Why Does Anthropology Worry about Jared Diamond when they have Nigel Barley?

The Anthropology blogosphere (including Ethnography.com, SavageMinds.org, anthropologyreport.com and even National Public Radio) has recently lit up with critiques of Jared Diamond’s new book The World Until Yesterday.  Jared Diamonditis seems to be a regular affliction of anthropology, re-emerging every time that the esteemed Professor of Geography (and Physiology) publishes a new tome of big picture history.  The manner that Diamond does this is something that anthros really don’t seem to like.  This is because besides his own field of Geography, Diamond borrows data liberally from all four fields of anthropology to make big generalizations in a manner a cultural geographer, comparative historian, or field ecologist might. But oh yeah, Diamond is a geographer by departmental affiliation, and a field ecologist by training and predilection.

It also seems to bother anthros that Diamond also on occasion—though not always—wanders off the reservation and lets his political views seep into his analysis.  And since these political views don’t typically jibe with those of the anthros, particularly when it comes to oil companies, well you get the idea.  But then there is a counterpoint, someone finally ends up pointing out that since no anthro since Eric Wolf has done such big picture stuff in Europe and the People without History published way back in 1982, anthro has no right to complain.  And so it goes back and forth until the next big tome from Diamond comes out, and Jared Diamonditis flares up again.

Ok, that’s my two paragraphs for the current “controversy.”  In response, I want to write about an anthropologist—an ethnographer actually—who I think is greatly undervalued in anthropology, Nigel Barley.  Barley describes well what anthropologists do best in The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut published in 1984.  This is the book I point students to when they want to understand field work, ethnography, and cultural anthropology.  As a sociologist, this is one of the anthro books I truly admire, because it reflects well on my own field experiences in Tanzania.  Oddly, I find few anthropologists who have read it, much less heard of it.

The Innocent Anthropologist is a memorably written story of Nigel Barley’s experience doing fieldwork among the Dowayo in rural Cameroon in the early 1980s.  The strength of the book is that it includes the personal problems that emerge with the frustrations, boredom, tribulations, and mis-interpretations that inevitably emerge in the context of “doing ethnography.”  In this sense the book is much different than the dispassionate, theoretical, and methodologically rigorous ethnography typically assigned undergraduates.  In such ethnograpny in  the ethnographer somehow ends up erudite, insightful, and making references to Bourdieu and Baudrillard while drinking the local brew.  Nothing wrong with this, but let’s face it, it is not the sort of thing that a 19 year-old taking your Intro to Cultural Anthro course for General Education credit identifies with.

Barley also does a great job explaining the nuts and bolts of doing ethnography in a remote Cameroonian village.  There are empathetic descriptions of coming-of-age rituals, ancestor cults, gender relations, the agricultural cycle, and a well-written nod to Malinowski.  There are also empathetic passages describing boredom, cross-cultural frustrations, and hilarious language learning errors.  And what students will really remember is Barley’s explanation of how the mechanic at the dentist’s office removed his two front teeth.  Such an account would never make its way into a standard ethnography (sorry, no spoiler here–you need to get the book!). And of course such tales, which are really the center of the ethnographic experience are left out by the likes of the ever-dignified Professor Malinowski.

But the scene from Barley’s book I spend most of my time mulling about is at the very end, and has little to do with Africa, but everything to do with ethnography, culture, and the human condition.  Barley spent a year and a half in Cameroon being bored, sick, confused, and frustrated while ostensibly “doing ethnography.” Oddly though, after returning to England, he still wants to tell everyone he meets about this wonderful world he encountered in Cameroon—something that he quickly discovers no one really cares about.  Or worse, they treat him like a raving lunatic because he approaches everyday problems with a vigor and habitus appropriate to a Cameroonian village, rather than that of a staid tweed-jacketed English lecturer.

So Barley returns to England, where he finds out that life is—as it had always been, despite his field work in the Cameroon. People ask him how Cameroon was, complain about the English weather, and then launch off into conversations about the more mundane things of life, like what was on television the previous evening, or the doings of the local football team.  Most mundane is the friend who complains because Barley left a sweater at his apartment some two years ago—could he please pick it up some time?  Like, who cares about a sweater when you have been dealing with ancestor cults, goat farts (sorry no spoiler on that one either!), shamanistic ritual, and have lost your two front teeth!?!?

