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!

 

 

 

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Closing the Deal and Opening a New Chapter

Village Visits Vol. 4

Time for Good-Byes

 

Fieldwork itself is limited to a certain amount of days. But the field will not just disappear then. I have my difficulties to accept that in two ways.

The first part being the realization that you did not get all information, that you still want to gather more data to understand everything. I am aware of the impossibility of ever knowing all – but as a researcher exactly that is my drive, so it is just natural that it is hard to stop right here, right now. But I tell myself it is not stopping forever, now is the time for a pause in order to be able to look back and reflect. Then I can continue again.

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Attending the last sunday mass in one of the Christian villages

The second part is to leave the field. And as my field is constituted by people, it means leaving friends and families that I just started to feel part of.

The last two weeks did not make that easier. Rainy season came earlier than expected, limiting access to some villages already. Nonetheless, we did our best to go out as long as rain was not too heavy to give some last gifts of appreciation and properly say good-bye for now, explaining that I will not visit for a while.

Every rainy day we used to work together on transcribing the interviews.

Time for a Future

 

At the same time I was trying to find ways in which I can continue to be in touch with my source communities from faraway. It is not only a matter of installing communication channels that work for all sides: most do not have a mobile phone, many of those who have cannot read and thus calling is the only way…For all those that I cannot directly talk to because of the language barrier, the only way is an indirect communication trough Ahbeay, who will continue to visit the villages and hopefully help both sides to keep in touch.

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My gratitude to the great people I met, who always welcomed me so warmly into their homes and lives

As much as I learned about different people, lives and communities through our conversations I tried to explain whatever they wanted to know about my/the “Foreigner” way of life, too. Often I reached my limits, even reaching a point of thinking: how crazy must the rest of the world sound to them…I can see that.

The most recurrent questions were concerned with: how can we make a living? Clearly, that is not an easy thing to answer. So far I could just give some general ideas about what others do. But is this all that I can do? Is that all that I should do? Or is it already more than I should do?

I am aware that I have at least two main stakeholders: Source Communities and Academia. While the access of Academia to my findings is quite clear and immediate I need to find a similarly immediate way of using the acquired knowledge for the source communities.

Anthropology does not work in a neutral way. It works under the premise of an acknowledged subjectivity. The provision of self-reflexion is part of an ethnographer’s work and exactly what I want to realize in form of this blog. That is why I want to let you know that I decided to continue engaging for my source communities in the future. I know that I influence the field by that. But I would have in any way, so why shouldn’t I try to influence it in a positive way then, helping with what they asked me to help with.

I have arrived back to Mandalay now and will bring this rough idea into a format – soon you will find an update here on what exactly will be going on.

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My good-bye picture of research at Enn villages: Enn women usually wear big metal Earrings – or like in this case sometimes textile ones

 

 

 

Village Visits Vol. 4

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.

 

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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

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.

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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

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

Unexpectedly I Land amidst my Field

Through mutual friends I got to know a monk who called me yesterday, so that I spontaneously visited today. I expected to learn more about Buddhism and monastic schools. Instead I learned about his fascinating drive to establish a school beyond the local notions of a school, including more than demanded by the regular curriculum and emphasizing English training, so I was able to easily talk to all the teachers working there as well.

I heard that he comes from a village where weaving is one source of income. Thus I happily agreed to visit it, too. But also here I was surprised to find myself in a village strongly influenced by exactly the kind of weaving that I study. With his excellent translation abilities we managed to receive so much further leading contacts, clues and ideas that I now write this instead of facing the amount of new knowledge that I should right away document in my field notes…

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But the motorbike rides take their toll and my concentration won’t suffice this activity.  My sleeping rhythm has meanwhile adjusted to the myanma daily routine so I will do this in the early morning instead.

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On our way back from the village, the monk on the mototaxi in front of me – in the background Sagaing Hills.

Unexpectedly I Land amidst my Field