Wanying Zhao’s lips were itchy, and her tongue felt slightly numb.
In a roomful of Fijians, the young researcher was drinking Kava, a mildly intoxicating beverage that comes from a plant of the same name. Kava, she explained, is the foundation of social activity in the village of Teci, Fiji, where she lived as a cultural researcher in the summer of 2009.
“Kava looks like muddy water and it tastes pretty much the same,” laughed Zhao, who explained that the drink becomes more potent over time, creating a body buzz that makes the drinker feel mellow.
To demonstrate one of kava’s effects, Zhao momentarily closed her eyes, smiled and swayed gently.
Not all ethnographers could describe such details first hand, as some don’t believe outsiders should actively participate in the cultures they study. But Zhao’s team consciously chose participant observation as their research strategy, doing ethnography by conducting experiments and interviews, as well as engaging in day-to-day routines.
“I’m used to living in large cities where people mostly leave each other alone,” said Zhao. She described the strong kinship in the small 26-family village, where it was possible to walk anywhere in 15 minutes or less.
Her team’s interest was in understanding how and why people cooperate, and having intimate access was a very important advantage. Teci is one of more than a dozen field sites, where researchers like Zhao are actively examining human cognition through the Culture & the Mind project to see what people around the world have in common and also how they differ.
“Fiji was really good in terms of people being very inclusive, warm and inviting,” said Zhao, who didn’t take the Fijian’s openness for granted, “It’s harder to understand a culture from the outside when you’re being treated with suspicion.”
From a solar-powered bure (Fijian hut), Zhao and her team engaged with tremendous questions, such as “what are norms?” and “what solutions have different cultures evolved to maintain social order?”
While engaging with the villagers, including large groups of enthusiastic children, Zhao gained what she calls an “embodied understanding” of her host community.
“You miss a lot when you don’t engage,” Zhao explained. “It’s only by participating and interacting that you begin to understand what it means to live, think and feel in another cultural world.”
Listen to Wanying Zhao tell a story about the Fijian “Denise the Menace”
“He’d wack the dogs and chase the cats…”