Silviculture-Past Pupil

In 2005, Natasha Robinson, who was in year 11, became one of the founding members of Dalriada’s unique philosophical society – Silviculture. She even gave it its name, referencing the craft of caring for and nurturing trees, as symbolic of our approach to the study and examination of the varied ways of living and understanding life.

We caught up with her online recently and asked her to share something of where her journey has taken her in the intervening years.

The Second Option

As I cycled through Shanghai last week, en-route from the university where I study Mandarin to the class where I teach English, I contemplated how I should begin this article and reflected on the changes that have taken place during the six years since I left Northern Ireland.  It was a gloriously sunny late afternoon at the intersection between Spring and Summer, and the air pollution, for which China has become infamous, had all but cleared for the day.  This city, which I share with 28 million other inhabitants, was breathing deep as myself and my bicycle hustled for space on its streets teeming with migrant workers, suited business people, hawkers selling scarves and sunglasses, school children riding home on the backs of scooters, and pyjamaed grandmothers exercising in the sunlight before dinner. Prada, Gucci, and Channel were the shop-fronts to many of the skyscrapers lining this area of town. They overshadowed the smaller colonial buildings reminiscent of the French, British and German occupation, where families now carved homes out of history’s leftovers.

The density and diversity of Shanghai’s co-existing people, architecture and lifestyles is difficult for me to articulate, yet what struck me as most surprising that afternoon was how at home I felt among it.  It’s exciting to be a part of Shanghai’s unfolding history; another immigrant in a city built by waves of immigrants. As the daughter of an Indian mother and English father, being neither Catholic nor Protestant yet raised in Northern Ireland, this outsider status resonated with me.

***

I came to Shanghai in August 2012. I had just finished a degree in Social Anthropology from the London School of Economics, a course of study that profoundly transformed the way I look at the world. Anthropology is the study of culture and I was first attracted to the methods that it employed when studying human behavior. Anthropologists typically spend two years living with the people they are researching, from Bolivian peasants to New York City bankers, in an attempt to deeply understand their world view and make sense of their actions.

There are two reasons why I believe anthropology is important. The first is because it assumes that not all that is true can be quantified.  You can collect all the statistics you want on a population, without ever understanding how those people create meaning in their lives. Yet the meaning we ascribe to the world is fundamental in understanding our behaviour.  Through observing and talking to people, anthropologists offer an alternative way of investigating social reality.

The second is the capacity of anthropologists to represent those who are not privileged enough to represent themselves.   There is a danger in a single story which reduces whole cultures to stereotypes. Our ability to generalize is directly proportional to how little we know about a group of people. These stereotypes foster prejudice which is then translated into damaging institutional policy. Anthropologists, through informed representation, are in a position to challenge some of these stereotypes by demonstrating the diversity which exists within populations. They build understanding through their descriptions of how individual people live, the struggles they face and the choices they make. While focusing on difference, they bring to light the reality of a common humanity.

At least this is what I was trying to contribute during my fieldwork in rural Shaanxi Province where I researched the effects of the One Child Policy on female education.  For the past 30 years China’s government has limited the number of children its citizens can have in an attempt to reverse an unsustainable population growth. The policy has been heavily condemned by Western commentators for its impacts on women. They cite forced abortions, female infanticide and a resulting gender imbalance of 120 men for every 100 women to justify an attack on the Chinese government and to portray Chinese people as ‘oppressed’.

Throughout the time I was conducting fieldwork I was living with a family in their village. The house consisted of five rooms around a small courtyard.  Shortly after I left, the family built their own toilet and bath, but for the duration of my stay, we still used the communal pit toilet, shared by the neighbourhood, and washed out of buckets of warm water, heated on the gas stove. Every morning I would walk to the local middle school where I taught English. My afternoons were spent interviewing students, teachers, parents, and spending time with friends and neighbours.

The results of the research offered nuance to the single narrative of oppressed Chinese women.  I discovered that as a result of the policy couples no longer aspired to having many children. A single child who was well educated was more valuable to parents than ten sons who they could not afford to feed; the importance of agriculture was being replaced by a desire to be urban.  Furthermore, due to the requirement of having only one child, many families had daughters without sons. While traditionally the sons would have benefitted from any education the family could afford, now family resources were being invested in one girl.  As a result the women were, for the first time in Chinese history, receiving an education equal to their male peers.  The female students I met were confident and articulate. Their grandparents had been farmers, their parents were factory workers, yet they aspired to become doctors, lawyers, architects. They wanted to marry for love and to make their parents proud. They did not consider themselves oppressed or without agency. The single narrative was incomplete.

***

Since moving to the Shanghai metropolis, my research involves a lot more sitting at a desk and much less hanging out in corn fields chatting to farmers. As a research assistant at one of the top universities in China I am at times invited to give public lectures during which I represent the lives of those villagers I lived among. This is an immensely privileged position, and not without its ethical considerations. How can I be sure to represent accurately those who have shared so much with me?

My answer is always to make sure that I do good anthropology, which to me hinges on the term respect. To respect the people you are studying means to assume that they are intelligent and that what they say has value, even if it is not obvious from the outset.  A participant may tell me something with which I disagree and I have two choices; the first is to take his statement as evidence that he is an uneducated peasant thus unburdening me of the need to take seriously anything else he says. The second is to try my best to understand what he means by that statement and how, according to his worldview, that statement makes sense to him.  The latter option is more difficult. It requires the anthropologist to suspend judgment and to step into the shoes of another person. It is premised on an understanding that although there may be one reality, our perspectives on that reality are shaped by our individual experiences and therefore have value.  Without doing so, how can we claim to adequately know or represent?

This anthropological training, and in particular the mandate to listen carefully and respect, has proven invaluable as I settle in foreign places. Growing up in Northern Ireland, a relatively homogenous society, I could not have imagined the diversity of opinions that exist in the world. Living among such diversity can be difficult and tiring. You cannot assume people share your values or behave in ways you can anticipate. It requires you to communicate assumptions you never knew you held and to justify beliefs that had never been challenged. You meet good, intelligent, well-travelled people who hold radically different worldviews, and their mere existence brings into question your own.

In such an environment I again have two options; the first is to assume that anyone who thinks differently from me is wrong and if I am feeling generous, to enlighten them as to how they have erred. The second is to adopt a humble posture of learning. To hold my opinions lightly. To realize that reality is expansive and that each individual, myself included, is privy only to a small slice of it. To believe that what people say has value and to search diligently for that value in the conviction that my life will be richer for their experiences, even if I cannot fully agree.

If the past six years have taught me anything, it’s the importance of choosing that second option.