Closing the Deal and Opening a New Chapter

Food for Thought

 

Physically leaving Myanmar does not at all mean leaving Myanmar behind. Back to Berlin I fall right into the preparations of the annual Myanmar conference as part of the Myanmar Study Group Berlin organization Team. This year’s conference was particularly interesting: on the professional level it helped to get back in touch with academic life and discussions and buffered my culture shock. On the personal level it supported my idea to find ways to use the researchers’ knowledge in the local context. It was great to see the interest of development aid practitioners and physicians working in Myanmar and to listen to their remarks. The question came up: “With all the research you do – what about your humanity?!”. As a representative of practitioners in general this physician formulates a critique researchers have to face.

I would like to explain the situation as good as I can, as I have heard this question from many people from various backgrounds and finally that voice in my head as well. And there is just no clear, absolute line. That’s what makes it hard for all sides to understand.

Speaking in defense of anthropologists I can say that most engage in one way or another for their source communities and local contacts. But I share the feeling that this engagement is only dealing with selected points and although we get to know local contexts well, it is mostly not us using that knowledge accumulated in that very context in the end. Thus, the kinds of engagements existing are not very visible, or for the few cases I know that are visible, researchers have put themselves in an extremely dangerous position facing skepticism and at worst being dismissed from academic discussions as having lost their professionalism.

Trying to compare anthropologists and another group of professionals I will break it down to a term that can be criticized but helps to follow the general idea (I hope). A physician masters skills that quite clearly give an idea of what they can do and what they should do. For anthropologists we could say that one of our central skills is “cultural knowledge”. But to frame what we can and should “do” with that knowledge is a difficult task and needs to be revised for each and every new context. And although similarly like a physician our actions take place in living organism – in our case the community – our job is to form part of that. We are there to learn, not to treat. We are not there because we assume something needs fixing. We are there only to understand how and why things are different and learn more about societies, humandkind in general and finally about our own cultures, too.

We are not automatically the ideal candidates for implementation of the acquired deductions. It does make us ideal candidates for critical and holistic advise though. And that is possible in two directions. Locally we can try to answer the questions people have about our cultures of origin and internationally we can bring in what we learned about a specific context. Needless to say that in the end this will not be neatly divisible anymore.

But thinking this thought to an end, let’s imagine our engagement was stronger and clearly visible: would we still be objective scientists and a reliable source of knowledge, potentially a basis for social, cultural, economic and political decisions and projects far beyond our individual reach? Or would we be seen with different eyes due to what will happen sooner or later: taking sides (on whatever discussion, dispute, decision, ideology, event, something we try to remain as neutral about as we can usually). And at that point we ruined our stand on both those sides that we are working hard for to explain to one another.

We are not lobbyists, we are the ones in between, call us cultural brokers if you will. The essence of our work is the fostering of intercultural understanding.

Keeping this in mind I can see a work assignment stemming from this discussion: improve knowledge exchange. Make knowledge available to both sides in a form not only for the source communities and Academia but also for practitioners. Particularly in the context of Myanmar, where little research was possible in the past and not many experts on the field are approachable to date, we should work on the accessibility and visibility of our research for those who seek and need advise.

Myanmar Tagung Programm

I would like to thank the participants of the conference and the  Myanmar Study Group for the inspiring exchange and am already looking forward to the next meeting in Bonn!

 

Thightrope Walking

 

As a follow-up to this theoretical considerations I will go practical now, introducing how I used cultural knowledge to support local initiatives while trying to interfere with my research field as little and as traceable as possible, seeing this as an experiment of testing potentials and limits.

There is a lot going on in Myanmar. There are many locals doing their best with very few resources. Many things just crossed my path coincidentially. When asked for it, I gave “Foreigner Feedback”, which thus is not so much locally acquired knowledge but ideas from the cultures I grew up in. From these requests of cultural knowledge, I decided I may as well function as a translator into a medium that Foreigners would use and my source communities cannot yet navigate: the Internet. Together with Khin Aye Mar and Aye Aye Aung we built the website www.threemamasprojects.com and a facebook page. Here, everyone is able to see the communities’ efforts and can receive reliable information in English. We developed this website as a structure to bundle different projects to avoid particularism and enable synergies for the future while taking into account the individuality  of each initiative.

