More about Erving Goffman and my German Language Problems

As I wrote before I am living in Germany and learning German.  On Tuesday and Thursday mornings I spend 2.5 hours with ten strangers from all over the world. We have little in common except that we are foreigners living in Germany struggling to integrate. Our conversations with each other are in German, and inevitably about such topics as why it is so difficult to remember how to get the right ending on a comparative adjective (is it –e, -en, -er, -em, -es, etc.?). Not really the stuff that great friendships are made of; particularly when you do not share fluency in a common language. But nevertheless, Cordula our teacher assures us that this is all necessary for our life in Germany. So grumpy or not we all push along, collectively sharing an unspoken dream of proving Germans wrong about the idea that multiple adjectival endings are important to anyone’s life.

All of us have tried to explain to Cordula at some point why German does not make sense. She just smiles nicely, and notes that “it’s irregular,” which is the language teacher’s way of saying “it is logicval only when I say it is logical, otherwise it is illogical.” And so we are stumped since after all, how can you ever say that my language is “more logical” than German unless you get the proper ending onto the adjective (something along the lines of “my language is more logikalerere than German because the der-die-das komparativ so much easier is”). You don’t have to believe me on this issue, of course. Mark Twain wrote “The Awful German Language”
after killing two or three German teachers—they died of heart failure—in the 1880s during his attempts to master German grammar. Fortunately, Cordula, has both a better sense of humor and stronger heart than Twain’s teachers, is still alive, but more about her below.

But this blog is not about the nature of German language, but about my classmates who are what sociologist Erving Goffman called my “own” because we share the stigma of being linguistically impaired in Friedrichshafen. There are ten of us, and except with the young English-speaking Kenyan woman who works at a local nursing home, my conversations with the others are in German. We all speak enough to know something about each other. There are two music teachers (one from Russia and one Kazakhstan) both married to German men. There are two from Belarus in the class, one a computer engineer at a local company, and the other a language student. Two Italians work at local restaurants, and Daniel from France who recently retired here. The most fluent German speaker is a Hungarian-speaker from Romania who we all secretly admire greatly. In short, we have little in common, except that we ended up in Friedrichshafen somehow, we are all foreigners, we share a classroom twice a week, and believe in Cordula’s capacity to transform our German verb forms.

And yet we also share that unspoken and special bond described by Goffman in his book Stigma. We are each others’ “own” with respect to the vast numbers of Germans around us who are the “normals.” Some of the best classroom conversations have been about how the normal Germans do things to us which are odd to us. Among the things we notice are that Germans are insurance-crazy, carry little reflective triangles in their cars (in case their car breaks down, and their warning blinkers don’t work), and do not like hugging as much as Italians, Russians, and French. We have all compared notes about German immigration law as a result of time spent securing permits in the local immigration office.

We have also endured at some level an attitude that foreigners should just get with it and learn German—integration is the key (gee thanks for the advice Mr. Normal German—when was the last time you tried to memorize and use 48 Kazakh articles?). As with normals everywhere, they do not easily understand what it is like to be on the outside looking in. Believe me, we all want to “integrate” and achieve linguistic anonymity–were it only so easy! So integration from a normal is the last thing any of us wants to hear after hours spent wrestling with the weird German vowels like Ö Ä Ü, unpronounceable even to Mötley Krüe, or worse yet distinguishing between the sound of a sharp s (ß) and a double ss.

And so we help each other out in class with whispered answers when we are stuck, awkwardly trade news about planned vacations and family, and have a special bond when we encounter each other in the city. Daniel especially, has become helpful in slipping us all study guides, and one of the Italians picked up the tab for me and my family when we were at his restaurant. Cordula of course is our shared hero—she is what Goffman called one of the “wise.” She is a “normal” German, but as a result of years teaching German, she instinctively understands and sympathizes with our tribulations. She points out my “typical English mistakes,” and I can even laugh when she does this. She also knows more about the rapidly changing German immigration laws than do most Germans—a wisdom she gained through years of interacting with foreign German learners.

Among Cordula’s more appreciated tales are about the strong local dialect known as Swabian German. Somehow it takes the edge off of things, realizing that all those “normal” Swabians also use the “wrong” article with the word for “butter” routinely, and butcher any word having a st consonant combination. Those of us imagining ourselves at the bottom of Friedrichshafen’s linguistic heap enjoy the chance to snicker at the problems of our presumed tormentors!

 

Originally posted December 18, 2007 at Ethnography.com

Initiating Conversations with a Spoiled Identity: The dissonance of language use and race in Germany and Thailand

I taught Erving Goffman’s book Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity in Germany last month. One of the things that came up was how students are culturally and linguistically German (i.e. German is their first language) but racially “different” manage their identity as a non-white. In other words, they deal with the dissonance between a linguistic and cultural identity, in the context of racial beliefs about what it means to be German.  They do this in the many conversations initiated with strangers. In Goffman’s description, such a person who does not meet cultural expectations has a “spoiled” identity which is “discredited” because they cannot avoid presenting it. In this case, the expectation is that a German speaker has white skin—conditions my German students could not exercise in a Germany which has received waves of immigration since 1989..

As a management strategy, both students admitted to generally intiating conversations with a German accented “hallo” to signal that their preferred language is German. This signal helps push the dissonance away from fears of potential conversation partners that they will need to deal with a non-German speaker.

