A matter of timing

Where to start?

From the very beginning! A very good place to start! chirps Fraulein Maria in my head.

That’s the trouble, see. Back in grade/high school, at HELE class (“Home Economics and Livelihood Education”), we were taught how to cross-stitch and knit and crochet. I would always begin those modules with excitement. No indignation at gender-stereotyping; just a sense of anticipation at the prospect of learning how to make something. However I would always be defeated from the get-go, the moment I took the ball of string or yarn into my hands and tried to look for the end at the heart of the ball, the proper beginning of it all. I just never got the trick of it. I’d pull out the innards, sifting them through my fingers, singling out a promising thread only to tighten its neighbors into confounding knots. I’m not very good at finding proper beginnings, is what I’m trying to say.

Anyway. Where was I?

Oh. Yes. Just this: HELLO! Kumusta na?

I’ve been good. Fumbling my way through fieldwork. I’m currently in Hong Kong, the recipient of an unexpected stroke of good luck. I am staying at the place of family friends who’ve just gone away on a trip. They’ve left their (very nice, cheerful, and cozy) flat in my care for the next five days.

I admit I rather like the feeling of being a solitary guest in another person’s home. Maybe this is what it’s like to be in a fascinating story where you are not the main character, but you are given a bit of freedom and quiet and privacy to roam around and live your life within it—as long as you are careful not to pry. Now, I do tend to pry, but I am also very good at not prying when I put my mind to it. (Don’t worry, Family Friends. My mind has been put to it.)

Fieldwork in Manila was overwhelming because there were too many people, too many connections. I had trouble distinguishing between work and my personal life (hopeless!). Fieldwork in Macau was uncomfortably lonely because there were too few people and connections. The past couple of days here in Hong Kong have been a wonderful balance: there’s still a sense of direction, a pulse of a purpose however faint, in the middle of all this waiting. A good mix of known and unknown.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be on the field. Certainly it all depends on what is being researched, and where and when this research is taking place. Very little of what I had envisioned earlier this year has actually transpired. It’s only been a few months since I submitted my application for research funding, blithely rattling off figures and timelines: 160 respondents! Six field sites in six months!. To which present-day Anjeline is emitting a big, fat, cynical HAH!!!

My single most important improvement since starting fieldwork is my learning to be OK with plans falling apart.

Like all other researchers, I am learning that fieldwork is a constant exercise in timing. I like that word, timing. It bundles together in one concept the moment of action and the long stretches of waiting before and after that moment. Timing is crucial for converting a stilted back-and-forth interview into a strong, lively current of story. Timing is crucial for transforming a snippet of sound into a rich field recording (of course, emplacement is just as important).

Timing then is all about when to act. But it is also about when to keep still and wait. Fieldwork so far has been a process of writing notes, slipping them into bottles, setting them out to sea, and praying for an answer—any answer. Here is what I’m learning: when that answer comes, answer back. Immediately. Waiting is the prerogative of the researcher, not the world’s.

(Waiting has a passive ring to it, so I like its more old-fashioned cousin, abiding. A good researcher abides by the world; she abides by her word to be true to the world.)

In any case, the world has been generous, if unpredictable, with its gifts of data. I’ve been privileged to meet and hear the stories of quite a few remarkable musicians. I’ve never had to meet so many new people in my life. I’m easily unnerved by new situations (na sabay-sabay), and small talk will never cease to freak me out, but I have to say I’ve been holding up well. Yay me.

Moreover, my safety has never been compromised, I haven’t run out of money yet, I’ve been eating and resting well, I haven’t gotten sick, and I’ve managed to keep up with most of my responsibilities (apart from one that is atrociously late. Sorry).

Is it all going according to plan? No. Am I getting what I thought I would get? Yes, and more.

My deepest, simplest reason for embarking on this research is to listen differently, and to write a good story from that act of listening differently. Not just a story that would sound good, but would bring and do good too.

I worry about degrees, and publications, and staying on track like everyone else. I worry about being stupid and naive and derivative. I worry about falling behind, failing. I worry about money and time, a lot. But while these worries keep me up at night, and may sometimes propel me to beat my deadlines, they don’t make my mind leap in amazement. Nor do they make my heart brim over with the joy of beholding something truly inspiring. Clearly, “progress” is not the main point. The main point is an ethical one. Research for me is an exercise in love.

Diyos ko ‘day. Ang corny ng dating, pero ganoon lang talaga, pasensya na. I really believe that any honest pursuit of knowledge is propelled by love. Any fruitful knowledge should abide by love. And love, as we all know, has its own rhythms to be ridden: we have to know when to pause, when to speak, when to reach out and grasp, when to let go and leave be. It requires us to be strategic. It is a matter of timing.

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Meanwhile. As a big believer in the correspondence between clearly stating what you want and getting it, I am putting down my Christmas wish list-in-progress here. This is what I want for Christmas, and 2013 in general:

1. A red Redhead Windscreen for my Zoom H4N microphone.

2. More interviews with my target group: Filipino musicians working in hotels, theme parks, and/or cruise ships.

3. New and exciting opportunities to learn more about sound recording.

4. A copy of Paul Rabinow’s Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco

5. A home base for the next five years.

6. A fat, velvety, good-natured cat to go with the home base.

7. Time and money to travel to new places, either for work (good conferences and fellowships) or leisure (trips with friends).

2 comments

  1. Kara says:

    You are the Goldilocks to HongKong’s baby bear of fieldwork! Happy to hear you’ve settled into a productive and easier groove 🙂

    I hope you get everything you want on your wish list, especially the fat cat, the interviews, and that funny windscreen for your microphone (it’s a muppet!). Here’s to 2013!

    • helloise says:

      Super late reply lol. I got (1) the windscreen, thanks. And… I did manage to get about (2) 20 more interviews since I last wrote this. I just got myself (4) a copy of Rabinow’s book, and so far I’ve been to (7) one partially-funded conference slash family visit. So yay, thank you universe. Or I guess I should thank myself too since I got this stuff by myself? I have the rest of this year to hope for (3), (5), and (6)…

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