But this indeed is how the big adventures of life often end: In a question about a forgotten sweater.  This happens whether we are ethnographers, archaeologists, or any other kind of long-term traveler who becomes embedded in a new culture.  Certainly it happens to my undergraduate students who leave home for Chico State the first time, and then return to the parents at Thanksgiving or Christmas brimming with tales of college life, only to be told by their parents to be sure to eat enough lettuce and clean up their room.  Indeed such dissonance happens to anyone returning from a adventure in which they embed themselves in a culture different from their own.  And this indeed is the great ethnographic lesson Barley teaches my undergraduates.  What is more, it is a lesson every bit as big as what Jared Diamond makes with his massive tomes.

Oh, despite his frustrations, whining, and moaning, did I mention that Barley returned to the Cameroon a few months later?  He was indeed hooked on field work and the need to experience new cultures, as we hope our students will—after all the complaining and lost teeth, he was back in Cameroon as quickly as he could.

It has long mystified me that The Innocent Anthropologist is not a staple of Intro to Cultural Anthropology courses.  It is well written, funny, empathetic, theoretical, and easy to read.  And students are happy to read it—the whole thing.  Most importantly, it is a fantastic introduction to what ethnographers do, why they do it, and what an anthropological viewpoint has to say about not just a small place in Cameroon, but the human condition.  I have used this book in my undergraduate social science classes a number of times, and it has always worked well to get students dreaming about the possibilities of culture and travel—i.e. the things that I would expect a good Intro to Cultural Anthropology course to do.  And the neat thing is that it can do it by celebrating what anthropology does best—while leaving poor irrelevant Jared Diamond out of the story.

“Could be Worse!” Adventures in Maximum Security Prisons

     This essay begins in February 2009, and picks up again in November 2011.  In both months I had a chance to meet and talk with prisoners in California who had been sent to prison on a sentence of “Life without parole,” or LWOPed in the acronym-plagued prison system.  LWOP is the most severe penalty for murderers in California, exceeded only by the rarely used death penalty.  It is a form of degradation California reserves for people who are convicted of particularly venial types of murder.

     I do not of course meet such people very often in my daily life at Chico State where I teach Sociology.  But from 2008-2010 I was involved in a study of vocational education programs in California’s prisons which was funded by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.  There I met my first prisoner on a LWOP sentence in the unusual circumstances described below.  Then last month, I took my criminology class to Chowchilla Women’s prison for a standard tour where I met my second LWOPed inmate.  So that’s the context for these stories which are not only about punishment, but about the human spirit, and particularly optimism in the face of degradation and humiliation.

Could Be Worse!

I was taken inside the Administrative Segregation Unit at a California State Prison in the middle of the desert in February 2009.  The prison is one of thirty three in California, but the only one located below sea level.  We went there to observe vocational education classes, but when we arrived we found out that the prison was on lock-down due to gang activity.  So after talking to the voc ed teachers, we looked for something else to do.  Our hosts offered us a tour of the “Administration Segregation” unit—the jail within the prison, known in prison jargon as solitary, or “the hole.”  After dressing us in the stab-proof vests that all non-prisoners in Ad Seg wear, we were brought into the building where inmates are confined.

“Ad Seg” is the place where inmates from the maximum security level 4 yard are taken for punishment.  To get there, you have to assault a guard, seriously assault another prisoner, be caught with a lot of drugs, be a nasty gang leader, or have been a real problem.  The Ad Seg Unit at this prison had 200 beds.  Inmates are bunked two to a cell, and permitted outside for only ten hours per week.  When outside the cell, prisoners wear handcuffs, and are shackled at the waist.  The handcuffs are removed only when they are in the cell, or in the outdoors exercise cage. If they must wait in the hallway for a lawyer appointment, medical appointment, or so forth, they are locked standing in 3’ by 3’ by 7’ cages.