Now that I’m in Thailand, I find myself using the same trick—going up to a cashier, waiter, or other stranger who might be terrified because they think an embarrassing linguistic situation  (i.e. English) is approaching, To manage the situation, I assert a very confident “sawasdee krub” to signal that I speak Thai despite my discredited identity as a white, and that they do not need to speak English with me. In other words, I am also managing an identity that is “spoiled” relative to the vast majority of people who are Asian looking.  The identity I have with Thai strangers is assumed to be English speaking tourist. As with my students in Germany, this habit of initiating conversations is a sub-conscious pattern which I developed after 3-4 years in Thailand. But indeed, this is a way of stigma management when the dissonance of race and language preference do not match.

In contrast, when speaking German, I avoid initiating conversation, because there is a way to hide behind my race. As long as I keep quiet, and use signals in everyday transaction, I can get by quite well in a German environment, and never raise the anxiety levels of cashiers, wait staff, or others that I come in contact with. My stigma is only, in Goffman’s words, discreditable, not discredited, as it is for my students in Germany, and me in Thailand.

Reference

Goffman, Erving (1963/1986) Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity. Touchstone Books.

Ethnography as a Contact Sport: the Mla Bri and the Long Family of Phrae, Thailand

Ethnographers and a Lack of Common Sense

How many ethnographers are crazy? This question came up for me in a Facebook post recently by Gene Long, a missionary/linguist/ethnographer who has lived with the Mla Bri (Yellow Leaf) hunter-gatherers of Thailand since 1981. In other words, he and his wife Mary Long have 34 years of participant observation data about people who have the rare habit of hunting and gathering for subsistence—an anthropological rarity.

Today the Mla Bri are somewhere between hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, and charismatic Thai television stars. Anyway, using their training in linguistics, Gene and Mary developed a sophisticated understanding of the nature of the Mla Bri language and culture. This is of course not unprecedented in anthropology—it is something like the anthropologically charismatic Ju/’Hoansi in Namibia—but more about that at the end of this blog. In the meantime, if you want to know more about the specifics of the high quality ethnography Gene and Mary Long can do, please see this 2013 article about Suicide and the Mla Bri published in the Journal of the Siam Society. Or of course there is a Wikipedia article, too.

Of all the ethnographers I know, I’ve known Gene and Mary the longest. I first met them in Phrae when I was in the Peace Corps in 1980-1982. I visited Gene and Mary recently (in August and July 2015), so of course we reminsiced, as old friends will. Somewhere in between this, Gene posted on Facebook, introducing my wife and I to his many Thai and American Facebook friends. He pointed out that when we first met in 1981, he thought I was “weird,” and that I thought he was “nuts.” I disagreed on Facebook—I might be weird, but Gene was not just “nuts,” he was crazy because of the goals he set for himself, his family, and his mission in 1981. In 1981 he told me that he would spend at least 30 years looking for a group that everyone else in Phrae said did not exist, live with them even though they were wanderers and had no permanent house (and did not exist), learn their unknown language (if there was one), and begin translating Christian scripture into that potentially non-existent language. He also said he had people in America who would pay for the whole venture. If that is not delusional in a rational world, I don’t know what is.

But thinking about it more, I think that this crazy irrational quality is something that Gene shares with ethnographer-types. Think about the physicist Franz Boas who sailed off to Baffin Island to study geography, but ended up asking the Inuit about colors in a world where everything was covered with snow. Or Bronislaw Malinowski who offered to spend his World War I internment on the Trobriand Islands where he became grouchy, grumpy, lustful, and ethnocentric, and wove tales about travelling kula armbands which even today first year anthropology students must read about. Nigel Barley, a patron saint of this blog, was also crazy—after all he had his teeth removed by a mechanic in Cameroon (see his book The Innocent Anthropologist), and more recently ethnographer Alice Goffman hung out with probationers and criminals for six years in Philadelphia in a world which was mostly boring, but in which illegal drugs were sold, running from the police was a sport, and most of her friends/informants were armed. From her ethnography On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City it also sounds like she spent much of the six years visiting people in jails and other lockups. Such behavior is not just “nuts,” but more accurately described in the vernacular as “crazy.”

Now I don’t know Boas, Malinwoski, Barley, or Goffman, so I can’t tell you how they became that way. But I have known Gene Long (known more commonly by his Thai name Bunyuen Suksaneh) for 34 years, so I thought it might be a good idea to explain to the world why not only Bunyuen/Gene is crazy, but so are ethnographers in general.

The “Spirits” of the Yellow Leaves in Thailand

In Gene’s case, he was convinced of his life’s work in 1979 after reading a 1963 article in the Journal of the Siam Society about an “expedition” to visit a group of hunter-gatherers living in northern Thailand who were known derogatorily as “spirits,” because they were so rarely seen. The other significant reference to the Mlabri was made in the 1930s by Austrian adventurer Hugo Bernatzik who visited them for about two weeks in 1936 or 1937, and wrote half of a book about his visit. On this rather slim record, Gene dedicated his life.

It turns out that “Spirits” of the Yellow Leaves is a northern Thai term used to describe people we now know call themselves Mla Bri (the Mla Bri do not mind being called “Yellow Leaf people,” but they do object to being called “spirits”). The northern Thai called them “Spirits” because the only evidence ever seen of them were lean-to shelters made out of banana leaves which had yellowed—the story went that the yellowing of the leaves was the signal for them to disappear. Anyway Gene chased these rumors around northern Thailand for about two years before settling in Phrae Province where I lived because first, there were rumors about the Yellow Leaf people there, and second because the Thai government would not let him settle in provinces where the Thai Communists had organized a violent insurrection which it seems was where most of the Yellow Leaf lived then.

