The New Face of Ethnography, from Tanzania to Thailand

The writings of an important Thai writer & journalist are just beginning to surface in the English language. I feel confident enough to say that I am the first anthropologist & ethnographer indebted to ‘Rong Wongsawan, because my mentor Dr. Tony Waters is conducting this translation work, with the help of his Thai students, and with the approval of Rong Wongsawan’s family. What makes this story more interesting is that I only know and speak two languages– English and Kiswahili, and I’m currently conducting Fulbright fieldwork in central Africa– in Kigoma, Tanzania. Having access to Thai language material is unusual for an Africanist!

I first met Tony when he came to an applied anthropology class I was in during my last semester at California State University, Chico. He brought a collection of translated writings, from ‘Rong Wongsawan’s 1978 book On the Back of the Dog, which is about ‘Rong’s ethnographic views of California in the 1970s.  Admittedly, I had not done my homework the night before, so I had not read Tony’s paper before our 8AM class. But sleepy college students were assigned roles, because Rong’s writing gives the allusion of a playscript. I began to wake up and fall in love with the peculiar characters in Rong’s stories, and their behaviors and ways of speaking. These exotic peculiar peoples were– Americans. It is a society known well but taken for granted in the world of ethnography.  After all, it is Americans who go out to exoticize places like Tanzania and Thailand, not the other way around! Everyone else is exoticized, but not ourselves! In this sense, ‘Rong Wongsawan’s work in the Thai language is a kind of reverse ethnography about Americans– in San Francsico, California in particular, during the 1970s. A few weeks later, I was the director of a short skit from Tony’s translated writings of Rong, for a live performance in an International Forum at California State University, Chico. I played the part of ‘Rong Wongsawan, complete with a long black wool coat, a wool fedora, thick eyeglasses, while pulling on a cigarette.

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A reason I admire ‘Rong’s work is because he reveals the importance of the everyday, the mundane, the daily lives of ordinary people, and the things they say in common conversation. ‘Rong didn’t show up to schedule an interview with the first person who returned his phone call. ‘Rong didn’t schedule group interviews or focus groups, with scheduled questions, instructing people to sign consent forms. ‘Rong slipped in and out of the ordinary places, the bars, the buses, with a keen eye and ear to what Americans were consuming, what they were saying, and how they were acting, from the perspective of an outsider who genuinely loved where he was and what he was doing. ‘Rong made every effort to immerse himself in American society during his time in California. These words come from a current translation in progress, of another work of Rong’s:

“This work that I do is about knowing and understanding (for the writer and the readers). I want to take the readers on this experience by talking to different people along the way there. People such as the hopeful entrepreneurs, the prostitutes, partners, food sellers on the streets, bartenders, and even the thieves. The purpose is to learn as much as possible, and not only to report what is moral and acceptable for society.”

During my work as an ethnographer here in Tanzania, I sometimes wonder if I’m “working” at all. In the United States, I “worked” all my life, but that “work” has always meant doing something someone else wanted me to do, being obedient, and wishing that quitting hour would come more quickly. Self-doubt about my new “work” as an ethnographer starts to spread like spilling water. In Kigoma, though not everyone cares, sometimes people ask me what I’m doing for work. Since I’m a Westerner, I think they expect me say I’m on a church mission, or I’m volunteering, or I’m working for the United Nations or the Red Cross. Not everyone understands what I’m doing, including myself sometimes. In compensation, I usually answer usually answer that I have something to do with being a student, continuing with my university studies, or wanting to teach someday. Or, I explain that I’m a musician, but I want to learn and study more than just the music itself– I want to understand the history, politics, philosophy, economics, geography, systems of medicine and health, and religion. In essence, the people. Not just the notes or the rhythms, or the ability to play a tune on an instrument. I wonder though, why do I back out and not tell them I’m an ethnographer who watches the everyday, like ‘Rong did?

