because a range of different research methodologies are used. The anthropology of tourism will exist so long as there is a need for “ground-up” studies of issues relating to tourism.
The General Secretary and the Organizational Secretary of African Community Hong Kong are having a discussion with the speaker and Prof. Gordon Mathews.

M.Phil Candidate