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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 village
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.