How would an ethnographer’s personal identification be changed in the process of fieldwork?
12 years ago, I pursued my Master’s degree in Anthropology, for which I wrote a thesis about Hong Kong’s lesbians, focusing on the identity and body of masculine lesbians who identified themselves as “tomboy.” My academic interest on female masculinity, I cannot deny, is caused by my personal identification. 12 years ago, I was living in the cage of lesbian feminism—regarding any gendered labels, such as butch/femme, tomboy/tomboy’s girl, as restrictive. Although I am masculine and people usually read me as a tomboy, I refused this label. During my 12-year-ago fieldwork, I insisted that I was not a tomboy but a woman if my informants, many of who are my personal friends, took me as a tomboy in the conversation. After all, my fieldwork experience did not change my personal identification. I am masculine; I am a lesbian; but I am not your “tomboy.”
Right now, I am pursuing my Doctoral degree in Anthropology, for which I am writing a dissertation about women’s same-sex relationship among Indonesian migrant women in Hong Kong. Still, one of my focuses is about the masculine women, who identified themselves as “tomboi” (an Indonesian word for tomboy). Did I change my personal identification in this new fieldwork experience? Yes. I did.
Since my informants did not know me before, some of them mistook me as a man based on my masculine appearance. Some of my closer informants would help me to explain, “No, she’s not a man. A tomboi, still a woman.” They positioned me as a tomboi—a biological woman with masculine attributes. At the beginning, I did not correct them when they said I am a tomboi. I did not want to draw a boundary because I was very eager to become a part of them. My “tomboi” identity did help me to establish closer relationships with them. We shared a common identity “tomboi.”
Surprisingly, after my 2-year fieldwork, I felt I had accepted “tomboi” as one of my personal identification. Especially after going to their “tomboi fashion contest” a couple times, I began to appreciate the way they made sense of gender. As one my informants said, “It’s just usual. There are tombois and girls, so we have tombois’ fashion contest and girls’ fashion contest.” Contestants could join both divisions if they were confident to do both. In their real-life relationships, some of them also changed from girl to tomboi, or from tomboi to girl, when they thought a particular gender would help them to fit into that new relationship. The two genders, tomboi and girl, were not as restrictive as I imagined. I began to appreciate these gender categories—not absolutely restrictive but allow rooms for individuals to imagine and make changes.
I am glad but I am also surprised to recognize that how my recent field work experience had changed my fundamental way of seeing this kind of label, as well as my personal identification. When I am trying to tease out how my informants were influenced by particular discourses that were circulated around them, I just realized how I was shaped by their discourse of tomboi and girl. I am part of the world I studied.
Call me a tomboi. I won’t reject it this time.