When Fieldwork Heats Up

By Beth Cairns

Since January I have been on research exchange at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. While here I am researching transgender human rights, a topic that reflects my PhD research at home. The opportunity has provided some fascinating insights into living and researching in a different environment as well as allowing me the chance to get to know another university’s working culture. I have developed a deep love for this complex city and an even deeper love for its puffy egg waffles. Through this exchange, I have been given an incredible opportunity; to spend six months on my own project away from the pressure of full time PhD life to research a topic about which I am deeply passionate. That said, during my time here there has been a few challenges not least that I lack the established networks that I am supported by at home. Increasingly though my biggest research challenge is the heat.


Nestled in the Pearl River Delta, the region of Hong Kong enjoys a humid, subtropical climate. Nestled in Hong Kong, I am not enjoying the humid, subtropical climate. Since the beginning of March the heat has been on, literally. I have complained about it to anyone who will listen and am often met with chuckles from locals who assure me that it will only get hotter. On my days off, the sunshine has allowed me some very enjoyable visits to Hong Kong’s stunning beaches and many warm and fragrant walks through it’s well maintained parks. At work though, this heat is a struggle. As each day passes the sun seems to blaze hotter and my egg waffles, once full of ice-cream and happiness have mushed into warm fistfuls of disappointment.


I made the mistake a few weeks ago of enthusiastically attending a long awaited conference in a lined blazer. I have no idea what possessed me. I tried to sit very still and consume a lot of water but by the time my presentation rolled around I was still red-faced and panting. Every time a meeting is across town I frantically calculate how overheated I will be when I finally arrive, disheveled, off of a packed and humid underground car. Colleagues sometimes suggest we “walk and talk” outside, something they quickly regret as they are forced to watch my hair frizz into a physics defying mass around my head as I am hit with the intense humidity.


On a more serious note though, researching in a much hotter climate than I am used to has allowed me some really fascinating reflections on my fieldwork. In particular I have come to better understand the needs of my population. Transgender people often choose to undergo hormone treatments as part of their physical transitions and thus often go through periods of significant hormonal change. Hormone changes in the body, in particular influxes of estrogen, often change the body’s metabolic rate. In practical terms this can result in a significantly lowered ability to manage temperature and can regularly make people feel overheated. This was a phenomenon that I was aware of from previous experience. However I have only ever researched in Scotland, a country so cold that I as I write this I am still receiving photos of snow from friends… in April. In Hong Kong however, the hot flushes that often come alongside hormonal transitioning are no joke. The ethics of aircon has thus become a huge, unpredicted factor in my research. My data collection here has overwhelmingly been done through face to face interviews meaning that I have a responsibility towards participants to secure appropriate and comfortable venues for conversations. To make my participants as comfortable as possible in nearly 30 degree heat (It will only get hotter you know) I have to be very careful about where and how I conduct these interviews. I often find myself involved in awkward conversations with coffee shop owners or university administration as I try to ask just how good the aircon is without revealing why I am asking. This is often also negotiated through language barriers and a reasonably strong Scottish accent.


Each time I organise an interview I have to plan far ahead to ensure that I will be able to provide bottled water and that any toilet facilities and elevators that my participants will be using are also airconned. I have to make sure in fact that there are elevators available at all. The other week I enthusiastically suggested a local coffee shop for an initial meeting only to find out when I arrived that the lift was broken and that my participant, having arrived early, had already struggled up 23 flights of stairs in 29 degree heat and 80% humidity. I found them almost passed out on a coffee shop armchair. Luckily the shop sold iced coffee.


Often this is a struggle physically for me too. Having bottled water available at every meeting often means carting a few litres of water across town alongside recording equipment and all my notes. Sometimes this means changing the venue of an interview before even sitting down to chat. I also have to be aware of how far my participants are travelling to the interviews. While I often encourage them to choose from an established set of spaces that I know well I try to stay open to suggestions too. However, in the geographically small and population dense region of Hong Kong location is an incredibly important factor to consider to avoid outing anyone. I want to make sure that participants have the option of travelling to places where they are unknown, however I also want to avoid them having to brave the hot and sticky streets for as long as possible. To control for this I often offer to meet them places that are over an hours journey in the heat from where I live. I show up a blotchy mess and often have to take a few minutes to cool down before we begin. Not the most professional way to start an interview.


As the months roll on and the weather continues to heat up, this is becoming an ever more pressing issue. However, I am developing coping mechanisms for this particular challenge. This has been a stark reminder however, of the reason that I do this research. A reminder of the challenges that transgender people here face every day. To have the opportunity to reflect on this in a way that might influence other researchers to be more sensitive to the issue of heat in research with transgender people is exciting and rewarding. As time goes on I hope to incorporate these new understandings into my research at home. Participants at home already have one advantage over those here though… they don’t need to see my hair right now.

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