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Undoing Fieldwork in a Time of Epidemic

By Scott Simon, University of Ottawa and Visiting Scholar, University of Guam

On January 21, I flew from Taipei to Guåhan (Guam) to begin field research with the CHamoru, the Indigenous people of that unincorporated US territory.[1] Even as Taiwan pre-emptively cancelled flights to parts of China, I felt reassured by World Health Organisation announcements that the COVID-19 epidemic was controlled and that states should not impose travel restrictions. Having accepted to teach a course at the University of Guam (UOG), I looked forward to working with CHamoru students and professors. I signed up for CHamoru lessons. I booked my spring break trip to the island of Rota, where people speak CHamoru and birds are still plentiful. I had no idea how quickly plans would unravel.

Initial Observations

On arrival, I only thought about my short-term needs. I rented the first studio available near campus, in the village of Mangilao. I discounted the inconvenience that it lacked TV, home internet, or even furniture. Eager to commence fieldwork, I started taking meals in take-outs rather than stocking a kitchen. I didn’t realize how vulnerable that made me.

Those choices taught me the sociology of Mangilao. By chatting with owners, employees and clients in take-outs and laundromats, I met CHamoru people, long-time Chinese immigrants, and recent arrivals from Chuuk. They told me about mutual distrust between ethnic groups. Some CHamoru contended that US immigration policies are as much of a colonial imposition as the military occupation of one-third of their island. They did not invite ethnic outsiders any more than they did the brown treesnake introduced unintentionally by US forces that decimated much of the bird population. I took note when Chuuk and Filipino immigrants described the CHamoru as “thieves.” I realized that some people were in those places for the same reasons as me, because they had no place to cook or wash clothes. Some were even homeless. Unlike me, they had no return airplane ticket.

Fieldwork began well. I could identify similarities between CHamoru and Truku, the Austronesian language I study in Taiwan. I did archival research in the Micronesian Area Research Centre. I attended Mass in overcrowded Catholic churches. At TASA (Traditions Affirming our Seafaring Ancestry), I found friendly people who meet weekly to share meals, practice sling-shot throwing, and speak CHamoru. I took nature hikes with CHamoru people. I interviewed biologists working on captive rear-and-release programs for endangered birds. I was entranced by the postcolonial performance that the people of Humåtak did on March 2 to commemorate how they rescued Ferdinand Magellan and his crew upon their arrival in 1521, only to see their friendship returned with murder and the labelling of their island as “Isla de los Ladrones” (Island of Thieves). I started making friends and getting attached to people.

Students in Humåtak re-create how they saved Magellan. Photo by Scott Simon.

Panic Arrives

Just one week after the Humåtak commemoration, there was a sea-change in peoples’ sense of risk. People stopped attending church. As conversations revolved around the coronavirus, people speculated about how they would survive if stores closed or supply chains to California collapsed. People anxiously told me that the island population far exceeds possible food supplies from fishing and horticulture. Nobody believed government announcements that the island was still virus-free. Stores sold out of sanitary masks, cleaning supplies, and hand sanitizer. When rumours spread that restaurants would be closed, I bought a rice cooker and a two-week supply of food. The following day, a Chuukese waitress told me that grocers had run out of rice.

The news arrived abruptly. On March 15, I was headed to the Guam Museum to view a documentary about US military build-up when I received a message announcing the island’s first COVID-19 cases. Heading homewards, I saw a serious accident in front of a supermarket parking lot, where an anxious driver failed to watch for oncoming cars before turning. I drove into an over-flowing parking lot and saw a man enter the grocery wearing a military gas mask.

The UOG decided to cancel classes before spring break, and then transition to on-line teaching. Administrators realized that some students are more vulnerable than others, some not having home internet. In my case, even the professor didn’t have it! The archives closed. I realized that interviews and field observations would end with social distancing. I proposed to UOG that I teach on-line from Taiwan until the emergency ends. I cancelled my trip to Rota. I arrived in Taiwan on March 17, just before the border closed to non-residents. I was placed under preventive quarantine at home in Tainan until March 31. [As of this writing (March 25), Taiwan has done one of the best jobs of epidemic mitigation, so I will remain in place until it is safe to return to Canada].

When the Spanish attacked, the people fled in horror. Photo by Scott Simon.

Lessons Learned

In a short period, I learned about the precarity that colonialism brings. Whereas all CHamoru once lived in tightly-knit and self-sufficient communities, surrounded by taro fields, rice paddies, and closed-access reef fisheries, most of them now have a US-style existence living in apartments, driving everywhere, and buying all their food. Extended families extend to California, which means local kin networks have dwindled. As I reflect on this from Taiwan, where life continues much like normal, I think that the social disruption of military build-up and rapid migrant influxes contribute to a sense of loss among the CHamoru that can easily fuel anxiety and panic. To the Chuukese, Filipinos, and even me, there is unease about being away from loved ones. We all need home in times of crisis.

As I undid fieldwork so quickly, I realized that I could have done things differently. I could have invested the time and money to find more comfortable living arrangements. Even without an epidemic, I should not have assumed that I would never be confined indoors. I could have booked a more direct flight. I was thankful to be alone, rather than with anxious students who need to be repatriated safely. And, as I look to the future, I realize that psychologically we will all be changed. Taking long flights to remote locations for research depends on open borders, cheap and frequent flights, and a sense of health security. Unless those conditions return quickly, I would not be surprised if more people decided to do research closer to home.

Featured image caption: It began to rain just as performers sang the final song celebrating CHamoru cultural values. The elders said that rain will bring blessings. Photo by Scott Simon.

[1] The capitalized CH is pronounced like the “ts” sound in “cats.”

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