Andrew Wortham is a Lecturer at Kunming University of Science and Technology in the Yunnan Province of Southwest China. He is an incoming postdoctoral fellow at NYU Shanghai. His research focuses on the creation of LGBTQIA communities around HIV/AIDS organizations in Yunnan.
Can you start by telling me a little bit about yourself, your research what brought you to China?
Sure! Let’s see… I grew up in Texas and I graduated from UT Austin. After I graduated, I joined a program called Teach for China which is like Teach for America. Through the program, I went to a small village in Yunnan, which is a southwestern province of China. I taught there for two years, and I really fell in love with this area. I originally applied to the program because I was interested in it and because my brother lives here in China as well.
As an undergrad I did South Asian studies and I became interested in anthropology through that. I applied for this program [TC Anthro], got in, and came back here for my fieldwork. Yunnan is a really beautiful, wonderful, fantastic place to be. There are lots of great people here; people are really warm. I became very interested in life here… it’s a relatively rural province. It’s not as urban as the rest of China, and so it sits at this interesting place in terms of its development and its connection to the rest of the world, so I originally entered Teachers College to study education development in this area. But, as I pursued my academic studies and I came back from my summer field work, I became more interested in LGBT matters as well. I became involved with some LGBT groups here over the summer became more interested in sexuality and gender identity classes at Columbia, and so I ended up changing my project a lot over the time I was at TC.
I passed my exams, and, in the spring of 2019, I moved to China to do my dissertation field work. I thought a lot about education as the process of becoming something; of figuring out what you’re supposed to be doing with your life. I found it very helpful to think about sexuality and gender identity through this lens, especially in rural parts of China, where people are not as connected to international networks. I wanted to know how they come to think about who they are and their sexual identity; how they find this information and apply it to their lives. That’s what my dissertation research focused on.
It’s been really great! Covid has obviously been this huge hindrance, but in some ways, China was able to control it better than other parts of the world, especially at the time that I was doing my research. So, I was still able to meet with people and do interviews. My project ended up focusing on HIV organizations, because this region has historically had high rates of HIV/AIDS, which makes this area interesting in terms of sexuality and gender because these high rates were caused by reasons less to do with sex and more to do with drug use. But as a result, there was a period where a lot of money flowed into this province to set up organizations that specifically targeted men who have sex with men.
So, Yunnan is a really interesting space to study how guys growing up in the countryside come into the main city and interact with all these organizations trying to reach out to them. These orgs have funding and approval from the government so they can set up these events where people can find out who they are, what they think is important, and they can explore different ways of performing gender identity that they might not have otherwise.
anything about LGBT Q rights in China is it like very stigmatized or like.
That’s really interesting! I don’t really know anything about the LGBTQ+ community in China. Could you give me an overview?
Sure. It’s not really been stigmatized in the same way that it has been in other places. There aren’t really religious grounds against it. In a lot of ways, it’s a don’t-ask-don’t-tell kind situation. There are no criminal laws or sanctions against it, but it’s also not affirmed. Parents
are sometimes very upset because it’s very important to parents that their kids to get married and have children. Having a gay or lesbian son would be a hindrance to that and might cause family issues. So, there’s definitely more social stigma rather than political or legal stigma. But at the same time, the state doesn’t really allow for a lot of civil society organizing, so if you’re interested in something potentially political rather than commercial or just for fun, it could be seen as threatening, especially if you’re trying to do social change or social work. Then you normally have a lot of scrutiny. You need to register with the government, you need to have the bureaucracy approve what you do and you usually have restrictions on where and how you can get money. So HIV organizations became a site where the state was actually endorsing LGBTQ+ politics.
On the other hand, there’s a lesbian organization here that really struggles, because they don’t have the HIV funds, they’re limited in where they can look for money, and they can’t get a government sponsor because they’re not seen as a valid social organization. Whereas the gay male organization is very fortunate, and they can get a lot more financial and legal support.
There was a time, though not when I’ve been doing my research, when the government was actually really gung-Ho about this, and so they would let the organizations set up bars or host publicly facing events. They don’t really let them do that so much anymore, but in the context of these organization, my research wasn’t about HIV/AIDS, but rather the social events that come out of them. The organizations host speed dating nights or camping trips… a lot of fun or play-based activities that they could do in a way that was not political but still really helpful to a lot of people.
I actually ended up using a lot of play literature in my research because these organizations host these fun events, so I explored how play allows you to do things that are political but not political because it’s just for fun and not threatening.
