Haram Hwang ’17 is an anthropology major. Her thesis examines child-rearing and its relation to feminism and neoliberalism in Lepan, a rural village in Yucatan, Mexico. Her advisor is Professor Vanessa Fong in the anthropology department.
Q: Can you give us a brief overview of your thesis?
A: I’m examining the stories of 12 different mothers who are all mothers of four-year-olds. Through that, I’m trying to see how globalization and neoliberalism have affected child-rearing in such a rural community that a lot of people assume to be very collectivistic. I’m looking at how feminism is constructed there, how happiness is conceptualized, the kind of lives that these mothers want for their children and how they see their own roles as mothers playing out in their children’s lives. So my thesis has ended up being quite a lot about their idea of gender equality and equality in general. It has a lot of implications as to why these people do not want to migrate, when right now in this political climate, people assume that people in poor villages in Mexico are trying to cross over to the U.S. to look for jobs. However, that is not the case in this community, so I am examining the social forces behind that. It’s kind of like an in-depth ethnographic analysis of this small village.
Q: How did you come across the idea?
A: I’ve been going to this village since eighth grade. I used to go with my church once a year. Then, two summers ago, my friend and I decided to stay there for two months and teach English. During that time, my adviser suggested that I try taking interview questions there and seeing what I find, just for fun. I did, and I ended up really loving the questions that I was asking and the responses I was getting. I realized that when you actually focus on the people and construct your ideas not just based on academic articles, you actually get to know a completely different side of people’s stories — which, I think, is what anthropology is about. I went back again this year and went back over Thanksgiving break. These people that I’m interviewing are people that I’ve known since I was young, and so I kind of have a personal stake in this. I want to represent these people well, and so what more can I do than write about them in the biggest paper I’ve ever written?
Q: How has your thesis changed from when you first started?
A: Oh, so much — I really thought I was going to be doing an analysis of an indigenous Mayan community, and throughout the process, I realized that there was so much I could talk about in terms of gender, and so the gender aspect of my thesis was completely unexpected. It turns out that their ethnic identity is a lot more complicated and beyond my scope, and so I had to shift my focus from identity to gender and child-rearing. I didn’t expect to talk so much about neoliberalism, which I am now.
Q: How has your thesis changed your own perspective of feminism?
A: I realized how Western my idea of feminism was, because the things that make us happy or what we think should make us happy [are] not what they consider as the key to happiness. I learned a lot about dismantling a lot of these Western ideas about motherhood in general. It’s made me more sentimental and sensitive. I’ve realized how much cultural context you need before anyone tries to attempt to understand anyone else. It’s a lot of dismantling my own ethnocentrism.
Q: Do you have any examples of some of these ideas?
A: In the U.S., when a woman cannot continue her education because she has a child, we’re like, “Oh, poor her.” But there are some mothers [in Lepan] who are well-educated, compared to the rest of the sample, who choose to be a stay-at-home mother. At first I was like, “Why doesn’t the husband take on the child-rearing?” But the mothers say, “It was my choice,” and they’ll say it over and over again. They’ll say, “This is what I love. I love watching my son grow. If I could have a perfect life I’d spend all of my days with him.” This profound love for motherhood and self-empowering language that these mothers developed around motherhood was something I didn’t expect to see.
Q: What have been the best and worst parts of your thesis?
A: The best is being able to tell others about it! It’s always fun to be like, “By the way, our ideas — everything we know — can be challenged.” Challenging things can be exciting. The worst part is actually writing it. It’s such a mental battle. It’s always this struggle of knowing that I’m an undergraduate student with a very limited understanding of anthropology and attempting to insert my voice into an academic discourse that is already set by people who have been doing this for decades. I feel almost unworthy or incompetent to be a part of that discussion. There are better days when I feel like I can do it, when I think my ideas are fresh and my insights are awesome, but then there are many more days when I sit in front of the computer, staring at the screen, hoping that things I am saying aren’t completely wrong. Those days are a lot more challenging.
Q: Do you have any advice for other students who are interested in writing a thesis in the future?
A: I say, don’t expect so much from yourself to the point where you start comparing yourself to scholars and other thesis students who might have more experience in research, because that’s what I struggled with in the beginning. I was a science major for a little bit, and so I felt sort of new to the humanities world. I think the best advice that my adviser gave me was to calm down because it’s your first time. It’s only part of the journey, and the more you psych yourself out to try to do well, the less and les you’ll produce. It’s not that you should expect little from yourself, but don’t beat yourself up.