Two of four projects take place in communities I researched at, one of them is related to my research focus on weaving, the other one is about education. For matters of transparency I will explain that first one here: When I told my friend Phyu Ei Thein from Sunflower Textile Gallery about the fabrics the ladies weave and that they have no visitors during rainy season, we decided to do a trial and bring the products to Yangon to bridge that income gap. I used the last 3 days in the field to explain this mediation (meaning that I am not the buyer, only the broker/transporter) and acquire one product per lady in each village. While I was thinking it’s a practical matter, I can say that also my research profited from this experience. I learned a whole lot more about the calculations and considerations involved, at a point when I thought I already understood most of it…It was also a community project, where everyone could get involved, discuss and think together. These were really special days and I hope the fruitful exchange of ideas can continue in the future.

Through this connecting of people locally and internationally I hope I could give back to my source communities in a sustainable manner and do my part in fostering intercultural understanding.

As the active fieldwork phase is over for now I will say “See you again soon”.

 

I am happy to receive more feedback and want to sincerely thank everyone who shared their remarks publicly or privately!

 

 

 

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Closing the Deal and Opening a New Chapter

Village Visits Vol. 4

Time for Good-Byes

 

Fieldwork itself is limited to a certain amount of days. But the field will not just disappear then. I have my difficulties to accept that in two ways.

The first part being the realization that you did not get all information, that you still want to gather more data to understand everything. I am aware of the impossibility of ever knowing all – but as a researcher exactly that is my drive, so it is just natural that it is hard to stop right here, right now. But I tell myself it is not stopping forever, now is the time for a pause in order to be able to look back and reflect. Then I can continue again.

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Attending the last sunday mass in one of the Christian villages

The second part is to leave the field. And as my field is constituted by people, it means leaving friends and families that I just started to feel part of.

The last two weeks did not make that easier. Rainy season came earlier than expected, limiting access to some villages already. Nonetheless, we did our best to go out as long as rain was not too heavy to give some last gifts of appreciation and properly say good-bye for now, explaining that I will not visit for a while.

Every rainy day we used to work together on transcribing the interviews.

Time for a Future

 

At the same time I was trying to find ways in which I can continue to be in touch with my source communities from faraway. It is not only a matter of installing communication channels that work for all sides: most do not have a mobile phone, many of those who have cannot read and thus calling is the only way…For all those that I cannot directly talk to because of the language barrier, the only way is an indirect communication trough Ahbeay, who will continue to visit the villages and hopefully help both sides to keep in touch.

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My gratitude to the great people I met, who always welcomed me so warmly into their homes and lives

As much as I learned about different people, lives and communities through our conversations I tried to explain whatever they wanted to know about my/the “Foreigner” way of life, too. Often I reached my limits, even reaching a point of thinking: how crazy must the rest of the world sound to them…I can see that.

The most recurrent questions were concerned with: how can we make a living? Clearly, that is not an easy thing to answer. So far I could just give some general ideas about what others do. But is this all that I can do? Is that all that I should do? Or is it already more than I should do?

I am aware that I have at least two main stakeholders: Source Communities and Academia. While the access of Academia to my findings is quite clear and immediate I need to find a similarly immediate way of using the acquired knowledge for the source communities.

Anthropology does not work in a neutral way. It works under the premise of an acknowledged subjectivity. The provision of self-reflexion is part of an ethnographer’s work and exactly what I want to realize in form of this blog. That is why I want to let you know that I decided to continue engaging for my source communities in the future. I know that I influence the field by that. But I would have in any way, so why shouldn’t I try to influence it in a positive way then, helping with what they asked me to help with.

I have arrived back to Mandalay now and will bring this rough idea into a format – soon you will find an update here on what exactly will be going on.

