July 29, 2016

by Diana Dai

As I’ve begun interviews in Amman, Jordan, with domestic migrant workers, I’ve been thinking a lot about the connection between anthropological research and friendship.

Mary is a pseudonym for the first Filipina domestic worker I interviewed. Recently, Mary invited me to spend Friday evening with her and a friend. The researcher inside me was ecstatic. Mary meant access to a community I hadn’t had previous contact with. I imagined myself, paper and pen in hand, jotting down notes and talking to as many people as I could.

Diana Dai, in a photo taken by Mary (a pseudonym) in Amman, Jordan

Diana Dai, in a photo taken by Mary (a pseudonym) in Amman, Jordan

But the day didn’t go as I expected, and for that I am quite grateful. Around 4 pm, I met up with Mary at Second Circle, an area known to be a popular hang-out spot for Filipinas. Mary’s home was located just off of Second Circle. I met her many cats, and also got the chance to have a casual chat with her. The flat has a beautiful staircase lined with plants and flowers as well as a magnificent view. The walls are covered in photographs and calendars. On the coffee table was a freshly baked strawberry cake and some nail polish.

As I sat down on the couch, Mary offered me some cake. I nervously accepted, even though I wasn’t hungry. In all honesty, I was disoriented. I wasn’t sure what I should do. On the one hand, there were so many questions I wanted to ask that we hadn’t covered in our interview. But this just didn’t seem like the right time. Mary wanted to tell me about her cats and go on Facebook – normal things people do when they are hanging out with friends.

I saw a photograph of her with other Filipina women at the Philippines Embassy. I asked if this was a workers’ organization. Was there a way I could contact the other women in this photograph? Mary said that it was a group of women that came together and discussed problems they might have had at work. Bingo! Then she looked back at the photo. I wanted to ask more questions, but I felt embarrassed and somewhat rude forcing conversation during a time that was obviously supposed to be downtime, not “interview time.” Had the situation been reversed, I would have been quite annoyed if someone I wanted to hang out with was trying to take control of the situation.

The rest of the evening proceeded in much of the same way. We met up Mary’s friend and walked to Rainbow Street, a lively spot with restaurants and shops. We bought ice cream. At this point, I let my “research mode” drop. I decided I wasn’t here to demand answers or get a project done. I was here to make friends and get to know Mary more. I didn’t want to make this a transactional encounter, where I was only there to get what I wanted without any regard for what Mary and her friend wanted to talk about.

I could tell Mary and her friend liked having me around, and we spent some time planning a trip to Aqaba, a beach town in the south of Jordan. I decided that for the rest of the evening, I would just relax and concentrate on being myself. We decided to go back to Second Circle and sing some karaoke. I was very excited about this idea. Karaoke is one of my favorite activities. We went to a Chinese-style restaurant with a TV. Customers passed around a microphone between songs so everyone got a chance to sing. Mary was also an avid singer, and chose a number of power ballads by the likes of Celine Dion and Whitney Houston. Mary’s friend was a bit more shy. Despite our encouragement, she decided to take on the role of videographer, documenting our soulful belting.

Karaoke on Rainbow Road photo by Diana Dai

Karaoke on Rainbow Street photo by Diana Dai

During the course of the evening, the only people who entered the restaurant were Filipinas. Most of them were dressed to the nines, makeup perfect. I felt very underdressed in my grey T-shirt and jeans. The owner of the restaurant and the two waiters were Arab, but I took special note of another Filipina woman who also seemed to be running things in the restaurant – taking orders, organizing receipts, and going back into the kitchen to give instructions. The interactions between the Arab restaurant owner and his Filipina customers puzzled me, since I was used to (or rather, assumed that) the interactions would reflect more of an obvious power dynamic – oppressor vs. oppressed. It’s not that the relationships seemed equal, but more that there was more of a mutual understanding between the two, a familiarity and casualness that wasn’t what I had expected.

These are some questions that I will address and analyze specifically in my final research paper. Mary exchanged jokes and greetings with every group that came in. During our interview, I had not realized something about Mary’s personality. She has a rowdy sense of humor: sarcastic, loud, and quick. It saddened me that I’d missed this during the interview. I naively thought that a one-hour conversation would give me a good sense of who she was personality-wise, but I was wrong. I’d walked away from that interview with a narrow impression.

What my night on Rainbow Street taught me was that a researcher can glean incredible amounts of information from just “hanging out” with the people they are interested in learning about. The one thing that I want to continue working on, personally, is how to mentally frame myself during days like this, when Mary and I are “just” hanging out, and not necessarily talking concretely about my topics and questions related to my research. How do I successfully straddle the roles of researcher and friend? What role do I value more? And what happens when the two roles come into conflict with each other?


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