So Gene and Mary Long are actually still in the Thai forest with the Yellow Leaf people in 2015. Their modest house is on the edge of a Yellow Leaf settlement, they speak the language well, have started a hammock making business to generate income for the Mla Bri and neighboring Hmong, and have for years been relating Bible stories to the Yellow Leaf. They are also sitting on 34 years of ethnographic and linguistic notes (Mary is a very methodical record keeper) is in my mind also crazy. And like Malinowski, they are taking some time writing up their decades of notes and observations about hunter-gatherers who have smashed into the world of modern Thailand, a country which includes some of the world’s largest shopping centers.

Anyway, the first installment of their ethnographic efforts was “Suicide among the Mla Bri,” described above. A second story about demographic change among the Mla Bri is being prepared. This will be a lighter story, since it is about drops in infant mortality, the eradication of malaria, and the birth of a robust cohort of children after about 2000. Hopefully, there will also be some writing about the experiences of the Yellow Leaf people starring in video productions, having blood samples taken by roving anthropologists, weaving in Washington D.C. for Refugees International, and bungee jumping in Japan.

So back to 1981. In 1981, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer at the malaria zone office in Phrae where Gene and Mary had moved. So I asked my co-workers at the Malaria Zone Office about the “Yellow Leaf” people. The malaria service people often travelled in remote areas (even those areas where the Communist insurrection was a problem) of Phrae and Nan provinces chasing malaria parasites, and spraying DDT to control the malaria carrying mosquitoes. They told me that they had heard of such a people, but they were fictional, which in their mind was why they were called “spirits.” No one they knew had ever actually seen a Yellow Leaf person, and they insisted that the whole story was just some rural rumor. They noted that there were Hmong, H’Tin, Yao, Akha, Karen, and other groups out there, but really they insisted, there was no such thing as the Yellow Leaf people.

On the basis of this authority I told Gene shortly after meeting him that he could go home to America and have all Krispy Kreme donuts he dreamed of. But he didn’t take my wise counsel, and continued hiking around the mountains asking rural villagers about the Yellow Leaf people, as he had for the previous two years. He would come back with great stories about sleeping in Hmong corn cribs, encounters with the Thai military, trouble with the Thai police, opium fields, and the Communist insurgency. In fact, truth be told, I too would have liked to have been doing some such exploration, rather than being cooped up in my office next to the DDT storehouse studying Thai, which was how I spent much of my time.

Anyway, one day in late 1981 or 1982, Gene came back very excited—he had found his first real live Yellow Leaf person! So of course I wanted to know more. How did he talk to the Yellow Leaf men he had met? In northern Thai, he responded proudly. Did you ask them about their own language I asked? Yes, he said, excitedly! “They said that they speak northern Thai like everyone else.” So I asked, what does this mean for your project regarding translating the Bible into a non-existent language for a people who insist they are northern Thai, albeit with an unusual lifestyle?

Gene said he was going to still do it—after all he still had thirty years or so to go in setting up his mission to the Yellow Leaf people. See what I mean about crazy? He was going to translate Bible stories into a language which did not exist, for a people who said they were northern Thai. He also had plans to live near them, even though as hunter-gatherers and had no fixed abode.

Anyway it got crazier when I pressed Gene further on this issue. Gene responded confidently that the “Yellow Leaf” men he had finally met after three years searching had lied to him about not having their own language—they really had one! He knew this because they used the wrong tone when saying the northern Thai for “ear”, which is “hoo.” He then gave me one of his mini-lectures on linguistics—it seemed that the fact that the men pronounced the tone wrong meant that there must be some kind of “interference” from another language which they used. Otherwise they would not have such a bad “accent” when speaking northern Thai. On this slim conclusion, he moved his family to a rural Thai village whose name translates into English as Sugar Cane Creek, located at the end of a very rudimentary dirt road, where they enrolled their son Allen in the local school.

Finding that he had frequent contact with Mla Bri people, but wanting more, Gene built a bamboo house for himself, Mary, and his two boys some five kilometers from Sugar Cane Creek in 1982. As an adventurous 24 year-old, I thought this was pretty cool—I like full-time camping. But for a young farang family? Wouldn’t you think he was crazy? The really crazy thing was that somehow he still got churches in America to pay for this years-long camping hobby among Communists, Hmong, and various renegades, but that’s another story.

Anyway, the bamboo hut did not last long—like Indiana Jones, neither Gene nor Mary do snakes, and snakes liked the bamboo hut. This was also the time that their children began to develop their annoyance with the unpredictability of work elephants, which were found in the area. So they built a more substantial house in the jungle where apparently the Yellow Leaf people did not really live, or for that matter speak anything but northern Thai.

As for me, I left Thailand in late 1983, and ended up in Tanzania in 1984. When I next visited Gene and Mary in 1985, they were settled into a small Thai-style house on pillars, and had a third child. They also after six years made more systematic contact with the Yellow Leaf people, a few who were put up their lean-tos nearby, and the Longs were starting to learn their language—it seemed that they actually had one after all! The key question it turned out was to ask not directly for the words they knew by pointing to the item, but to ask what the “old people” used to call something. In this way they were beginning to accumulate vocabulary and trust. Over the next few years they started to figure out the language, cosmology, kinship system, and religion. They were also surprised to find out that unlike other languages in the area, the Yellow Leaf language had a dual verb tense (in addition to the more typical singular and plural), but no extensive counting system.

The Mla Bri started slowly to settle down in the 1990s. It turned out that there were only a total of 300-400 people speaking the Mla Bri language (a Khmuic language). Other groups also settled in the area as the mountains of Phrae became more densely populated. In particular, in 1983 or so, the Communist insurgency in Thailand ended, and Hmong who had been in revolt were resettled near where the Longs had built their house—the Thai government even built a school and health clinic there. The Yellow Leaf were so marginal and itinerant that they did not use the government facilities at first. The Hmong also provided another context for the Yellow Leaf to settle in the area—it turned out that the Yellow Leaf were not only Hunter-Gatherers, but also when food supplies were low, would hire themselves out to do piece work for the Hmong farmers, tilling fields in exchange for used clothing and food. The relationship was unequal and exploitative—the Yellow Leaf were often underpaid—their response to such excessive exploitation was often simply to disappear into the forest which the expanding Thai state was seeking to control.

