Ailin Yan, ‘Hypervisibility in the field, Invisibility in the Academy’

Square Word Calligraphy Classroom. Credit to the author.
This photograph was taken at the UCCA Ullens Centre of Contemporary Art exhibition, ‘Xu Bing: Thought and Method’, in August 2018. The encounter feels rather similar to viewers’ first encounter with Xu Bing’s calligraphy artwork ‘Square Word Calligraphy Classroom’. Xu’s conceptual artwork is an ingenious play on Chinese and English morphologies: while the characters look like real Chinese characters written in an elegant Kai form, they are in fact composed of letters from the English alphabet. Xu’s artwork for an English-reading audience is simultaneously strange and familiar, just like others’ encounter with me in the field, but also anthropology’s encounter with the Other. 


As previously told by my inviter (Clive) to the volunteering session, the main job of the day was to paint large sheets of paper in yellow and blue in preparation for a craft activity. On arrival, I introduced myself as a student researcher in social anthropology from Cambridge University and then elaborated on my master’s dissertation project on the Homes for Ukraine scheme to seek permission to write about the day. They all said yes. A middle-aged Englishman volunteering alongside me (who I will henceforth refer to as Tom) asked why that is of my particular interest. I explained that my godparents are hosting a Ukrainian family and that cultural exchanges are generally interesting, particularly given the trope of British stoicism. Tom contemplatively nodded, ‘I suppose so. And I guess the Japanese are quite similar in that way aren’t they’. 

‘That’s quite an interesting comparison. What do you mean by that?’ 

Excited by someone new and young being there, Clive redirected the conversation and probed at my background enthusiastically. He first asked me where I lived, to which I answered college accommodation, then asked me where I lived before moving to Cambridge, to which I answered London, and then asked me for how long I’ve lived in London. I sensed that they’re asking where I’m really from. Even though my Southern British English accent allows me to pass as a native in many contexts, this was a fair question, since at least according to my passport, I am a Chinese national. Picking my words carefully to reflect my complicated self-identification, I answered:

‘Well, I’m originally Chinese. But although I was born in Shanghai, I’ve been living and studying in England since I was 14 years-old, my godparents are English…it’s complicated. But yeah, I’m Chinese.’

‘Ah! I thought you’re from Japan!’ Tom reacted.

After learning that I’m Chinese, an uncomfortable debate between Clive, on the offence, and Tom and myself, on the defence, about whether Chinese art as a monolithic category is monotonous and unintellectual compared to Western Euro-American art ensued. I won’t dwell on the specifics here. But thanks to my elite British public-school education that allowed me to pursue History of Art (of the Euro-American West) as a serious subject, my rusty knowledge of the Western art canon was good enough to engage in a critical debate and earn their respect. Impressed, Tom figured that I’m quite an ‘artistic person’ and proceeded to ask whether I have an artistic practice or play any instruments. 

‘I play the violin and do a bit of photography, but not professionally.’

‘You weren’t forced to play it by your parents, were you?’ Tom asked sympathetically. 

Too stunned to speak, I took a few moments to process his question before honestly addressing it.

‘No. I started with the piano when I was around 4 or 5 but then naturally gravitated towards the violin. No one forced me to play it.’

The conversation meandered to touch on whether I’m an only-child because of the one-child policy, how the Chinese economy is ‘cracking’, the Chinese restaurant down the road where Tom always orders vegetable stir-fry, among other things. 


I tend to think of these passing conversations with members of an otherwise open and welcoming community of committed altruists as, at best, innocent and, at worst, ignorant. I do not think they meant to cause me any offence in trying to be friendly, and I hope my presence disrupting their racially and culturally biased imaginations was an educational experience for them. Now, I do wonder what perceptible part of me makes me Japanese and gives off the aura of an oppressive childhood. I joke about these comments to lighten their impact: he should’ve guessed Chinese simply by the fact that about 1 in 5 people is Chinese (Worldometers 2020). On another occasion, a volunteer asked me whether I’m Japanese because he saw my ‘tokyobike’-branded bicycle parked next to his. That would be like asking someone wearing a Patagonia-branded t-shirt whether they are from Argentina or Chile. That said, my understanding of and joking attitude towards this kind of behaviour do not negate the visceral effects of my stomach sinking, my mind blanking, my muscles tensing up, scrambling to come up with a polite, measured response. When Clive said “oh I just think Chinese art all look the same. You know. Foggy mountains and wispy clouds – and there’s no colour!”. I was in utter disbelief, fuming on the inside, but instead forced a smile on my face. “How did you come to that conclusion?”, “What makes you say that?”, “Really?”, “How interesting”. I had to keep my cool. 

