Anthropology without Villains: Kurt’s Vonnegut’s Master’s Degree in Anthropology for Cat’s Cradle

 

Kurt Vonnegut just got published in the Chicago Tribune, even though he has been quite dead for the last nine years. So it goes. The title of the article is “The Secret Ingredient in my Books is that there Never has been a Villain,” even though he wrote about things like atomic bombs, The Holocaust, and the firebombing of Dresden. But the new newspaper article is not about these depressing things, rather it is mostly about the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago where his M. A. Thesis was rejected twice. And then once Vonnegut was famous, they accepted his novel Cat’s Cradle as a substitute thesis in 1964 or so, a fact that Chicago no longer acknowledge on their web site. But graciously, not even in the Anthropology Department of Chicago are there any villains.

Famously, Vonnegut was a Prisoner of War in Dresden during the fire bombing of Dresden by the United States and Britain near the end of World War II. As an Allied prisoner of war, he was kept in an underground meat locker, and brought to the surface only after the city was destroyed. In his novel Slaughterhouse Five: The Children’s Crusade, Vonnegut highlighted the execution of a fellow prisoner of war for stealing a teapot in the midst of both the Holocaust and fire-bombing of Dresden, two of the world’s great crimes. In which case the execution of a poor American p.o.w. for stealing a teapot while cleaning up the wreckage the Americans inflicted on Dresden seems just strange. It is indeed a strange place not to find any villains, isn’t it?

Anyway, Vonnegut returned to America, and used the GI Bill to attend the University of Chicago where he submitted his Master’s Thesis on some now forgotten topic, and the thesis was then rejected. He eventually submitted a second thesis which was also rejected. He then wrote a novel Cat’s Cradle, and became famous. So the University of Chicago Department of Anthropology issued the degree because the novel itself constituted his Master’s thesis even if it was um, made up. It takes place on San Lorenzo, an island that is made up, and it includes stories about what the guy who invented the atom bomb was doing when Hiroshima was bombed (i.e. playing the children’s game “cat’s cradle with bits of string), and more about a fictional bit of stuff that turns dictators into ice. As indeed perhaps the prisoner of war executed for the teapot was made up.

Which brings me back to the subject of ethnography, which is never supposed to be made up, except when it is. Just ask Alice Goffman whose ethnography On the Run was run through the ethnographic wringer last year because in the process of obscuring identities she got a number of the facts wrong. The facts may have been wrong which caused the huffing and puffing in the reviews, even though her broader point about the damage that aggressive policing tactics was pretty much unassailable. Getting the facts wrong helps the critics change the subject regarding her larger point about the damage of aggressive policing. Kind of like the weird story of an American soldier getting executed in the middle of a war crime, and the biggest humanitarian crime of all, The Holocaust. What is the death of a soldier stealing a teapot in the context of a smoldering Dresden?

Ethnography is of course an art. Every ethnographer has the right and responsibility to create a narrative flow to draw the reader into broader tale that they are trying to tell. In this respect, what is the difference between an ethnographer and a novelist? Perhaps it is that ethnographers go to IRBs, and novelists don’t? Or perhaps more appropriately it is that ethnographers have systematic methods of data collection, which is why there are so many classes on the collection of qualitative data. But still in the end, there is that shared narrative thread, which is made up.

And for that reason, I think that the University of Chicago did the right thing in awarding Vonnegut the degree in anthropology for a novel. The narrative thread is all-important in any ethnography. Alice Goffman had it, and so does Kurt Vonnegut. And judging from the precedent of the University of Chicago, ethnographers can be awarded degrees for doing that as well. Or as VOnnegut wrote:

And it can even happen when there are no villains. Imagine that in modern anthropology?

“Look at all that humans can do! They’re versatile. They can ride a unicycle. They can play the harp. They can, apparently, do anything.

Anyway, I liked the University of Chicago. They didn’t like me.

