The Heyang Rural Research Center: A welcoming base for global researchers like myself
By; Byron Hauck
In 2015, The Heyang Rural Research Institute was established by Dr. Yuezhi Zhao from Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) School of Communication. Physically a few rooms, themselves part of an inner courtyard in the middle of the ancient dwellings that comprise the draw of Heyang village’s heritage industry, this space serves as a welcoming base for global researchers aiming to learn more about the dramatic social changes and historical continuities in rural China. The institute has helped in the hosting of four international summer school programs and four Heyang Rural Research Forums. It is also enabling me, one of Dr. Zhao’s PhD students to engage in four months of fieldwork to explore the village’s media ecology and the shifts in the political economy constituted in the daily actions of its residents, the long term planning by village leaders and the general context of the dramatic shifts and continual rise of modern China.
As one of Dr. Zhao’s students I had the privilege of being part of the first summer school cohort who helped in the grand opening of, and inaugural research produced by, the Heyang Rural Research Institute in 2015. Our cohort was a collection of doctoral students from SFU’s School of Communication, master students from SFU and the Communication University of China’s Double Degree Program in Global Communication as well as a master’s student from Oxford University. Together we spent over three weeks in Heyang engaging in daily activities and running a series of focus group interviews on questions informed by our separate research interests. Our collective work was published under the direction of Dr. Zhao, as Global to Village a special section in the International Journal of Communication. Since this grand opening I have had the privilege to attend two of the Heyang Rural Research Forums as a guest, and was host to SFU alumni and renowned communication scholar Dr. Manjunath Pandakur when he came to lecture at the summer school in 2017.
Returning to Heyang now to do the main fieldwork for my PhD dissertation, the Heyang Rural Research Institute serves primarily as my workspace. On a daily basis I open the rooms, put out a small newspaper rack with the latest daily from the city and then set to my work. Beginning with writing up any field notes from the morning, I use the space to read and further engage my studies. Being set up in the research center during the day confirms my place as a researcher to the local residents. Some villagers have begun to seek me out here after growing familiar with my presence over the past three weeks. Sometimes just for a chat, sometimes to ask when my free English classes for the village’s children will be, and even some older villagers will come and see if I can help them with different functions on their mobile phones.
Returning to Heyang multiple times has helped me to develop a few long term relationships and map out shifts in the village’s media ecology. While my skin colour and relative height make me stand out, I still meet villagers who have only heard about me through word of mouth. “I heard you are an Australian”, “No, like Norman Bethum [the famous doctor that Mao Zedong wrote about in an essay known throughout the country] I am a Canadian”. “I heard you are opening up an English school here”, “No I am here to do research on how people in the village use media”. Nods of understanding then turn into more exploratory discussions as each of us might share information on our family members, jobs, and cultural differences between Canada and China, “Does rural Canada have villages like ours?”. I even get invited into homes to see what media people are using and where it is placed amongst a litany of other household possessions.
Everyone, familiar and new, has been welcoming thus far. My efforts to learn a little of the local Jinyun dialect, particularly the greeting phrase “have you eaten?” has opened me up to the elderly population who before might at the most simply nod in my direction. Now I get hearty greetings as they are bemused by the foreigner who can speak a little. I then get to learn how happy they are with the English classes I am providing to their grand children, and often asked to sit down and chat for a while. Moments like these are what bring me deeper into the daily machinations of life in Heyang. Moments that begin to form the basis of field notes and the content of my planned four months of participant observation, before I return home to turn all of these experiences into empirical evidence for my dissertation.
I am no lone student researcher. I rely on the herculean efforts of my supervisor whose Heyang Rural Research Institute makes this work possible in the first place. I rely on members of the village management committee who have not only helped me to find a place to rent, but help to organize my English classes and make sure I am generally taken care of. I rely on a cousin-in-law from Harbin China who helps me to translate portions of my interview questions into non-academic Chinese so that my engagements become increasingly meaningful. I rely on my supervisory committee and fellow classmates who listen to my small stories of success, stagnation and frustration bouncing ideas back to help me refine my conceptual frameworks. I rely on the many local residents to help me learn the local dialect, introduce me to others with experiences they think will be useful to me, and who open up their homes and lives. If the adage that “it takes a village to raise a baby” is true, then perhaps in my case it also “takes a village to write a dissertation”.