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My good-bye picture of research at Enn villages: Enn women usually wear big metal Earrings – or like in this case sometimes textile ones

 

 

 

Village Visits Vol. 4

Village Visits Vol. 3

All about Expansions

 

Geographic Circle

 

Some weeks of visiting the different villages led to many acquaintances and although the replies to my questions of “where have you been born”, “where do your parents live” were very vague in the beginning, the conversations now teach me where the relatives live or have come from; which villages have lively trade connections, which villages intermarry and which don’t – giving an idea of the movement of women, as they usually move into their husband’s home.  In which villages weaving is used to support the income, and where it is only made according to the family’s own demand. Additionally I learn, what kinds of products are available and with which of those trade is more or less profitable. Getting to know those connections I started to follow them, extending the radius of my research to areas more difficult to reach. Monsoon is coming. So I try to do as much as I can now before rain makes many ways impassable, villages inaccessible.

 

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Thematic Circle

 

Weaving does not exist for its own sake as a mere form of art. It is part of a row of processes that lead to the final product. It starts before weaving with the idea, the need/demand, the buying, followed by the actual production. Which itself includes steps like preparation of the raw material, the setting of the loom, the weaving, the selling, the dyeing, the sewing, the addition of adornment. And finally: How to wear it. To understand how the weaving itself is embedded in these processes I followed the different steps in Kengtung.

The city presents itself as the centre within the valley, where ways from several mountain villages run together. You can find places, where the material is dyed, and where the single items like silver coins are produced. People know exactly where to exchange the no-longer-shiny silver plates against new ones and where to buy “the traditional” dyed fabric.

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Weighing the old plates of an Akha headdress
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And that’s the natural dye everybody is talking about

And the final product, what about wearing it? As I am female I go ahead now with female dress as an example. A tubeskirt is not just a tubeskirt. There is not one way to wear it, there are many. More than I was aware of actually. So I started asking a little bit, inevitably paving the way for my own getting-dressed-up. The fear of going-too-native is present. Nonetheless, I should know what I am actually talking about. I started by wearing different Myanmar style Longyis (general term for Myanmar tubeskirts; male and female). In the case of Htamein (the Longyi for women), it is a constant re-wrapping all day long, as the movements will loosen the wrapping and worst-case-scenario you would lose it while walking. Of course that would only happen to someone who has not been used to wearing these clothes since early childhood – someone like me. So my wrap is never as tidy, never as good-looking and most sincerely never as tight and I am in constant danger of losing it on the street. Thus, I cannot follow 100% on how it actually feels to wear Longyi, due to a lack of training. But I get the taste of it. There are some hybrids between Htamein and skirt as well, offering a more easy handling but following the same design with a big pleat in the front either to the left (Mandalay style) or to the right (Yangon style).

Learning how to wear the ethnic dress is one of those things that effectively break the language barrier, it can be shown hands on and I am in the position of the learning one, leading to a lot of giggling on the side of my dressers, while I helplessly wait until dressed. The styles vary, in this case of the local way of Palaung dress another shawl is needed to fix the wrapped tube and rings made from bamboo, cane, silver, plastic etc. are added on top – not just as an adornment but also to give some extra hold to the ensemble.

 

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Personal//Professional Circle

 

There are some families now that I visit frequently and one in town I spent a lot of time with. Not all of them are directly involved with weaving but they are very actively involved within their community and I am grateful to be able to learn a lot about the way of life and daily routines from those guest families. I appreciate being surrounded by them and receiving their precious support for my activities.

At the same time I feel some inner unrest. Right from the start I knew I need to find ways to give back to the communities. And I mean in another form but a book that is unreadable to my source communities. What I try are language exchanges and small presents of necessities like soap. Sometimes I also buy a piece of fabric. I already brought forward those concerns at a conference in the past year. The general consent was that I do work for the people here, that they will be happy someone is interested in their culture (it is true, they are) and that gathering knowledge of these societies is important. I do have faith in my discipline. It has the power to foster intercultural understanding, promoting an improved living together of the world’s cultures. But I wonder in what ways can I make knowledge available and accessible to source communities that cannot read or write?

