Back to the Past: An Interview with Alice Zhang
Back to the Past: An Interview with Alice Zhang
Tell us a bit about yourself!
I am Alice Zhang; I am a PhD candidate in my fourth year of graduate school. I learned history mainly as a PhD student. I studied English and Tourism in undergrad, and my MA is in Cultural Studies focusing on English-speaking countries, especially the United States. I did both my first two degrees in mainland China.
Studying history has made me look at the world differently. I learned English to open doors to things outside of China. Then I set out to use my English language skills to learn more things. I studied history to understand peoples’ past experiences. It has also allowed me to grasp more clearly my own background. In China, I learned only one interpretation of the past: whether it was the history of China, of the U.S., Taiwan or Japan. When I started my PhD, and professors assigned me books on the histories of those countries, it was very hard for me, because it took me a moment to realize that history can be written in multiple ways.
After I graduate, I want to teach history at a university or a college if possible. I know that the job market is not so good right now, but I want to focus on my dissertation research right now and do a really great job, so that when the opportunity comes, I can seize it. I love teaching, I love sharing what I know with my students. That is the best part of the job.
What is your dissertation about?
I am working on the history of Chinese adoptions to the U.S. Initially, I wanted to focus on the period of China’s one-child policy, 1979 to 2015. But after I looked at the secondary literature on Asian adoptions to the U.S., I expanded the time period to 1950 through 2015. I am researching the history of the American side of things, the agencies that facilitate adoptions from China, the families that adopted Chinese children, the adoptees themselves, and the social workers that helped them.
In spring 2023, I was on a Walbolt fellowship that allowed me to go to Minneapolis for research. I worked at the International Social Welfare History Archive that was located on the campus of the University of Minnesota. It was not easy to get access to the documents I wanted to see because of legal restrictions. I needed to look at adoption records which included a whole raft of personal documents that were legally protected because the people in question were still alive. This meant that I had to submit a detailed plan of what I wanted to see in advance, and I could only take notes on my computer. I could not take pictures of the files.
What was crucial to my research was understanding how the adoption organizations had coded their files. Once I understood that, I could track specific adoption patterns very clearly. For example, in the 1950s most families adopting from China were Chinese-American. Over time that changed to the families being mainly white.
How did you prepare for fieldwork?
As soon as I knew that I would be able to go on my research trip last winter, I reached out to the archive. I contacted the archivists to tell them what material I would need to consult, and also to ask for their guidance about other collections that could be useful to me. I had to request permission to look at the adoption records – and that took some time before it was approved. I had to establish my credentials as a serious researcher.
In the end, the weather last winter did not help either. Because of the blizzard and the ensuing travel chaos I did not get to fly to Minnesota until early January.
What was it like doing research in Minneapolis in winter?
It was very cold, I thought I was going to die from the cold. When I arrived, my luggage was not there. I had to phone a friend to bring me a coat as it was snowing heavily outside.
Finding a place to live had proved a bit challenging to work out as I was only in Minneapolis for about two months. I stayed in a hotel that was only a short trip from the archive. I had to work out how to move around the city and where to get food. I found that people were also culturally different from the south – they were very efficient but did not smile as much as here in Tallahassee.
Working in the archive there was most probably very similar to working in archives around the world. You request documents and receive archival boxes, you follow their rules in handling documents, which meant not taking any pictures. But I also made friends because I went to the archives every day – and often I was the only one working there.
I presented my work at a workshop at the university to other scholars working on the issue of adoption. They gave me feedback and asked good questions.
Besides archival documents, what other sources are you using for your research?
I am doing interviews with adoptees (both children and adults), and adoptive parents for the later part of my project. These interviews will supplement my archival findings. I also want to speak with social workers and people who facilitate adoptions. I have done 30 oral history interviews already and am planning on doing a few more.
What surprised you the most during your recent research trip?
There were two big surprises. One was that I discovered records that even the archivist did not know about. The other was that I had to work out how to decode the classification system of some of the adoption records myself. All those records have two parts: an index card with coded information about the case (the codes tell if the background of the children), and then the file with the personal information. There were finding aids for the 1950s and 60s that explained what the code numbers meant, but there were none for the 1970s to 1990s. Then I had to decode the records on my own and find the cases that I needed to look at.
What challenges did you encounter in your work?
Not being adopted is the most challenging part in working on this project. When I ask people if I can interview them about their experiences in being adopted, the first thing they will ask me is whether I am adopted. And some do not want to talk to me because I am not. But it is not something that I can change. I explain to people why I am interested in the subject, and very often that convinces them to talk to me.
I met a scholar who is also studying Chinese adoption to America, but she is studying the birth families. She went to China to do her research. She asked me: How can you write about adoption without being adopted? It is not right that you do that as you can never understand us. That was a hard question to deal with.
I also met with adoptees who said that if you are not adopted you cannot write adoption history. That is simply a reality that I need to face. Many people working on adoption are adopted themselves. And in many cases, they began working on adoption histories because they disagreed with what non-adopted people wrote about the adoption experience and history.
As a scholar you are responsible for your work, and you are the author of your work. You have to be aware of the impact of your work. Because you are representing people to the wider world, you have power over them. You need to think about the ethics of your work. You also need to understand the limitations of the records you are working with.
I am trying to see it as a strength that I am not adopted. A bit like me coming into the PhD program and not knowing much about history. My advisor said to use that as my strength and be open to things, as there is always more than one way of doing things. The same went for not knowing English that well; to use the fact that I am an outsider looking in.
Even though I am not adopted, I grew up in China, I lived in China, so I have a perspective on what that is like. I embraced the fact that I am not adopted but I am mindful of the impact of my work.
What advice do you have for other students?
No archive is going to be organized specifically to meet your needs. You will always have to find a work-around to get at the sources that you need. It is a skill to learn where to look for material. But it always pays off to look at books in your field and look at their notes and bibliography and see where they found what kind of record.
Another good thing is to reach out to the archivists and ask them for help. And to reach out to other scholars and ask them for help.
When you are in the field, let the sources guide you. You might find things that you did not look for but that are really useful. Be sensitive to the documents you find. Follow the clues.
Even though you might have enough material for your dissertation, it is good to have more. There might be a side project that you can do, or other material might help you when you turn the dissertation into a manuscript.
And in planning your research: think ahead, in case you need special permissions to see the records you need. Reach out early to prevent wasting time when you are on your research trip.
Make friends or connections in the places you research, network. These will be people you can go to conferences with and whose work you’ll be responding to and interacting with.