Day 10: On Writing Fieldnotes

A full page from my third fieldnote, which I bought from MUJI when I visited Japan with my mother in the summer of 2013. I picked up five of these leather cover fieldnotes from a minimart near our hotel in Ginza, Tokyo.

A full page from my third fieldnote, which I bought from MUJI when I visited Japan with my mother in the summer of 2013. I picked up five of these leather cover fieldnotes from a minimart near our hotel in Ginza, Tokyo.

The last thing I want to turn this blog into is a platform for me to complain about what I don’t like about Shanghai, and sometimes, the world at large. The temptation is always high. For instance, I got home deadly tired today. I even slept on th bus on the way back because I had stood too long today, and the sleep I had last night was way less than adequate. I was lucky that I didn’t have my bike with me as I had no idea how I would have the energy to get on it to take it back home with me. When I set my goal to write this blog before I go to bed at night, I knew better than anyone else what were the kinds of things that got left in my brain after a long day of working, and especially writing. While I’d like every single post to be like Roland Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero, what seems to happen quite regularly is how I turn eventually turn it into a platform for personal social critic. Having the responsibility of delivering moral philosophy as a pedagogical subject neither help nor make it easier for me to think of this blog as a place to reflect in a positive manner neither. I usually didn’t go back to read what I wrote yesterday, or the day before, because I often wanted to focus on the present, and on what I would be doing, rather on the past.

Although one of the reasons why I had been “so damn good” at keeping field notes when I was doing fieldwork was precisely because I loved the idea of being able to go back to trace, revisit, and re-comprehend myself through what I had written, which was the best depository of my personal feelings. By doing so, not only that I would get to revisit my own subjectivity, but also make a certain value judgement about how well I had been able to manage (or mismanage) my time when putting those slices of subjective descriptions and read them altogether. It’s almost a pathological symptom that had no cure for me.

My Little Tingzijian Room

My little “pavilion room” in the neighborhood where I spent almost two years doing research.

So, when I was in the field, which wasn’t that long ago, my room would be the only room in the lane (and perhaps one of the very few in the neighborhoods) whose light was still on at 1am in the morning. Since my room was up on the second floor facing the south side, it was easy to spot the light coming from my window especially when every other room’s lights had already been turned off and the lane in which my place was located was pretty much pitch black already. And that small light was a little desk’s lamp that I used to illuminate my small black notebooks that I had to look at in the darkness in order to decipher my own scribbles and sketches. In the summer, I would be almost naked when writing field notes at night like that because it’s so hot inside. I could have left the door open to let the breeze in, but I never liked to look at the dark, quiet, and rather haunted-looking staircase connected my room (which I would be right there by my door if it would be open outward to let the breeze in). Growing up in Thailand in the 80s and 90s where and during which time various stories of ghost and evil spirit were almost like lullabies to get children to fear the unknown so that they would listen to their parents, I always have this deep dear for the explainable, especially ghosts. I remember that I didn’t even want to go to the bathroom at night alone when I was young, and, of course, many times I had to commit an act that would lead my parents to have to clean up for me in the morning. I liked to sleep in the same room with someone, especially with my older brother and my mother, if they were around. I had this pathological fear of being alone in a room that was quiet and dark. It’s almost unimaginable then that for the last 15 years I have been renting a room to live alone. I sometimes still feel that I am not alone when I am actually alone (which often gets me the goosebumps like what I am having right now!). At the end of the day, the room that I rented to do my field research was at least, at the time, 80-year-old, so it’s possible that someone may have died in the house or in the area surrounding it. Long story short, even though I was not that afraid of ghost anymore, I couldn’t imagine myself sleeping in the room that whose door not only was not locked, but also was opening to the darkness. True. I also feared of being robbed, hurt, and murdered. At the end of the day, the tenants were coming and going, and except the two old tenants whom I got to know well throughout the course of my field research there I did not know anyone else. Social interaction there was limited by, I believe, the lack of trust among the new neighbors.


My little desk, desk lamp, and window: These were the first things I saw when I rose from the rough bed stud with no cushion in the morning.

Before it’s dark in my room, I sometimes couldn’t even make sense of the shorthand that I myself committed. I could have turned on the room’s desk lamp, but I didn’t do so because I felt that it would be more romantic to be typing under a small little lamp (in addition to the fact that I never really like fluorescent light from above anyway). Also, I would be drinking something while writing. Mostly it’s a glass of wine (thanks to a suggestion from one of my supervisors who once told me a tip regarding how a great writer like him composed and sometimes overcame his own writer’s block!) I remember well how persistent I was in trying to write as much as I could, and everything I could. During the first few months, I didn’t have internet there, so I would be writing without any distraction. A small little radio that my friend helped me to buy online would keep me company only until a few minutes before midnight when the radio station that I always listened to then called it a day, and then the complete silence would take over.


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