More Stories of Encounters with the Modern World

So far Gene’s crazy story has been about how difficult the Mla Bri were for the Longs to contact. But the Longs were not the only ones contacting “the last hunter-gatherers in mainland Southeast Asia.” Anthropologists were of course interested, but so were filmmakers, journalists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and eventually tour operators. The Crown Princess of Thailand, has had a long-time interest in educating and protecting people of the hills, also has charitable interests in the Mla Bri. Particularly as paved roads were developed, ordinary Thai also take an interest in the Mla Bri, bringing with them gifts including food, clothing, bicycles and other items with which in the Buddhist tradition they can “make merit” by assisting the poor.

An Anthropologist for Every Mla Bri?

During the 34 years that that the Longs have had contact with the Mla Bri, there have been at least a dozen anthropologists seeking them out. After all, from an anthropological perspective, the Mla Bri, like the Ju’/Hoansi of Namibia, are charismatic super-stars! They are hunter-gatherers who lived off the land recently, presumably like humanity did for hundreds of thousands of years before settling down to farm and raise animals. Thus, anthropologists (and linguists) from near (Thailand) and far (Denmark, The United States, Japan, Germany) visit and publish about the Mla Bri. Some of this anthropology is very good, and recommended by Gene and Mary. Linguists have designed three alphabetic systems using Thai characters of writing Mla Bri, too, to supplement notes about vocabulary, grammar, etc., made with the international phonetic alphabet. Among the very best are the highly technical linguistic studies by Jorgen Rischel whose ashes were scattered in the Mla Bri village after he died.

Other anthropological writing is strange from Gene and Mary’s perspective—there were the blood typers and skull measurers in the 1980s, and then the genetic analysts who themselves never came to Thailand, but analyzed Mla Bri blood only in distant labs. Such lab-based results—which in the world of science gets publications—seem very distant from what Gene and Mary see on the ground.

What other group of a three to four hundred people has so much anthropological attention?

Media Stars in Thailand and Abroad

Thai have also taken an interest in the Mla Bri since their (re)discovery in the early 1980s. This has resulted in a sporadic attention on the Mla Bri—after all since 1999, they have officially become Thai citizens. Much of this attention addresses Thai cultural interests, and often romanticizes the relationship between the Mla Bri and Thailand and is of the “noble savage” school. Other media focus on issues of development—how can we get the Mla Bri to go to Thai schools, improve health outcomes, and assimilate the Mla Bri (and other hill groups) to Thai society. Important from the Thai world view is the fact that Mla Bri have begun to farm rice on the hillsides—just like rural northern Thai did in the past and indeed some continue do even today.

Perhaps related to the role of the Mla Bri as media stars is the need in Thai Buddhism to “make merit” by assisting the poor. And by modern Thai standards, the Mla Bri are poor. They do not own land, the adults are illiterate, their houses made of cinder block do not have air conditioning, and they rarely go to town. For transport, a few Mla Bri how have motorcycles, but none own their own car, like some Thai families do. Thus in recent years, particularly on Buddhist holidays, Thai merit-makers will arrive in the small village. The Mla Bri know how to line up behind their cars and vans, and graciously accept the clothing, food, and other gifts the merit makers bring.

More widely, the Mla Bri have attracted the interests of talented photographers and filmmakers from abroad. The Longs’ favorite movie was done by Danish filmmakers who made “The Importance of Being Mlabri,” though thre are others, both Thai and foreign, who arrive to make other films.

Tourist Attraction

The largest city in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai, is a mecca for western, Chinese, and Thai tourists. Western tourists in particular appreciate what is exotic from their perspective. This often means the “long neck” tribe from Myanmar (Kayan whose girls wear necklaces which give the illusion of lengthening their necks), anything having to do with opium cultivation, dancing, spirit ceremonies, and so forth. The Mla Bri have also attracted the attention of the tour operators, and periodically a van full of tourists will arrive to take pictures, and so forth. A small settlement of Mla Bri where Gene and Mary do not work, has thus has become a tourist attraction, advertised in Chiang Mai as being the home of the “last” hunter-gatherers. Tourists interested in the exotic are collected, and brought in on mini-vans. Before they arrive, the Mla Bri are told to take off the clothes they have received from Buddhists making merit, and put on their “traditional” loincloths. They then perform traditional dances for the tourists, climb trees, and do other acts which fit with the western imagination of what it means to be “primitive.”

NGOs to the rescue

The small but exotic Mla Bri have also occasionally caught the attention of NGOs as well. Refugees International from Washington DC had a program aimed at the Mla Bri for a while—they even brought two Mla Bri women to the United States to demonstrate weaving skills in Maine. A Japanese NGO interested in indigenous rights also managed to bring a few Mla Bri to Japan, briefly, where they were apparently introduced to indigenous people of Japan. Somehow, the Mla Bri man ended up on a bungee platform, with the cord tied around his ankles. Unable to communicate well, he was pushed off the edge, a ride which he told Gene he assumed to be his last one! Somehow whoever did this to him in Japan was not able to describe the elastic qualities of bungee cords!

Protection from a Princess

HRH Princess Sirindhorn has an office which involves her in charitable work, including in northern Thailand with the Mla Bri. In this context, the Mla Bri have been taken under her wing, and a number of development projects initiated, including the establishment of a reserve where any Mla Bri who want to can live in the forest.

