“How I Was Treated on the Subway While Doing Fieldwork as a Migrant Worker”

Sociologist and ethnographer Trica Wang recounts the experience of riding the Beijing subway disguised as a migrant worker while conducting fieldwork:

I was dressed to blend in with Yang Jie, so I looked like a migrant street seller also. There were no seats when we first got on the train, but then at the next stop two seats opened up. Yang Jie spoke loudly and told me to come over. Several people turned their heads to look at us ….

When we sat down on the empty seat, I accidentally lightly brushed my backpack against the man sitting to my left. I immediately apologized. But he didn’t respond, he just looked alarmed that I had touched him and gave me a glaring look that told me immediately that I shouldn’t even be sitting near him. He wiped off the part of his arm that my bag had brushed as if I had dumped dirt on his suit ….

I then received a text message so I pulled my phone out. I immediately noticed the man next to me look at me curiously – he saw that I not only had a smartphone, but probably what looked like a real iphone (it is a real iphone). I texted back to my friend in English, and this is when he became super aware that something was off – it’s hard to explain the look on his face, but he just kept looking over my shoulder as if his eyeballs were going to pop out. He then looked at Yang Jie up and down and then at me up and down ….