Outside of class, Fong worked at the library and as a security guard at the Mead Art Museum (“I was the muscle,” she jokes), and wrote for The Amherst Student. Her stint as a journalist helped her later, as an interviewer and author. “I try to write in a way that is maximally clear and easy for people to understand,” says Fong. Come senior year, with Professor of Anthropology and Black Studies Miriam Goheen as her adviser, Fong did her senior thesis: “Iron Girls, Model Workers, Virtuous Wives, and Good Mothers: Gender Inequality and Elite Constructions of Urban Womanhood in the People’s Republic of China.” Then came Harvard and Dalian.
Why choose this, China’s 25th most populous city, as the locus of her research? Most Chinese cities teem with bicyclists, but Dalian is too hilly for biking, and Fong, who has a poor sense of balance and can’t ride a bike, could get around by bus like everyone else. The people also spoke a relatively standard Mandarin she could easily understand. Plus, Dalian is akin to lots of other Chinese cities, so her study could illustrate many aspects of urban China as a whole.
From 1998 to 2000, while she launched the first phase of her research, she endeared herself by teaching English in Dalian, gratis. Requests for tutoring skyrocketed, especially after local newspapers and TV stations said a Harvard lady was giving lessons for free. In the years since, Dalian alumni fondly recalled how Fong drew a picture of a book with a grinning worm sticking out of it. That’s how she taught the word bookworm, which, she told them, also described herself. They loved when she did a creaky imitation of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, and mimed Rapunzel stuck in her castle as she directed a student production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, one of her favorite musicals.
But no one acts alone. When Fong took notes, like all anthropologists in the field, a few locals saw her as an undercover journalist onto some corruption scandal. Others couldn’t quite classify this Chinese-American question-asker, variously dubbing her names that translated as “patriotic overseas Chinese” or “Chinese with U.S. citizenship” or “Taiwan compatriot” or even “imitation foreign devil.” Still, she persevered, dissecting a world of “little suns,” as singletons were called derogatively, since everyone orbited around them. To wit: 67 percent of the students told her they were “spoiled” by at least one parent. A question about chores revealed that only 6 percent of girls at the college-prep high school helped with cooking at home—which was less than boys at that same school, at 8 percent. This marked them as radically different from their parents, who’d shouldered many chores in their own childhoods.
Fong also asked these Dalian teenagers, “Would it be better to have a son or a daughter?” Of the girls, 37 percent preferred daughters, and 28 percent of boys preferred sons. But “no preference” on a child’s gender won out for both girls and boys, at 55 and 63 percent respectively.
That “no preference” was a seismic shift. To understand it, Fong followed the money: Given that China has no system like Medicare, and mandatory retirement age can be as low as 50, and 24 percent of her respondents’ parents had no pension or insurance, everything depends on “The Child as Retirement Plan,” as Fong titled one section of Only Hope. Radical fertility decline, and a rapidly transforming economy, opened more opportunities, meaning there were as many jobs for women as for men. Then again, it also opened up something called the “4:2:1,” as in: One singleton may have to take care of two parents and four grandparents, with no sibling to lighten the load. Since the one-child policy, families can no longer abide goof-offs: all singletons must achieve liftoff.
So parents beamed their little suns out of the kitchen and to their desks, to get top grades to go to top schools to land top jobs, in order to support up to six elders. Fong even encountered one girl who, when her parents heard a rumor of a coming earthquake, was made to stand under their home’s sturdiest doorway holding all the family’s money, since she was its “greatest treasure.”
Steeped in Chinese family life in Dalian, Fong decided that marriage and children would not be part of her future: “I know how much time it really takes to devote to a family to make it work. I thought I could be very good at my career or very good at my family, but it would be really hard to do both.” In 2011, at age 37, she published Paradise Redefined: Transnational Chinese Students and the Quest for Flexible Citizenship in the Developed World (Stanford University Press). The latest shocker? That many of her Dalian subjects were studying abroad even though, back when they were teens, most hadn’t even mentioned it as a realistic possibility.
Indeed, a third of her respondents ended up going abroad, the plurality to Japan, with Ireland the next most popular destination. And so they joined China’s booming transnational student population, now the largest in the world. Another nugget gleamed in the gold pan: Fong learned that it was often the average Chinese students who study abroad, not just the elite students. Why? Because the top students often opt not to study abroad if they pass the exams to get into China’s highly selective universities. Study abroad is one backup plan for those who don’t pass. The China Journal found Fong’s ethnography “impressive,” with “a firm quantitative twist.”
