Michael. B Griffiths is the Director of Ethnography for Ogilvy & Mather, Greater China.
I’m in Sichuan province, at a small town called Anxian. I’m with a US film producer and a Chinese research assistant. We are documenting lower-tier city lifestyles in terms of the human condition as well as how people consume. We’ve just finished up our morning session with a man who shared emotional stories about the impact of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
We were operating in two groups, doing home visits at different sites. It was time to pick up the other team from the town center and head off to Mianyang, our next destination.
But the other team called in late. There was a problem. The primary informant’s mother had returned home and reacted badly to their presence. While we didn’t have the details at this point, it seemed that the team could not easily leave the field site. On the phone, I could hear an intense argument in the background.
I had the driver park up around the corner from the site. The junior member of the team came round to meet us, shaking her head and heaving with frustration. Apparently the situation in the home had turned nasty and the senior member was trying to deal with it.
The primary informant, aged nineteen, had not told her mother about our research, although she had given us her formal consent. And now her mother was furious with her daughter for not seeking permission, and worse, she suspected us of being cheats or swindlers. We later learned she had been the victim of an identity-theft crime in similar circumstances.
An hour and more passed without a resolution. It seemed ridiculous that we were wasting so much time on this. Could we not just explain the situation, apologize for the inconvenience, and leave? I was inclined to intervene in person but various team members advised that a foreigner’s presence might exacerbate an already inflammatory situation.
Another phone call came through-
The argument was by now on the street outside the home. The mother was ferociously lashing out and forcibly preventing the senior team member from leaving. Concerned for her safety, I advised that she run around the corner and come over to the car – the site was only 30 meters away.
Once in the car, I proposed that we just leave. We had done nothing wrong, and were increasingly sure this fractious episode was symptomatic of a pre-existing tension between the mother and daughter. Right?
Right! So, let’s hit it, driver!
We sped off in the direction of the Mianyang highway.
As we cut through the breeze with the sun in our faces, the team members answered rapid-fire questions and shared their perspectives as they eased themselves out of the tension. We thought we were home free.
Not by a long shot.
Not long had passed before our phones started to ring. Representatives of the local recruitment agency with which we had partnered were with the enraged mother and phoning to ascertain our whereabouts. This was the agency who had recruited the daughter for our research and I wondered why it seemed beyond their capacity to handle the communication deficit.
We agreed that our overall objectives demanded that we press on with our schedule. Too much time had been wasted and we were quite clear were we stood in terms of our legal agreement with the informants; the local recruitment agency were better placed and, as we saw it, obligated to resolve any misunderstanding about our identity and purposes.
As solution, we agreed that the rest of the team would switch off their phones while I would use my phone to call the recruitment agency bosses we dealt with back in Shanghai headquarters. Better to have just one channel of communication open rather than several at the same time.
This we did, but before any intervention could be launched our driver started to get the same calls from the local recruitment agency. One of our team took the call on the driver’s phone and tried to explain our position on the situation and that we just wanted to continue with our schedule. The agency had also helped us plan for further research in Mianyang and Chengdu, so they were well aware of our tight schedule.
If only the situation could have been so simple! Our driver insisted on keeping his phone switched on since this made him available should his employer need to call. Presumably alerted by the local agency representatives, the driver’s employer did call and insisted he return to Anxian at once. We were unwilling to return with him since we were sure that the two hour return journey would be followed by further time wasted on senseless arguing. Could the situation not be resolved via the proper channels?
Unfortunately, the driver’s open line of communication meant that he could be contacted by people other than his boss. He began to get calls from an unfamiliar number over and over again.
Perhaps the driver should switch his phone off too!?
Then the real shock came.
What? The Public Security Bureau was on the phone? The mother had called the police before we had left. We had left the mother baying for our blood in the street and now the police had arrived to find us gone!
Things went rapidly downhill from here, as arguments erupted about what to do next. Returning to the site would not be an option, the local staff felt, since we would get in trouble for leaving the scene. My explaining things to the local police would not help either, they felt, since the police would not “take my side” because I was a foreigner. Any interaction with the police was bound to be long and protracted anyway, and there was also some notion about market researchers needing to obtain local police permission in advance, which the local recruitment agency had neglected to mention!
Tempers flared and leadership was called for. But leadership on this project had been passed to the woman who got into the argument with the mother in the first place and she now called her father in a panic!
The idea that the police were actually pursuing us over this seemed ridiculous but it was very real. We were still driving up the highway away from Anxian, and with visions of flashing blue lights at every intersection it felt like we were on the run from the law.
It was decision time: the driver had to return to Anxian and could not avoid answering his phone when the police called. We asked him to pull in at a remote roadside restaurant and unload our bags. He would remain with us to get some lunch; it was late afternoon already. Then he would return to Anxian and his boss would send an alternative driver to take us onto Mianyang.
We ate a meal and for a while believed the heat in the situation had burned itself out. I called in to update our superiors. Apparently, the bosses at the recruitment agency were starting to get a handle on it. There was still disagreement about our next move, but at least the police were not calling us every few minutes. They were probably having lunch too.
With our phones all back on and the driver gone, the police began calling us directly. Several hours had passed since the original incident and the mother’s demands had become more specific: she wanted the tapes we had recorded in her home. This presented a problem for our research and our film producer was particularly against this: his movie would be incomplete without these tapes. Moreover, even if we returned the tapes to the mother, she the professional format meant she wouldn’t be able to play them.
Our conversations thus became more practical and technical as the police sought to broker a mutually satisfactory solution to the problem. An agreement was struck whereby the majority of the team would proceed to Mianyang while two personnel would return to Anxian with the tapes and play these for the mother at the local police station.
It was well into the evening when we arrived in Mianyang, about the same time as our team representatives arrived back in Anxian. After a torrid day, they had to sit and play through the entire 4 hours of footage for the purposes of the mother’s verification. With the police there with her, she gradually adjusted herself to the idea we were not crooks or foreign spies and found a way to climb down from her rage whilst saving face.
Exhausted, we spared a thought for the daughter who was probably going to get the raw end of whatever remaining anger could not now be justifiably directed anywhere else. Our analysis of the film footage revealed a wealth of insights into a specific tension between the daughter’s almost angelic nature and her mother’s oppressive, almost ogre-ish nature. It appeared our fieldwork had exposed an underlying tension after all.