How NOT to Find a Field Site…

Going into this trip, I knew the fieldwork project would give me trouble. Research isn’t my forte, nor is interacting with people I don’t know, and especially not in a foreign language. I was nervous. But I didn’t think it would be quite as troublesome as it has been.

Back in the spring, during our preparation for the trip and the project, I had planned to try and study Chinese slang, and the effect English (or other languages) have had on the slang of China’s youth since they have become more globalized. However, upon arrival in China I still hadn’t thought of a good way to go about studying something like that, let alone a good site to visit. So I talked things over with Professor Wilcox on the first day of her class and asked for her suggestions. She said if I was willing to alter my topic a bit, and just look at the relationship between the English and Chinese languages, and the presence of English in China, she might have an idea. I said I was perfectly willing to change my topic – just knowing I had a field site, a starting point for my project would surely help to ease my nerves a bit – and Professor Wilcox pointed me toward Wall Street English.

IMG_4964So the next day I headed down 学堂路, out Tsinghua’s south gate, and soon found myself in the Tsinghua Science Park Center. I walked into 华尔街英语 and went to the desk, where I was greeted by a woman who introduced herself as Grace. I explained that I was there hoping to do a research project about English learning in China. She thought for a moment, then told me that the person I should speak with was James Rogers, the service manager for this branch of Wall Street English. Unfortunately, he wasn’t there that day. But she found me a business card with his information and encouraged me to contact him. I left feeling optimistic, and excited to start doing my research. Wall Street English was not too far away, only about a fifteen-minute bike ride, the people seemed friendly, and all the employees spoke English, which I hoped would eliminate one possible source of project-related stress.

When I got home I sent an email to Mr. Rogers briefly explaining my project. He replied a few days later asking for a few more details. At this point I realized that although I’d found a field site, and had a vague idea of what I wanted my new project topic to be, I still hadn’t narrowed down specifically what I wanted to research during my time at WSE. I thought for a while and decided I wanted to compare the experiences of a native Chinese speaker learning English to my own experiences as a native English speaker learning Chinese: the motivations for learning the languages, the most interesting aspects, and the most challenging. Once I’d decided this, I was able to reply to Mr. Rogers with a more detailed description of my intentions. I hit the “Send” button and waited for a reply.

And waited…and waited… After waiting a little under a week for a reply, I decided that it was probably best to just go back and speak with him in person. (Admittedly, I should probably have done so sooner, but I was feeling shy and didn’t want to seem too pushy or impatient.) So I got on my bike and rode out the South Gate once more, ready to start making observations and thinking of some possible interview questions in my head, in hopes that I might get to finally start doing some research after my conversation with the service manager.

Unfortunately, my conversation with James Rogers did not go as I expected it would. Going through all the corporate channels necessary to get proper permission for my research, he said, would take a number of months, by which time I would be back in the US. He said that similar things had happened before, and he was very apologetic. I thanked him as he suggested a few similar English-teaching schools in Beijing, but in my head I’d started to panic. The uncertainty and nervousness I’d felt at the beginning is back: I have no field site, no starting point for my project, no solid ground to stand on. I left WSE feeling significantly less optimistic than the first time.

I’ll be looking into the other sites Mr. Rogers mentioned – English First and 新东方 – but I’m not sure if they’ll work out any better. In any case, I’ll be playing catch-up over the next few weeks, and I’ve definitely learned the hard way just how important thorough planning is to a successful research project.