Thick Description

When I was an undergraduate, we talked about the value of enthography. Counched thoroughly as it is in Imperialism and Colonialism and all that Bad Stuff from that last 200 years, enthography remains a thing people someitmes do in anthropolgy. People go to a culture. They stay there a while. They learn some of the language. They write down their experiences.

I’ve now lived in China longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in the world since college, completely without planning this to have been the case. I live on the campus of a boarding school now, which means that I am more in touch with some of Chinese culture than when I lived in a high-rise apartment building.

Thick description (n.): Intensive, small-scale, dense descriptions of social life from observation, through which broader cultural interpretations and generalizations can be made. The term was introduced in the philosophical writings of Gilbert Ryle, and developed by Clifford Geertz in anthropology, especially in his celebrated study of the Balinese cockfight (see his The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973, and Local Knowledge, 1983).

Oxford Reference

I had to read Geertz in undergrad, although I’d actually put his name away in some forgotten synapse until literally just now when I Googled thick description. I’m not sure it evens “works” especially in the context of people who write about cultures they’ve only visited briefly or ones they don’t speak the language of.

It’s almost impossible not to do, though, when living this long in another place. Here are a few bits of thick description about Fujian, China (and maybe about China more broadly, who knows).

  1. The lights are all a slightly different hue than you might expect. In general, the lights preferred appear to be “warm” tones or even outright yellow tones. I find these extremely annoying and notice them constantly. In restaurants the lighting is harsh and yellowish. Although IKEA exists and purveys their soft Scandi LEDs, people seem to want to line their living spaces with brighter lighting.

2. Occasionally it’s like you aren’t sharing the same reality. A colleague once asked me in Shanghai what it was like to look at the stars. Tonight, I was asked if I’d had any cake. Using the present perfect tense, it should’ve been a question about whether I had had cake tonight, whether this action had already been completed, whether there was cake tonight and I’d already ingested some. I was holding a plate with cake on it in my hand, raising a small plastic fork to my mouth, as the person asking spoke this out loud. It was such a confusing situation that I stopped eating the cake I was eating and paused a few seconds. When it became clear the other person was not going to elaborate or correct themself, I simply said, “Yes, I have, thank you.”

Often this apparent desire to talk about things that are currently happening manifests in aunties telling me “It’s raining” when I have just returned from a bike ride in driving rain, soaked to the bone. The translation of the phrase is not somehow complex or in a tense I don’t know; Chinese doesn’t do the elaborate inflections of other languages I once spoke. There’s no present perfect to confuse actions that have already ceased to happen that we’re currently speaking about. It’s just present tense. It’s raining. It’s raining. And I find myself agreeing with the people saying this, answering them, “Right, it’s raining.” Then we sometimes continue saying the phrase back and forth until one of us leaves.

3. Noncompliance with the Law of Cold (do not let any cold feeling touch you ever. probably best to avoid even thinking about being cold or you’ll get sick) will offend people more than an open fart or burp. Letting your baby wear no socks is a cardinal sin.

4. “Huh?” means the same thing even in this tonal language.

5. I’m starting to fry out.

I’m on duty now. More thick descriptions to come.

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