Presented at the American Anthropological Association Meetings 2017, Washington, D.C., for the panel Writing Home: Unpacking Experiences of Distance and Displacement.
My fieldsite and hometown, Nabua, is nestled in the central riverine basin of the Bicol Peninsula in the southeast of Luzon Island, Philippines. Nabua’s moniker is linked to the historical events of 1901, when, three years after Spain relinquished the Philippines to the U.S., William McKinley signed an executive order that launched the gendered and racialized enlistment of the first 500 Filipinos into the lowest rungs of the U.S. Navy. The recruitment of Filipinos officially stopped in 1991, when the last U.S. military bases in the Philippines were closed. While called the Town of Dollars, its present moment could perhaps be described by what Lauren Berlant (2011) calls “crisis ordinariness.”
My larger Ph.D. dissertation investigates the effects of migration at home, in an attempt to address the gap in existing literature, which has also been noted by migration scholars. It is challenging to plot the timeline of my fieldwork in Nabua. I returned for fieldwork in March 2013, and then this was interrupted by a month-long visit to the U.S. for my mother’s surgery, and then again by an academic visit from June to December 2014 at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society. This was followed by a return to Nabua in December 2014 to January 2015. In February 2015 to mid-December, I opened a crafts shop in Manila and occasionally returned to Nabua for more research, then finally closed shop to return to Vancouver. Like Stella Mascarenhas-Keyes (1987) who had trouble leaving the field to the point that she was advised by her dissertation adviser to finally “move out of the field,” I share this research timeline with the recognition that, because of the folding-in of the personal into my ethnographic work, the fieldwork experience seems to have “no beginning and no end.”
I am interested in thinking about “temptations,” “invitations,” and “distractions” that persisted and followed me around while I was in my hometown, which, in the purview of “the researcher’s time,” according to Johannes Fabian (1983), may be seen as digressions from the intensive knowledge-production expected from an ethnographer. I discuss here the messy contexts that arise when engaging with projects that appear to “eat time” and that impinge on the anthropological work of data collection. I also reflect on them in relation to concepts of academic productivity, especially when doing an “anthropology of the hometown” as an “overseas scholar” – for lack of a better term. Later, I draw from conceptual art and Filipino migration studies when I ask how I could critically reflect on the notion of wastage in academic fieldwork, and on knowledge production when researching the home, especially with regard to claims of what Filipino-Chinese scholar Caroline Hau (2014) calls “epistemic privilege.” by virtue of my Dipesh Chakrabarty’s idea of “autobiographical ties.” In their examination of the processes of homing and migration, Sara Ahmed et al. (2003) write, “Being grounded is not necessarily about being fixed; being mobile is not necessarily about being detached.” I wonder if overseas scholars deploy these “regroundings” in negotiating ways to speak for and about their object of study. I continue my discussion by briefly reviewing some classic formulations of time during fieldwork, to be followed by an introduction of some of the “extra-fieldwork activities” that consumed research time.
Fabian writes that there are three underlying assumptions in ethnographic methods. First, the native language is a necessary research tool; second, strategies such as mapping produce scientific knowledge. I am most interested in Fabian’s third critique on methods – the one about the “notions of speed” or “expeditiousness of procedure” (107). According to Fabian, the collection of data is “aimed at instituting a time-economy.” Where research time is fixed and limited, Fabian observes that learning a language is meant to “save time” while mapping is meant to “gain time.” Fabian critiques this standardization as having produced a “caricature of ethnography” that not only exaggerates data but that also consequently “omit(s) the dimensions of experience,” and that filters out “experiential noise” (108), that we have all come across in the field one way or another (108).