 

 

Me, the Great Myanmar Earthquake of 2016, Thai Bordellos, and Facebook Tracking

Did you know about the Myanmar Earthquake of April 13, 2016? Neither did I, until I woke up that morning, and saw on Facebook that there was some question if I was ok.  My Facebook says (accurately) that I am in Chiangmai, Thailand, which is about 500 miles form Mawfalk, Myanmar where the earthquake occurred. I was of course ok, so clicked the button asking if I was ok And then I clicked my daughter’s FB page saying she was ok because well, FB asked, and I was being dutiful and considerate of our hundreds of FB friends who must have woken up to headlines regarding the earthquake, and then immediately wondered if I was ok.

So immediately, more FB notifications went out to all our presumably concerned FB friends, all of whom were supposed to be scanning headlines, and wondering about my safety. 41 of then dutifully clicked on my status update which said nothing happened (about something they had never heard of). But they were glad I was safe anyway. A few even sent condolences. So in this way, FB created many more clicks, gathered eyeballs, and otherwise enhanced their business model. Boy, was I glad that FB is concerned about my safety, and my FB friends emotional well-being.

Anyway, that duty taken care of, I then googled the Myanmar Earthquake that I had apparently ridden out so successfully. The only headline was actually in The Guardian of Great Britain, which explained that Prince William and Princess Kate had felt the earthquake while on vacation in western India. As far as I can figure out via google no one was hurt in the earthquake, and no real headlines were generated, except on FB. FB could have saved myself (and my 41 FB friends) a lot of worry by not doing anything.

The funny thing is that when I started to examine FB’s map, I began to realize how much such a marketing program works. In the “small” circle that FB drew around the earthquake’s epicenter, there are about 350,000,000 people, including all of the population of Bangladesh, most of Myanmar, bit parts of western India and southern China, northern Thailand, northern Laos, and even a bit of Vietnam. This densely populated area is like 1/20 of all the people in the world. How many of them are on FB, and were greeted in the morning with the same message I had, asking them to reassure their friends that they were safe? Tens of millions? Hundreds of millions? Only FB knows.

And then I started fantasizing about all the things FB should warn my friends about—things that I actually put myself at risk for.

Like driving a car in Thailand, the country with the second highest vehicle accident rate in the world. Or surviving the splashes of Thai New Year which ended last week, and actually cause a number of accident every year.

My fantasy involves the use of GPS devices, which I often carry with me when driving in the form of an iPad. Imagine this:

 

Tony missed his turn again. Message Tony on FB to get him back on course

 

27 Thai motorcycles on the freeway passed Tony on both sides at the same time. Let your FB friends know you are o.k.

 

Tony drives past notorious bar, ask if Tony was hit be a drunk driver.

 

“Tony drives past notorious bordello, ask if Tony….”

Adventures in Thailand V: Car Repairs

I was finishing up my Thai language lesson last week, when my daughter came in the room with a harried look on her face. “The car won’t start, and we need a translator to talk to the people in the parking lot where we are stuck.” Immediate end to my Thai lesson.

The car was stuck in one of Chiangmai’s large mega malls. The uniformed parking lot guard had come over to help, and Kirsten couldn’t figure out what he was saying—though she said that it was apparently helpful. Anyway, he had filled the radiator with water on what was one of the hottest days of the year. It seemed a good bet that it was simply overheated.

So we caught a ride back to the parking lot, and I had a look at the car, which had its hood up so everyone would know we were the people in trouble. One of the guards came over, and talked to me.

“Let me get the other guy, I think it is the battery.”

“But she said it was overheated,” I replied.

In the meantime a stranger stopped by and insist that we take a two liter bottle of water, even though we could see that the radiator was now full, and I could see on the engine thermometer that everything was o.k.  But he  insisted we take their water, which we did.

“I think it’s the battery,” the uniformed security guy in the snazzy uniform said, and he ran off.

I walked around the car a couple of times, and tried to start it. It just went “click.” It was still in my mind that the problem was overheating, so the “click” sounded bad. Did this mean that the engine was seized up? I have a PhD and know how to diagnose such things!

