Closing the Deal and Opening a New Chapter

Food for Thought

 

Physically leaving Myanmar does not at all mean leaving Myanmar behind. Back to Berlin I fall right into the preparations of the annual Myanmar conference as part of the Myanmar Study Group Berlin organization Team. This year’s conference was particularly interesting: on the professional level it helped to get back in touch with academic life and discussions and buffered my culture shock. On the personal level it supported my idea to find ways to use the researchers’ knowledge in the local context. It was great to see the interest of development aid practitioners and physicians working in Myanmar and to listen to their remarks. The question came up: “With all the research you do – what about your humanity?!”. As a representative of practitioners in general this physician formulates a critique researchers have to face.

I would like to explain the situation as good as I can, as I have heard this question from many people from various backgrounds and finally that voice in my head as well. And there is just no clear, absolute line. That’s what makes it hard for all sides to understand.

Speaking in defense of anthropologists I can say that most engage in one way or another for their source communities and local contacts. But I share the feeling that this engagement is only dealing with selected points and although we get to know local contexts well, it is mostly not us using that knowledge accumulated in that very context in the end. Thus, the kinds of engagements existing are not very visible, or for the few cases I know that are visible, researchers have put themselves in an extremely dangerous position facing skepticism and at worst being dismissed from academic discussions as having lost their professionalism.

Trying to compare anthropologists and another group of professionals I will break it down to a term that can be criticized but helps to follow the general idea (I hope). A physician masters skills that quite clearly give an idea of what they can do and what they should do. For anthropologists we could say that one of our central skills is “cultural knowledge”. But to frame what we can and should “do” with that knowledge is a difficult task and needs to be revised for each and every new context. And although similarly like a physician our actions take place in living organism – in our case the community – our job is to form part of that. We are there to learn, not to treat. We are not there because we assume something needs fixing. We are there only to understand how and why things are different and learn more about societies, humandkind in general and finally about our own cultures, too.

We are not automatically the ideal candidates for implementation of the acquired deductions. It does make us ideal candidates for critical and holistic advise though. And that is possible in two directions. Locally we can try to answer the questions people have about our cultures of origin and internationally we can bring in what we learned about a specific context. Needless to say that in the end this will not be neatly divisible anymore.

But thinking this thought to an end, let’s imagine our engagement was stronger and clearly visible: would we still be objective scientists and a reliable source of knowledge, potentially a basis for social, cultural, economic and political decisions and projects far beyond our individual reach? Or would we be seen with different eyes due to what will happen sooner or later: taking sides (on whatever discussion, dispute, decision, ideology, event, something we try to remain as neutral about as we can usually). And at that point we ruined our stand on both those sides that we are working hard for to explain to one another.

We are not lobbyists, we are the ones in between, call us cultural brokers if you will. The essence of our work is the fostering of intercultural understanding.

Keeping this in mind I can see a work assignment stemming from this discussion: improve knowledge exchange. Make knowledge available to both sides in a form not only for the source communities and Academia but also for practitioners. Particularly in the context of Myanmar, where little research was possible in the past and not many experts on the field are approachable to date, we should work on the accessibility and visibility of our research for those who seek and need advise.

Myanmar Tagung Programm

I would like to thank the participants of the conference and the  Myanmar Study Group for the inspiring exchange and am already looking forward to the next meeting in Bonn!

 

Thightrope Walking

 

As a follow-up to this theoretical considerations I will go practical now, introducing how I used cultural knowledge to support local initiatives while trying to interfere with my research field as little and as traceable as possible, seeing this as an experiment of testing potentials and limits.

There is a lot going on in Myanmar. There are many locals doing their best with very few resources. Many things just crossed my path coincidentially. When asked for it, I gave “Foreigner Feedback”, which thus is not so much locally acquired knowledge but ideas from the cultures I grew up in. From these requests of cultural knowledge, I decided I may as well function as a translator into a medium that Foreigners would use and my source communities cannot yet navigate: the Internet. Together with Khin Aye Mar and Aye Aye Aung we built the website www.threemamasprojects.com and a facebook page. Here, everyone is able to see the communities’ efforts and can receive reliable information in English. We developed this website as a structure to bundle different projects to avoid particularism and enable synergies for the future while taking into account the individuality  of each initiative.

Two of four projects take place in communities I researched at, one of them is related to my research focus on weaving, the other one is about education. For matters of transparency I will explain that first one here: When I told my friend Phyu Ei Thein from Sunflower Textile Gallery about the fabrics the ladies weave and that they have no visitors during rainy season, we decided to do a trial and bring the products to Yangon to bridge that income gap. I used the last 3 days in the field to explain this mediation (meaning that I am not the buyer, only the broker/transporter) and acquire one product per lady in each village. While I was thinking it’s a practical matter, I can say that also my research profited from this experience. I learned a whole lot more about the calculations and considerations involved, at a point when I thought I already understood most of it…It was also a community project, where everyone could get involved, discuss and think together. These were really special days and I hope the fruitful exchange of ideas can continue in the future.

Through this connecting of people locally and internationally I hope I could give back to my source communities in a sustainable manner and do my part in fostering intercultural understanding.

As the active fieldwork phase is over for now I will say “See you again soon”.

 

I am happy to receive more feedback and want to sincerely thank everyone who shared their remarks publicly or privately!

 

 

 

Closing the Deal and Opening a New Chapter

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.

image

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

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.

UAgga
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

Driver’s Licence

Thought things in Germany were quite complicated. But how many numbers, dates and characteristics of my person exist and need to be gathered together in order to transfer my International driver’s licence into a Myanma license still surprised me. As well as the extent to what I needed to explain my research to people in the copy shop for translating my name into Myanma (no idea why relevant, according to sound, not using my Myanma name plus my father’s name was also necessary; don’t even think of data protection all official documents I have with me having at least been seen and copied by 15 people only today) and finally after 2 more office visits the lady issuing the licence also needed to know exactly…I understand that anthropological studies are not her main occupation and so it took quite a while to explain (also she doesn’t speak much English).

I thought now everything is clear, I had signatures from 2 offices and thought it’s just about printing it now – but it wasn’t. Now she requested a statement of the University that my German licence is a real one. I guess I don’t need to mention that I brought my passport, German licence, International licence as well as the Invitation letter from the local University with me. At that point I protested – how and why should the University be able to check the authenticity of my German licence?

I am still at the office… The discussions don’t include me anymore but I am busying 4 women with this – and it’s not like I don’t also feel a little bad about causing so much work to them…

Now 70,000 Kyat were to pay, but as I asked for a receipt it’s 60,000 Kyat now. I hope that’s it for today, so many people asking and discussing in a Myanma-English mix is actually a little stressful.

While still waiting the tough lady starts to be absolutely excited about my dictionary – be ready to be surprised again and again…

Some hours later I really hold it in my hands!

Driver’s Licence

At the nunnery in Sagaing

image

To learn more about Buddhism – keyword holistic approach – we (accompanied by Z. and T.,  both local anthropologists) went to some nunneries in Sagaing. The idea is to find a nunnery that I can visit in the next days and talk to the nuns. In this manner I want to learn more in general about choices in the lives of women, the    buddhist way of life (the precepts, customs and general behavior towards nuns and at temples and pagodas) and improve my Myanma of course.
A secondary thought here was also to find a spot to sleep over once in a while. But I think the location-problematic deserves another blogpost.

PS: check for the cat in the picture – trying to distract the nun. She was climbing all over her…

At the nunnery in Sagaing