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My favorite thing is to be with musicians, and after all, the research is rooted in music, the history and cultural transformation of African rumba over time. But I also end up going to the places most people don’t want to go, even Tanzanians themselves. You might find me at the gritty port, watching the cargo ships be loaded with chickens and chairs, and peering into the bunks at resting passengers. Or, I sit for hours in very conservative, charismatic Pentecostal church services in a pretty dress. Or, I change into my more comfortable– jeans. A friend recently asked me, “why are you at the bar, just hanging out with the prostitutes?” I even talk to people who don’t like the music I like. In effect, looking at the control groups, a social scientific way of understanding those people and phenomenon not part of the music scene I am interested in. Because, to truly understand something, you have to understand all the other things around it. ‘Rong writes about San Francisco:

Along  Mission  Street  is  found  the  transcript  for  poverty.  Pawn  shop,  cheap  grocery  stores,  and  a rented  room  where  big  rats  with  wet  fur  run  from  the  pipe  hole  to  the  ceiling. Thieves  and starving people walk by in opposite directions. Pickpockets wait for the victim in the building corner  and  so forth.  The  blood-purchasing  clinic  is  situated  in  this  dejected  atmosphere– in order to suck blood from the poor to help the rich. So, the poor had no choice, and they sold their blood for food.

If someone asks, often, I’ll say I’m a writer, “oh, for the news?” No, I’m not a writer for the news, I explain. Journalists usually come into a place out of context, like a parachute jumper, driven by what is popular in the west, or a grant. Their questions rooted from a Western perspective. They stay for a few days, interview some people, and then leave as quickly as they came. Their stories a flash in the pan on the evening news, or in this week’s newspaper, or this month’s magazine. But not ‘Rong Wongsawan. Where is ‘Rong Wongsawan when we need him? Because there are no canned answers that fit neatly in the narrow column of a newspaper, or between the capital letter of the first word and the period at the end of a sentence. You may call Rong’s work Gonzo Journalism, as Tony sometimes compares it to, or we can even refer to it as a kind of ethnography. But the kind of work, and therefore– writing, that Rong Wongsawan did is needed now more than ever, in journalism, in anthropology, in history, or any kind of writing with an ethnographic lens. ‘Rong writes,

But the Drama is not over yet. Black  and  white  look  deeply  at  each other’s  eyes,  through  his  glass  of  water  and  blended Scotch whisky,  and  her  vodka  martini,  without  even  knowing  each other’s  names.  But  that’s  not necessary. The bartender shrugs his shoulder. A lonely horny guy and an alcoholic woman. She is hungry. What misfortune hit her? Or perhaps she  doesn’t  have  money  for  the  cheap  room  rent  in  the  slum?  Is her  kid  sick  and  staying  in  a poor hospital? Is her husband disabled by the war? Anyway, the pension is not enough to blow away the coldness and loneliness in her life? She can fill any one of these roles.

Dr. Tony Waters’ English translation of Rong Wongsawan’s story and vignettes from On the Back of the Dog is forthcoming and will appear in the Journal of the Siam Society.

Tony is currently on an administrative assignment at a peace studies center in Chiang Mai, Thailand for 2 years. But Tony and I have no trouble keeping in contact via modern communications of email and Skype. After all, it is only the Indian Ocean that separates Tanzania and Thailand. In Tanzania, I call Tony my Baba, he is my Baba, and he is a one of my closest confidants, a colleague and mentor. I wonder what Rong Wongsawan will be to me? Can I describe his meaning in my life to the Tanzanians I know, meet, interact with, and “interview?”

The worldview of a venerated Thai writer will soon enter a new world, in which English speakers will, for the first time, be introduced to another way of doing research. I hope writers of all kinds will sit down with a cup of coffee or tea in a “greasy spoon” or hole-in-the-wall café, and open their minds to a different way of seeing the world. From Tanzania, thank you, ‘Rong Wongsawan, venerated writer of Thailand.