Meals are prepared by the officers, and eaten either in a hallway, or inside the locked cells.  Indeed, this is what makes Ad Seg so expensive.  Tasks normally undertaken by prisoners themselves for 8-19 cents per hour, such as cooking, cleaning, and so forth.  In Ad Seg, professional prison officers do all this.

The cells are perhaps 10’ x 8’ and have two bunks, a sink, and a toilet.  The two bunks are concrete, with a 3”-4” thick mattress.  Inmates are housed by race.  Showering is down the hall and is twice per week.  They shower one at a time.

Inmates brought into Ad Seg are isolated for their first three bowel movements in a special cell.  This is done so they cannot smuggle drugs, weapons, or other contraband by swallowing them.  They are then assigned to a cell.  To be removed from the cell, they put their hands through a window for cuffing, and are always accompanied by a guard when outside.  They are moved around their area in their underwear.  If they are being let out for their hours of exercise, the cuffs are removed after they are in a cage, which actually looks like a dog run.

The ten hours exercise per week are in an outdoor exercise cage of about 15 by 30 feet.  The cage is open to sun for half of its area, and shaded on the back half.  The cement on the ground is well-polished since it seems that one form of exercise that the inmates really like is polishing the concrete with a wet rag.

 

When we came into the exercise cage area, there were three inmates in two adjacent cages, which is really the focus of this essay.  Two in their late twenties shared one exercise cages—they were also cellmates.  Another younger inmate was in the adjacent cage.  All looked white, though I guess they could have been Hispanic. We started to talk to one of the inmates who was in the cage with his cellee (cellmate).  He had a 37 year to life sentence, and was really interested in our study of vocational education because he believes that the parole board requires a lot of classes and a BA degree before they will authorize his release.  He had a Mohawk haircut, and a pierced nipple.  (I wanted to point out to him that a better strategy than a B might be to avoid doing things that get you sent to Ad Seg, but let it go.)

Gradually I drifted over to the inmate in the adjacent cage.  He was small, dressed in a t-shirt and boxer shorts, and had bandages on his knees.  He had a small goatee, and was missing his two front teeth.  At first he was hesitant to talk to me, but warmed up after pleasantries.  His favorite phrase seemed to be “Could be worse!” which he actually said with a smile and some cheer.  As in “How are you?” Answer: “Could be worse!”

I asked him how old he was—he was 21.  He said that he had been locked up for three years, after being arrested at age 18.  He spent three years in the Los Angeles County Jail until being sent to this prison the previous November.  And already he had done something to get himself put in Ad Seg.  He told me that he was from Los Angeles, and from a particular neighborhood, but only from south of some particular street.  Indeed, he noted, the first time he ever went north of that street was when he was arrested and taken to LA County Jail.  He told me he like to read vampire novels.

I asked him how long his sentence was.  He responded, “Life without parole!” I think he noticed the surprised look on my face.  There are only about 3000 prisoners in California with such a long sentence, and he was still smiling when telling me.  His response to my surprised look was his trademark “Could be worse!”  This surprised me again.  How, I thought, could it be worse?  This 21 year old, was three years into a sentence which would last probably fifty or sixty years.  He had killed someone in a particularly venial fashion in order to get the sentence in the first place.  Then he had done something really bad in prison to get himself arrested again, and put into administrative segregation.  He was 21 years old and had the next-to-worst-sentence California offers, on a good day he would be in a maximum security level four prison in some desert. On that good day he would be pressured to be part of prison gangs, maybe work in the prison kitchen, do dishes, and clean the floor with a mop that has a handle.  And unless he was transferred to another prison on a bus in daylight, he would likely never even see a tree for the entire time. On a bad day, he would be arrested, and be stuck in another cell in administrative segregation where someone would be counting his bowel movements. To this Ph.D. it was obvious that things could not get much worse.

Ok, I didn’t tell him all that, but I did manage to stutter out, “but how could it be worse?  You are in on a Life without Parole sentence, and in here, in a cage!”

But he thought the answer was obvious.  What could be worse than this?  “Hey, I don’t have the death penalty!”
Uh, yeah, good point, I guess.  And I am the one with the Ph.D.?

