Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Nancy Riley has been to China so many times, she has lost count. Nonetheless, within the next six months, she will have another three trips under her belt?two weeks with Bowdoin faculty over Spring Break, five weeks with students at the beginning of the summer, and a research trip to the Northeast of China before the start of the next academic year. The Orient sat down with Riley to find out more about her upcoming adventures, her research on gender and family, and her personal take on China Rose.
The Bowdoin Orient: So, why China?
Professor Nancy Riley: I was at home choosing courses before beginning at the University of Pennsylvania. It was boring at home in the summer, so I was looking through the catalogue and thought, 'Oh, I can take Chinese. That would be cool.' So I signed up for Chinese, having no idea what I was getting myself into (laughs) and it was really hard, but it was so much fun. And that was how I became a Chinese Studies major?it was from boredom (laughs).
Orient: So how many times have you been to China over the course of your life?
Riley: I have no idea.
Orient: Ballpark figure?
Riley: Forty? I don't know, a lot. I lived in Taiwan for a year in the 1970s when I was in college and I lived in Beijing for a year in the mid-80s and I spent many months, sometimes three months at a time, in China for the next few years when I was in my job in Hawaii. I also lived in the Northeast for a year and a half or so, so I've lived there too and not just traveled there. But I don't know how many times I've been there?a lot.
Orient: Can you tell me about your research in China on family and gender?
Riley: Originally, I started by looking at marriage decisions by young women?how much parental influence there was in marriage decisions in Beijing?and then I did a lot of demographic research, most of it using survey analysis and then most recently, I've been working on a project on women and migrants from the rural areas who work in factories and I'm looking at how that work has changed the power in their families.
Orient: Americans seem to hold a lot of stereotypes about the Chinese. What assumptions do you often hear and which, if any, are true?
Riley: Because I work with gender and women and things like that, people always, on both sides?both the China and U.S. sides?want to know whether the status of women is higher there or here. People in the United States assume that women's status in China is lower than that of American women and people in China think the status of American women is lower than that of Chinese women. I find it a riot that people are always assuming this on either side. I'm always trying to figure out how to answer the question because it depends how you look at it?China has much better enforcement of support for working mothers than does the United States (the United States has very little support), but on the other hand, we don't have missing girls in this country, so it's very difficult?there's no way to measure it.
Orient: Your daughter is adopted from China. Why did you decide to adopt a Chinese daughter?
Riley: Once we decided to adopt, the question was where, and I was working and living in China at that point. A Chinese friend of mine was visiting in Hawaii and she said to me, 'Oh, I'll help you adopt, it's so easy!" Well, she was wrong?it was not so easy. It was the most difficult thing I've every done in my life. One of the best things I've ever done in my life, but still, it was the most difficult. I did it because I felt a strong connection to China and so it seemed to make sense.
Orient: And you didn't go through an American agency?
Riley: (laughs) No, I just did it all myself! They did not allow foreigners to adopt children at that time, so the year that we adopted Maggie, 1990, there were 12 children adopted from China by Americans in the whole country. Now, there are 3,000 or 4,000 or something. We didn't go through an agency?I just did it on my own. I went to each little office and asked them for their signature. I had to go through eight different Chinese agencies, and it was just arbitrary whether they said 'yes' or 'no.'
Orient: Tell me about Chinese food in America. Do you like it?
Riley: Chinese food in the United States is generally not at all like Chinese food in China. I mean, it has connections?some vague, shadowy connections?to the food there. I love the food there. I love Chinese food. I could eat Chinese food 365 days a year. It's rougher, I think, than the food here, but it's also fresher. It's great (laughs).
Orient: You've mentioned in the past that you've eaten both scorpion and dog. Anything else we should add to the list?
Riley: Yes, I've eaten silkworm cocoons. Awful. They are some of the worst things I've ever eaten.
Orient: What do they taste like?