Very cool! You’ve also recently been hired for a new position. Can you tell me about what that process looked like for you?
Yeah! It’s very exciting! So at some point while I was writing my dissertation in November or December I was talking to Professor Varenne and he was said “Oh, I hope you’ve been applying for postdocs or jobs.” I wasn’t. So, I scrambled in the spring of 2021 to do that without a lot of success because I didn’t have many publications out and I didn’t have a lot of time to spend on them. That way my first go round of applications. It was difficult, time consuming process, but I didn’t want to leave this area where I’m doing my research because my partner is here, so what I ended up doing was I took a job at one of the local colleges teaching college level writing classes and a world civilizations class. It was fun but not exactly super anthropology focused. But during that time I was able to spend the summer and the fall sending out chapters for publications and job applications. I really devoted myself to writing applications.
It is grueling, but it ended up being okay, because I sent an application and was accepted for a postdoc position at NYU Shanghai. They follow the NYU model so they have a freshman seminar class that everyone has to take, which is taught by a core faculty member and supported by Global Perspectives on Society Fellows or GPS Fellows who teach target sections to improve the students’ critical reading and writing skills. It’s a liberal arts based class so hopefully it will give me opportunity to bring in some of the anthropology that I really enjoy. But more excitingly, though I’ll be in Shanghai teaching in the fall, I should be able to come back to
and continue doing my research in the spring semester. Which is great because I have a lot of components that I’m still interested it.
That’s awesome! Congratulations! You also received the FLAS fellowship when you were a student here at TC. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Yes. In my first year in the program, I was financially strapped and was looking for ways to
cobble together funding. I went to Professor Limerick’s office hours and him what could I do and he recommended that I apply for the FLAS scholarship. It requires and pays for language classes, which was also really good, because my Chinese was not at the level that needed to be to be able to do my research. And they also paid for me to take classes at Columbia’s main campus in East Asian anthropology and East Asian studies. I was able to take lot of classes with Nicholas Bartlett who ended up being my second reader. He’s at Columbia’s main campus and he also does research in Yunnan and has been an incredible mentor.
One of the things that I’m most concerned about is getting teaching experience before I got and do my dissertation work. Did you have the opportunity to practice teaching and what advice do you have for students who are looking for teaching opportunities?
I wish that I had done more teaching. I had a couple semesters of teaching and = proven to be really helpful on job applications, but I do think it would look better on my resume at this point, if I had more. They’re hard to get for your first year, but for your second year the best place I’ve found to look is Barnard. They always seem to need to hire a lot of TAs. They are really great. I think faculty there is awesome and the students are fantastic. My teaching experiences at Barnard were really, really good.
What did what classes did you TA for?
I TA’ed for a Practicing Intersectionality class with Manijeh Moradian and then I did an intro to Language and Culture class with Mara Green. I took a class with her before I TA’ed for her so one strategy to get these positions is to take classes with professors and try to make a good impression.
Also, the anthropology department at Columbia monthly talks. Afterwards the anthropology association meets up and chats. If you go, you can ask someone to put you on their listserv which will let you see any time someone posts a relevant position.
You can also look for junior colleges and community colleges around New York. I didn’t do this but many of them have a lot of teaching opportunities and its good practice because they might give you a full class.
That’s great advice! I’d like to ask you a couple of questions about your experience at TC. What’s one thing you wish you knew as a first year?
I think a lot of students know this, but getting jobs after you graduate is really difficult and I think I always thought I would have more time to prepare for it, but the academic job market is competitive and it’s harsh. I think, starting from your first year, I think, figuring out what you need to do to be able to compete in that job market is very useful. Really focusing on making connections by going to conferences and reaching out to people from other universities and trying to publish your work even before you’ve done your dissertation research or while you’re doing it. It’s really, really helpful to get your work out there.
Great! My last question is: what was your favorite or most helpful class that you took as part of your coursework at TC?
I feel like the best class I took at TC was an independent study that Michelle [Zhang] helped organize it, which was a survey on the anthropology of play with Professor Varenne. We prepared our own reading list and then l we would read every week and then go sit in Professor Varenne’s office and discuss the readings. I think that’s a really good thing for graduate students to do is like because you have to prepare own syllabus and you get to know a professor really well.
I had another class about subaltern studies, with this amazing professor in the in the South Asian department which was very similar because there were only three of us, and we would go to his office every week and discuss the readings. Those were some of my best classes because I think you get so much more out of it than the bigger classes. You get to really pick their brain and figure out how they think.
Thanks so much Andrew!