UC Berkeley News


Summer dispatches from far and near
Berkeley students report from the field on their experiences living among other cultures

22 July 2004


From top, Connie Wu, Hannah Hoffman, Elizabeth Havice, Mike Burstein

Some daring Berkeley students forego the pleasures afforded by summer break and, instead, travel to far-flung, remote destinations to conduct fieldwork outside the classroom’s confines. Their projects vary widely: fighting for the legal rights of Eastern Europe’s Roma people, excavating the untold stories of an indigenous California Indian tribe, examining how different Chinese social and economic classes handle conflict, or analyzing how free-trade policy both penalizes and benefits Mexican immigrants and their communities.

For the third year in the online NewsCenter’s “Student Journal” series, some of these students have filed reports providing a window onto their experiences. Excerpts follow; for the full versions of the students’ reports, visit newscenter.Berkeley.edu/news/students/2004/index.shtml.

Watch the NewsCenter for future dispatches, including ones from the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.

Connie Wu, a senior majoring in political economy of industrial societies, received funding from the Haas Scholars Program to spend the summer in Beijing. She is researching the shifting role of China’s local judicial mediation committees in three diverse kinds of residential settings, to learn how attitudes vary among people in different economic and social classes.

What used to be one-story brick shacks [in Beijing] are now high-rise residential complexes. As older neighborhoods are torn apart, towering high-rises known as “commodity housing” have taken their place, offering urban residents a higher standard of living as well as a modern lifestyle.

However, most such commodity housing units sell for 700,000 yuan to over a million yuan (about $85,000 to $120,000), which the average Beijinger, who makes about 20,000 to 30,000 yuan a year, cannot afford.

Instead, most Beijing residents continue to live in far more modest housing given to them by their work units. It is only a short bike ride from luxury neighborhoods, fully equipped with modern facilities like swimming pools, gyms, and even golf courses, to the older and much more dilapidated communities. The drastic difference in the standard of living reflects the kind of inequality that exists within the city.

The physical and spatial arrangement of neighborhoods definitely affects social interaction. For example, the older and poorer a neighborhood is, the more people you see on the streets. Life in these traditional neighborhoods seems to be filled with leisure time as residents play Chinese chess and hold long conversations with one another in large groups. In such neighborhoods, it is common to see women walking around in their nightgowns holding half-naked babies, and men in their boxer shorts and tank tops patting their bellies while chatting with others. Such scenes reflect the intimate community relations that exist in traditional neighborhoods, where residents are comfortable enough to walk around in their underwear.

In the upper-class high-rise communities, such public behavior is considered “low suzhi,” or low quality. In the high-rise communities, high suzhi seems to be tied to modern facilities that offer yoga classes, to men and women in business attire, and to children who take piano lessons and recite poetry in English. In such neighborhoods, life is rushed. Members of this new class of urban bourgeoisie rush off to work in the morning in their private cars and rush back in the evening, only to lock themselves away in their private residential units.

Three hours north of Berkeley in Fort Ross State Historic Park, a group of students from professor Kent Lightfoot’s Anthro 133 class has been working on a multifaceted project involving a nearby Indian tribe, the Kashaya. Hannah Hoffman, an undergrad in the group, contributed this online journal entry.

To the Kashaya people, the idea of taking from the earth and giving back is quite important. When one goes to gather food, a bit of what is taken must be left or “re-fed” to the plant that it was taken from. For example, give some acorn to the tree and give thanks for the food.

When fishing, one is taking food from the ocean, which is presided over by the Fisherwoman. The Kashaya view women as the providers, and here, Fisherwoman appears as a rock off of the incredibly beautiful California coast at Fort Ross. The Fisherwoman rock is sacred to the Kashaya people, and when a man or a woman goes to take any living thing from the sea, such as kelp, mussels, oysters, fish, abalone, chitons, turban snails, or sea grass, they must ask the Fisherwoman for permission. When a man or a woman gets to the ocean to fish, they repeat their request to the rock four times. The request starts off by calling out “Poycamen!” — the Fisherwoman’s name — and then the request, “Can we please have some of the ocean foods?” After calling her name and saying the prayer four times, you then have permission to fish and take from the ocean.