In retrospect, it was quite naïve of me to have overlooked the awkward situations I might find myself in as a brown-eyed, olive-skinned, young, East Asian woman doing participant observation in white spaces (Andersen 2015; Brodkin et al. 2011). Keeping in mind the colonial roots and legacies of the discipline, my initial concerns expressed in the ethics and risk assessment forms for my project were centred around the axes of anthropologist and the subject, gender, refugee/non-refugee, and socioeconomic class. My preliminary fieldwork speaking to Ukrainian refugees, volunteers, and hosts gave me the impression that racial tension was unlikely to crop up. My fieldsites are considered wealthy, diverse, and cosmopolitan areas in Southeast England, so I thought it would just be a case of participating in activities with people who just happened to be mostly white, and especially volunteers: people who I assumed to be socially aware. I approached engagements in the field being aware of my habitus of a woman fieldworker from an elite institution interacting with potentially vulnerable people (Bourdieu 1977). Instead, it turned out that my intellectual Westernness was muffled by my hypervisible racial/ethnic traits, which inevitably put me on the receiving end of essentialising judgement and racial prejudice. 

Putting aside my capacity as an anthropologist, my dislocated identities (Shohat 2017 [1992]), contradictory social positionality (Berry et al. 2017), or out-of-placeness (Puwar 2004: 8) became the sources of confusion. Sans jargon, Tom and Clive couldn’t see me as Chinese Chinese as per my nationality, and became even more perplexed by my command of Western cultural knowledge. Their surprise seemed to be founded in the structural ambiguity that someone who is not us, or so often portrayed by a sizeable proportion of Western media as our mysterious enemy of the far East (see Yu 2019), can act like us and know us so well (cf. Berry et al. 2017; Mahmud 2014: Chap 1). How does she speak native-level English, is versed in the niche of Western art history, and developed a range of artistic interests out of her own free will? How did she get into an institution reputedly reserved for Euro-America’s upper crust? She’s unlike the stereotypical Chinese student who’s bad at English, socially awkward, and uneducated in our (more interesting, and thus superior) culture. My western, upper-middle class-ness is a mismatch with how they made China and a Chinese person out to be (cf. Lee 2021). More to their surprise, perhaps, was a Chinese anthropologist studying the “West”, or rather, them.  

The social encounter is foiled by the ethnographic element. In this case, the anthropological gaze is not directed at me, the foreigner, but at them, the natives. A young Chinese woman studying them to gain an understanding of the English/Ukrainian interface is a far cry from the trite figure of the social researcher–white, upper/upper-middle class–that has long dominated both academic and popular imaginations. When interlocutors like Tom and Clive asked me the perennial question of “what is anthropology” and “why anthropology”, even I default to the apologetic explanation that traditionally, anthropologists study peoples in faraway corners of the world–like a rural Chinese village–by participating in their day-to-day activities. But my reversed gaze (Ntarangwi 2010) disrupted the typical dynamic between the anthropologist and the subject. As an Uganda anthropologist, Christine Obbo observed that her Western colleagues and interested others “have responded to my fieldwork in their home countries in ways that reveal their discomfort when the accustomed power relationships between anthropologist and ‘native’ are reversed. The fieldnotes of a non-Westerner studying Americans upsets and makes them anxious because they feel that their culture is on the line.” (Obbo 1990:291). My interaction with Tom and Clive seemed to have triggered a similar kind of anxiety. From the provocative comments about Chinese cultural heritage to backhanded compliments about my apparent creativity, I interpret these as tactics for re-negotiating balance against what they perceived to be the double threat of 1) an English-like Chinese, and because of that 2) an anthropologist studying their culture. I don’t know how else to make sense of why someone of my father’s age would simultaneously compliment the Westernness of my knowledge base, while marking out my foreignness and say to my face that Chinese art “all look the same” one hour into our first proper conversation; it’s strangely reminiscent of the group of teenage girls asking me whether I eat dogs when I first arrived at boarding school. 

