Spatiality and subjectivity: Code-switching as resident and researcher during COVID-19

Author: Lailatul Fitriyah

Lailatul Fitriyah

When I left Toronto, Canada, for Indonesia on January 24th, 2020, I had no idea the field work plan I had meticulously crafted for more than a year and a half would shortly crumble. I had heard about the viral outbreak in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, but, like many, did not anticipate it would become a global pandemic in just a matter of months.

The field work (partly funded by the Ansari Institute) would lay the foundation of my dissertation on Muslim and Christian feminist migration theologies. My work utilizes a feminist ethnographic approach in constructing theologies from the ground up, based on the lives of Indonesian female migrant workers in Singapore. Field work is at the heart of my project. Having to cancel this work because of Singapore’s national lockdown has been disastrous for my dissertation writing, and for my plans of a summer 2021 graduation.

Instead of abandoning the project, I have chosen to forge on with my research from my home in Indonesia. After consulting with an NGO and a female migrant workers (FMWs) advocacy network in Singapore, I am pursuing the interview portion of my field work from home while postponing the participant-observation part of my research until travel to the region opens up again.

Such a methodological pivot means two things: First, the imperative of identifying dialogue partners (my terminology for research subjects) with cell phones or internet connections. This might sound trivial, but in the context of the precarious lives that the migrant domestic workers have, such access can prove elusive. Luckily, technology has begun to reach even the remote margins of society, and I managed to find dialogue partners I could interview remotely. Face-to-face conversations in ethnographic research can be challenging enough. Talking remotely takes things to another level.

Since I left Indonesia to earn my degrees in the US in 2013, my childhood home in Indonesia has become a source of romantic thoughts within me. The rich culinary tastes, the warmth of my siblings’ affection, and the smell of tropical rain all represent memories of a place where I was not a brown-skinned hijabi stranger in a predominantly white, elite, Christian, and American university.

Undertaking research in my Indonesian home transforms my home into a liminal space in which I experience my Indonesian and American identities within the same place.

More importantly, home also represents a space in which I can put off most of the performative tasks related to my rigorous scholarly training. In other words, my Indonesian home is a place where I do not need to prove to anyone that I have read the most cutting-edge theological work, or to show that I understand complex theological discourses that are rooted in neither my religious tradition nor in my cultural context. It is a place to rest from my elite American academic consciousness. Or at least it was, until I had to conduct research interviews from home.

Undertaking research in my Indonesian home removes the somewhat convenient compartmentalization between my private and public lives. It transforms my home into a liminal space in which I experience my Indonesian and American identities within the same place. While this shift can be unsettling, it also has its advantages.

Being in a liminal space enriches my understanding of my dialogue partners. This is especially true when gaining insights into my dialogue partners’ relationships with their parents and families. Through listening to, and reflecting on the hopes, wishes, fears, and prayers that my parents and family have for me—a student migrant in the United States—I can understand better the hope, prayers, and fears that my dialogue partners’ families have and feel for them. When I hear my mother worrying over my impending return to the United States in the midst of a pandemic running amok in the country, I can almost hear the whispered prayers of the FMWs’ parents across Indonesia for the safety of their daughters in Singapore.

Living on the border between two worlds also means that I must continually perform in two distinct ways and live in two biographical spaces. I live simultaneously as a researcher and family member: daughter, sister, and aunt. My bedroom door is the border of these conceptual, yet very real spaces. The laptop and the internet that connects me to the world from my room, with its pile of books, predominantly in English, are signposts of an academic space. This spatial configuration is an unspoken code adhered to by my entire family. Once, I heard my older sister prohibiting her youngest daughter from entering my room without an urgent need because it is my “working space,” a space that in pre-COVID times was supposed to be located anywhere else except in East Java.

Yet this performative and spatial binary is not rigid. Like other liminal spaces, roles, experiences, thoughts, and feelings bleed into both sides of the border. I might find myself in the middle of a research interview—and thus performing my academic role—when my niece spontaneously asks me to review her homework. At other times, I sit and talk with family members while also texting my dialogue partners.

The inevitable switch-code between languages (English, Indonesian, Javanese, and some others) is one of the hardest parts of living in this liminal space. In a postcolonial context like my village in East Java where I am the only English-speaking person, using English at home means that others see me as an unintelligible elite who is undertaking an equally incomprehensible activity: research. At times, the perspectives from my loved ones—reflecting their pride for me as the first family member who went into college and on her way to earn a doctorate—also results in feelings of alienation, especially when my family sees me as adopting the behaviors of “bule” (white people), or seemingly changing from a Javanese person into an American.

While the gap between “the researcher” and “the researched” is never totally bridgeable, I feel an unmistakable sense of closeness with my dialogue partners because of my present situation.

Most significantly, undertaking research from home implies a deeper dissolution of the binary of myself as researcher and my dialogue partners as research subjects. While such dissolution is very much welcomed within the perspective of critical and feminist ethnography, I cannot help but notice that my position is more parallel with my dialogue partners, even as I am away from their location in Singapore.

When I conducted an initial exploration of my dissertation topic in the summer of 2018 in Singapore, I continuously reflected on how to minimize the gap between the researcher and the researched. I talked informally with the Indonesian female migrant workers, participated in their religious activities, and casually mingled with many of their hobby-based groups. They welcomed me as their Indonesian compatriot, though for the most part they saw me as one of the educated elites.

While the gap between “the researcher” and “the researched” is never totally bridgeable, I feel an unmistakable and distinct sense of closeness with my dialogue partners because of my present situation.

I attribute the different feelings that I have about my initial field work in Singapore and my current research in quarantine to spatiality and subjectivity. Singapore as a field work site clearly delineated that I was there as a researcher. I could immerse myself in the day-to-day life of the city-state, while also regularly participating in my dialogue partners’ activities, but at the end of the day, that life was not mine. In that context, there would be no push to reflect on my own life as an immigrant while researching the lives of other migrants.

The distinct sense of closeness that I currently feel to my dialogue partners is because of my own spatial configuration, not theirs, nor to any kind of systematic methodological consideration. I perceive the dynamics of my familial relationship as an imperfect mirror image of what my dialogue partners experience with their own families. The boundary between professional and familial spaces that I must cross continually provides a context for me to reflect on what it means to live within and between two worlds at the same time. Just as my dialogue partners participate in research interviews in between their chores, I also try my best to conduct research in between the familial and professional spaces.

My experience shows that subjectivity and spatiality are linked to each other. Different spaces produce different embodied experiences and perceptions of self.

In other words, my existence in a personal rather than a professional space while conducting research is juxtaposed against my subjectivity as a researcher. In my past field work, I did not reflect deeply on my subjectivity as a person (vis-à-vis my subjectivity as a professional); in my current context, such reflection is inevitable due to the fluid boundary between the personal and the professional.

My experience shows that subjectivity and spatiality are linked to each other. Different spaces allow for different contingencies that, in turn, produce different embodied experiences and perceptions of self. I am grateful that the unprecedented context of COVID-19 has yielded an opportunity for me to continue researching my dialogue partners’ religious subjectivities while also learning about my own. Although this pandemic means that I must postpone my participant observation research in Singapore until next year, I am oddly enjoying my current research interviews in medias res. 

Fitriyah’s ongoing field work on her topic is supported by, the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion's Travel Grant; the Keough School of Global Affairs' Field Research Award; the Kellogg Institute for International Studies' Graduate Research Grants; the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies' Research and Educational Travel Grant; and the Department of Theology's Travel Grant.