More recently, a Royal Project has begun assisting the school which is near where Gene and Mary live. Two teachers have been assigned to the Mla Bri stream to assist the Mla Bri primary schoolers with acquiring basic literacy and numeracy in Thai, and encouraging them to go on to secondary schooling in the city.

Mary Long’s Piles of Ethnographic Notes

I know of much of this because Mary in particular is an inveterate note taker, and both Gene and Mary have long detailed memories. Mary has notes about Mla Bri folk tales, origin stories, experiences with individual Mla Bri. When I asked her about the blood samples taken for the genetics articles published in PLoS Biology, and BMC Genetics, she went through her notes, and found the exact date in about 5 minutes.

Many other questions can be addressed using such notes—keep in mind that Malinowski’s time on the Trobriand Islands was only five years, Barley a little more than a year in Cameroon, and Alice Goffman six years in Philadelphia. The advantage of 34 years of participant observation is that Gene and Mary remember the grandparents of the children living in the village today! Indeed, they are a veritable storehouse of kinship data, seeking to highlight the kinship relationships of the 300+ Mla Bri in the group today.

Gene and Mary Long’s Ethnographic Imagination

In the article about Mla Bri suicide, there is a discussion of the concept “paluh” which means something between scolding, laying a curse, and some version of clinical depression. This is an important Mla Bri concept, for reasons that we have yet to completely work out. There are also the origin stories of the Mla Bri, fears of the earth opening and swallowing people who displease the spirits, mortuary rituals, marriage practices, child-rearing habits, inter-ethnic relations with the neighboring Hmong, and a host of other practices. Much of these we think emerged from the nomadic hunter-gatherer contexts which the Mla Bri practiced recently, and indeed still occasionally revert to today. Based in Mary’s 34 years of field notes are many PhD dissertations!

And What the Long’s Actually Do Every Day

This all sounds exotic, but the Long’s life is actually quite tedious. The Long’s small house is a hubbub of rather mundane activity. They provide hard boiled eggs to Mla Bri children who attend the Thai school, conduct Saturday school for the interested children, do minor doctoring and ambulance runs into town, teach Bible stories to interested children, organize repairs of the water system and internet, assist with construction activities in the village, and so forth. The Mla Bri still hunt and gather when not working in the fields and, as is customary, divide up the kill with their kin—which today include the Longs.

Much of Gene’s efforts over the years have involved income-generating activities, too. Among the more successful projects have been hammock weaving, and a small coffee plantation. Both are advertised on the internet.  They have also encouraged the Mla Bri to plant their own rice fields, and a number of the Mla Bri in this fashion have joined the horticultural world over the last 10 or 15 years.

All day-to-day village is pretty mundane—many ethnographers have written about this. Gene no longer hikes around the hills, but snakes do still occasionally show up. Today there is a paved road to within 500 meters of the Mla Bri settlement, and the Mla Bri have electricity, Thai television, motorcycles, and grow their own rice. Mla Bri have flown on planes, and occasionally even visit the seashore and Thailand’s capital, Bangkok. Mortality rates have dropped significantly, large numbers of children are surviving, and the Mla Bri language is for the time-being even strengthening. As for religion, the Longs have translated a few Bible stories into Mla Bri, but have not themselves founded a church. A few Mla Bri do have an interest in the newly established Christian church in the neighboring Hmong village which was established by Hmong missionaries. There was even a Mla Bri man who had a nascent career as an elephant mahout!

Much of what has happened since 1981 was unanticipated. I don’t think that Gene ever imagined that he would observe the full-on collision of the Mla Bri with today’s modern Thailand with its motorcycles, resettled Hmong insurgents, merit-making Buddhist visitors, elephants, wandering anthropologists, and prolific filmmakers.

Still, the funny thing is that I think that the Long’s life has turned out pretty much what Gene’s crazy dream was when he first articulated it to me in 1981.

Originally posted at Ethnography.com August 19, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

How the Rich Educate Their Children: A Tale of a Swiss Hogwarts Academy

 

Schools primarily teach vocabulary and inflection, styles of dress, aesthetic tastes, values, and manners only 1 percent of American teenagers attend independent private high schools of an upper class nature. (G. William Domhoff Who Rules America? 1998, 80–81).

 

Schooling Childhood Cover

The schools for the “1 percent” of teenagers, in America or elsewhere, are isolated from the rest of us, and in these cocoons the ultra-rich cultivate norms and connections. In 2007, I had a peak inside one such institution in St. Gallen, Switzerland. Rosenberg Academy is a school for the ultra-rich—it is a cocoon where the children of the ultra-rich get to know each other, think alike, and re-create the elite which will dominate European business and government in the future.

A description of my brief encounter with the ultra-rich is found in my book Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child. The book is available at many university libraries—and you should check it out! On the other hand, if you are from the one percent, you can afford to buy a copy on Amazon.com, where there are new copies for $45, and new ones for $95. Chapter 1 is available on my Academia.edu site, which is here.

 

 

Upper-class institutions are what sociologist Erving Goffman called “total institutions” that isolate their members from the outside world and establish a set of routines, traditions, and “automatisms” that increase the levels of cohesiveness among people raised in this fashion. Ultimately, Domhoff writes, such separateness results in feelings of superiority and exclusivity for having somehow survived the rigors of an expensive and rigorous education (see Domhoff 1998, 82), a la Harry Potter’s fictional school at Hogwarts.