In the meantime, the security guard guy in the snazzy uniform came back with his friends, who bought a battery charger. I couldn’t figure out what he needed that for, but he insisted that the problem was the battery. He told me to bring the car down to the third level of the garage (we were on the fourth level). I said this was impossible. He just grabbed my keys and hopped in the car. He put the car into neutral, and suddenly I found myself pushing my car through the garage. It glided nicely down to the third level, where the charger was hooked up to a plug from the big mall. He turned on the car. It turned over. And we were back in business—but for how long? The guy in the snazzy uniform pointed to a little red indicator on the battery, and told me to get a new battery within a couple of days.

A New Battery—Two Days Later

Where to get a new battery? The Thai told me that I should get it a “battery store.” The expats suggested google in English. The latter turned out to be what I did, and I googled “Car battery in Chiangmai,” and zeroed in on the nearest hit, which was a place called “Monster Automotive.” A nice English name like that sounded good to me. Sounded also like it would have a battery.

Anyway, with a bit of help from our iPad, I finally found the backstreet where Monster Automotive was located. I went into a shop which looked suspiciously like a Harley-Davidson Motorcycle dealership, and unlikely to have a battery for a 1997 Mitsubishi Lancer. Trusting in iPad and Google, I pushed in.

“Do you have a battery for a 1997 Mitsubishi Lancer?”

“Um, this is a Harley-Davidson dealership, and so no we don’t have a car battery.”

“Where can I get a car battery?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s easy. Go next door to the fitness studio.”

So, I did what I was told, and went next door to the fitness studio where there was a small restaurant, and a lot of weight machines.

“Do you have a battery for a 1997 Mitsubishi Lancer?”

“Not at the moment” the woman replied, “but my boyfriend has one.”

“How long will that take? I asked skeptically,” after fitness studios in America do not carry car batteries.

The boyfriend came out. A small guy. He went over to our car to have a look.

“Can you give me 15 minutes? I can get you the battery,” he asked. “I just have to go to the other shop to get it.”

“Sure, I responded,” hopefully, not quite understanding how going to another fitness studio would find me a battery.

He hopped on a small scooter (not a Harley), and was off.

15 minutes later he called his girlfriend. “I don’t have one at the shop,” he said, “can you wait another 15 minutes? It will be 2200 Baht for the battery, but I’ll give you a credit if I can take the old battery for refurbishment.“ 1900 Baht total, which is about US$ 50.

Seemed pretty reasonable to me, and I continued to wait, watching as the buff guys from the gym went in and out, and while a college student with braces in the black skirt required of all proper university students studied her book, and ate her lunch.

I switched between daydreaming, watching a silly Thai game show on t.v., and studying the body-building magazine rack.   People came and went, including the well-muscled boyfriend of the college student who kissed her on the lips at one point, a move which brought out kissy faces from the others in the room.

35, 40 minutes ,and then the winds came, followed shortly by one of them real enthusiastic tropical rainstorms. Now I knew my battery would be late. The winds howled, and the rainwater peeped in under the door. This lasted about 20 minutes, and then lo and behold my battery arrived, on the scooter and the boyfriend. His girlfriend shoved an umbrella in my hand, even though it had stopped raining. But I used it anyway, I wandering out to where my car was, and the “mechanic” was changing the battery. I felt stupid there, watching the operation, so wandered back to my seat in the body building gym.

The mechanic five minutes later came in and me asked me to come out and look at his handy work. And then reminded me of the 1900 baht charge. I didn’t have change, only two 1000 baht bills. But the girlfriend did, and after about an hour and a half, I was on my way.   With a new battery.

 

 

 

 

 

How “puking in the grass” made my school more business-like than drinking wine.

My wife Kathy and I arrived at the upscale hotel and conference center on a bright February day in sunny Monterey on the scenic California coast by the late afternoon. We left our young kids with trusted friends and were looking forward to two nights of freedom, intellectual stimulation, and fun all mixed in with the vaguely defined work of my role as textbook coordinator for my small northern California school district where I served as elementary school principal. We got our room, changed quickly and headed for the beach to see the beautiful sunset and look for migrating whales and other life on the seashore. When the sun dropped we made our way back to our room and flopped into bed.