It seems that the expansion of my geographical radius also made research more emotionally challenging. I cannot ignore the struggles of those I talk to, continuing to ask about weaving while they ask for my help, what ideas I have for them to improve their livelihoods and if I can provide medical/economic/farming advice or support.

Whatever village we reach people show me where they are hurt and ask if I brought medicine. I try to explain what kind of job I do – “But next time when you come, can you please bring medicine?”…

Two days ago a mother in a village (4 hours motorbike ride from town) came to me, showing me the badly burned foot of her baby. Accidentally, it crawled right into the fireplace. “Can you help her?” – I can barely look at the wound. Everyone that knows me also knows that I am not good with injuries. But there is nobody else who would take care of it. They do not have natural medicine for this kind of injury. Actually it’s the Shaman’s child, so if there was anything anybody could do, it would most likely be him. But there is nothing that can be done. I have disinfection spray with me and band aids. But it’s still too fresh to put anything but the spray on it – at least that’s my lay opinion on which I act then.

Today is the third day that I cannot get this picture out of my mind.

I am asking myself how the potential of cultural anthropological work can be used for the present in those communities, in contrast to the relevance of ethnographic data collection for the future to tell the past.

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Village Visits Vol. 3

Village Visits Vol. 2

Catching Glimpses and Losing Sights

 

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Not all villages we visit still produce hand-woven fabrics, compared to those mentioned in the (mostly anyhow outdated) literature. My overview gains contours but still leaves a lot of blank spots that need filling… The looms and materials differ, as do patterns and techniques, so that is what I started with. At the moment the schools are closed for summer holidays, as this is the hottest time of the year and find it’s height of the season from today on in the Thingyan (New Year Water Festival). That also means, that all children are present in the villages at their parents’ houses (many of them live at boarding schools in town during the school year, as there is no school or no high school in their village) and so it’s a very interesting time to follow my questions on knowledge transfer between the generations.

 

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The warm welcomes are even warmer by now. If we are not quick enough in refusing, immense lunches are cooked for us and if we said we are full already (true or untrue) – we receive fresh or dried vegetables to take home. I start feeling bad, especially as I know that they sometimes do indeed not have enough food for themselves. Can you believe how hospitable everyone is nonetheless? I barely can, although it is demonstrated everyday! We try to bring things, but it is never an easy decision to make. In some villages falang seems to be synonymous with physician. I face some problems – who am I to refuse painkillers if I do have them with me and someone needs them // who am I giving out medicine without a physician’s examination?!
I would be glad to get some thoughts on that dilemma…

Our conversations in the villages are all recorded – as you can never know in advance what you will learn. There is no useful data background on this area, so I consider pretty much everything as worthy of being documented. And that is where my problem starts: although my focus is clearly on hand weaving, so many general facts have to be collected as well. Starting from the names of the villages, which sometimes have changed, sometimes are new, sometimes are spelled differently, sometimes are in Myanmar or in English phonetic notation and are all only to find on maps completely outdated. The most useful map dates to the 1960s, it does have villages on it but no roads. The others have roads, but barely villages and another one has only those villages considered interesting for tourists. Thus, I am trying to match them up in order to make historical written records useful for today, too.
Anyhow, I try to keep up with transcribing right away, although it is so tempting to let those records rest a few days – and then they already piled up into 7,8,9,10 hours of material that mostly take the same time plus some extra rewind and forward time, when you try to listen to the conversation being drowned in animal sounds, playing children or motorbike drivers honking. Often I think: is it really necessary? Then I start writing down and realize again how many bits of information are entailed that I am not fully aware of afterwards anymore. So a clear yes for audio records and transcribing.