Initial moments in the field such as the researcher’s “arrival” often fill the first pages of an ethnographic monograph. Malinowski writes about “the feeling of hopelessness and despair” in his first attempts to establish rapport with “the natives.” His prescription for the “proper conditions” for fieldwork was to camp right in, but still “far enough away” from, the village, and the ethnographer must observe a strict schedule to “do the village.” Mead (1928), living in the only foreign house in the Samoan archipelago, complained of the heat which she found unproductive to her writing and documentation. While these are classics, these lessons from fieldwork are echoed until today in anthropological methods syllabi, drawing the “caricature” of ethnography critiqued by Fabian. Auto-ethnographers have contributed important discussions on the messy life during fieldwork, although Ruth Behar (2013, 6) also laments quite recently, “Among anthropologists it’s a mortal sin to write about oneself.”
Like many anthropologists researching at home, JoAnn D’Alisera (1999, 6) came to realize the disconnect between the “romantic lens” through which student anthropologists are taught to imagine “the field” and the experience of studying a field “which is not an exotic one,” and that “isn’t even rural.” This led her to worry that what she came to do “isn’t really fieldwork.” In my fieldnotes, I wrote about “the incredible slowness of time and research” when potential informants – whether kin, family friends, neighbors, or acquaintances – respond to requests for an interview with “Anytime is okay,” “Whenever,” “Up to you,” or “I’ll see you around anyway.”
Returning to Nabua with funding for my research, I resolved that I could use some of it to repair my mother’s dilapidated empty home, in which I was going to stay during fieldwork. My mother now resides in the U.S. with my eldest sister. Another sister lives in New Zealand/Australia, and my brother resides in Manila. This cleanup and repair took up the first month of my fieldwork time – from March to April 2013. In June, I received a call from a representative of an upcoming regional trade fair if I had some baskets available for exhibition. I replied that Nabua Home Industries – the supply-for-export crafts business that was owned by my grandparents – had folded up over a decade ago. With many members of my family now living in Manila or overseas as migrant workers, and with cheaper production costs available elsewhere, our basket business had long since collapsed. My mother thought that it was a waste of time to try this venture as finishing my Ph.D. would be a more certain route to upward mobility. She stressed the precarity of maintaining a business in Nabua at a time of increasingly undervalued craftwork, when many workers are planning to migrate anyway. I only planned to have a few baskets commissioned for the trade show, but soon there were also invitations from the town’s agricultural office and then the Department of Trade and Industry. This small effort finally led to the opening of a crafts shop in Metro Manila, which I operated until I returned to Vancouver in 2016.
In-between re-building the basket business and interviewing for my research, I also volunteered as an elections watch, served as a location scout and fundraiser for an indie period film, hosted a crew of about thirty people during the film shoot, represented my family in an inheritance court case which had dragged on for two decades, organized a transnational donations campaign for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan, taught two courses for one term at a private college in Manila, and ridiculous as this may seem, “wasted time” pondering over an invitation to run for the town’s vice mayor position, among others!
While in Nabua, as neighbors noticed my extended stay outside the annually held summer festivities, I began to be greeted with the questions, “Why are you still here?”, followed by, “When are you leaving?” For many of those who are left behind in Nabua, life is often or always imagined to be better elsewhere. Such is the condition of the “home” that I returned to for fieldwork – paradoxically imagined and targeted as a place for retirement by many Nabueños living overseas who spend money on building lavish retirement mansions – yet thought of as being hopeless as a site for cultivating one’s career or raising a family. Nabueños also saw my stay at home for ethnography as a waste of time. They told me that in Canada, I could get a proper pay for my efforts, and perhaps contribute in a more productive way to the making of the Town of Dollars.
As Michael Lambek (2005, 233) writes, “fieldwork is as much passion…as action.” However, Marilyn Strathern (1987) also points out that anthropological work about the chaos of doing fieldwork at home also produces “routine reflexivity.” What becomes “auto-anthropology,” according to Strathern, is meant to produce an intensified awareness about ourselves as it adds more sensitivity into our ethnographic practice. I agree with Strathern’s critique of reflexivity as being dangerously close to the 18th-century anxieties of knowing the self, often at the expense of an exploitable other.