Riley: Mush. They are really awful. Actually, one of the things I have real trouble with is that one of the delicacies in China are sea cucumbers, although sea slugs would be a better word for them (laughs). They're a real delicacy, so when I'm being wined-and-dined there, people order sea cucumbers for me and I really do not like them.
Orient: Tell me more about your upcoming trips to China with students and faculty.
Riley: Well, one of the reasons that I'm doing this is the Freedman Grant that we got. The purpose of that money is to introduce Asia to people who hadn't had exposure to Asia, but also might not ever get exposure to Asia. And so this is an opportunity for me to teach about something I feel very strongly about?not just China?China's a great place, but also, the fact that people in the United States don't necessarily know very much about China and aren't always interested in finding out. So it was a great opportunity for me to introduce China to students in a different way?and there is no better way than to be there and to do it this way. And this year, I'm also taking a group of faculty.
Orient: Have you taken faculty before?
Riley: No (laughs). I don't know all of the faculty members very well in the group?it's a variety of people from lots of different disciplines.
They're really eager too, they're so excited. They're reading things and trying to figure out how this information and what they'll see can be brought into their courses. I'm hoping it will create a stronger community, a bigger community, of people who are interested in China, and that would really translate into the classroom someway, even if it's indirectly.
For example, one of the things that I have found very useful is thinking about women's veiling in the Middle East because it makes me think about the way that practices that seem so foreign to me are parts of cultures and I can connect that with something I am more familiar with in China. I don't expect the faculty who go to teach necessarily about China, but I think they may teach differently when they get back.
I really do think that there are connections across disciplines in ways that may surprise even us. One of the things that's very hard at Bowdoin is for faculty to have the time and the space to talk to people in different disciplines and different departments. Every time we get together and are able to do this, we all love it because it makes our brains work differently and it forces us to ask questions we wouldn't normally ask, and I think a lot of that will go on.
Orient: What are some of your upcoming projects?
Riley: I've got two projects that I'm interested in doing. I just finished a book about my research in the Northeast and have submitted it to a press, and I've now decided I want to write a book for a popular audience on women in China, where I'll have a broader audience and will speak to some of these misconceptions about women and gender and stuff like that in a way that might reach further.
At the same time, I'm also interested in Asians in the U.S. Part of that comes from having a Chinese daughter and some of that comes from the way that people talk to me and what they say about China. I'm interested, for example, if you go to small towns in Maine, they all have Chinese restaurants and I want to know what people are doing when they eat Chinese food?do they think there's a connection to China? And if so, how is that? I want to know about the meaning of that restaurant and how it represents something to people as they are eating Chinese food in rural Maine. I am really interested in the ways people interpret or think about Asian-ness and Chinese-ness in the United States and so I'm planning on doing some work on Chinese restaurants in Maine, although my husband says that means I have to eat the food (laughs).
I'm also in a similar manner interested in Chinatowns and what Chinatown means. I'm working on developing a project that looks at Chinatown in Honolulu and Chinatown in Boston. I lived in Honolulu, and 80 percent of the population in Hawaii is not white?they're not all Chinese, of course, but they're not white?so the uniqueness and the special-ness, the Asian-ness, of that Chinatown is not the same as it is in Boston. Again, I want to know what the meaning is of that space and how it differs in a population like Hawaii. Part of it is the same thing?not just studying Chinese people in China, but studying the ways that Americans think about Chinese people within their own culture.
Orient: One last question?how did you end up with your office in Riley House, with the last name Riley?
Riley: People always used to ask me if I was related to Matilda Riley?I didn't have tenure, I was brand new?I was like, 'Yeah, it's part of the new process?I haven't gotten tenure yet, but they named a building after me' (laughs).
Matilda Riley founded the sociology department at Bowdoin. She died a couple of years ago at a very old age, and she was really active all of the way through?she watched over us. So I'm not related to her, although at least in this part of the world, they know how to spell my name (laughs).
Riley is currently teaching Introduction to Social Research, and Contemporary Chinese Society at Bowdoin. She looks forward to her return to China in two weeks.