This conference was slated as one of the best. It was a combination of the International Reading Association, the California Reading Association and the textbook adoption conference for all the publishers who were approved by the California State Board of Education. This was the Language Arts text adoption year and the school district was paying for the entire trip!

We had late breakfast together (this meant 7am for us) in a dining room and hurried off to the first big session. A renowned researcher-professor from USC, Stephen Krashen was scheduled to speak and share his work on teaching children to read. I remember the conference now as a prelude to the conflict then brewing between those who foresaw test-based accountability and those who advocated for the more natural approach of whole language. But that’s for another blog.

We broke for lunch and enjoyed one of those upscale conference buffets with everything you couldn’t afford at home. Kathy was reasonable but I ate like a pig. Olives, roast beef, crescent rolls and as much good ham, turkey and mustard as you could pile on. And since it was a buffet I could go back as many times as I could handle. The food for lunch was all provided buy the text book companies and the other vendors who sold things like book holders or book cases or bean bag chairs for classroom reading corners.

Early afternoon was taken up with more meetings and then we escaped for a lovely walk on the rocky beach before dinner. Back in our room we relaxed, read and walked over to the hot tub and pool. This was the kind of atmosphere that educators needed, I felt, in order to really relax and open our minds to the new or revised methods and material in the wonderful new textbooks.

I thought briefly about my day at school just before we left and the rash of sick kids who showed up at my small office. I was an experienced elementary school principal by then so I was used to managing those minor epidemics of vomity flu that crop up every year. And the day before I left was just such a day when I had instituted the emergency rule I called “puke on the grass.” When kids feel like throwing up, they usually are unable to manage it. After they told their teacher they were feeling sick, the teacher would send them to our nurseless office where the secretary or I could take their temperature and determine if a call would be made to parents to pick them up. Prior to my “puke on the grass” rule, the sick kid would wobble into the office, puke and then announce, “I don’t feel so good.” But with the rule in place, I could stand just outside the office and direct the sick looking kids to “puke in the grass.” And it really worked well. The kids must have respected their principal and school secretary because even in their fevered states they were mostly able to weave off the sidewalk and vomit all over the lawn.

This rule really improved our office smell and thus our office efficiency, (although I have never seen it at any of the expensive “Accountability” workshops paid for by state or federal funds I attended. Such workshops are mainly filled with exhortations or slogans that didn’t work such as ‘No Excuses.” How would that work with a sick kid who was about to puke? (Buck up kid while I work through the rule book. And remember “No Excuses” about puking in the office!) Anyway, I was proud the, “puke in the grass” actually did work and solved a real problem. However, every once in a while, a parent would decide to argue with us over the phone when we had called to say her kid was sick.

“How do you know he’s really sick?” She would say suspiciously, accusingly. “He looked just fine this morning.”

It was on just such an occasion that I learned to develop the “puke in the grass” rule because I was able to tell the parent, “I know he is sick because he just puked all over my shoes, socks and pants!” While I do not claim to be the sharpest tack in the box, it only took me one time to get puked on to figure out the “puke in the grass rule.” I felt more in control of my school when the kids puked on the grass or the walkway where ‘Old Zip’ the custodian could send another janitor, his underling, to hose it off.

Anyway, back to our nice conference in Monterey. That evening we went to an invitation only dinner for district textbook coordinators, which is what I was. The textbook companies didn’t ask if I were anything else, like a principal too. It just seemed reasonable to them that a textbook coordinator in a normal district would have a good deal of influence. But in my district, every principal held district wide duties as well as school leadership duties. This felt like a bit of a con, but I felt could handle the moral issue at stake here.

The dinner was held in a lovely dining room with a view of the ocean. Kathy and I were dressed up, she in a beautiful yet conservative dress and I in my standard blue blazer and grey slacks with regimental necktie. We were seated in the middle of all the tables so we had a good view of the speakers’ podium and projector screen for the inevitable power points that would accompany the sales presentation.

