Getting to know one's self in the field

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Thu, 25 Apr 1996 21:27:25 +0900

Dear Friends,

I have been arguing the virtue of an anthropologist doing fieldwork
among Others sufficiently different from herself to challenge taken
for granted habits and stimulate awareness of unconscious
assumptions. Looking back at what I have written, I find it still too
abstract. I wonder if those who have done fieldwork in what were,
initially at least, exotic places would be willing to share personal
anecdotes that illustrate how this may work in practice?

Two moments stick in my own mind from my fieldwork in
Taiwan. One was the day a neighbor, who knew that I was
interested in Chinese religion, took me to the Temple of the Golden
Mother. Going to a temple was something I had done a fair amount
of. The shock came when, on entering the temple, he lit several
sticks of incense, handed them to me, and invited me to bow to the
goddess with him. It was then that the Protestant-Christian-Judaic
heritage that I thought was pretty much erased by my B.A. in
philosophy erupted inside me. I was "bowing down to graven
images" and, for one very shakey moment, was seriously waiting
for a bolt of lightning from heaven to strike me down and send me
to Hell. It was there and then that I became quite interested in the
curious fact that while the Chinese landscape is liberally littered
with temples and cults, both foreign and native scholars could say
with perfect seriousness that China had no religion.

The second was being told that with my stocky frame, squarish face,
large eyes and moustache, I bear a striking physical resemblance to
The Jade Emperor, the supreme god in the popular version of the
Chinese pantheon. Thus, to people much given to estimating
character from physiognomy, I seem to be highly trustworthy. I
have often wondered if this mightn't be one of the reasons, I found
doing fieldwork in Taiwan a relatively painless experience. What, I
wonder, would my research have been like if I had gone to the field
with a long, rat-like face [a free translation of native terms]...the
kind that arouses instant suspicion?

Has anyone else out there had similar encounters?

John McCreery
April 25, 1996