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.

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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

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

Circumventing the Language Barrier

For the time being, I am still not able to conduct in-depths conversations in Myanma. And the very specific terms necessary for my research have to be collected at various points, like dictionaries,  materials of the weavers and schools as well as orally transmitted and written down by whom ever happens to be around.

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Sometimes it helps just to point at words if my pronunciation is not understandable – so my personal dictionary is very useful at the moment.

At the weaving school there is also a scheme with basic Acheik patterns and their Myanma names that I was allowed to photograph. The next step is to print these out to take along and show whenever necessary and to learn them by heart to hopefully get closer to talking conversations soon.

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Circumventing the Language Barrier

Introductions

In the past week the first field visits took place. Luckily Z. knows two weaving workshops close to her home and could introduce me. I used my best Myanma to participate as much as I could – nonetheless at this stage I am happy that Z. could give an explanation who that Foreigner is that stands now in the middle of their looms and what she could possibly want here.
But it seems my research is no problem and my request of future attendances of workshop life granted.

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My plan is to take it slow (and it’s not like I am not already panicking that time is running out),  to give everyone some time to adjust to another person’s presence, especially a Foreigner – whom most are still quite shy about – with insufficient communication skills. And also some time for me – it’s not like reading can ever prepare you for real life situations and it’s not like being used to meeting new people makes it a matter of course. Also, I don’t want to give people the impression that I am rushing into their lives, asking questions,  take what I can get and am gone again.

The ideal is a mutual understanding that gives room for questions in both directions and a long-lasting friendly relationship rather than a professionally distanced data collection as occurs within other disciplines – and I see this as the greatest strength and most unique feature of cultural anthropology. And most likely the greatest challenge at the same time, as we go way beyond our professional selves and need to give in a lot of our personal selves as well.

Introductions