We had a couple of choices for dinner and each was fantastic. One was a delicious prawn dish with rice and grilled vegies. The other was prime rib with all the fixins’. I took the beef and Kathy chose the prawns.

But most noticeable were the two bottles of wine at the table, one red and one white. When the waiter arrived he pointed out that the wine, all the wine, was complimentary. We tried not to act stunned, nor too excited.

“Open them both,” I said in a not very sophisticated manner.

“Yes sir,” the waiter responded as he popped the corks and aired the bottles.

For us, this was fairly extravagant, even decadent excess. We categorized wine by the dichotomous variable of screw-cap vs. cork, and this cork wine was far above our normal level of parent-style, non-gourmet drinking. I checked the wine list on the table and the bottles these publishers were giving us listed for $32 and $34 respectively.

The waiter poured our first glasses so we could taste and discard the bottles if they didn’t meet our standards. After a millisecond, I decided my wine was just right. Kathy took a bit longer but also felt she could drink the wine the textbook companies were buying for us.

We enjoyed our meal tremendously. After a reasonable time when the tables had been served, the textbook sales people made a brief presentation about the value of teaching kids to read and the marvels of their reading series. Our salesperson came to our table and sat with us for about 10 minutes. He brought a bottle of wine with him and shared a bit about the ideas in the textbooks. Mainly, he asked questions about us, our schools, kids and lives. He was building a relationship of trust and collegiality, probably based on the possibility that I might become more influential in a bigger district at some future point in time.

The poor guy seemed a bit disappointed because he spent much more time at the tables representing much larger districts who naturally bought more text books. But he was gracious and continued to make his rounds at the tables where his clients ate and drank happily. Towards the end of the dinner and presentations, three of the sales people who were coordinating the dinner stood up to make a speech. They thanked us all for our dedication to children, for our wisdom as educators, for our insight and for our great intelligence at selecting their textbook series. (I didn’t know they thought I had already selected their series, which I hadn’t). The funny part was that after they had made rounds to many tables they were fairly tipsy. This made the speeches mildly incomprehensible. The three guys stood arms around each other’s shoulders, holding each other up as they gushed with thanks and appreciation.

“I shust know weee’re gonna tich all this kids to read (hic) like crazy…” said the first.

“You guys, provessssals, (hic) professionals, are shjust great…”said the second.

The third just smiled happily and waved at us.

At that we rose from our wonderful dinner and went back to our room. The next morning we drove home and were happy to see our kids and find out what had happened in their world while we were gone.

Back at school, the vomity flu was over and Monday morning was as normal and well run as could be. I was thrilled the next week to receive another invitation for Kathy and me to attend another important textbook adoption seminar over a three- day conference at an upscale spa in Napa. The pictures of the spa looked fantastic.

I brought this home to Kathy and we talked about what a great gig this textbook adoption coordinator was. I remembered some of my friends from college who undertook careers in banking and real estate, and also remembered how jealous I felt when they told stories of the extravagant luxuries they enjoyed during conferences. Now with the accountability movement gaining steam, we in Education were also going to become more business-like and also get to enjoy marvelous conference locations with our wives and friends.

Then it all fell apart. I read in the newspaper that the legislature had passed a law forbidding any kind of influence from textbook companies within the textbook selection process. This meant no more fancy dinners, no more wine, no more weekends on the rocky shores of Monterey looking at sunsets on the district’s dime.

I guess we didn’t qualify for the luxurious, rent-seeking part of the business world. It was the end of a great deal. Back to the real moral quandaries of life as a school principal like improving efficiency by training kids to “puke on the grass” instead of in the office.

Surprises in Thailand IV: Pushing other people’s cars around in the parking lot without asking

We pulled into a big shopping mall here in Chiangmai today on our way to the immigration office. We found a parking place quite quickly which was good, but then I saw something peculiar. Our parking place was a standard issue parallel parking job. But right behind our car was a horizontal parking spot fright behind our car. If someone took that, we could never back out.