I am interested in thinking about the issues I have mentioned so far in two ways. First, I look at conceptualist works’ explorations on absence, non-performance, vacuity as detours from representation, and from expectations of production. Second, questions of intention and privilege in knowledge production are certainly linked to the impressions that overseas migration leaves on the everyday life, and on the knowledge production, and to an extent, the extra-fieldwork activities, of overseas scholars. There are over 6,000 Filipinos leaving the Philippines every day for work overseas (Migrante International 2015) . In the Philippines, we recall the labor of the intelligentsia during the Spanish colonial period who studied in exile in Europe and then returned to the Philippines with ideas that helped kindle the fire of the revolution. But the idea of “return,” As Hau writes, “no longer carries with it the political charge and cachet that it once had.” Given this situation, I suggest that the fact of migration in the Philippines complicates the discussion of the returning Filipino researcher’s time as a limited resource.
Some examples of artists’ work that come to mind include Rachel Whiteread’s “Ghost” (1990) – a plaster cast of the space of an empty room in an abandoned building; Brian Sergio and Alvin Zafra’s “Flores de Mayo Potholes” (2000) – a plaster cast of dents on one street in Manila that could be read as a commentary on the burdens and weight of urban development; and Michael Heizer’s (1969) “Double Negative” – a trench measuring 30 ft side x 50 ft deep x 1500 ft long that he dug out. I am interested in these works as they reorient our perceptions of emptiness and non-activity, and challenge audiences to think about vacated spaces as places of activity. Heizer resists this human-made trench’s visual documentation for installation purposes in galleries, arguing that the physical witnessing of its scale is part of its appreciation. Hinged on the concept of the negative, works such as Whiteread’s enrich contemporary art’s discourse on the “real” by making the invisible perceptible. The same question could be asked by academics who lament the loss of fieldwork time and who are anxious about productivity. In the same way, how could “lost” or “wasted” time be made to appear in our ethnography, especially if our ethnography is validated by the written text? Fabian foresees an eventual abandonment of “representationism,” and to transform “experience in a struggle with ‘means of production’ of discourse.” My idea of thinking about wasted time involves a similar struggle in thinking about possible productivities in the eventuality of not-doing.
Just last week, the Philippine Studies Association released a call for papers for conversations on the “tensions between home-grown and diasporic scholarship.” Increasingly, overseas Filipino scholars need to respond to questions about their intentions, politics, and reflexivity. Hau (2014) points out that often, Filipino middle-class intellectuals insist on an “epistemic privilege” based on notions of the “authenticity” of their experience and knowledge. On the other hand, Arnold Azurin (2002) calls out the privileged in-betweenness of scholars within the “vantage point of ‘migratory scholarship’.”
Often the claim to epistemic privilege includes the scholar’s (whether based locally or elsewhere) positioning of the self as the authority that could speak for or on behalf of the Filipino subject or the larger nation. Spivak notes that anxieties about representation are also persistent among non-Western scholars who are conscious in giving voice to the subaltern, yet the “subaltern” often refers to the indigenous and the oppressed. It could be that this effort inadvertently reproduces Western representations of the “Other,” and may have a silencing effect on the subaltern. Hau observes that Filipino scholars that are based overseas and those in the Philippines tend to inquire into each other’s “rootedness” in the Philippines. Claims on the right to study our “own” could also comfortably settle into “nativism” which Filipino poet and scholar Neil Garcia (2013, 77) calls the “most eminently appropriable discourse” that is consequently also the “most convenient, most financially rewarding, most uncritical…” The idea of return could work to resituate the overseas scholar into their roots, reactivating genealogies and attachments to kin, and the land, but at the same time, Hau’s comments that this same idea of return could tend to play down on the supposed betrayal through departure. However, complex histories of internal and overseas migrations of people in the postcolony are often also stories of displacement which could render a critique of people’s uprootedness from the homeland a dangerous pursuit.
