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Being a Participant Observer in Hong Kong

By Allie D'Amanda

My friend Ashley and I spent our whole time in Hong Kong instead of going to China like most SAS students.  One day we decided to spend the day at Repulse bay, a beautiful beach on mainland Hong Kong.  I was excited to relax on a quiet beach because ultimately, I just wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.  I like to “people watch;” I like to sit at a little café and be a silent observer.

My day of relaxation and silent observation did not turn out as planned.  On the beach, I took off my bathing suit cover-up, adjusted my bikini, and laid out my towel. Even before I could close my eyes and feel the sea breeze on my face, I had a cluster of people with the cameras staring and pointing at me.  I tried to pretend I hadn’t seen them, but soon an old man came toward me and with a wrinkled hand, held his camera up to his face and clicked a picture.  I smiled and reluctantly got up, but stood beside him and motioned for him to pass his camera to Ashley so that she could take a picture of us together.  He was so excited that I thought he might loose his balance and fall on the uneven sand.  I smiled and noticed how kind his face was.

As soon as I had taken the picture with him, he waved at the rest of the people he was with and beckoned them to come over.  For the next five minutes I took pictures with everyone in his group: by the water, next to a sandcastle, by the lifeguard stand, with the mountains in the background, with the town in the background, any and every scene they could think of.  I felt like a celebrity.  By the end, not even upset that my intended “quiet-time” was disrupted, and I laughed, because once again I had deviated from my day’s plan and was left more satisfied than I thought possible. 

So why was I so concerned about preserving my privacy and why was I annoyed that my personal realm was disrupted?  For some reason I thought that even being in another country I would be able to “disappear” like I do at home.  But I did not take into account that I am not only different in appearance, but what is normal for me is not necessarily normal for the people in this culture.  I was wearing a bathing suit that was not modest, and I was the only one on the beach with blonde hair and blue eyes. There was no real way for me to “fit in.”  Just as I like to study people who are different than I am, I forget that I am just as different to them.

Even though I could not communicate with them through speech, we found a connection through our mutual interest in each other.  My focus turned from pleasing myself to pleasing others.  I went from “people-watching” to having people watch me.  Although I first felt uncomfortable, I created more of a connection with my group of observers because they engaged me!  Gerry Tierney felt similar when she says in her essay “Becoming a Participant Observer,”

At first, my primary activity was just hanging out. I was usually quite comfortable doing so and I watched every little things, always listening to the sounds of the street, a world that was slowly opening up to me…The only time I felt uncomfortable was when the tables were turned and people on the street took to watching me (10).

I can relate to Tierney here, and like she says later, after she began engaging in conversations with people, she developed much more rewarding relationships with people.  I hope to take this encounter on the beach in Hong Kong and remember that sometimes I can learn more from people when I become a participant observer instead of a removed onlooker. 

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