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.

 

Extensive and great lunch offered in an Akha villageDSC03822

 

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

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!

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

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

Self-Censorship and Secrets

To fulfill the idea of transparency, it needs to be added that some issues are excluded from being passed on absolutely transparent.

Myanmar is in a state of transition, which means the government has not yet been installed although the elections have been conducted in November and the legal situation has thus not significantly changed either. So I will not disclose related matters, neither facts that can sound too critical nor my own opinion on these. I also don’t think it is necessary for this blog, I just wish to be clear about its limitations in terms of transparency.

Another point is that it is professional business networks and competition between the weaving stores I visit. Several of these links I can understand now, but I am asked not to publish them (kind of clear anyway) – and I wouldn’t do any other place either.

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And if you don't censor yourself - maybe your computer helps on that 🙂 still working on a solution how to save myanma font in Word

Self-Censorship and Secrets