Outside of academic contexts, I’ve learnt to unpick, disarm, or retaliate these kinds of prejudicial–and I hate to say it–racist comments, mostly with blunt sarcasm. “Your English is very good”, “thanks, yours is not too bad either”. But with the reputation of the discipline and the institution on your shoulders, contacts and field access on the line, even more so the pressure to be a good representative of ‘my people’, the cost can be high for being quick-witted and perceived as that person who gets too easily triggered. Maintaining professional composure in these situations adds to the affective labour of research, and such coping strategies have profound methodological and epistemological implications (Chua & Mathur 2018; Navarro et al. 2013). If I abandon this site, will I be missing something? How do attitudes expressed by my interlocutors towards me impact the kind of knowledge I produce? Would it be ethical if I write about this in my thesis? Will I be taken seriously if I do write about it? I searched for answers to these questions in the literature only to come out feeling underrepresented. 

While the talk around decolonising methodology and diversifying epistemologies is bubbling with enthusiasm, I wonder if the anthropological “we” (Chua & Mathur 2018) are really walking the walk. As fieldwork continued, it became more and more apparent that the methodology taught to me in the academy–ethics, conceptual frameworks, ‘best practice’ and various other components relating to the question of ‘how to do anthropology’–are implicitly built upon the premise that anthropology is inherently a white, colonising discipline reproduced by white practitioners (Ahmed 2007; Lee 2021; Navarro, Williams, and Ahmad 2013). This assumption has its implicit and explicit manifestations. Explicitly, it exists the texts which are considered to be canonical, the reading lists, the most cited authors, and introductory lectures (Ntarangwi 2010; Tuhiwai Smith 1999). Building on this foundation, the preferences and expectations of universities, funders, journals, boards of professional associations, the consumers of ethnographic knowledge and so forth, enforce the implicit expectation for non-white non-Western researchers to study their own (Brodkin et al. 2011; Chua & Mathur 2018; Lee 2021; Nordling 2020). Not being the “somatic norm” in the anthropological space (Puwar 2004:8), non-white anthropologists studying white Western cultures have fallen through the cracks of the anthropologist-field matrix (Godina 2003). 

From Godina 2003: 482.

Reflecting on my own fieldwork experience, it occurs to me that disciplinary ethics are taught from the default position of whiteness and thus conflates the “structural and ocular whiteness of anthropology” (Lee 2021), ignoring “the complex, multiple, and slippery ways that the anthropologist’s phenotype and body mediate their engagement in the field and in the discipline” (ibid.). The sharp “double consciousness” (Du Bois 1968) I felt in the field as being both Western and Other, I imagine, must be so widely experienced in a globalised, diasporic world yet is so under-discussed. 

Hailed as a deeply reflexive discipline, the crux of the decolonising methodology problem here seems to be how to teach the “fourth possibility” (Godina 2003:482), an increasingly large group of people like me who are not quite white and not quite Western to do anthropology in the West. If in the Western academy we are taught to conduct ethical reflections from the positionality of a white, Western, anthropologist working in non-white, non-Western spaces or at “home”, do I, someone who does not fit into this configuration, carry with me the disciplinary guilt in the white, Western field? Despite the claim to diversity and the many turns anthropology has taken, to hold onto the idea that anthropology is “inevitably a unidirectional, colonial enterprise” only “recentres Westernness and whiteness” (Lee 2021). 


I thank a friend for the Patagonia t-shirt analogy – you made me giggle. I also thank Liana Chua for sharing her thoughts and providing me with useful resources. 

Ailin (Elizabeth) Yan is a graduate student reading Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Her thematic interests lie in the anthropology of migration, “multiculturalism”, art, and language. Enthusiastic about interdisciplinary knowledge production and public engagement, Ailin has contributed to research initiatives such as the Cambridge Digital Humanities Reactor programme on COP27 and energy colonialism in Egypt.


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