Monday, August 6, 2007

Exit Mokenland

Does that title count as cheesy? It's really Erica's cheesy judgement that I'm afraid of, explaining my last title, which was a response to the title before that which I started feeling like was cheesy. Erica is an unforgiving judge of the cheesy. Sometimes I end up being the cheesy when I'm trying to be the cool or the poignant, and it doesn't work out. Like how it doesn't work out sometimes when I'm trying to be the funny. Or when I'm trying to speak the English.

I just came back from my last trip to a Moken village, said goodbye to everybody ("I'm going already"), told them I wouldn't be back for a while and they all told me that that was too bad because they would probably be dead by then. "Lies!" I retorted, drawing a hearty guffaw.

When I think back on the months over the last two years that I spent with the Moken, it's amusing to track the change in the way that I related to them. I think I can break it down into three or four distinct phases:

1. Total objectification: Thoughts in this stage included things like: These people are so poor! These people are so primitive! I wonder what they think of me?! They all seem nice...are they just pretending? I wonder what they eat? I wonder what they're saying about me?

2. Anthropologist stage: This is the stage where I begin communicating with them and having limited interactions, but I inevitably completely over analyze every interaction. I.e., there's inevitably a continuous inner monologue going on. Like last year, when Epan (first main consultant) and I were taking a break on the fish farm, and he decided to drop a line in the water to try and catch lunch, maybe. Thrilled, I thought I was witnessing a truly fascinating and undoubtedly anthropologically significant event: a sea-nomad fishing. And so I sat there, watching him sit squat holding a line with a bare hook on the end in the water.

Me: Epan, what are you doing?
Epan: Fishing.
Me: What is that called in Moken?
Epan: (In Moken) Fishing.
Me: (nodding seriously in agreement).
***Epan jiggles the hook a bit.***
Me: What are you doing now?
Epan: Still fishing...
Me: No! Jiggling the hook like that, what is that called in Moken?
Epan: (maybe gives me a funny look) Fishing.
Me: (Nodding seriously again.)

I never left this stage last year, for the record. Another example: towards the end of that stay, I thought I'd buy some Thai fisherman's pants and wear them around to try to make the Moken men more comfortable with me, who often wore such pants (as do Thai fishermen). Wearing the pants is no easy task, however, as there's a semi-elaborate tying thing that you have to do to put them on, and even then when you sit down and stand up again you usually have to retie them. Well I couldn't even get them to stay on normal, and needless to say, I got a lot of funny looks as I was walking around holding up my pants and occasionally running off holding up my pants to retie them but trying to look casual about it. The funny thing is that I don't even they noticed anything strange about my wearing the pants in the first place (they were just normal pants to the Moken), they just wondered what was wrong with me that I couldn't seem to keep them on.

3. Semi-Enlightened Friendship: This is the stage this year when I actually started living with the Moken and getting to know them (i.e. learning their names) but I still analyzed conversations, etc. after they took place. I was still very conscientious about social taboos (where are few and far between among the Moken), and still said a lot of relatively weird things in conversation. For example, I would insist on saying "Thank you" in Thai after being given something because there's no equivalent in Moken, or instead saying "Very good!" in Moken because there's no word for thank you. The Moken must have considered me very expressive. Or when I would eat some dish at mealtimes, I would keep saying "Very delicious!!!" after eating each dish, for no good reason, even when it's not true, just to be polite, even when nobody else at the table was saying no such thing. But this was all before I realized Moken don't worry too much about being polite. They are fortuitously saved from the cumbersome linguistic accouterments of advanced civilizations, content instead to just say something when there's some actual information/gossip to share. Only occasionally do you say something obvious, usually only when you're leaving. But you don't say goodbye, you just say, "I'm leaving already." But that's actually helpful, because it clarifies that you're leaving and not just, say, going to the bathroom.