 

The next question I asked him was about his legs.  They were covered with red burn scars from the feet up to the bottom of his boxers.  He told me that the burns occurred in an auto accident in which his legs were burned by gasoline after which he was arrested (apparently he was fleeing the police).  He was proud that he had recently had surgery to permit him to walk again—grafts had been taken from his stomach (he showed me the patches from which the skin had been taken), and put onto the back of his knees so that he could straighten out his legs again.  He was actually quite pleased with this condition. “After all,” he said, “Could be worse!”

I have spent some time on the internet trying to figure out who Mr. Could-be-Worse is.  I Googled around, but could not find any murderers who met his description: Murder in 2006, three years in LA County Jail, conviction in November 2008, born about 1988, and severely burned upon arrest following a police chase.  I couldn’t find him in any of the newspapers.

Which brings up a final point about prison, which is that things never are as they seem, and manipulation and deception are normal and routine.  Officers and prisoners are agreed on this.  So what do I really know about this guy?  He was locked in a dog kennel in one of California’s maximum security prison, was severely burned, small, and young.  The rest I have only his word—

 

We Need the Death Penalty for the truly Evil—I’ve Seen Absolute Evil—Some People Indeed are Worse!

Which brings me up to the present day (November 2011).  I took my criminology class on a prison-tour three weeks ago, and met my second LWOP prisoner, this time at Chowchilla Prison for women.  At the end of the tour, we asked the Lieutenant if we could talk to inmates.  He brought out two women who were part of the leadership liaison for the prisoners and administration.  As it turned out, both women had life sentences.  One had been in prison since 1994 and had a plain old life sentence.  She later told us that she was 42 years old.  The other woman, who appeared older (perhaps she was 50) was down for a sentence of “Life Without Parole.”

Unlike the 21 year-old LWOPed prisoner in the desert, though, this inmate was a respected part of the prison leadership.  Indeed, as our tour guide indicated, he really liked working with such inmates because they are among the more stable in the prison.  Lifers are less likely to cause trouble for the prison officers, and can even control the more volatile younger prisoners.  After all, as another prison officer once pointed out to me, the lifers are there for good, and regard it as their home.  They do not want their home defiled by the antics of young hooligans.

Anyway, one of the Chico State students asked the two women a classic question about whether criminals are “born” or made that way by society.  This is when we got a rather strange response from the LWOPed woman.  She responded that she believed in the death penalty, because there are some people so evil that they are irredeemable.  She went on to add that she had seen true evil at Chowchilla (which also houses the “condemned row” in California for 19 women awaiting execution).  This, I mused, was an unusual way to answer such a question from someone who had missed the death penalty herself by not very far.

But, I suspect as with Mr. Could-Be-Worse, this is ultimately a relative statement.  Status, and ultimately a sense of self-identity is established relative to whoever you can plausibly compare yourself with.  In essence, for the LWOPed inmates I met, the death penalty provides reassurance that there is something worse than themselves.  This is a very human reaction, I suspect—all of us at some level are comparing ourselves to those around us and concluding that we ourselves are at least a little better than the others.  I guess to go on with life we need to believe that things could be worse, even when we are in the “hole” of one of California’s prisons.

 

 

 

Love, Duty, and Marriage in a Classic Thai Novel

In summer 2011, I had the pleasure of co-teaching a Sociology/English class for American students in Thailand.  One of the real pleasures was using novels to illustrate sociological principles.  It was kind of like profession (sociology) meets hobby (reading novels).  I hope that the students liked it—I certainly did, and this blog is about what was my favorite Thai novel of the summer, Behind the Painting.  It proved to be ideal for discussing a wide range of subjects stretching across both sociology and literature, particularly the meaning of duty and love in structuring Thai and American society.

Behind the Painting by Siburapha is a classic Thai romance novel used to teach literature in Thai high schools.  The first half of the book was published in 1937-1938 as a serial in the newspaper Prachachat, and the entire book later in 1938.  The English translation by David Smyth was completed in 1995, and published by Silkworm books in 2000.  The story drips with references to the Thai aristocracy; indeed, the lead female character in the story, as well as her husband, are always referred to by their aristocratic titles in Smyth’s translation.

