Posted by: mensab | October 19, 2007


Fieldworking with the Japanese: Notes from a Guide’s and Translator’s View

(Menandro S. Abanes)

 “The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.”                                                                                       Samuel Johnson 

       It is said that traveling expands our horizon. We get to know and learn new things by “being there.” For some reasons, we want to see and discover for ourselves what we already know, read and are told about a particular place or event that’s why we travel.

      A group of Japanese students and faculty from the Department of Studies on Global Citizenship of Seisen University in Tokyo, Japan traveled to various parts of Bicol according to their preselected communities, such as, farming (Pacol, Naga City), fishing (Sogod, Tinambac), and mining (Tugos, Paracale) from July 28 to August 4, 2006. They went to these communities and lived among the people. And they called their travel to Bicol – fieldwork.

      Some questions people asked about the activity; what brought the Japanese here and lived among the people? What is fieldwork? Why is it undertaken? What do we get out of fieldwork?

      Answers to these questions may just form part of the truth of what of interest to us. The totality of what happened during fieldwork days and nights could not possibly and adequately be presented and explained by questions and answers of this sort. But our questions and answers here would present the observed and interpreted reality which none of us could assail to have happened.

     Thus, rather than merely answering the questions posed, we need to look at, through and behind what happens in a fieldwork. In this way, it is hoped that we will learn more from this than the answers to the questions.

     Directly observing a reality is a vantage for us who want to understand a reality. Moreover, it will be a more fruitful understanding of reality if we do not only observe but participate in a setting. Fieldwork entails a combination of observation and participation, also known as participant-observation. Since reality is embedded with meanings, observing or participating may not discover, decipher and discern what it truly is, but the coupling of the two may do the work. For example in the fieldwork, we saw farmers performing some farming activities such as transplanting, weeding, or harvesting, etc., yet when some of us did those things, we gained the “feeling” of being farmers with which greater understanding of the farming ways took place. The knee-deep mud of a prepared field, back pain for too much bending , puzzling shortcuts to the field, and silence of people working on the field (or just the difficulty of communicating in an understandable language) form new meanings to us. Mere observations and interviews would bring about insights of the activities and events, but not the kind of insight we could gain from actual performance of or participation in the activities and events.

     Understanding “lived” reality is best done by going and “being there” for quite some time. But the reality is changed the moment we enter it. We bring foreign factors in the environment which reproduce another reality, alien or different from the reality prior to our presence. When we came to Pacol with the Japanese, we became part of Pacol but never of the lived reality of Pacol. Farmers tried to speak English which is not their lingua franca. Children were amazed by the sight of these “different” people and so they stopped playing their usual games. Instead, they followed these “different” people whom they were seeing the first time. In the after-wedding ceremony which we attended at the house of the bride in Pacol, the locals were interrupted of their usual behaviors. Even the after-wedding rituals such as pantomina and release of doves were timed for us to see, and not for the ritual’s sake and meaning. The people’s attention shifted from the newly-wed couple to us. What happened in that wedding since our arrival was not the “lived” reality of a traditional Bicolano wedding. The locals were conscious of our presence, and our being “outsiders” prevented us from seeing the wedding event in an insider’s view. We had yet to acquire the locals’ perspectives, attachments, norms, and values of that particular event. In order to do so, it would take a certain length of time and level of acceptance and acculturation to start to look, behave, speak and think like locals do. We might not come close to seeing and doing it the locals’ way like the dancing of pantomina, but what we saw and did in the event gave us nonetheless a sense and perception of the wedding event in Pacol.

     Notably, the University’s department where the Japanese students come from is Department of Studies on Global Citizenship. Fieldwork provides an insight on human diversity with which global citizens must acknowledge and appreciate in a rapidly globalizing world. The recognition of this human diversity would enable them to have a view and contexture of the world characterized by the plurality of ethnicity, class, gender, language, and culture. There is no better approach to do this than fieldwork.

     The Japanese formally interviewed farmers, land-owners, tenants, miners, fishers, women, children, public officials, urban poor, and students to add on to the raw data gathered from their observation. They listened to people’s constructed life stories and observed the reproduced reality. The synthesis they get out of what they gathered will form part of the “thick description1” of the various communities they visited.

     Hopefully, the exposure to our cultural differences strengthen our understanding of our own cultural identities. As Henry Miller says, “One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.” When we travel, we never lose our cultural perspectives which might have drowned us into the common, familiar,  and taken-for-granted world, rather we use them as lens to enrich and expand our perspectives by having seen and been in places that surprise and jolt us. Our shared experiences with the Japanese and the communities locate us from an imagined reality of what we read, heard, and are told to a lived reality – our own life stories.

     From this fieldwork, we are encouraged to share what we saw, found, and learned because we are privileged to gain insights and learnings unknown to many who will also learn from what we saw, found, and learned. It is amazing to realize how far we have traveled and how long we have been traveling, and yet we haven’t really seen and been into the world after all. The world never fails to awe and surprise us however we try to make sense of it. And traveling through fieldwork is an invitation to see and experience the world again and again.

1The term is coined by Clifford Geertz to refer to a kind of ethnographic writing with a detailed description and its interpretation.


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