Then a woman came near to where she was parked. She was small, but started pushing against a big pick up truck which was in her way. She pushed and pushed, and that big old truck moved because she was in neutral. In fact she pushed it behind our car so we could not get our car out unless that truck moved some more. Anyway, since her car was now unblocked, she hopped into her car and drove off. Very strange for this American—you never touch someone else’s car, much less push someone else’s car around, particularly when you they are not there. You also never park your car in neutral, and also put on your hand brake. Just standard protocol in my book!

Anyway off we went to the immigration office, and lunch. I remember hoping to myself that whoever owned the truck would have returned and moved it by the time we got back. And lo, when we got back the big truck was gone. But, in its place was a small sedan, and we weren’t going anywhere unless it was moved. So I furtively looked around and walked up to it. Gave it a push, and found out that it too was in neutral, and the handbrake not set. So if that little Thai woman could roll a big truck, I figured it was ok for me to push the sedan ten feet so that we could get our car out. So it is that we adapt to new cultural norms.

The next challenge will be if I can’t find a parking place. Will I also be willing to park it and neutral, and not set the handbrake so that a stranger can push it out of his way?

Something about doctors and nurses and why they do not like each other so much!

 

Want to know what doctors might think of nurses, and vice versa? And how this might effect the rights and privileges between each group? You have to read down to the middle of our article in a recent issue of Palgrave CommunicationsAre the terms ‘socio-economic status’ and ‘class status’ a warped form of reasoning for Max Weber?” Here is a brief hint from somewhere in the middle of the article.  Warning: you’ll have to read through some dense but (we hope) insightful prose about Max Weber’s sociology to get to the juicy part about doctors and nurses:

To maintain exclusivity, doctors and nurses cultivate different symbols, routines and rituals. Among these are different uniforms, badges and vocabulary that sustain stereotypes about relative competence—doctors are assumed (by doctors anyway) to be cerebral, wise and skilled, whereas nurses are assumed to be practical but perhaps a bit impulsive and certainly not as cerebral. Dominant doctors assume this relationship to be natural and a function of the rigourous training doctors undertake to gain entry into an ancient profession, even as some doctors become alcoholics and drug addicts as they age. And indeed when such things do happen, care is taken that the fellow doctor is protected from the broader legal system and dealt with internally by the Stand.

 

As for nurses, they might see doctors as impetuous prima donnas, careless and unaware of the very human needs of the patients. Nurses are often well aware of the doctors’ infirmities. They also see doctors as overpaid—and nurses secretly hope that one day their true honour will finally be recognized, and they will get a big raise. Such are the stereotypes of hospital-based anthropological purebreds that persist as beliefs about relative competence and incompetence.”

Our reasoning about this issue is embedded in what Weber called in German “Stand” (plural “Staende“) the most basic form of social stratification.  In fact it is especially more basic than social class.  Our article is really about the phenomenon of the , of which professions like doctors and nurses are a really good example.  Other good examples besides professions, include ethnic groups, clans, clubs, tribes, i.e. any group in which members recognize each other as having mutual rights and responsibilities, particularly in the marketplace.

Surprises in Thailand III: Karen Standard Time!

Last weekend, I visited a Karen refugee camp on the western border of Thailand with Myanmar. The invitation was for a graduation at the Kawthoolel Karen Baptist Bible College and Seminary (KKBBCS) in Mae La Refugee camp.   The Baptist Church is very important in Mae La Refugee camp, as well as in the larger Karen Community. Many of the Karen speakers in the world are Baptist Christians, an identity that has been important for 200 years, and is in contrast to the vast majority of people in mainland Southeast Asia who are Buddhist.