 

Hands and Feet

 

The use of hands is increasing more and more. While I already got used to gesticulating more when speaking Myanmar to make myself clearer – it is now sometimes my sole way of direct conversation without translations of the spoken word. To improve the situation, we are collecting phrases in Lahu, Palaung, Loi, Akha and Enn – but an understanding of the language, its grammar and an adequate vocabulary are out of our hands. Learning material for these languages can barely be found, and if so, it is usually not for an ‘as a foreign language’ learner but most likely produced in a missionizing context. The list I produce contains the same phrases in all those languages and is written down in a terrible attempt of German phonetic transcription and in Myanmar phonetic transcription – raise hands if interested or have material on that or know a better way to do it. Luckily, most of our hosts speak some Shan or some Myanmar. And we all use our hands…

…and arms… It is a little awkward at times, but after losing some shyness (on both sides) my arms are of interest, too. I don’t know the reason, it may be their colour being a matter of doubt, which is examined by touching and squeezing resulting in a general consent on the ‘softness’ of falang arms – not sure if that’s a great compliment – and a preference for this pigmentation, with which I try to make my disagreement visible. Although it is strange, I prefer this more direct investigation to the staring that sometimes intimidates me, although I know people are (in nearly all cases) just too surprised and unsure what else to do with that falang crossing their paths. For today I have to add the first dissenting vote though: those falangs, male and female, they look terrible! So big, so white, huge noses, just really not beautiful! I loved that straightforwardness!

…and feet… Losing one of the flip-flops from the motorbike basket the other day was just the last sign to support this. And I always wondered who would not notice a lost shoe – I know now.
Already in the past year I noticed the contrast between those visiting the hills for a vacation and those who have to walk up and down every day. One group equipped with trekking boots, long trekking pants, fanny pack (that one I had to look up, I hope it’s correct), walking sticks and backpacks for their one-hour walk up the hill. The others passing by quickly and relaxed barefoot or in flip flops.
It’s very dry now and the ways are coated with a thick layer of slippery dust, and those I saw in walking shoes slipped anyhow. On top of that you enter houses all the time, taking shoes and socks off and on is a little annoying, and the heat has arrived here as well by now. Turns out, it’s a fantastic ice breaker: our hosts notice my missing shoes immediately, get nervous, look concerned and expect explanations and as soon as they understand it’s on purpose they happily show their bare feet, we all look down and before anyone thinks of anything again, for a short moment we are just the same. So, I gave up on shoes.

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Village Visits Vol. 2

Myanmar Way of Life – Survival Strategies of a Foreigner

 

Of Wells and Workouts

 

After nearly four weeks I start to have some routines and learned how to do what. Not without many discussions and questions towards my friends here, for whom many of these must sound ridiculously stupid…

The morning routine starts with getting buckets of cold water from the well. Luckily there is this well – I start realizing what amounts are actually needed for just one day and one person. I am glad I don’t need to carry it from another source to my house. Spoiled by just opening the tap or pressing buttons to start a machine doing this job I did not know yet by own experience what a workout it is, to just get the water out of the well and distribute the buckets to their destinations: to use it for showers, washing hands during the day, washing dishes and clothes (also a small workout in itself),  and for the toilet.

Of Days and Darkness

 

To sum up: everything takes longer and the day is much shorter as well. Around 5 p.m. I know it’s my last chance to take a bucket shower, cook and wash dishes before the dim light of the solar lamps is all I got. The daily schedule cannot be arranged without restrictions. We sometimes have electricity and we sometimes don’t. It comes unregularly and there is no point in having a fridge or any electronic device for cooking. The best option is a gas stove and having a box with dry food like noodles etc. So for whatever fresh you want to eat, the daily market visit is obligatory and you can meet most people there in the morning. With temperatures around 35 degrees Celsius during the day keeping anything for two days is not working out (of course I tried).

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The next step of the everyday routine is charging the solar lamps outside to bridge the time between dawn and the arrival of light later in the evening. Plug in all electronical devices in order of priority: headlight, camera, mobile phone, laptop, the big water boiler (to use water from the well for brushing teeth and sometimes a warm shower) whenever you can. It is also part of the daily conversation “Mie la byi lar?” – has the light already come? It depends from quarter to quarter in town. Wherever you go and plan on using something you ask this first – like at the copy shop.

It is a great help to have those solar lamps, some people can afford their own generators or have solar panels. But these are expensive options and most people have to wait for the light – not to speak of those villages not connected to the network at all. I realize that it does steal so much of  time – waiting for power. From 6 to sometimes 9 it is just pitch-black dark. The streets are empty, people are afraid to go out as street lamps  are off and I get the feeling that all sorts of things could happen out here: With everyone telling me to lock my door and stay inside as soon as it gets dark I actually start feeling a little insecure, too. The climate of fear is infectious.

