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Not all villages we visit still produce hand-woven fabrics, compared to those mentioned in the (mostly anyhow outdated) literature.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differently, sometimes are in Myanmar or in English phonetic notation and are all only to find on maps completely outdated.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

Yangon – The Hub

The former capital remains the capital of trade. All threads run together here. So in the past days I visited several places to understand more about the Macrosphere in which my topic is embedded. My teacher of textile analysis from Switzerland is here for a few weeks at the moment so I had the chance of coming along to the weaving workshop that she supports in creating the teaching curriculum and designs. The workshop is specialized in producing fabrics and products for everyday use, like pillow cases, bags and the like. It is beautiful to see how new designs are created here and products developed that you cannot find elsewhere – e.g. mobile phone cases with an integrated business card holder as in Myanmar the exchange of business cards definitely is a thing.
They have a showroom downtown, if you would like to visit let me know and I will pass on the contact details.

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Yangon – The Hub

Circumventing the Language Barrier

For the time being, I am still not able to conduct in-depths conversations in Myanma. And the very specific terms necessary for my research have to be collected at various points, like dictionaries,  materials of the weavers and schools as well as orally transmitted and written down by whom ever happens to be around.

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Sometimes it helps just to point at words if my pronunciation is not understandable – so my personal dictionary is very useful at the moment.

At the weaving school there is also a scheme with basic Acheik patterns and their Myanma names that I was allowed to photograph. The next step is to print these out to take along and show whenever necessary and to learn them by heart to hopefully get closer to talking conversations soon.

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Circumventing the Language Barrier