 

Less fictional is the elite private school I once visited, Rosenberg Academy in Switzerland, where my daughter was scheduled to take an SAT exam on a Saturday morning in November 2007. I read on the Internet that the recommended budget for a student attending there was $50,000–60,000 per student per year, including pocket money of $10,000—15,000.

 

We arrived early, and were asked to wait in a room outside the dining commons. As we sat there, the boys aged perhaps 12–16, but dressed in suit and tie, and the girls, in conservative pantsuits, arrived for the 7:30 a. m. meal. Despite the suits, the boys were squirrelly, just like other teenagers. Except . . . Before the meal started, they lined up behind their chair. They sat down when a hand-bell rang, and the younger students ate feverishly until the bell was rung again, and they were dismissed at 7:45. Only the older students were allowed to remain for a more leisurely Saturday morning breakfast. My wife and I sat in the anteroom watching this for the hours my daughter was taking the exam. We listened to uniformed teenagers chatting in four or five languages (French, Italian, English, German, and maybe Russian) as they passed through, ignoring our presence. I remember spending some time gazing at the school’s trophy cabinet, which had the standard trophies for tennis, golf, and so forth. But also one for the school’s race car team, even though under Switzerland’s laws, students the under 18 were too young to qualify for a driver’s license.

 

My daughter claimed that Rosenberg reminded her of Hogwarts School of the Harry Potter series and took particular amusement at the young man who asked if he could loosen his tie while taking the SAT. Hogwarts is particularly relevant, I think, as a literary metaphor for the isolated upper class. J. K. Rowling’s use of Hogwarts as a literary device, is an acknowledgment that the upper class think and act differently than we ordinary mortals do, even if their kids chafe at the discipline. But the point of such private schools is to create a habitus of privilege. Boys growing up in such a place feel uncomfortable without a suit and tie, even at Saturday breakfast, and will intuitively seek out others with similar feelings.

 

Such markers of caste are perhaps most obvious in a place like Rosenberg. But they are also found in culture created in American schools where bureaucratic “measurable standards” and culture are established to separate and track the natural-growth children of concerted cultivation, segregated inner-city children, and Hogwarts-bound children into their meritocratically correct slots.

 

Source: pp. 129-130, Schooling, Bureaucracy and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child, by Tony Waters. Palgrave MacMillan, 2012.

P.S. Even if you do not read my book, be sure to read Erving Goffman! Re-reading, I just noticed that I made an implicit comparison between mental hospitals and elite academies when I wrote this. Goffman’s main work about “total institutions” is derived from his participant observation as an orderly in a mental institution. His point, derived though from the 1950s era mental institution in Maryland, though, applies to Rosenberg Academy, too. Both institutions create a cohesive social group which confirms each others views.  And at Rosenberg, they do it during childhood, and away from alternative views. In this respect, both are the “1%”.

Originally posted at Ethnography.com February 4, 2015

Language Learning, Stigma, and Protecting a Potentially Spoiled Identity

This blog is about why ethnographer Erving Goffman’s observation of stigma are important not just to ex-cons, but also to professors like me on foreign exchange programs. Goffman, as many sociologists and anthropologists know, observed the maneuvers of the marginalized and stigmatized in society, and then wrote about how they thought about their disability. He saw that the marginalized were constantly managed their spoiled social identities because they feared public exposure of their disability. To make his point he wrote about ex-cons, ex-mental patients, prostitutes and others. Such stigmatized people, he wrote, are acutely conscious that at any moment any pretense they maintain of being a “normal person” can be unceremoniously disclosed. Mental patients, ex-cons, and prostitutes always wonder if a passing person knows them from their “other” life, simply recognizes the habits and tics they carry with them from that life. What this creates is a “hyper-vigilance” on the part of the stigmatized as they move through their daily routines. They watch everything, and are always wary. To control the stress, the stigmatized avoid situations where they are easily exposed—they fear being the fool, humiliated, or even attacked. Their greatest desire is to be socially invisible, even as they move through the necessary routines of daily life.

In fact, I was mulling over Goffman’s wisdom when walking to the bus stop on my way home two weeks ago. My mind though switched off when I realized that once again, as it is with many new American residents of Germany, I needed to manage my identity with respect to my highly imperfect, ungrammatical, and accented German. I can of course manage this by remaining mute in many social situations. This is surprisingly easy in places like supermarket checkout lines where the numbers on the cash register, hand gestures, and smiles help me pass without disclosing my stigmatized status. But finding the right bus home creates higher risks of disclosure than the supermarket checkout line.

Because I have yet to master bus schedules, I arrived thirty minutes early at my stop that day. Not wanting to stay on my feet, I spied an almost empty bench—only one fellow there to ask “permission” to share. I did this with hand motions, eye contact, a nod, the universal “ok,” and then scrunched into the furthest corner possible from my fellow bench warmer. Terrified at the thought that my bench mate would initiate a conversation, I took the only English language book in my backpack out (Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, no less) and buried my nose into it. This was effective, and the man sharing my bench ignored me. But five minutes later we were approached by an older man who politely asked if the spot between us was “free.” I nodded, smiled, motioned, and grunted, protected once again from having to say anything. But the situation was now more hazardous. There were now three of us on the bench sitting uncomfortably close, and the potential for being unmasked as a linguistic incompetent had uncomfortably increased.

Anyway, I soon decided I wasn’t that tired anyway, and got up and wandered back to the bus stop, even though I was still 15 minutes early. There I leaned against a post, and again tried to bury my nose back in my book. Soon though, I was distracted by what happened next at the bus bench. A woman with dogs on leashes came up. One of the dogs started to sniff at the older man’s bag. There was a brief exchange, and then the woman with the dogs went on. The older man then stood up, picked up his bag, and walked over to where I was standing and then, horror of horrors, he began talking to me. I more or less understood what he said, but could only muster the barest of responses:

Man: Did you see those dogs? They sniffed through my bags!
Me: Grunt.
Man: People should control their dogs, shouldn’t they!
Me: Grunt.
Man: Don’t you think it is an invasion of privacy that dogs will sniff through my bags?
Me: Certainly.

