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

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

Savory and Sweet Streetfood

Of course – one has to eat to live and as some people told me that they don’t really know what there is, I  I will put a little bit of easy-to-get and easy-to-eat together.

Here are some of the vegetarian options (have no clue about correct English phonetic spelling…)

 

Bae Bau Si

Steamed bread with red or yellow bean filling (little sweet), mostly transported in a big aluminum box on the back of a motorbike with a loudspeaker.

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Mon Baun

Steamed (white or black) rice pancake mostly served with salt, oil and crushed peanuts and sometimes in the sweet version with jaggery filling. Spotted them often in front of pagodas, steamer made from pottery ware or aluminum.

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Parati and Nan Pyar

Either savoury with a small portion of curry or beanpaste as a side or with sugar e.g. Most likely to find in Teashops or at their front. Parati is baked in some oil, Nan Pyar without.

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 Beijn Hmo

Sweet thick fluffy pancakes topped with white poppy seeds (don’t have a picture at hand but will add it later). Various places: markets, pagodas and along the street.

 

Always good: Fresh Coconut!

Also good: fresh coconuts are always somewhere around, they will ask you whether you want to drink or also to eat them.

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Do I miss something you would like to add? Please feel free to comment below!

Savory and Sweet Streetfood

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!

 

 

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Wisdom and Loving Kindness. Lessons as taught by Uzin Agga