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

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

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!

Savory and Sweet Streetfood

Of course – one has to eat to live and as some people told me that they don’t really know what there is, I  I will put a little bit of easy-to-get and easy-to-eat together.

Here are some of the vegetarian options (have no clue about correct English phonetic spelling…)

 

Bae Bau Si

Steamed bread with red or yellow bean filling (little sweet), mostly transported in a big aluminum box on the back of a motorbike with a loudspeaker.

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Mon Baun

Steamed (white or black) rice pancake mostly served with salt, oil and crushed peanuts and sometimes in the sweet version with jaggery filling. Spotted them often in front of pagodas, steamer made from pottery ware or aluminum.

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Parati and Nan Pyar

Either savoury with a small portion of curry or beanpaste as a side or with sugar e.g. Most likely to find in Teashops or at their front. Parati is baked in some oil, Nan Pyar without.

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 Beijn Hmo

Sweet thick fluffy pancakes topped with white poppy seeds (don’t have a picture at hand but will add it later). Various places: markets, pagodas and along the street.

 

Always good: Fresh Coconut!

Also good: fresh coconuts are always somewhere around, they will ask you whether you want to drink or also to eat them.

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Do I miss something you would like to add? Please feel free to comment below!

Savory and Sweet Streetfood

A No Go in Professional Life: Bringing your Mom to Work

Usually, it is a strange thing to do. In general, you don’t bring your parents – or any relatives for that matter – to work. But dwelling in the in-between of my professional and private life everything is different. Ever since the first mentioning of my mother’s upcoming visit to the people around me I am asked frequently when exactly she is coming. Everyone wants to meet her and “shake hands”.

Finally, she is here now. The first day in Mandalay we said hi at the anthropological department and the next day we toured most of the weaving sites that I frequently visit. For my mother everything was new, for me it was new to explain the different sites (a good chance for reflection) and everyone seemed very delighted that – as promised – we actually came visiting.
Some conversations and a lot of pictures taken later, we ended the day at the pagoda hill in Sagaing with Z.’s family. A very typical thing to do, whoever tells me about a special day or event – visiting a pagoda is always part of it and I felt very happy that for us it was the same now, too.

The pagoda area reflects this idea: It is not only a spiritual place that you visit in solitude and quiet for devotion, but it is also a lively place full of families, friends and couples. Street stalls are all around, selling flowers to offer to the Buddha or one of the shrines, snacks, handicraft articles and shiny Chinoiseries to take home as a souvenir.

Already in the past year, pagodas were always my first resort when I arrived at a new place. Because it is right in the middle of life, so that it is easy to connect here – which I feel is one of the strongest differences to the Christian churches I am used to, where silence is the most important thing to obey to and the holy area is not made to show it’s ties to the profane.

Thus, after showing respect to the Buddha there is also time to enjoy the view and take selfies.

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A No Go in Professional Life: Bringing your Mom to Work

Same Procedure as Every Day. How to find Routines and Ways of Participation

Every beginning is troublesome and every day was different. As you could read, several people helped me to find research sites and introduced me there. At that point structuring days or weeks was hopeless. Sudden appointments and unexpected discoveries were the daily normal.

First visits to sites often already included longer talks than I planned: because people were expecting me to ask questions. So my position at that moment seemed clear,  even if I didn’t really plan it to be like this. So first I explained a little what it is that I am doing and I was improvising on the questions then. But this situational conversation actually led to some relaxation after a while and we chatted more easy going and it was very informative for me.

Now we got to the point where we know each other a little and there are some behavioural routines. Not all available food in the area is brought and work/lectures go their way nearly without interruptions (sometimes things are explained to me in English to make sure I follow e.g.).

But to say I blend in would be said too much. Even if I feel not that visible in weaving class anymore – I am mistaken. My movements are registered,  as soon as I am about to sit down on the floor one of the girls brings a small stool.

Although I bring my own food it is stapled above with more food by the teacher at lunch break. I am treated like a guest, so not yet perfectly arrived at the social spot that I would like to be in. Also, there is a certain hierarchy between weavers, shop owners, employees, students and teachers. So it is not completely easy to position myself clearly,  as I wish to understand and include as many perspectives as possible.