Thankfully, the bus then arrived, resulting in a change of subject. We got on the bus, and then further horrors, he sat near me! What would I do? Too nervous for Max Weber, my hyper-vigilance sensors went up, and I studiously avoided his occasionally friendly gaze, fearing that my incompetence could be further revealed. In this context, I bolted for the door when five minutes later we arrived at the place where I needed to transfer buses. I rushed off the bus, eager to re-embrace the anonymity that would be available on the next bus. But then things became worse. The man was following me onto the bus—he was going in the same direction I was!

With relief, I saw him settled with his bag into a seat far from mine. But still my anxiety did not dissipate until I reached my final stop ten minutes later. Off I stepped, and finally regained my anonymity as just another normal person, anonymous and obscure on a busy German street.

Such hyper-vigilance is exhausting, but also routine when you are a discreditable minority of any kind. Goffman’s mental patients, ex cons, prostitutes, and others were always aware that someone from their former life will strip away the sense of normalcy they desired . But the same principles applies to foreigners in all places, linguistic minorities, ethnic minorities, racial minorities and others who fear a part of their identity will unceremoniously at any time subject them to ridicule, or a loss of honor.

Like the ex-con and mental patients, I seek the comfort of blending and belonging while here in Germany, something I take for granted at Chico State. The sad thing for me was that as a result, I passed up language learning opportunities on my bus ride. In retrospect, I know that I should have bravely plowed ahead, and attempted a conversation with both my fellow bench warmers. After all, intellectually I know that Germans are almost always unfailingly kind to foreigners attempting to learn their language. I know too that it is educationally correct to have a conversation with the two men at the bench, rather than avoiding them. It would also have been enriching to engage the man the one who “followed” me on my two bus rides in small talk about the weather, dogs, his bag, or anything else. I didn’t of course because I value the anonymity of being normal more. As a result, I hid my stigma behind props like Max Weber’s book, and avoid the random encounters of social life which in English, I often delight in.

Both sociologists and anthropologists glamorize the intellectual stimulation such cross-cultural experience I am having. I still believe it is glamorous, and I will continue to encourage students to go abroad and study languages. But there is another value to study abroad experiences, particularly for students who are from the default normative category of their own country. At Chico State, this includes me, as well as the many middle class suburban white students in my undergraduate classes. But studying abroad is also about becoming an outsider who will evaluate every potential social encounter for its capacity to strip away the comfortable anonymity we gain when we hang with people like us. My chance to be an exchange scholar in Germany is of course partly glamorous. But my story is also the one that Goffman wrote about. I am sure that in one year, I will speak better German, and the memories of my constant hyper-vigilance dissipate. But in the meantime, I look forward to the mental exhaustion of both language learning, and stigma management.

For what it is worth, I sleep more here in Germany despite the pleasant Fall weather. Hyper-vigilance is mentally exhausting!

Reference

Goffman, Erving. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.

Ethnography, Stigma, and Protecting a Potentially Spoiled Identity

Originally published here at e.com in April 2007. It’s one of my favorites and still makes me laugh out loud, I hope you enjoy it too. -Julie

This blog is about why ethnographer Erving Goffman’s observation of stigma are important not just to ex-cons, but also to professors like me on foreign exchange programs. Goffman, as many sociologists and anthropologists know, observed the maneuvers of the marginalized and stigmatized in society, and then wrote about how they thought about their disability. He saw that the marginalized were constantly managed their spoiled social identities because they feared public exposure of their disability. To make his point he wrote about ex-cons, ex-mental patients, prostitutes and others. Such stigmatized people, he wrote, are acutely conscious that at any moment any pretense they maintain of being a “normal person” can be unceremoniously disclosed. Mental patients, ex-cons, and prostitutes always wonder if a passing person knows them from their “other” life, simply recognizes the habits and tics they carry with them from that life. What this creates is a “hyper-vigilance” on the part of the stigmatized as they move through their daily routines. They watch everything, and are always wary. To control the stress, the stigmatized avoid situations where they are easily exposed—they fear being the fool, humiliated, or even attacked. Their greatest desire is to be socially invisible, even as they move through the necessary routines of daily life.

In fact, I was mulling over Goffman’s wisdom when walking to the bus stop on my way home two weeks ago. My mind though switched off when I realized that once again, as it is with many new American residents of Germany, I needed to manage my identity with respect to my highly imperfect, ungrammatical, and accented German. I can of course manage this by remaining mute in many social situations. This is surprisingly easy in places like supermarket checkout lines where the numbers on the cash register, hand gestures, and smiles help me pass without disclosing my stigmatized status. But finding the right bus home creates higher risks of disclosure than the supermarket checkout line.

Because I have yet to master bus schedules, I arrived thirty minutes early at my stop that day. Not wanting to stay on my feet, I spied an almost empty bench—only one fellow there to ask “permission” to share. I did this with hand motions, eye contact, a nod, the universal “ok,” and then scrunched into the furthest corner possible from my fellow bench warmer. Terrified at the thought that my bench mate would initiate a conversation, I took the only English language book in my backpack out (Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, no less) and buried my nose into it. This was effective, and the man sharing my bench ignored me. But five minutes later we were approached by an older man who politely asked if the spot between us was “free.” I nodded, smiled, motioned, and grunted, protected once again from having to say anything. But the situation was now more hazardous. There were now three of us on the bench sitting uncomfortably close, and the potential for being unmasked as a linguistic incompetent had uncomfortably increased.

