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

From Field to Field

Kengtung (also written Kyaing Dong) lies in the Eastern Shan State within the area that is also called the Golden Triangle. Only recently one of the land borders nearby has been opened (Tachileik, Myanmar – Mae Sai, Thailand). From within Myanmar it is still only accessible by plane. Thus, the number of visitors is still relatively low and accomodation options for tourists/Foreigners pose a central problem for me here as well.

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Flashback

Turning up last year in Kengtung as my critical, sceptical, ever-asking self (this did not change much) I was lucky enough to run into someone who adopted me as his sister right from the start. He was super patient and helped me with whatever he could. His talent for taking care of people and organizing so well made me call him “brother/a-ko” during the first days. It is the term with which you would adress a male person around the same age. Only days later I randomly asked his age (learned from this experience to do it earlier now) and it turns out he is much younger than I thought (and he never said anything of course). As addresses solely refer to the age the proper term is “little brother/maung lay”. In general it is very helpful to always be able to address everyone in a very friendly and familiar way, an absolute door-opener.

Together we tried to find villages in the surrounding area  where frame-loom and  back-loom weaving is done. As we succeeded in that, Kengtung was set as part 2 of this ongoing research.

The Reunion

So, now I am here again. Thanks to mobile technologies my little brother and me were able to keep in touch during the past year. Nonetheless it is not a matter of course that he managed to organize a house for rent already and between his two jobs makes space in his life for my popping-up, too. We see familiar faces in the villages and monastery, check out the house and meet old friends in town.

This time the preparation is very different from field site 1. With the Myanmar I speak by now I can get along in Kengtung, but in the villages around several languages are spoken. This is also the reason why I chose this to be the second part – my hope is that I can find someone who can translate from Myanmar to one of the languages, as I cannot assume that English is an option here and as much as I would love to speak all of those languages myself I have to be realistic. Also, the fundament I could lay in terms of literature research is very sparse. But the organizational stuff that cost me quite some time in Mandalay is already taken care of and compensates it a little I hope.

Big thank you to my little brother!

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From Field to Field