 

Of Spiders and Scorpions

 

Living alone also means handling all sorts of daily visitors by myself. Quite proudly I reached the mindset “oh, just a coackroach” and the score to date is 1:17 for me. I feel bad of killing them but I feel it’s not quite a choice of having them as roomies and I am also not sure if that wouldn’t give them chances to outnumber me one day.
Worse are some monstrously big spiders – and there is not yet a good solution. Mostly they crawl out at night and I try to stay calm and hope they just hide again wherever they came from when completed their night stroll.

There are no snakes and scorpions,  I asked the day I moved in, just to be sure.
The night is noisy, cats jump on my corrugated sheet roof, birds have their nests between it and the inner ceiling, and dogs chase after one another along the sandy lane outside. Asleep I hear the typical sound of coackroach tripping and am half-awake now. It starts to come quite close, I find it is not necessary to come that close to my pillow. I think about how realistic it is and what reason there could be for that coackroach to enter my pop-up mosquito net that encloses my mattress. I decide very unlikely. But somehow that crawling underneath my pillow starts becoming irritating and I switch on my flashlight (always by my side) to scare it away. Unfortunately it’s me who is scared away. There is a scorpion sitting within my mosquito net staring at me blankly. It is my first encounter with a scorpion.  Panicking seems not a good option within this tiny space so I transform it into the mumbling of swearing while trying to quickly but calmly opening that zipper that coops me up inside my (thougth to be) shelter.

It is in the middle of the night. There is no option of going out of the house or having someone coming here. It’s clearly a situation that has to be dealt with. But how? First I unload my panic into the phone, sobbingly telling Sophia that there is a scorpion in my bed. Calm as ever she guides me through options what to do and with the available material – insect spray and a hammer – I start deconstructing the whole bed – as of course now this visitor feels like hiding. At some point I was successful, the insect spray took long but worked against this scorpion, which felt more like attacking than running away. Couldn’t bring myself to use the hammer though. I quickly loaded it onto the dustpan and put it outside the house. Needless to say I didn’t sleep anymore that night. Extra preparations were necessary and now I fixed the situation with double tape (difficult to get here!) around all bed posts.  Suddenly snakes are seen and my friend’s father is bitten by one. Ahbeay is quite nervous now, too, and we get some white powder to put around the house, supposedly keeping them away.

Those nights of little sleep are not very supportive of the work life at day time but I try to not let myself being stopped from it – by insects!

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Even more than usually I love the mornings, when my neighbor let’s her chicken out, the birds are singing and the gekkos finally stop making their loud calls. Nothing better than daylight and I am a little relieved the night is over again.

Myanmar Way of Life – Survival Strategies of a Foreigner

Village Visits Vol.1

Yesterday Foreigner – today Falang

 

There is no fine line between that Foreigner/Falang and this researcher. Only the Shan/Tai term is used now, other than that nothing changed. Here, I am first of all a tourist and a potential customer. Even Ahbeays explanations at two places we already visited did not change that point of view much. We presented some pictures from our visit in the past year as well as from four weeks ago. I wouldn’t say they recognized me, but it seems that the idea that I indeed have visited before is slowly settling. It will take a few more visits to prove the difference. Until then I will use this chance to learn more about the expectations the appearance of a Falang in the village brings with it and how everyone acts. I assume that this will change later when we know each other better.

The first round of village visits will take us to the nearer surroundings of Kengtung. I sort the villages according to real-time-driving-distance as I think that metric distance measuring doesn’t say much about it  but it is quite relevant for matters of trade, exchange and communication. One of the people whom I spoke to in town the other day said: “It’s so easy to go to Kengtung’s surroundings! You can go anywhere!!! No problems!” – Me: “I think maybe it is not that easy…” – His reply: “Of course! No problem, you can go out 5 miles easily!”. Okay, I am planning to go beyond that point. So the first round will be in villages up to one hour driving and including walking. The next round to those villages 2 hours, 3 hours and then I need to see how far permissions can get me through the check points.

