Fieldwork, Formalities, and Freaking Out

Entrance of Shenzhen Museum

Doing fieldwork for the first time is quite terrifying, yet fun and exciting at the same time. My supervisor is at the other end of Eurasia, so there is nobody around give me disappointed looks when I’m procrastinating. On the other hand, the prospect of annoyed e-mails always looms if my reports are not up to scratch. I have just handed in my first report, so fingers crossed! Don’t get me wrong though, my supervisor is not a brute. In fact, he is actually quite a nice guy… I think.

My first weeks in China were occupied with the usual bureaucracy anyone moving to another country has to deal with: obtaining papers, getting papers stamped, stand in line and listen to some Latino sing London Bridge is Falling Down for half an hour, hand in papers, and hope for the best. After getting all the paperwork out of the way, it was time to concentrate on getting things arranged at the university for my language studies. As I have always written traditional characters, my simplified character writing skills leave something to be desired. I had no idea what the placement test was going to be like, so I decided to practise all the characters I am supposed to know – of course I had intended to start practising months ago, but why do something today when you can freak out about it three months later? For two weeks I wrote pages and pages of simplified characters, only to find out that the “placement test” was just a conversation with one of the teachers about which class you think you should be in.

I had myself placed in the advanced class, which I can certainly handle, but is much harder work than I had expected (more about the university in my next post). It has only been in the past two weeks or so that I have finally been able to get on with my work at the museum. You might be wondering what am I actually doing at the museum. Well, so was I on my first day. I am researching the nationalist narrative of the permanent exhibition of Shenzhen Museum and looking at how national and regional identities interact or are conflicting. There is 12,500 m2 of exhibition space to collect data from, which makes it a rather daunting task. Unlike my unsuccessful attempt at studying simplified characters in sensible portions, I am not doing too badly at the museum.

Entrance Hall of Shenzhen Museum

Entrance Hall of Shenzhen Museum

At first glance, Shenzhen Museum looks pretty difficult to analyse, but the longer you stare at the exhibits and the texts, the more you will find. If you think Shenzhen only existed since 1979, then you are wrong: the museum boasts a 7000 year history! Of course, this region is older than the current city, but linking the Neolithic Age directly to today does require some imagination. Although I am here to scrutinise the hell out of this museum from an academic point of view, it really is worth a visit. It is easy to forget that the current geopolitical landscape isn’t static and eternal. A nice example displayed by the museum dates from before the Opium Wars, when this region was part of Xin’an county, which included all of Hong Kong – something that is difficult to imagine, especially with the current protests going on.

The greatest challenges of doing fieldwork here are not the ever-present opportunities to procrastinate, the worries about getting things right, or being distracted by Chinese language homework. The greatest challenges are remaining inconspicuous as the only blonde-haired, fair-skinned visitor at the museum – a challenge I have failed at miserably, considering the number of times I have already had to pose for photographs with Chinese tourists – and  figuring out where to eat after work. Speaking of which…

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