Set in the 1930s Japan, Behind the Painting is about a young Thai student Napporn and his relationship one summer with the newly-wed wife of a family friend.  Napporn at the time the main story is set has been in Japan already for three years, seeking entrance to the upper class status that a foreign university education provides ambitious Thai.  As with all well-born Thai, Napporn and his father consider such study abroad as a means to pull their impoverished country into modernity, and an entrance to the Thai ruling class.  Still, Napporn’s father knew that there was risk to such a trip; in preparing Napporn for his long trip abroad—it will last eight years—so Napporn was betrothed to a woman chosen by his father, to preclude Napporn seeking out a Japanese wife.  Completing the setting for the novel, are two visitors from Thailand who arrive in the summer of Napporn’s third year in Japan.  They are a widower with the title Chao Khun Atikanbodi (roughly Lord University Dean), who Napporn knew previously in Thailand, and his new wife Mom Rachawong Kirati (roughly “Lady Kirati”).  They are in Japan to spend the summer and become better acquainted following their marriage.  At 22, the commoner Napporn is a youthful host for the 35 year old Kirati, and the 50 year old Khun Chao.

Both Khun Chao and Mom Rachawong Karati are educated members of the Thai aristocracy, and are quickly swept into the swirl of social events in pre-World War II Japan.  What this means for Chao Khun is activities among his peers at men’s clubs, embassies, and the world of Thai and Japanese elite.  For his well-educated wife Mom Rachawong Kirati, it means pursuing her aristocratic passion for painting, and frequently being left in the company of the young student courtier, Napporn.  The two of them share an enthusiasm for the world of art, literature, public parks, nature, and intellectual life.  It is in this context that despite the differences in marital status and age, and even social status, the two find each other to be kindred spirits.  In wide-ranging discussions, they explore the beauty of the Japanese country-side and architecture.  More dangerously, the explore definitions of duty, loyalty, marriage, and love.  In the process of these dialogues, a picture of the elegant Mom Rachawong Kirati’s life as the idealized woman of the Thai nobility emerges.  This creates an increasingly personal dilemma for the now lovelorn Napporn who wrestles with the implications of being in love with a married woman, while he himself is engaged to his father’s choice.  In contrast, Mom Ratchawong Kirati, the question about the ideal of the loyalty to duty and class, or one rooted in the longing for the union between love and marriage is never in doubt.  Painfully for her the answer is clear: duty comes first.

How Mom Rachawong Kirati and Napporn both reach this conclusion is the heart of the book, as the tension between romantic love, marriage, and duty to class and family is explored.  In developing this point, there is actually much to be demonstrated for the western student who reflexively assumes that love and marriage are inextricably tied together, and trump broader loyalties to family and class.  They do not, as Mom Ratchawong Kirati, and even Napporn, demonstrate with their own arranged marriages.  Behind the Painting makes the point well that marriage is about duty, and preservation of society as much as love.  Love comes first only for the most fortunate—and the most craven.

 

Mom Rachawong Kiratis’s Marriage

Mom Ratchawong Kirati was one of three daughters raised by a father who was a royal administrator during the days of absolute rule in Siam.  Aristocratic girls in that day were raised in a protected environment, with the expectation that they would find a suitably aristocratic husband, who would both enhance the status of their family and hopefully also be a love match for the daughter.  It was a cloistered world, or as Mom Ratchawong Kirati describes the situation:

Before the change of government [in 1932], the aristocracy lived in a world of its own….When I finished school my father drew me into that world with him and forbade me to associate with people beyond it….I continued my studies with an elderly foreign governess…you may imagine the sort of conversation to which I was exposed…The virtues of a lady… the proper conduct of a household.  I had McCall’s and Vogue magazines to read, from which I learned to preserve my beauty and care for it well…something like caring for a hydrangea in a vase…We are born to decorate the world and to pander to it.  I do not say this is our only responsibility, but you cannot deny its importance.  Pp. 123-125

