2014-2015 Williams Prize Winner

May 26, 2015

Ruoxi Yu (Berkeley College, Class of 2015) was one of two winners of the 2015 Williams Prize in East Asian Studies for her essay submitted to the Department of Anthropology, “The Girl with the Peanut Necklace: Experiences of Infertility and in vitro Fertilization in China.”  The Council on East Asian Studies had a chance to catch up with Ruoxi shortly after graduation and she kindly answered a few of our questions about her essay.

To begin, could you please provide an abstract or brief summary of your essay entitled The Girl with the Peanut Necklace: Experiences of Infertility and in vitro Fertilization in China?

This essay uses ethnographic research in the form of interviews and participant-observation over the course of 10 weeks at a fertility clinic to document a holistic account of the experience of IVF for infertile women in China. I interviewed both patients and their doctors about in vitro fertilization (IVF), an assisted reproductive technology that has  become increasingly popular in China, and their perceptions of infertility. In particular, I use IVF as a lens to show how the stigma of infertility is closely tied to sociocultural, economic and political factors. The essay begins by introducing the “antinatlist-pronatalist dialectic” at work to influence women’s reproduction in China today. With a pronatalist tradition (of filial piety) on one hand and the state’s antinatalist One Child Policy on the other, women become pushed from both sides to meet a “one child quota”. In the next chapters, I address the pressures infertile women face on the state, family and personal level. In the last chapter, I present the personal accounts of five women at the fertility clinic in detail before concluding with an overview. Within its current limitations in China, IVF allows women to address the stigma of infertility, but remains largely incapable of expanding understandings of kinship and family. 

How did you first get interested in your topic of research?

After taking “Intersectionality & Women’s Health,” an anthropology class taught by Professor Marcia Inhorn, my junior year, I knew I wanted to pursue research on the topic. I was particularly inspired to pursue this specific topic because of a close family friend, who had undergone IVF for many years but had recently given up because of continued failed attempts. I was able to see the visible toil and stress that infertility had caused her, and wanted to understand better the conditions that Chinese women were really facing in the IVF process. 

What would you say was the most interesting finding of your research?  Were there any surprises?

Actually, I would say the most interesting finding of my research was the strong and dynamic community that formed in the clinic as a result of long wait times. Although the amount of people coming into the clinic each morning made wait times unpredictable, sometimes incredibly long, women used this time to talk to each other about their medical conditions, their treatment, and share tips with each other. Although some of these tips did not have a lot of scientific grounding (i.e. not standing up for a day after the embryo transfer procedure for higher pregnancy success rates), it was a beautiful thing to see the women support each other in such a way and make the best out of their crowded situation. 

Another interesting fact I stumbled across was a belief surrounding the Year of the Sheep in the Chinese Zodiac calendar. In my first week at the clinic, when I remarked to the doctors how busy it was, they all responded that it was actually rather unbusy, compared to the weeks before, because women who would get pregnant in June or later in the summer of 2014 would have a child in the Year of the Sheep. Having a “sheep child”, so to say, was believed to be incredibly inauspicious. The doctors told me that they saw a noticeable drop in the number of IVF patients that came into the clinic! 

What was the most challenging part of your research?

The most challenging part of my research was, at first, trying to find ways to engage with the women who were in the clinic. I had gone into the research thinking that I could have my own private space to conduct interviews, but after arriving, I realized that was simply not possible. The waiting rooms were often very crowded, and space was definitely lacking. Luckily, I was able to use these long wait-times to my advantage and speak to women during this time. I am grateful to all of the women I spoke to who were willing to share their own stories, including their fears and hopes, with me. 

What resources at Yale were the most helpful for your research? 

I am so grateful to the generous Yale grants and sources of funding that have allowed this project to happen. This include the Charles Kao Fund Research Grant from the Council of East Asian Studies, the Robert C. Bates Summer Traveling Scholarship and the Gohh Ouyang International Summer Award. I also cannot thank enough for my advisors, Dr. Brownell and Professor Marcia Inhorn, with whom I consulted on my project through its making. Michael Meng, the librarian for Chinese Studies, helped me considerably in literature search for my essay, as finding previous scholarship on the topic proved to be harder than expected. 

Were you able to travel to Asia during your time at Yale?  If so, where and when, and what type of program?  Did you go on a Light Fellowship? 

I was able to travel to China during my time at Yale in the summer after my freshman year and after my junior year. The former was not with any program, but I got a chance to shadow neurosurgeons at the same hospital where I did my senior thesis research. It allowed me to gain a better understanding of the Chinese healthcare system, and really fueled my interest to issues of health in China. The latter trip was towards research for my senior thesis, and was funded by the Charles Kao Fund Research Grant by the Council of East Asian Studies. I spent about 10 weeks at a fertility clinic in China, shadowing and interviewing doctors who worked on IVF as well as interviewing patients about their experiences with IVF. 

How important would you say your language study at Yale was to your research?

Although I did not take Chinese as my language here at Yale, I did get to take a class in East Asian Studies with Professor Deborah Davis that allowed me to practice my Chinese during section discussions we had. Chinese is also the primary language I speak at home.  If I did not speak Chinese, I would not have been able to converse with the women whom I interviewed. I imagine learning Chinese medical terminology would have been even harder in that context. Without an understanding of Chinese culture, it would have been hard and difficult to interview my interlocutors.

When you had some downtime on campus, what did you like to do for fun?  Any particular interests or hobbies related to East Asia?

In my downtime, I spent a lot of time at the Yale Farm on campus. It reminded me a lot of my grandparents’ garden back home and the vegetables we grew. In addition, I interned in the Cheese Shop at Caseus Fromagerie Bistro, a local restaurant/store. Interestingly enough, when I explained to my parents about the three common types of cheese (cow, goat and sheep), I realized I had trouble because the common Chinese word for goat is the same as sheep! 

As a Freshman Counselor, I really enjoyed holding a lot of get-togethers for my freshmen. Once, during the Mid-Autumn Festival, I got a bunch of mooncakes and shared them with my freshmen to celebrate the holiday.

What advice would you offer to rising seniors about how to tackle their senior theses?

To rising seniors, I say to find a topic you can see yourself spending hours and hours on early on. It doesn’t have to be incredibly defined at first, but if you find yourself always talking about a certain topic with your friends, or gravitating towards a certain kind of news when you browse the internet, take notice of that. For me, it was a newspaper article that ultimately made me realize that infertility and IVF was something that I could write a senior thesis on. Once you find a topic, especially one that you really enjoy, I am confident that the rest of the steps will fall in line.

What will you be doing after graduation?

I plan to apply for medical school after graduation. This summer, I will be doing ethnographic research in London as a Global Food Fellow, funded by the Yale Sustainable Food Program. ​In the fall, I am working at the Chinati Foundation, a contemporary arts museum in Marfa, Texas, as one of their Education and Public Programs Interns.