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Not all villages we visit still produce hand-woven fabrics, compared to those mentioned in the (mostly anyhow outdated) literature.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.

 

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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differently, sometimes are in Myanmar or in English phonetic notation and are all only to find on maps completely outdated.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

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