This research started with my Ph.D. dissertation research. Based on extensive fieldwork in rural Guangdong and archival research, I examined how transnational processes shape social life in a local Hakka (a diaspora Chinese ethnic group) Catholic community. With the liberalization of the Chinese economy following the ascension of Deng Xiaoping to power in 1977, Chinese society has dramatically transformed nearly every aspect of everyday life. Many issues, such as the role of transnational religious organizations, continue to be contested both within China and between China and other nations as postsocialist structural adjustments mature. On one level, my research addressed the connection between a local, resurfaced Chinese Catholic Church to the global Church and how Catholicism is practiced under an avowedly atheistic political system that in the past (and to some extent today) has persecuted Catholics. On a more theoretical level, I explored what modernization and globalism mean to Hakka villagers in a remote area of southern China. A multiplicity of transnational processes – diasporic ethnicity, Catholicism, global capitalism, and popular media – converge in the social life of these villagers and are made local through a variety of social mechanisms that I explore throughout my dissertation. This ethnography was published by Stanford University Press in 2001.
Analysis of food and popular culture reveals much about the cultural ideologies central to very different societies throughout the world and the initimate dynamics of family life. All peoples participate in some fashion and to varying degrees in the production, distribution, and consumption of food. Food culture can also be seen as the most basic of cultural activities — in the transformation of nature (as raw food or natural products) to culture. The cultural variety of what and how people eat — including the religious, political, and economic constraints on food — provide an ideal lens to study other anthropological issues such as cultural concepts of health, beauty, and body image.
To examine the relationship between food and globalization, I did a study of a particular Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Beijing to examine how global capital provides a new medium for local contestations and self-definitions of Chinese childhood in postsocialist China. My focus on KFC’s relations with children in Beijing is mainly warranted by two considerations. First, fast food restaurants like KFC and McDonald’s have had particular success among children in large Chinese urban centers. Children are often the decision makers in determining whether or not an urban family will patronize a KFC restaurant. Moreover, what children eat is a fundamental part of their socialization, and changes in children’s dietary patterns are indicative of changes in their social environment. Second, children’s consumption of both material and cultural goods are becoming a domain of fierce contestation in many parts of the world and among different social groups seeking to implement their particular visions of the future by shaping childhood experiences. As an organizational actor, KFC is a part of the social life of Beijing children, and influences Chinese experiences of childhood through its becoming part of local Beijing life. Before the ethnographic context of KFC in Beijing is set up for analysis, a few remarks should be made on this essay’s theoretical framework.