And I face another problem: the Acheik weaving is too difficult to learn just randomly at some time in between and the fabric to precious to let me train on it. So to say: participating observation is not possible in the manufacturing process. I try to find different solutions to get as close to this standard as possible though:

1) I spend time with the weavers anyway. Mostly it is quiet or we listen to music, talking amongst each other works well, too. But me asking questions is too distracting in this highly concentrated surrounding. Only simple things like: this is really nice/difficult work.
2) At the weaving school I try to participate in the flying shuttle class – but also here it is problematic, and I don’t yet fully understand the teaching system. But I am here, bringing lunch to eat with the students and in the afternoon I visit the lecture like they do.

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3) Be a photo object and take pictures for the everyone as well – at least a small social spot that I can take.

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Another thing concerning the daily routine: all the motorbike riding in sun and dust and on bumpy streets in heavy traffic, thinking in English, speaking Myanma, trying to understand conversations and making all these small decisions during the day – I am used to it now, but when I arrive home in the afternoon I feel it is actually still quite exhausting. Writing down everything in the evening as I planned – impossible. So I scheduled myself like this now:

Day 1 Amarapura: Weaving School or workshop, sometimes one in the morning, the other one in the afternoon. The school is not open Saturdays, Sundays and on holidays, so there are some shifts in the schedule.

Day 2 Mandalay: Myanma lesson and chatting with Uzin Agga.
In the afternoon keeping track of research audio records, pictures taken, work with new information and plan the next day.
Repeating Myanma class & my vocabulary.

Day 3 Sagaing: Three weaving workshops and one designer to visit alternately. Enjoy family time with my guest family,  having lunch or afternoon snack together before returning to Mandalay (40 minute drive).

Back to Day 1.

In general it works well, but of course I still feel I cannot manage to do enough, see enough, learn enough…
Especially as the everyday life of my own person is also taking place to some extend: groceries need to be shopped, dinner prepared and cooked; presents organized, motorbike repaired etc. (this also takes longer as usual because everything works differently). And of course: communicating with friends in the field, colleagues and framily at home. And being present at the University of Mandalay every now and then to exchange and chat about what is going on.

And then Uzin Agga says:

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Same Procedure as Every Day. How to find Routines and Ways of Participation

Wisdom and Loving Kindness. Lessons as taught by Uzin Agga

This is not a Christmas post – but it is a post about Christmas nonetheless. I didn’t plan this one, really, but also here in Myanmar Christmas is all around. Some of the shops along the streets display only clothes in a white and red colour combination and at the big mall they do play Christmas songs and sell plastic christmas trees.

But I was not prepared (okay, by now we all learned that every day I keep being surprised) for my Myanma lesson this day:

Uzin Agga*,  my highly appreciated teacher and friend, started our today’s session with a Bible quotation! And I have to admit it’s not only because my Myanma is still not that good – but also my catholic education has not really helped in recognizing this. Full of enthusiasm – as always – he wrote it down and here it is:

အဆိုိးအားဖင့္အရႈံးမခံနွင့္။ အေကာင္းအားျဖင့္အဆိုိးကိုနွင့္ေလာ့။

                                                          ေရာမၾသ၀ါဒစာ။ ၁၂ :၂၁ (Romans 12:21)

မေကာင္းမႈေရႈာင္၊ ျဖဴေအင္စိတ္ကိုထား။              

                                                           ဗုဒၶ   (Buddha’s teaching)                                  

To extend our dialogue he also added this teaching of Buddha. Both of them say – in different words – that one should continue to do good and conquer the evil in this way.

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Uzin Agga’s lesson of the day

Uzin Aggas teaching is always prominently featured by his enthusiasm and positivity. And now he explains that he enjoys reading bible quotations for their literary style and poetic word usage that is a valuable addition to the Myanma language!

I feel somewhat relieved: Brought up Christian, even though my personal beliefs may differ from the classical canon now, I have internalized Christmas as the time of reflection and gratitude. So, in the past days I went around to my field sites and friends and brought some small presents to show my appreciation and by this bringing in something that is part of my culture as well. Not without asking the typical anthropological self-reflexive questions though: “Is that an okay thing to do?” and what consequences this cultural exchange may have in the short run and for the long term?

But when I think of Uzin Agga’s delight about the beautiful sentences  we read today I try to see the good in things like this, it is possible that they transcend the religious background and bring a little more happiness and peace.

Thank you so much Uzin Agga, for the wisdom and loving kindness (yes, your words) you share with me: the time and effort for the preparation of the sessions and our slow motion mobile communication, your patience in listening to my mistakes repeatedly and your constant encouragement!

Dankeschön!

 

 

*Full name not displayed.

Wisdom and Loving Kindness. Lessons as taught by Uzin Agga