Mae La is currently the largest refugee camp in Thailand, located just inside Thailand across from the Karen State of Myanmar. The camp has been there since 1984, and today somewhere between 30,000-50,000 refugees who have fled from a long-going civil war (i.e. since 1948), which manifests itself as attacks by the Burmese military on civilian houses, and schools where the literacy is taught in the Karen language. One result is the refugee camp where these people live, as temporary guests of Thailand. Though if you known anything about the mathematics of human demography in this part of the world, it is obvious that most of the refugees have been born in the camp, and may have never seen Karen State itself. Still the emotional tie to Karen State is strong, which is why the graduation I was invited to was scheduled for “10:30 a.m., Karen Standard time.” Karen Standard time is 30 minutes earlier than the rest of Thailand, and on the same time as the Karen homeland which is just a few kilometers away.

The camp itself is something of “standard issue” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) style—I’ve seen similar camps in both Thailand (bamboo and grass) and Tanzania (grass and plastic). The refugee houses at Mae La are made of flattened bamboo, and roofed with leaves. Such material is subject to bugs, fungus, and fire, and normally does not last more than a few years without renewal. But this does not bother the Thai host government, or the UNHCR. After all, the policy is that the refugee camp will close “soon,” so why build permanently, even though there is much evidence that refugee situations (and camps) often last a decade or two, especially if international norms banning forcible deportation of refugees are followed.

There are gardens in the lowlands, but hardly enough land is farmed to grow food for such a large population. The few permanent buildings are for public services—medical facilities, schools, and on our trip today, the Theological Seminary. KKBBCS was actually started in Myanmar in the early 1980s, and moved to Mae La Refugee Camp only about 1990.

At first I thought the ceremony was beginning late—the idea of “Karen Standard Time” had not quite sunk in. But in fact it began a bit early, as the choirs began a very elaborate rendition of Handel’s “Alleluia Chorus” that caught the attention of the 1000 or so people who were both inside the building and outside, their voices filling the tin-roofed building where the ceremony was to take place.

Many of the traditions of graduation ceremonies were there. Because about 20% of the ceremony was in English (the rest was in Karen), I was able to piece together a bit of what was going on. There were the guest speakers—the principal and dean of the school gave their pep talks, there was the awarding of degrees, jokes told about some of the graduates (class clown, shy, etc.), prayers, and hymns (it was after all a seminary graduation!).

It was in this vein that the three valedictory speeches were given, two of which were in English. The women giving the speeches (all three were female) had plenty of kind words for the seminary, their classmates, and of course God. But then the other foot dropped because, after all, this seminary is in a refugee camp. It is the place that these women have lived for decades, but it is not their home. Home, after all is a concept that is in Karen State, across a border where their homes and schools were burnt by the army. It is a place which they have seen little of, but all dream of—a dream that is encouraged by the Thai government which wants them to leave as soon as possible, and of course by the refugees themselves who are acutely aware that they are socially among the least privileged people in the world. Restricted to island of a camp, where the way to insist on some type of identity is to declare “Karen Standard Time,” they were going to let the audience know that something was wrong. Which of course led to interesting applications of Baptist Theology.

In particular the Temptation of Christ was turned into a lecture to the Karen leaders in Myanmar who have been negotiating for a peace agreement in Karen State. Negotiations lead to a strange bedfellows—it is where enemies meet with people who burn down villages, and seek to find a way to work toward peace. But who will give away the most, and why?   The valedictorian speakers had an opinion. They thought that the Karen leaders were giving into the temptations proffered by duplicitous government negotiators—the temptations for personal material gain, even as the refugees of Mae La camp remained isolated, homeless, and poor. What did Jesus do when proffered such temptations by the devil? Who turned them down. But would the Karen leaders also turn them down, or would the Karen refugees be sold out yet again?

There was also a comment that it was not possible the refugees who by definition are victims, to “break bread” with enemies.

After the ceremony we had a great meal in one of the large dining rooms—we didn’t have bread, but there was some very tasty rice! I enjoyed this very much—the chance to mix a bit with the refugees, and celebrate their graduates. On the way out, we headed back through a chapel, and some who ended up walking upstream into a wedding party with a ring bearer, six flower girls, and a blushing bride and groom in formal Karen attire. The song being played live at the time? The Wedding March. Music is indeed a gift that the Karen people have, even in the heart of a refugee camp. Weddings are too. So is Karen Standard Time.