Anyway, I soon decided I wasn’t that tired anyway, and got up and wandered back to the bus stop, even though I was still 15 minutes early. There I leaned against a post, and again tried to bury my nose back in my book. Soon though, I was distracted by what happened next at the bus bench. A woman with dogs on leashes came up. One of the dogs started to sniff at the older man’s bag. There was a brief exchange, and then the woman with the dogs went on. The older man then stood up, picked up his bag, and walked over to where I was standing and then, horror of horrors, he began talking to me. I more or less understood what he said, but could only muster the barest of responses:

Man: Did you see those dogs? They sniffed through my bags!
Me: Grunt.
Man: People should control their dogs, shouldn’t they!
Me: Grunt.
Man: Don’t you think it is an invasion of privacy that dogs will sniff through my bags?
Me: Certainly.

Thankfully, the bus then arrived, resulting in a change of subject. We got on the bus, and then further horrors, he sat near me! What would I do? Too nervous for Max Weber, my hyper-vigilance sensors went up, and I studiously avoided his occasionally friendly gaze, fearing that my incompetence could be further revealed. In this context, I bolted for the door when five minutes later we arrived at the place where I needed to transfer buses. I rushed off the bus, eager to re-embrace the anonymity that would be available on the next bus. But then things became worse. The man was following me onto the bus—he was going in the same direction I was!

With relief, I saw him settled with his bag into a seat far from mine. But still my anxiety did not dissipate until I reached my final stop ten minutes later. Off I stepped, and finally regained my anonymity as just another normal person, anonymous and obscure on a busy German street.

Such hyper-vigilance is exhausting, but also routine when you are a discreditable minority of any kind. Goffman’s mental patients, ex cons, prostitutes, and others were always aware that someone from their former life will strip away the sense of normalcy they desired . But the same principles applies to foreigners in all places, linguistic minorities, ethnic minorities, racial minorities and others who fear a part of their identity will unceremoniously at any time subject them to ridicule, or a loss of honor.

Like the ex-con and mental patients, I seek the comfort of blending and belonging while here in Germany, something I take for granted at Chico State. The sad thing for me was that as a result, I passed up language learning opportunities on my bus ride. In retrospect, I know that I should have bravely plowed ahead, and attempted a conversation with both my fellow bench warmers. After all, intellectually I know that Germans are almost always unfailingly kind to foreigners attempting to learn their language. I know too that it is educationally correct to have a conversation with the two men at the bench, rather than avoiding them. It would also have been enriching to engage the man the one who “followed” me on my two bus rides in small talk about the weather, dogs, his bag, or anything else. I didn’t of course because I value the anonymity of being normal more. As a result, I hid my stigma behind props like Max Weber’s book, and avoid the random encounters of social life which in English, I often delight in.

Both sociologists and anthropologists glamorize the intellectual stimulation of the cross-cultural experience I am having. I still believe it is glamorous, and I will continue to encourage students to go abroad and study languages. But there is another value to study abroad experiences, particularly for students who are from the default normative category of their own country. At Chico State, this includes me, as well as the many middle class suburban white students in my undergraduate classes. But studying abroad is also about becoming an outsider who will evaluate every potential social encounter for its capacity to strip away the comfortable anonymity we gain when we hang with people like us. My chance to be an exchange scholar in Germany is of course partly glamorous. But my story is also the one that Goffman wrote about. I am sure that in one year, I will speak better German, and the memories of my constant hyper-vigilance dissipate. But in the meantime, I look forward to the mental exhaustion of both language learning, and stigma management.

For what it is worth, I sleep more here in Germany despite the pleasant Fall weather. Hyper-vigilance is mentally exhausting!

Reference

Goffman, Erving. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.

The All-Time Stupidest Question to Ask a Language Learner: Did You Understand what He/She said????!!!!” (Repeated loudly)

 

I’ve been living in Germany for the last nine months.  One of my goals is to improve my German skills, and guess what, I am getting better.  But still my German is still far from perfect.  Occasionally I will be in a conversation (ok more than occasionally) and I will try to guess about meaning.  Sometimes I guess kind of right, which means that I will make a kind of odd response to a question.  This situation tends to right itself in a normal conversation as your conversation partner realizes how stupid you are, and graciously guides you to what was meant.  Or, if that doesn’t work, you walk away thinking you understood when you really didn’t, and do if you were asking directions you get lost again as a result.  All normal language learning foibles.

Unless, of course, you have a spouse who is a true bilingual in German and English, and quickly catches on that the conversation puts her at risk for getting lost again on the way to the Post Office.  At which points, she turns to you and loudly asks (in English): “Did you understand????!!!!”  And the answer is of course I think I understand, even if I didn’t.  So the answer is always yes, I do understand, even if I didn’t understand, because I think I understood.  It is kind of like when former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said

There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.

There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.

But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.

Asking me whether I understand in German or not is asking me about unknown unknowns.  Unknown unknowns are really important in language learning—but please don’t ask me if I understand them or not—I don’t, or otherwise they would be known knowns, and I wouldn’t be in trouble in the first place.

Rumsfeld is not the only one to help me think about my German problem.  Two older blogs dealing with this same problem from Erving Goffman’s perspective are below.

http://www.ethnography.com/2007/10/ethnography-stigma-and-protecting-a-potentially-spoiled-identity/

http://www.ethnography.com/index.php?s=Goffman+German

Wow, that means both Donald Rumsfeld and Erving Goffman are mentioned in the same 400 words!  Who would have thought?