Wanying Zhao’s lips were itchy, and her tongue felt slightly numb.
In a roomful of Fijians, the young researcher was , a mildly intoxicating beverage that comes from a plant of the same name. Kava, she explained, is the foundation of social activity in the village of , where she lived as a cultural researcher in the summer of 2009.
“Kava looks like muddy water and it tastes pretty much the same,” laughed Zhao, who explained that the drink becomes more potent over time, creating a body buzz that makes the drinker feel mellow.
To demonstrate one of kava’s effects, Zhao momentarily closed her eyes, smiled and swayed gently.
Not all could describe such details first hand, as some don’t believe outsiders should actively participate in the cultures they study. But Zhao’s team consciously chose as their research strategy, doing ethnography by and interviews, as well as engaging in day-to-day routines.
“I’m used to living in large cities where people mostly leave each other alone,” said Zhao. She described the strong kinship in the small 26-family village, where it was possible to walk anywhere in 15 minutes or less.
Her team’s interest was in understanding how and why people cooperate, and having intimate access was a very important advantage. Teci is one of more than a dozen field sites, where researchers like Zhao are actively examining human cognition through the to see what people around the world have in common and also how they differ.