In part 3 of the Fieldwork 2010 series Master’s student Katie Rabar tells us about her first impressions as a researcher of asylum seekers in Holland.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve found in finding a research site is that I only speak one language fluently. For me that’s English, and I chose to conduct my research here in the Netherlands, in Noord Holland, looking at how asylum seekers experience and construct ‘home’. I speak only a tiny bit of Dutch and I’ve sat through hours of classes at my fieldsite where every language was being spoken but English. This means putting into practice all the language skills I have acquired growing up, and I am able to understand a variety of languages with some proficiency but responding… well, not so easy.
So, last week I was left alone having tea with an Asian gentleman; who turned out to speak quite a bit of Dutch and German but no English! I was forced to remember every word of Dutch and German I had, to keep up the conversation. We talked for half an hour, and yes I could tell you now what life was like for him in his home country and how he got here…
I think one of the most important things to mention here about my research is that I feel I have been very lucky. I feel that all the insecurities, doubts and fears I had about my fieldwork at the start have amounted to nothing. Providence, chance, good fortune; whatever it is you might believe in, I feel it. It has been in part due to good connections among my classmates and lots of phone calls to asylum seeker centers asking if I could perhaps do research there, but I fell into my site because of one connection. And as the snowball effect determines, the trickle of informants I had at the start has become a current pulling me along so that I keep bumping into people who ask how my research is going and would I like to talk to them?
I am now halfway into my research and things are starting to get very exciting for me, as is the case with many of my classmates, as I begin conducting more ‘serious’ interviews and organizing focus groups discussions, devoted to my topic: ‘Home’.
I have slowly been making myself known among the tenants of the Asylum Seekers’ Center in Noord Holland: it’s a well known tourist city and among my research subjects it is known as one of the best centers to be placed in the Netherlands. Why? Well, it is close to Amsterdam for a start. Although it doesn’t always feel that close to me, as I continue to live in my apartment in Amstelveen, taking the two-hour journey with public transport a few days each week, and I’ve had to get used to beginning my days at 6am.
It is one of the disadvantages of not living among my research population, but perhaps it authenticates my position among the staff at the center as most of them live in different cities as well. Many may question the authenticity of this type of field research: I am not living in the field exactly. But I am an Australian, living at the other side of the globe, and the climate (snow and temperatures below zero) has definitely distinguished my experience from that of living in a place of comfort and familiarity… For starters, it has been an adventure riding a bike through snow and ice!
Katie Rabar is studying for a Master’s degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology at VU University Amsterdam.
Earlier posts in this series:
Greetings from Moscow (Laura van Deventer)
Een ecologisch bolwerk in Bolivia (Mandy Ronda)