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The bark added to the betel nut chewing to color the teeth black

We start at the Eng village (also written Ang, Ann, Enn etc.) in ~30 minutes distance, it’s my third time here now. I am not very prepared, no questions that would seem urgent at this point, I just want to get a general impression, a feeling for the place. We check out some of the weaving and walk through the village. I try to memorize some basic Eng language, I know I will not be able to speak it but I find it is the minimum of respect and a matter of politeness that I can show by at least trying basic conversation. At noon I am already super tired and we have lunch at the nearby monastery, followed by a nap on the bench quite myanmar style I find, before heading back through the idyll of rice fields and rubber forests.

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Natural tupperware

Another day we go to the Palaung village lying at the foot of the mountain on the other side of Kengtung. This is my second time to visit the village and we go to the same family again. They do back-loom weaving and show us the different steps. We talk and explain a lot. I put on the record – and they love it. The mother asks me to record her daughter singing a song, which I do. Asking what kind of song it is nobody really knows – but still fringing the ends of the scarf we are led inside: to their own Karaoke device! Didn’t see this one coming (as so often I know), so we hang out in that living/sleeping room and listen to Shan and Palaung songs played on TV, accompagnied by the daughter singing into the partly working, partly non-working microphone. When it is time for good byes I feel a sense of disappointment about not buying anything – and I start feeling a little bad about it, too.

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Preparing the Karaoke session
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Ahbeay and little brother watching the performance (pink chair for the Falang)

Reviewing the Field Work Plan and Structuring Team Work

 

Only after these visits I realize how much it helped my mind to arrive here, too. Head spinning I review the initial ideas I had on how to work here. First adjustments are made and I get a better idea on how to structure the variety of villages and techniques and in what way it will make sense to bring all of it together. Theoretical planning is one thing, but completely new thoughts come up already after those two days.

As Ahbeay agreed on working together with me in the upcoming months, I also need to reconsider how to go on about it as a team. It is different from the previous field study, where I worked mostly by myself and did not need to explain what exactly I am up to that day. Those first days made me realize that we cannot just jump in, I cannot assume that he knows how to do ethnographic research. So for today I prepared a short introduction to the basics of the discipline, research idea and methods employed. He should know why I keep on asking the same questions to everyone although I already received one potentially useful reply, followed by the all-time-favorite and potentially annoying “why?” question. Also, he told me that he did not understand why I would ask e.g. for names and relationships of the people around (not only particularly research related, I feel it is also polite to know the names of the people you want to visit frequently), although they are not directly involved in the weaving process itself. For this example I have the following things in the back of my mind: Which are the routines within the household, who and how many people live here and who could potentially be weaving and if not, why not? Only not now, not during this season, not in general?

Another thing is: This research shall also be interesting to Ahbeay. As he usually works as a guide he already knows quite some things about the villages and acquiring structured knowledge can only help all sides for the future I hope. We plan to learn more about the village history, language and religion and make it available (print version and digital on a drive) to the source communities themselves, too.

Need-to’s of the week: learn to communicate my plans more clearly (although sometimes I just follow my intuition spontaneously, too…) and gaining Ahbeays patience for and trust in my persistent question-asking.

Village Visits Vol.1

It’s not for you! It’s for the Buddha!

…or how my moving-in became a collective happening

During my previous visit many neighbours already followed us inside the house. As it was not inhabited at the time I didn’t mind.

It changed a little when I woke up the first morning after a not so comfortable night. The bed is a platform and the mattress did not reduce its hardness. With a length of 170cm it is also not perfectly sized although with my 166 cm it is just manageable. While I went to the water room (bathroom is not quite fitting) I discovered another coackroach, killed it (am a little sorry for that but I don’t see living with them as an option). Did my best getting used to bucket showers in dimly lit provided by the solar lamps I brought. Electricity comes and goes, nobody knows when and for how long. There is no running water, not to speak of hot water. As I was quite awake then from cold water and chasing that coackroach, to which I had to add two more after reentering the sleep/living room, and the new ambient noises – I kind of had not an easy time to get some sleep.