But Mom Rachawong Kirati’s success as a “hydrangea in a vase” was bittersweet; her cultivated beauty attracted wide notice, but no eligible man stepped forward to ask her father for her hand.  Thus, despite younger sisters finding husbands who both loved them, and met the approval of the families, she remained in her father’s household virtuous, lonely, and unloved.  Finally, at age 34, her father suggests that she marry his good friend Khun Chao who was recently widowed, even though he was almost 50 years old.  As she notes Khun Chao was a good man, but regretfully not one whom she can love; any hope that she can have anything but a dutiful but loveless marriage is sacrificed to the expedience he provides.  So she dutifully enters into matrimony, and the two embark on the trip to Japan where she meets Napporn.

Oddly the age difference between the 35 year old Kirati and 22 year old Napporn is similar to that between that of Kirati and her husband.  Nevertheless, the relationship becomes very different.  It is through the words of Napporn that we learn how he falls deeply in love with Mom Ratchawong Kirati, while knowing full-well that her duties are first to her husband, and his own to his family and his fiancé in Thailand.  This is the context as the friendship between the two blossoms. She confesses to him that she is in a marriage that is unlikely to develop a true love due to the difference in age; she even confesses that Napporn is her best friend.  And in the process Napporn becomes infatuated with her, and in a private space at the park at Mitake, he steals a passionate embrace and kiss from the older woman, while confessing his love to her. He pleads with her that she reciprocate his love, but she avoids the question.  Mom Ratchawong Kirati, despite Napporn’s entreaties, refuses to confess that she too loves the forbidden Napporn and entreats him to look at her as an older sister.

 

The Healing Effects of Time and Duty

Behind the Painting is particularly effective in expressing the heartbreak of such youthful love on Napporn, a conviction quickly described by in a dialog between the two (p. 132):

Kirati: “….I shall consider you a friend for life”

Napporn protests “But I shall gone on loving you, all of my life.”

Kirati: That is your choice, of course; but in time, you will renounce that right, and you will do it of our own accord.

Napporn: I know otherwise

Kirati: The very young have such faith in themselves; I congratulate you on that enviable faith, Napporn.

 

Within days of her departure, Napporn writes Mom Rachawong Kirati two long love letters, which she receives after her return to Bangkok.  In her response Mom Rachawong Kirati again protests that there relationship be that of an older sister and younger brother, a common and appropriate relationship in Thai society.  And her protestations are successful—Napporn’s letters from Japan to Thailand become less frequent, and eventually are only sent at the rate of about three per year. Napporn’s love does indeed wane, as indeed Mom Ratchawong Kirati predicted.  This slow-down even continues after the death Chao Khun two years later, an event that leads the widowed Mom Rachawong Kirati to withdraw from society, and become a recluse in an aristocratic Bangkok neighborhood.

But to his surprise, and despite Napporn’s loss of interest, Mom Ratchawong Kirati is among the small group greeting Napporn at the quay upon his return from Japan at age 28, as indeed is his father, and a strange woman he doesn’t even recognize as his long-waiting fiancé.  Thus, the relationship between Napporn and Mom Ratchawong Kirati is re-established as she wished as that between an older sister and younger brother; for Napporn at least, the infatuation of his youth died as indeed she predicted it would.  His father’s arrangement for Napporn’s wedding proceeds, and Mom Ratchawong Kirati is invited; it is only at the last minute that she cannot attend due to ill-health.

Thus as a married man, Napporn strives to create a loving relationship with his new wife.  But then unexpectedly, Mom Ratchawong Kirati calls her old friend Napporn to her bed where she presents him with a painting—of that glen in Mitake where he so passionately kissed her.  Near death she mysteriously explains: “Your love was born there and it died there, but loves thrives in another body—one that is ruined and soon will be no more.”  And indeed, Napporn was called to her deathbed seven days later where, unable to speak, she scrawls on a piece of paper tragic words that are central to Thai romantic literature “Though I die with no one to love me, still my heart is full…for I die loving someone.”