By 2012, with five books under her belt (two as writer, three as co-editor), and having risen to associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Fong got many offers to teach at colleges around the country. But she chose Amherst. “The first year, whenever I started walking home, I would start walking toward one of my old dorms!” she laughs. “Every day was like a wash of nostalgic memories. Every single building, every classroom, even the students. When I see them, I sometimes think that’s so-and-so from my class when, obviously, it’s not. There’s just an extra layer of wonderfulness to everything.”
Her office at Morgan Hall once belonged to Lawrence A. Babb, the Willem Schupf Professor of Asian Languages and Civilizations and Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, and “a wonderful, very inspiring anthropologist,” Fong recalls. The current academic department coordinator remembers young Vanessa waiting outside Babb’s door during office hours. Fong likes this palimpsest, how her older self can do what her younger self couldn’t, like splurging at the restaurants she could only dream of as an undergrad. That said, she’s a regular at Valentine Dining Hall, and often shares meals with her students there. Fong doesn’t drive, so she lives in an apartment near campus and walks everywhere: “I love being here, the town, the College. Now I’m living Groundhog Day, but on the best day of my life, not the worst.”
Meanwhile, she’s taught her Amherst students how to look for surprises, too. “She used to call it ‘window-shattering,’” says Kari-Elle Brown ’15, who now works at Curriculum Associates in North Billerica, Mass. Brown took many classes with Fong and is a co-author on several articles, including an analysis of how Dalian students chose their high school and college majors. “I have this training now to listen in interviews and pick out the weird things, and follow that thread,” she says. Brown, too, is a child of immigrants (in her case, from Jamaica), and she says Fong “has really cared about my growth as a person and as a researcher.”
Eddie Kim ’15, a math and political science major, took Fong’s “Researching China” course on a dare from his roommate—and it changed his life. “It was the first time I studied a topic I was interested in with a method I could use,” he says. Fong asked him to sign on as a quantitative analyst, and he became co-author on a study of how Dalian youth perceived the ties between wealth and academic achievement. Kim ended up following in Fong’s footsteps, and is getting his doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
The professor has relished their diligence and perspective: “The great thing about working with students is that, sometimes, it takes someone else who is new to this data and comes from a very different background to say, ‘Whoa, how could this be?’”
Fong’s original Dalian teenagers are now thirtysomethings, and the revelations keep revving in her latest articles. In “How Flexible Gender Identities Give Young Women Advantages in China’s New Economy,” she and her student co-authors found that women have outpaced men at adapting in a changing economy (partly because there are more service jobs). They’re also protected by a “glass floor,” since they’re more likely to complete a college degree than men. And women are more open to careers dominated by men then vice versa (see: FFC-Acrush, China’s new “boy band” sensation—made up of five girls).
Later this year, the prestigious anthropology journal Ethos will run an article by Fong, Brown and Sung won Kim (Fong’s former student at Harvard) on the childrearing aspirations of the Dalian cohort. Will they raise their kids how they were raised? The initial findings indicate these new and would-be parents have set the bar (maybe unrealistically) high. Indeed, they want an even better quality of life, more freedom and less stress and pressure, and even more educational degrees for their kids than they had themselves. This prompted Brown to coin a catchy (and wry) section header: “Health, Happiness, and a Doctorate.”
Back at Morgan Hall, Fong brims with speculation, and devotedly embraces the long view. “One of the exciting, fun things,” she says, will be seeing the children of her original subjects at the same age as their parents were when she first met them. “It really is amazing how generational change happens so rapidly. Anthropology is about challenging previous assumptions and seeing things that are different from what we’re used to. Any time you plan research for the future, especially at the scale I’m doing, you are writing science fiction. There are so many ifs.”
And so Fong keeps at it, questioning her families in Dalian, and providing this extraordinary window onto modern China. “I’m going to follow them for the rest of my life,” she says. Well, that’s no surprise.
Katharine Whittemore is the senior writer in Amherst’s Office of Communications. She profiled singer-songwriter Amy Speace ’90 in the Spring 2017 Amherst magazine.