2009年11月3日

Autoethnography - Reflexivity in a bar


Sitting on the bar stool, Erin asked me: “do you want a beer?” “Yes” I said. When bartender greeted us, I too got a ‘Fat Tire’ following Erin’s order, partly because the name was funny, and partly because I am not a connoisseur of beer. Little did Erin know that I do not like the flavor of beer in particular. But, what else can you order as a cheap and easy drink? Today, I again drank my beer as a ritual in socialization.

We came to Shamrock, Madison’s flagship gay bar, to expand our social boundaries by interacting with people in a unfamiliar social setting. Without much surprise, Sunday late afternoon was not the best time to carry out this exercise as people sat sparsely in Shamrock, and everything was so ordinary. Erin and I then just proceeded to have a long and pleasant conversation about our coursework, academic journey, career, and life in Madison. The sheer presence in an American bar was evoking reflections upon my positions in different cultures.

As an international student, my world in the United States revolves pretty much around the school, with faculty and classmates as academics. A bar, in contrast, was out of my comfort zone when first arrived in this new environment. Dim light, quaint décor, slight smoke in the air, and music floating in the room, bars set up a backstage for Americans to transgress their professional roles during the day. My classmates look so different when they hang out in the bar after school. They dress up to sing, to dance, to shout, to get boozed, to loosen their nerves and get wild. It is a space where people relax and get intimate with each other. But I never in my life see bar as the place to socialize, and in fact, the word “clubbing” does not even a corresponding vocabulary in my native language.

I recall vividly how I surprised my friend by telling her that I have never swung my body to dance in my life. “NO WAY!” she said. And I remember how nervous I was when being dragged onto the dance floor subsequently. Though trying to move freely with the rhythm, my heart was pounding loudly, “Oh my god! People must think I am so awkward!”

Even starting a casual conversation in the bar can often be very difficult. If you want to talk to people in the bar, you got to engage in small talks. In the very beginning, every small talk was like a collision of two worlds. I feel uncomfortable and not genuine to start conversation on today’s weather, but I did not know enough about common topics such as sports and TV shows to share with. Even more so, in my native Taiwanese culture, small talk is deemed insincere and superficial; whereas in the United States, a cheerful small talk is the social norm. “Americans are so fake; you never know what they are really thinking about” so as my Taiwanese friends complained.

Despite all the cultural shock associated with it, I have enjoyed going to the bar with friends. I found it fun to get crazy once in a while as a way to live a good life. Most importantly, I consciously wanted to avoid the stereotype of socially-awkward dull nerdy Asian student speaking poor English with hard accent; I want to appear cool, smart, approachable, charming, and even sexually attractive. I want to be part of the group here. I want do it in the American way. I want to be more like an "American".

Thus I have become very aware of the image of myself in the American eyes, almost too aware of it, I think. I was frustrated at moments that I blundered my English. I regretted the jokes that I did not caught but laughed along. To get my conversation going, I always have to come up with questions such as “hey, how are you doing in that class?”, “do you like the professor?”, “what is your research about?” I often wonder “am I being to nerdy?” “would people think that I am so dull because I talk about school in the party?” In the meantime, I also told myself “come on, take it easy, just be yourself, people simply have no time judging you.” I feel like, in my consciousness, there is a quiet and medium-ground Taiwanese self arguing with my outgoing and confident American self all the time.

I am now no longer a fresh-off-boat new immigrant, but things do not always go with my way. The conversation topics could dry up pretty quickly if people have no interest at you. That was when they kept peeking at others while talking with me cheerfully, and I soon found that they needed to use the bathroom, grab another drink, or felt very sorry that he or she really had to talk to someone else. So I often see me having a beer in hand, glancing over the room, but found no one to talk to. I learned how “wallflower” looks like, in a hard way.

So, in Shamrock, I decided to bring up these experiences to Erin, and asked: “Did you ever notice that Asian guys are the least popular groups in the bar?” I told her this is my common conversation starter to draw attention. I went on saying that there are many white guys dating Asian girls, while very few white girls interested in Asian guys. “Ahmmm, well, no, I haven’t noticed this” Erin replied. I then blabbered everything from the media portrayal of Asian men, the more reserved Asian culture, to my personal tidbits. Erin was not confused of what I was trying to get at, but she obviously did not have much to add on this conversation.

Here my inner voice popped out again: “John, you’re being senseless again, who would listen to your lengthy lecture on Asian masculinity?” I was trying to present a something humorous by making fun of myself, but perhaps I ended just ranting about something irrelevant. Maybe, in my subconscious, I was looking for an assurance, saying that I am not a stereotype.

In the end of our stay, Erin went to the bathroom and I waited for her. The room was dark, and people began to crowd into the bar for dinner. Sitting alone, I stared into the wall full of colorful vodka bottles behind the bartender. I was totally comfortable in the bar, to the extent that I had some fun. But to have fun, I would rather go somewhere else if had a choice. Raucous as the room was, my heart was fully calm. It was always in that kind of sudden solitary yet sober moment that I was reminded how far I had come in crossing cultural boundaries.


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This is an assignment I turned in for my qualitative research method class today. In this exercise, we were asked to go to a unfamiliar social setting to challenge your boudnary (ex: panhandle on the street, work in the soup kitchen and etc.), and write up an "autoethnography" (an ethnography of yourself) to lead the readers to learn about the research subject. This is the write-up after going to a gay bar with my classmate Erin. My writing seems dull and dry. Because I am so used to the neutral and analytic voices in standard academic writing, I found this type of expressive and creative writing extremly difficult.


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這是我今天質化究方法課的作業。在這個作業裡,我們要分組去作一些超越我們個人社會經驗的活動(老師提議去街上乞討、表演等),做完要寫一份觀察自己與同伴的田野筆記,最後綜合寫成一個「自我民俗誌」(autoethnography,基本上就是透過自身經驗來表現研究主題的書寫)。我的英文好爛,平常太習慣冷冰冰的學術口吻,一下子要寫這種需要生動描述、抒發感情的文章,真的寫的四不像。