 

Love, Marriage, and Duty in Behind the Painting

Mom Ratchawong Kirati’s story is a well-known in Thai literature, Thai film, and is required reading in schools.  It is important because indeed, Thai society often wrestles with the tension between familial duty, and matters of the heart.  In describing this tension, it is apparent that the conservative nature of Thai society is not simply the result of pseudo-Victorian sensibilities that the Thai aristocracy brought back from Europe (or Japan).

An alternative interpretation is that such literature is also about the virtue found in denial of self, and duty to a broader social honor.  Notably such themes are central to the doctrines of Theravada Buddhism which then, as now, permeate Thai society.

Thus, as much as being about love lost, Behind the Painting is also about duty fulfilled—albeit at a steep cost in terms of the immediate happiness of Napporn and Mom Rachawong Kirati.  Or as Mom Ratchawong Kirati beseeches Napporn “Napporn, I beg you to believe that you must confront reality and only reality; let it be your judge and your guide in life.  Idealism is far more attractive—but believe me, it is of little worth in practice.”  Napporn’s response is not that of the scorned, but of one who believes in the wisdom of such self-denial.  Napporn responds in a fashion which seems, ironically quite modern in the context of the changed status of women, and not as a scorned lover: “I realized that I was looking into the eyes of a woman so intelligent and so wise that I could not begin to follow her.  Such a woman should have been a great figure in history, not merely Khunying Kirati.”

 

Reference

Siburapha (1938/2000).  Behind the Painting, and Other Stories, translated from the Thai and introduced by David Smyth. Silkworm Books: Chiangmai.

 

 

 

Which Thumb is on Top? Questions about Culture from a Mlabri Village in Thailand

Explaining why people do things, even when it doesn’t seem reasonable to an American undergraduate is what I do for a living.  I’ve explained why people don’t agree with their political views, the persistence of “irrational habits,” why most people don’t want to move to America, why poverty persists in a world of abundance, and a whole bunch of things that the many undergraduates do not want to believe.  And after I’m done they undergraduates still don’t generally understand how people could have such persistent beliefs and practices which to them are just not logical.

I’m always looking for ways to explain to the American undergraduates why people are different, or just not “logical” by American standards.  And I found a new way to do this in a village of Mlabri people here in Thailand where I took eight American undgraduates last weekend, where an American missionaries Bunyuen Suksanae and his wife Wassana have been working for the last 30 years.  For anthropologists, the Mlabri are particularly interesting because until recently a big part of their economy was in hunting and gathering.  Indeed until the early 1980s about the time Bunyuen and Wassana first made contact with them, the Mlabri had an economy which included hunting, gathering, and laboring for local farmers in exchange for clothing.  They moved frequently, as hunter gatherers do, and were often victimized by the more powerful horticultural people in the area.

Since the early 1980s, the Mlabri have “settled” into four settlements in Nan and Phrae Provinces of Thailand; in one of these the Suksanae’s live with the Mlabri.  By settling down, the Mlabri moved into concrete block houses, gained access to health care, sent their children to school, and begun to participate in the local economy.  Still, though, the Mlabri retain many of the cultural characteristics associated with hunters and gatherers.  They are skilled in the ways of the forest, and will often spend time in the remaining forest seeking food.  They also remain in exploitative relationships with local farmers, even though land is now available to them for farming.

Last week when we visited the Mlabri Village with eight American undergraduates, the question inevitably came from the students, who asked Bunyuen: “Why don’t the Mlabri simply adopt the ways of the neighboring groups, and take up farming, sending their children to school, and so forth?” Bunyuen had pointed out that the Mlabri did things like abandoning fields due to fears of spirits, were unwilling to challenge non-payment by “employers,” reluctant to accept (and plant) readily available agricultural land, and disappear from the village at any sign of conflict.  Bunyuen pointed out that such practices are normal for a group which had recently lived in the forest.

In response Bunyuen asked the students to quickly clasp their hands together, an action they undertake many times every day.  Then he asked them which thumb was on top.  Of the six of us who were sitting there, four of us had the thumb from the right hand on top, and two of us had the thumb from the left hand.  Then Bunyuen said, “quick now pull apart your hands, and clasp them quickly together while putting the other thumb on top!”  In doing this, our hands quickly got tangled up in new ways.  “Now,” he said, you know why it is so hard for the Mlabri to change many habits, even when it would be advantageous (at least from an American undergraduate perspective) to doso.