4. Normalcy: I won't necessarily claim that I'm all the way here yet, but there was a moment maybe midway through last week when I noticed I was exerting a lot less mental effort on how I was behaving around the Moken and just kind of hung out, doing my work and fieldwork sessions, taking my baths, eating meals and otherwise just sitting around talking about nothing in particular. I think this was simply a byproduct of spending a sufficiently large amount of time actually living with the Moken. What I'm trying to say is that getting here wasn't really a byproduct of my enterprising spirit, fantastic cultural insights or anything like that, it was simply a product of time. The moral is: whoopty-doo. When you actually spend time with people, you stop being fixated on how poor they are (relative to you), how the men walk around in their underwear, how they put coins in their ears, and how they constantly chew beetlenut and smoke, and you can just kind of be yourself. Man. I guess if there's an actual moral that I would tell Peter-at-the-beginning-of-last-year after this year it would just be: relax.

I'm not trying to say that I'm any sort of expert in cross-cultural interactions or anything like that, I'm just saying that in retrospect I realize that the only real obstacle to me having genuine interactions with the Moken in the beginning was my own objectification/fear of their foreignness and an occasional unwillingness to be honest with them. In the end, they're relatively normal people, perfectly normal when you consider their circumstances. It's also amazing how immaterial all the cultural things seemed in the end.

The other thing is that if there were specific little cultural things that I thought weren't good, probably about the least productive thing I could do would be to tell them that I think that doing that is bad, since that ends up just alienating myself more. If I say anything, probably it would be better just to ask about why they do it, etc., and then if there's a really big problem, think about how some sort of systemic change could be made by someone with more authority than me or as a community, because the Moken certainly won't change some longstanding cultural habit based on the advice of this weird white guy who won't go away.

In the end, a lot of the things I thought were big cultural problems simply aren't. Most noticably: numerous Thais told me before and while I was living with the Moken that I probably shouldn't eat with them because their food was not clean, etc.

***Forthcoming discussion not suitable for mealtimes, etc.***
FACT: My stool never "came loose" while with the Moken. Not once, not even a bit. In fact, I must say that I was more regular with the Moken snack-meal-snack-meal-snack daily schedule then I ever was with the western meal-meal-meal schedule. I'm saying every morning, like clockwork, B-I-N-G-O. If you don't know what I'm talking about, count your blessings.

FACT: The one time that my stool did "loosen", and it did so to a considerable, even explosive extent, was last week staying at the tourist resort eating the B100 a dish meals. Maybe my plumbing somehow got goofed up by the Moken, I don't know. But the famous "Bangkok Belly" never once struck living with the villagers. This lies well outside the realm of coincidence.

Not-unreasonable-hypothesis: Maybe the Moken, nomadic hunter-gatherers though they may be, actually ARE sanitary, and just lack western plumbing, etc. Actually, maybe cleanliness as we consider it is just a western construction mostly associated with newness, plastic, and shiny glass. Soap (which admittedly these Moken did have and some don't) and clean rainwater seemed to do a pretty good job despite the lack of tupperware, paper towels, 409, Comet, ziplock bags, refrigeration, dishwashers, cabinets, counters, tables, chairs, tile floors, etc. And it's not like I wasn't eating meat. And it's not like the meat wasn't eaten for two or three meals in a row. Freshness, I believe, was the secret.

I was actually surprised when See told me yesterday that the Moken don't like eating chicken because they suspect the chicken farmers don't do such a careful job with cleanliness. They think chicken meat carries disease. They may be right. It was just interesting to hear that opinion in light of the fact that I had been hearing before that the Moken weren't even aware that something like "sanitation" existed. Maybe they think chickens host a lot of ghosts that make you get sick, and that's their scientific explanation for it, but at the end of the day, it's not the theory that makes you well, it's the ability to make a generalization based on consistent experience. And anybody, even someone illiterate, is perfectly capable of doing that, especially if their health is at stake.

Ok... That may have ended up being a rant and I may be way off the mark or missing some major insight but I just wanted to share with you my musings on the undoubtedly culturally constructed concept of "clean."

Well I'm going back down to Krabi tomorrow for a couple more days of amazing limestone sport climbing on the beach, because I'm here and there's most definitely no climbing in Bangkok (save for the little playground in Lumpini park) so I might as well make the most of it.

I hope your Augusts have all started augustly, and that you're keeping your ears to the grindstone, so to speak. Tally-ho!

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Ultimatum against cheesy titles

Well I'm back in Ranong now after a few days of amazing climbing in an absurdly beautiful place. Tomorrow I'll probably head out for just a few days with the Moken, probably on Elephant Island. I may also end up spending a night on the fish farm, depending on how things go.