So, that first morning, again a cold bucket shower. It does help waking up after such a night but it does not really help to improve the general constitution. I just got dressed as Ahbeay arrives, followed by two neighbours. Everyone walks in without hesitation or waiting for me to invite in. My belongings lie around everywhere, as I did not have the time to buy any boxes yet, my bed is not done and I cannot offer anything to eat or drink. My personal items and all rooms are inspected. My stomach is growling and when asked “Have you eaten rice yet?”, the Myanmar version of “How are you doing?”, I use my chance to negate – which earns some astonishment but no real interest in changing that condition. Instead, I am told the bed is in the wrong position – only dead people sleep in this way near the Buddha shrine. To my defence: It wasn’t me who positioned it there…Anyhow I try look apologetic – the neighbours speak Shan, not Myanmar – and agree to this being changed. I use the chance to explain the bed-length problem which is solved by sawing off the end. As I ask to do so to the upper part as well (more easy with the moskitonet, too) I am told that this is not a good idea, the pillow may fall off. I am surprised by the explanation, especially as this truely has never even occured to me as being possible and has never happened either (and if so it would also not be a big deal). Anyway I am too hungry and tired to argue and let it be. I hope to get to the market soon now.

But I am mistaken. The redecoration of my home is not over yet. All items that belong to the current owner and are of no use to me I banned to that super dark room, which was thought to be a bedroom, closed the door and try not to think of it. One of the neighbours goes in, finds some old and dusty plastic mat and a rug and puts it on the floor. I try to explain that I plan to clean the floor first and then acquire one of the bamboo mats you can get everywhere that look really nice and that plastic is not my kind of thing. Ahbeay translates and the neighbour replies seriously: “It’s not for you! It’s for the Buddha!”
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I thought it was enough for the time being that I already had cleaned the shrine, put new flowers and fresh water for the Buddha yesterday. I shall respect the Buddha and I honestly do. But my personal and today grumpy mindset just said: and where is the respect for my religion? There are many Christians here and they had asked for my religion, too. That means they were not completely unaware of that fact. I will drop this subject now, nonetheless it added up to my reluctance this morning.

Then it is mentioned that I was seen outside the previous evening around 8 p.m. I nodd, it is correct, I was reading outside on the barred veranda until around 9 p.m. I am told I shall not do this again. I wonder “Why?” – “It is too dangerous”. Which kinds of dangers in this sleepy little town, surrounded by these all-registering neighbours could possibly just wait for me remains unclear.

…and I learn more about privacy

I think it is a valid statement to say that privacy and the private space are defined quite differently in Myanmar. So differently that I am still working on making out the borders.  I am well aware that I have put myself here voluntarily, so I am willing to learn and to adjust my personal ideas to the context as far as possible. I absolutely take this morning as a learning experience on the meaning of privacy and private space and see its value. Other than my professional self, which can work with these insights, my personal boundaries have been crossed as well, and I did not experience this to such an extent before.

I did not get time to fully arrive, when, what I understood as my refugium, was taken over by total strangers. I felt invaded in my private space and hemstrung; I was not well all day, unsure what to do and how to behave in the future (still don’t know). I need time to orient myself and reclaim this space for a minimum of ‘at home’ feeling so I can continue my work concentratedly. I need a place to feel a little at ease far away from everything that I am used to. It is odd to live in someone elses walls, hanging full of private pictures and decorations that are not taken off. It is not easy to find new ways of managing daily life again, again different from life in Mandalay, like ‘where is the outward flow to spit in after brushing teeth?’ (answer: in the wall, hidden by a stone).

Of course I am certain that they were not aware what feelings their actions would evoke in me. Everyone wants to help me and I think that no one felt they were overstepping – which is exactly why it is such an interesting situation analysis-wise. Somewhere else, some other time I will also review this in terms of ‘taking spaces’ and ‘creating spaces’,  ‘building home’ and the material culture that manifests these processes.

 

It’s not for you! It’s for the Buddha!