Pursuits such as crafts production, scouting for a location for a local indie film, and others, may have trapped Nabua in a picture of rurality that defies many of its residents’ idealization of Nabua as the Town of Dollars. I have a chapter to write about the sad story about “sustainable crafting” in my hometown, and about the problematic development complex that fueled my capitalist desires. One could argue that I was just #humblebragging and the activities I enumerated fall within action, activist, and other applied anthropological practice that serve as testimonies to the discipline’s shifting discourse from studying the other to that of active engagement, collaboration, and involvement. I would like to retain some suspicion of reflexivity, productivity, and various engagements of the researcher in the field. As more Nabueños left for work overseas, mansions owned by migrant Nabueños mushroomed. In a moment of frustration with our frequently flooded apartment, my mother once asked me why we, her three daughters now living and working abroad, would not build her a home of comparable comfort and aesthetics as those owned by our neighbors benefiting from overseas remittances. My mother wishes for herself to be able to display in Nabua the fruits of overseas success. But my growing family now all located all over the world is only very recently beginning to ground/root themselves in various locations. It could also be that repairing one’s home is linked with local expectations on generational obligations and with expectations to contribute to maintaining our family home now that I return with some dollars in hand.
Ahmed, Sara, ed. 2003. Uprootings/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration. Bloomsbury Academic.
Azurin, Arnold Molina. 2002. “Orientalism? Privileged Vistas Most Probably.” Philippine Political Science Journal 23 (46): 139–150.
Behar, Ruth. 2013. Traveling Heavy: A Memoir in Between Journeys. Durham: Duke University Press.
Berlant, Lauren Gail. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press.
D’Alisera, JoAnn. 1999. “Field of Dreams: The Anthropologist Far Away at Home.” Anthropology and Humanism 24 (1): 5–19. https://doi.org/10.1525/ahu.19220.127.116.11.
Fabian, Johannes. 1983. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press. https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=OMnbAgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=johaness+fabian+&ots=f4noaT5xWo&sig=glS2TJGjgNEDA9XMRsQ2FpymuRQ.
Garcia, J. Neil C. 2013. The postcolonial perverse: critiques of comtemporary Philippine culture. Diliman, Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press.
Hau, Caroline Sy. 2014. “Privileging Roots and Routes: Filipino Intellectuals and the Contest over Epistemic Power and Authority.” Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints 62 (1): 29–65.
Heizer, Michael. 1969. Double Negative. Land. https://www.moca.org/visit/double-negative.
Lambek, Michael. 2005. “Our Subjects/Ourselves: A View from the Back Seat.” In Autoethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices, edited by Anne Meneley and Donna Young, 229–40. Peterborough, ON., Canada: Broadview Press Ltd. http://www.broadviewpress.com.
Mascarenhas-Keyes, Stella. 1987. “The Native Anthropologist: Constraints and Strategies in Research.” In Anthropology at Home, London. Tavistock Publications, 180–95. London: Tavistock Publications.
Mead, Margaret. 1928. Coming of Age in Samoa : A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation. New York: Morrow. http://www.worldcat.org/title/coming-of-age-in-samoa-a-psychological-study-of-primitive-youth-for-western-civilisation/oclc/671703762?referer=br&ht=edition.
Migrante International. 2015. “#SONA2015 Number of OFWs Leaving Daily Rose from 2,500 in 2009 to 6,092 in 2015.” Migrante International (blog). July 29, 2015. http://migranteinternational.org/2015/07/29/sona2015-number-of-ofws-leaving-daily-rose-from-2500-in-2009-to-6092-in-2015/.
Sergio, Brian, and Alvin Zafra. 2000. Plaster.
Strathern, Marilyn. 1987. “The Limits of Auto-Anthropology.” In Anthropology at Home, edited by Anthony Jackson, 16–37. London: Tavistock Publications. http://philpapers.org/rec/STRTLO-9.
Whiteread, Rachel. 1990. Ghost. Plaster on steel frame. https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.131285.html.