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.

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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!

Elicitations

The researcher plan: use the method “photo-elicitation”.

Way before I get ready to do so, many of the people I talk to ‘self-elicit’ their lifeworlds, showing me pictures on their phones and explaining without me even asking. I learn a lot about the idea of privacy, I reach regions that I cannot access physically as Foreigner at the moment, and understand where new design ideas come from.

I did so similarly with some photographs from Germany at times for the general interpersonal exchange. Now,  I want to use the method in a structured and thought-through way. Finally, I found all locations that are part of the production process, document them and print the pictures. With these images I plan some questions for conversations. I would like to learn, which associations come up about other places and learn more about the relations of their own businesses/families.
In reality it didn’t go the way I expected – of course.

Location 1

The whole family was present, the two ladies that also work here were not.
With the ladies who run the business I went through these images. They recognized some of the production sites and then went to the back of their house to show me their samples – which we talked about before, but suddenly it seemed more clear that I am honestly interested in these. It turns out that they have a sample collection in perfect condition. I was able to document everything and in the end I even received one as a present (which I refused vehemently but they insisted) so that I am the happy owner of a fantastic piece of work now.

Location 2

This workshop is bigger and only one of the sisters has the time to talk to me today. Usually they are very talkative and I have slight problems following our conversations due to amount and speed of input – so also today I put on the record first thing, so I can go through it again afterwards. The parts I still don’t understand I will have to ask for help. I could review some of my information with the help of the pictures as well as finally find that silk colouring workshop that I have been looking for quite a while. It is not that I didn’t ask about it before but the answers I received from different people were not clear enough to find it yet.

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All in all, the method is definitely very useful in breaking with the one-sided concentration on my questions – which for this context proves a repeating pattern although I am trying to not open up this kind of interview situation it often happens that people stop working and expect me to ask questions. As a result, I will definitely continue to bring pictures but probably less in quantity so single processes receive more attention.

Elicitations