I have never done qualitative research before. I also have never spoken Thai. So when I decided to develop a project in Bangkok where I would interview women on their experiences with stigma, I thought I might encounter unexpected challenges, but in reality, I had no idea what to expect. In my first interview, I greeted my participant in broken Thai and tried to express how grateful I was that she was there. For the first ten minutes, all I could do was nod enthusiastically when my colleague mentioned my name or “UCSF” in English between, what sounded to me, like a jumble of Thai. I felt completely lost and confused.
When I imagined this moment hundreds of times before, I envisioned myself in charge and in control of the interview, but began to panic when I quickly realized I could not even figure out where my colleague was on the interview guide. I smiled nervously whenever the participant looked at me, hoping that my face was providing an appropriate reaction to what she said. My study asked about HIV, pregnancy, and stigma—all sensitive topics—and I was mortified of accidentally offending my participants.
A few moments later, though, she began to cry. I watched as her eyes reddened and filled with tears and then as she tried to hold them back for the sake of finishing the interview until she couldn’t anymore. Her hands began to shake a little as she wiped the tears from her face. Suddenly, our language barrier had dissolved. I didn’t need to understand what she had said to know that she gave us a personal piece of her story and that she needed to be comforted in the moment. I handed her a tissue and rubbed her back until she was calm again.
When we concluded the interview, I thanked her repeatedly in Thai and told her how valuable she was to our project. As she walked out of the elevator, she told me that she has faith that I can change the way women with HIV are treated. Those words strongly resonated with me through the rest of my fieldwork. In each following interview, I was further motivated by the opportunity that the ten narratives I collected could act as the voice of many more women to actually catalyze a change in the way they are treated by their community.
In the moment, I could only digest their narratives as a series of body movements, emotions, and reactions. I was pleasantly surprised by how much of their story I could follow from this alone. I was reminded of the universal language of pain, disappointment, and happiness and the power of interacting with participants. There is no substitute for hearing a participant tell you about their most intimate moments, no matter what language it is in. I feel privileged to have been invited into those conversations and inspired by the strong women I met during my fieldwork.
By the time I was ready to fly home to San Francisco, I had increased my Thai vocabulary to a total of ten words (mamwng means mango, if you were wondering). But I left with a deep appreciation for my study team, the research I did, and, most importantly, the women who selflessly shared their stories with me in the hopes of together changing the lives of other women like them.
Natasha Mehta is a 2016 graduate of the Global Health Sciences master’s program.