As a young researcher, Joshua Muldavin, holder of the Henry R. Luce Junior Professorship in East Asian Cultural/Human Geography, did his first fieldwork in northern China. One day he asked the provincial deputy director of agriculture to accompany him, unannounced, to a poor rural village. The Chinese officials who would accompany them smiled agreeably but, Muldavin recalls, “I was naïve enough in those days not to understand that, culturally, a smile and a laugh in China is a sign of discomfort.”
The group arrived in a trio of Toyota Land Cruisers at an adobe dwelling Muldavin knew to be especially poor. This was a chance, he reasoned, for provincial officials to hear directly from a voiceless rung of society. A man emerged from the home. As the village leader announced the visitors, the man paled and began to perspire and shake. In the moment before he collapsed, he lost all control of his bladder and bowels.
Muldavin still recounts the story with difficulty. “It was one of those moments when you think, ‘What have I done? Here I am with all good intentions, and I’ve destroyed this human being.’
“Because of me, no one warned him. He had no time to prepare, to brush his hair and put on his best clothes, and clean the stoop and get his children lined up, the way they do normally for an official visit.
“He was completely rural. In his frame of reference, this was like being visited by someone from the moon. The people and their vehicles were emblematic of immense power. Why are they here? It could be good; it could be bad. He didn’t know.”
Muldavin says the lessons he learned confirmed his desire to work for social change and have found their way into his research, writing and teaching. “To do good in the world: What does that mean? You have to be thoughtful, mindful, careful.
“Yet, you make your path by walking it. That’s an important lesson to share.”