Stories from the field

Day 2015-07-17

Paying it back and forth

My trip to Singapore started with tea. Have you ever wondered what it takes to make a cup of tea? The simple answer is tea leaves, but within that material there is layer upon layer of process, meaning, and investment. Last month I was living in a tea factory in Yunnan China, and I was lucky enough to get a tour of the opporations. In this case it started with an Anthropologist, a man who had taken classes at the state university on the cultural of tea. When he graduated he accumulated capital from his network of family and friends to buy a concrete storage site in a small village. He then met with the local patriarchs and materiarchs to arrange the purchase of their tea. These opporations led to further tea plantations, bringing the village closer into the capitalist economy of the region. Younger villagers were retained to dry, roast, and press the leaves into cakes, while the anthropologist turned tea boss now looked to the second and third phases of a successful modern business; marketing and mass distribution. For this he highered not villagers, but a mix of attractive young women, anthropology graduates, and members of his extended family to expand into the national and international markets. Social media profiles and urban stores began to expand, borrowing symbols and names from the old villages and myths associated with them.

That, more or less, is how tea gets on your table, through complex networks of mobile capital, traditional crafts, family bonds, creative branding, etc.. In this tangle of practice I want to draw a core theme that I will revisit throughout my thesis research: a network. The group of seemingly unrelated people, things and organizations that are intimately connected in the act of investing their resources and expertise, such as in a cake of tea. In this case, I will substitute tea for and international education. 

So who invests in international education? the simple answer would usually be either ones family, or a shadowy scholarship council. Like tea leaves, the full answer involves so much more, becuase not only is an international education a consumptive product, it is also a crossroads in the lives of many young students. The meaning it takes on in their lives is steared by this larger network that is only beginning to become visible in my studies.

Yesterday I went to the first interview of my research period. To get there involved a series of machanics. First the elevator from the public housing building I am living in, than the vast and expanding subway network brought me downtown, than the well queued escalator brought me into the airconditioned mall which sprawled accross the waterfront. In this process of transportation there was hardly any interaction with the hot and humid outdoors. In Singapore I spend the vast majority of my time in a built enviornment. The envrionment of clockwork and temperature control is the perfect metaphor for what is going on around me; Singapore is a controlled environment. As one collegue descrided it to me “it is the ultimate social experiment”.

In this first two interview my understanding of the international education system was rocked in its foundation, division between what I thought a typical overseas experince and how he had experinced it became visible. Relationships between parents and children were more fluid than I had assumed, and I realized that I need to take a step back in my assumptions about this project.

In this case, my coorespondant engaged with Western culture, and found it contradictory to the values he had learned at home, in school, in his time in the army, and with international student friends. Many young men I met seem deeply invested in the political identity of their country, despite the limitations on public expression, and this often comes back to what their ancestors have invested in the founding of Singapore or the growth of its economy, and what they invested and recieved in their military service. I get a general sense of obligation, not only to the family or the state, but to an image of the island of Singapore as a place that has created oppurtunity, and requires to be perserved for future generations. One interview and a few conversations do not speak for everyone, but like the picture at the top of this blog implies, paying back can seem the safest option.

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