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Field Notes

Vol 9 No 2 (2022)

Silent Questions: (Not) Talking about Dying in the Pearl River Delta

April 6, 2021
February 13, 2022


This Field Notes contribution describes the difficulty of confronting the topic of dying in conversations with terminally ill persons in the Pearl River Delta region in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and how the ethnographer responded to this difficulty in a way she did not expect. While there is probably no ideal conversation starter for this subject anywhere in the world, bringing up the topic of approaching death is particularly challenging in China. First, it is considered impolite and harmful to communicate to a person directly that she is dying. Second, a terminal diagnosis is not necessarily received as though fatality is an inevitable consequence. After more than a few instances of feeling awkward and unequipped to talk to terminally ill persons during fieldwork, the author came to a realisation: encouraging those who are dying to communicate their experience of dying is not about finding a suitable opening line; rather, it is about silent presence, which may be the best invitation to speak.