‘Keep calm and interview’ on Conducting cross-cultural interviews in Phuket, Thailand, Angelica de Jesus (PhD Candidate)

After conducting numerous interviews with Myanmar labour migrants in their homes in Phuket, Thailand, I have experienced two important lessons:

  • Unexpected breaks in conversation are still important observations
  • Interviews can be learning opportunities and therapy for participants

As a PhD candidate in Planning at the University of Toronto, I am currently documenting the experiences of Myanmar labour migrants in Phuket, Thailand in order to understand how gender constructs, such as identity and culture, shape labour migrants’ lives in Phuket—especially with regards to climate change effects.

A Myanmar labour migrant walking towards the bathing area of his community. Photograph by A. de Jesus

Unexpected breaks in conversation are still important observations

Visiting people in their homes often means that participants are busy tending to their lives. I do not take for granted that many people have taken the time to speak with me during their free time, but I have observed that their free time is never truly ‘free time’. Life for participants carries on while my interviews take place.

It has been very interesting to observe how participants’ lives unfold during interviews. A house for many Myanmar labour migrants in Phuket consists of a small room, which serves as a bedroom, kitchen and living room in one. Therefore, many things can and do happen during interviews.

Adults, children and pets weave in and out of rooms and make use of the small spaces and its multiple functionalities. Neighbours drop in to chat and say hello to participants. Women take care of their children or busy themselves with preparing dinner. Some labour migrants also take on additional paying jobs at home. For many, ‘free time’ is the time to earn extra income by separating buckets of anchovies for local seafood companies.

Covering one question during most cross-cultural interviews undoubtedly takes a long time. I had already anticipated for my cross-cultural interviews to take a while because of having to translate between various languages—for example, English to Thai and then Thai to Burmese. However, compounding additional life variables also adds to the time of completing one interview.

I therefore cannot emphasize enough how crucial it is to be patient and easy-going during the cross-cultural research process. Unexpected breaks in conversation happen—and these breaks happen quite often. But it is during these breaks (or moments of non-conversation) that I, the researcher, am given a small glimpse of what life at home is really like for many Myanmar labour migrants in Phuket.

Interviews can be learning opportunities and therapy for participants

A Myanmar labour migrant walking towards the bathing area of his community. Photograph by A. de Jesus

Throughout my research process, I have tried to remain respectful of participants’ feelings, point of views and opinions. Most of the time, participants have been happy to answer my questions as best as they can. Other times, a participant will not want to or is unable to answer a question, and we move on to another topic. There are also moments when a participant brings up a topic I was not necessarily expecting to cover; or they ask questions about health concerns or their documentation for living in Thailand.

Fortunately, my two translators respectively work in public health and on Myanmar migrants’ rights. The team and I are able to answer questions on the spot and provide important information to people. Speaking with many migrants has reminded me that interviews are not only for me, but can also benefit a participant.

Generally, I learn about the lives of Myanmar labour migrants in Phuket. However, the interviews so far have also served as opportunities for migrants to ask questions, learn and express their opinions and feelings. One participant in particular said that he was pleased to have been given a chance to tell his story out loud during our interview.

Another man said that he enjoyed answering my questions because he considered them ‘easy’ given that my questions are mostly about how Myanmar labour migrants live and work in Phuket; and how they deal with several issues, including climate change effects. Another woman also said that our interview served as a good therapy process for her because she experienced recent hardships and did not have anyone close by to listen to her problems. She appreciated being able to ‘get bad feelings off of her chest’.

And so, I have come to experience that in one way, a cross-cultural interview is a formal process in that I must abide by ethics protocols and come to the interview with an initial set of questions. On the other hand, the interview process is also informal. Conversations are organic and can go in different but very interesting directions. Being patient, level headed and non-reactive can go a long way in carrying out meaningful conversations with people that I do not necessarily know very well.

I have also learned that the best thing to do during an interview is to let the conversation take its course. Let ‘life happen’ while interviewing. And then, when the timing is right, try to the redirect the conversation back to the semi-structured interview questions. Adapting to the circumstances and accepting the fluid nature of face-to-face interviews with migrants are therefore integral strategies for my research process. I will be conducting my field research until March 2016. I expect that more unexpected things will happen, and when they do, I know that I have to roll with the punches and be ready to pivot and adapt when necessary.

Angelica de Jesus is a UCRSEA student researcher and a PhD candidate in Planning at the University of Toronto. Her doctoral research documents how Myanmar migrants understand, anticipate and experience climate change effects in Phuket, Thailand in order to identify correlations between migration, gender and climate change resilience.

Click here to access a PDF version of Angelica’s article.