For readers with a more social theoretical background, Bunyuen was describing what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “habitus”.  Habitus are the various dispositions of perception, thought, interaction, and values we as individuals develop in response to the practical conditions we encounter as we are mature.  Such habitus often have an unthinking automaticity to them, just like when we automatically put a particular thumb on top when folding our hands together.  The Mlabri have such habitus too, developed in the context of their decades or centuries of hunting andgathering.  Much of this habitus is different from what my American undergraduates habitually assume to be “rational”.  But isn’t such automaticity normal?  Remember how difficult it was to put the opposite thumb on the top?

 

Changing Thailand, Not Changing Thailand: Of Water Buffalo, Work Elephants, and Cultural Persistence

Karen Connelly was a Rotary Exchange student in Phrae Province, northern Thailand, in 1986-1987 as a 16 and 17 year old. She published an enchanting memoir about her experiences in Phrae Province Dream of a Thosuand Lives: A Sojourn in Thailand in 1993, a book that won the coveted Governor General’s prize for Canadian Literature.  I can indeed understand well why the book won the prize.  Her descriptions of Phrae bring alive the world of northern Thailand in the 1980s.  She describes well work elephants, water buffaloes, rice fields, the unusual food she ate (chicken feet!), and the beautiful Buddhist temples. Accordingly, I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in Thailand, living abroad, exchange students, or culture shock.

But most effective are Connelly’s descriptions of her relationships with the Thai people she met: her host mother, Rotary Club “fathers,” teachers, friends, and others she met during the year.  In her description, Connelly relates well the difficulties in learning the Thai language, and adapting to the culture of Thailand.  Her capacity to do this in my view is outstanding—and I have special knowledge of this too, because I also lived in Phrae in the early 1980s.  In my case I was a 22-24 year old Peace Corps Volunteer.

Admittedly, when I lived in Phrae, I was different: a little older, and of course male.  Nevertheless, Connelly’s description of life in Phrae, and especially the playful relationships she established with the people of Phrae resonated deeply with me.  So did her frustrations with being a young expatriate in a sea of Thais, as she struggled to learn a difficult language, while dealing with the many stereotypes Thai had about farang, Canada, and the rest of the world.  We also shared a need to separate ourselves from the enthusiastic sociality of Thai society and bury ourselves in books, writing, walks, daydreaming in order to satisfy the western need for a solitude which was inevitably interrupted by Thais concerned that we were “lonely.”

I do though take exception to one point that Connelly makes in an introduction to the book she wrote for the American edition in 2001.  She claims that the world she observed in Thailand in 1986-1987 is now in the past, irretrievably so.  In large part this is because indeed, the charismatic elephants, water buffalo, and rural lifestyles that so enchanted her are disappearing from Thailand. I returned to Thailand in 2010 and 2011, and can agree that this is indeed the case.  There are indeed no more water buffalo in the fields—they have been replaced by various kinds of diesel-powered tractors. (Thai farmers have let me know that the “metal bufallos” are a lot easier to take care of then the real thing, less ornery, and can plow longer without rest and a wallow).  Really all that remains of the enchanting parts Connelly described during her Rotary year are the Buddhist Temples, and the ubiquitous monks in their orange robes. The charismatic elephants are around, but mainly for tourists to whom under-employed mahouts sell rides; no longer are random work elephants found walking down the road, as they were in the 1980s.

But in my eye, the really important things about northern Thailand have not changed as much as she claims.  Especially, the very human elements that Connelly describes so well are still evident.  There is still a playfulness in the relationships between people that is uniquely Thai.  There is also an open curiousness about the rest of the world couched in many of the same stereotypes Connelly and I dealt with in the 1980s.  The Thai are also just as quick to laugh, and have fun.  I suspect that they are just as quick to worry about expatriates who enjoy the solitude of a walk, or time alone with a notebook writing letters and diaries, too.