The Kashaya are very sensitive about respecting the earth and each other. Here at Archy Camp, we are beginning to see why it is so important to do the same and to respect this beautiful landscape that we call Fort Ross and that the Kashaya call home.

A second-year graduate student in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management’s division of Society and Environment, Elizabeth Havice is in Mexico this summer with the help of a grant from UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center. Havice is researching how international and national trade policies affect the migration of unskilled laborers and what these policies’ larger influence is on the goals of the free-trade system.

I am lucky enough to have a wonderful, warm, welcoming extended family that has opened its doors to me. I am being fed, watered, and housed, and on top of it all, every day I get a glimpse into the Mexican way of life. However, the comforts of my housing situation are sheltering me from the chaos of the city, which I have intensely mixed feelings about. Having familiar people to spend my evenings with and a quiet place to work is a rare gift in the field, but the feeling of dependence that it evokes is disconcerting. I’ve never been abroad before without having to find my own food, transportation, and resources. This time is so different: Delicious home-cooked Mexican cuisine makes its way under my nose; just as magically, the dishes slip from my sight; and the next thing I know, someone is driving me away from the quiet of the country-club suburbs toward the business of the city. What world am I living in again?!

You might think that having escaped the safety of suburbia, I’d be out on my own, feeling the pulse of the city’s 25 million inhabitants. Not yet. Safety is a major issue in this massive metropolis, particularly for those who appear to be middle and upper class. Mexico City has undergone a massive wave of kidnappings and violent robberies in the last year, many of them against women and children, who used to be off-limits. The assaults are turning into an epidemic, so much so that many of Mexico’s upper and middle class are beginning to flee the country.

Last weekend, in the largest protest the city has seen in decades, hundreds of thousands of people dressed all in white marched silently into the city’s Zócalo district. Their message: “¡Ya Basta!” (“Enough!”). They were protesting against corruption and inactivity, demanding that the police do a better job of investigating the kidnappings and petty robberies as well as the many unsolved assaults and murders.

While buses and the metro are for the most part safe, many assaults are occurring in “freelance” taxis. This transportation problem shapes my day-to-day life. My host family lives far enough out in the suburbs that getting to the nearest subway station would mean a 30-minute bus ride, then another 20 minutes on the train. With time constraints, I’m stuck with taking cabs. Obediently following the advice of my family and friends, I can’t take just any cab. I have to take only personal, publicly registered (and therefore traceable) fancy cabs. I call them, wait 20 minutes for them to show up at my door, then they drop me off at the entrance to my destination. By traveling only by registered cab, I’m watching as the real world passes by on the other side of the protected windows.

Mike Burstein, a second-year student at Boalt Hall School of Law, is living in Budapest this summer to work with the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), an organization that represents the rights of the Roma (often called gypsies), a group of people without a state and thus with few rights, in front of domestic and international courts. He is helping ERRC evaluate and prepare Roma discrimination suits against local and national governments.

Yesterday was the Gay Pride Parade in Budapest. Before Pride, I had been having a few drinks with Tamas and Adam and others when the subject of sexuality came up. We got into a huge discussion about how Hungarian culture is changing in regards to sex and homosexuality in light of the advance of the European Union (i.e., the West and all the values associated with it) and getting out of the shadow of post-communism. Everyone participating in this discussion, except for me, was getting a Ph.D. in political science, economics, public policy, or sociology. So they actually knew what they were talking about, to the best extent possible considering the theme.

They all agreed that Hungarian culture is a traditional society governed by social norms rather than by a particular morality. This means that Hungarians do not view sex as evil, but see sexual violence and vulgarity and porn and whatnot as being in exceptionally poor taste and reflecting the person’s intellectual capacity and dignity (or lack thereof). This is not a puritanical culture like ours. Overt displays of sexuality on billboards or television are viewed as simply in bad taste. No one really cares what individuals do so long as they don’t do it brazenly in public, because that would be being selfish.

Therefore homosexuality, male or female, continual or occasional, is just looked on as something that you do at home, that has no place in public. To be honest, I like this type of discrimination a lot more than the “You Will Go to Hell” type. I’m not condoning discrimination of any kind, but the Hungarian version seems to be less violent and sanctimonious. I see a difference between someone who doesn’t want to talk about an issue and someone who is already screaming that you are wrong and pushing you around. Which one would you rather talk to?

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