I'm feeling very conflicted about staying here past Tuesday or Wednesday after finishing the follow-up or going back down south to climb another couple days. I have no idea how this conflict will be resolved. Either way, I hope to be in Bangkok by Saturday night or Sunday morning at the latest.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Cliffs and sands but empty hands


So I'm on "vacation" now, spending just three or four days down at a place called Railay beach in Krabi province. This is really the epicenter for climbing, especially beach climbing, in Thailand, which is largely why I came. It's beautiful: the ocean, the sand, the cliffs, the room, everything is very nice. But I'm feeling a bit more lonesome than I did before, probably on account of all the chummy tourists everywhere, but it's nice to be taking a break, and I'll probably be able to get some work done.

The staff at the little bungalow/hotel thing I'm staying at certainly have taken a fast liking to me. It almost seems like they were just sitting around waiting for some Westerner who spoke Thai to show up, because they keep asking me to translate Thai sentences into English that they didn't know how to say before. They also seem to be genuinely happy that there's a tourist who speaks Thai, which is a nice feeling for ol' holier than thou me.

While bouldering around on one of the cliffs this afternoon I did make a friend, an American named B.J. who's from Washington State. He agreed to go with me and his buddy to do some deep water free soloing tomorrow mornign, which should be exciting, to say the least, and is the main reason I am here, to be honest. Let's just hope the weather holds out.

Deep water free soloing is climbing high without a rope on a cliff where there's no chance you would hit anything but water after your fall. Very fun, very un-dangerous. I just wish I was in better climbing shape!

On the bus this morning I got a call from Jiew, on Koh Hlao, who was just wondering where I was, and he told me that they all missed me and that I should come back right away. That was nice. And then Phii Naw called to, and told me she wasn't mad at me and wanted to talk to me before I left and was really worried I was already gone. So there's another interesting conversation that's going to happen.

Ok. Internet here is 10c a minute, so I'm going to keep it relatively short. Keep your shirts tucked in.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Nobody knows the trouble i've seen

This has been an interesting week. A lot of stuff has happened that I guess I'll tell you about which means I don't get to tell you as many boring old details as those get lost in the fray.

The rumors started last week, or maybe even the week before, when Phii Naw told the Moken on Koh Hlao that I gave each household on the Thai side of Koh Hlao B4000 ($110). This rumor was spread first to falsely raise the hopes of the Moken, and secondly to make them think that I was holding out on them. I did my best to quell these rumors when I returned, I think with success. The other rumor, also perpetrated by Phii Naw, is that I had taken See (my consultant) as my “wife.” Most Moken dismissed this as quickly as I did. While we do necessarily have to spend time together to do fieldwork, it is always in the open, never behind closed doorss, and there are always people around in the neigboring houses. Not to mention the fact that See has a husband and a child.

Anyways, I learned also that Phii Naw has a history of violence with the Moken, having slapped four women, one just yesterday, hit one man with a shoe. All of these people were small and slender. She also has family, some who I know, who have had second jobs as essentially pirates, reportedly pillaging small Burmese boats, stealing their money and raping their women. I didn’t realize until late last week the level to which the Moken are actually terrified of Phii Naw, that she is their biggest problem and most formidable oppressor, and that I stayed with her for the first week, listening to her insistent lies and strange faith (e.g. she puts the Bible under her children’s head when sick), and only slowly growing suspicious that my money, not the Moken were her main concern.

I’ve done my best to undo the damage I did to my own reputation by staying with her, and in the meantime have made a rather formidable enemy. Phii Naw now refuses to talk to me--will not meet my eyes. The Moken all seem to like me more than ever, though they have on various occasions begged me not to go have a heart to heart with Naw, feeling than any anger stirred up in her will most likely be taken out on them.

Two basic actions were taken this week on my part which widened the already considerable gap between us, though this doesn’t really bug me. The first thing I did arose relating to my little gift to the Moken earlier this week: after consulting some friends, I distributed 15kg bags of rice to every household on each island as a small thank you for being good hosts and also to help them in the particularly difficult rainy season. I fail to give enough money to ‘charity’ as it is, and I wanted to do something to express my appreciation and make them feel like I wasn’t keeping all of my western money to myself. Maybe I did it out of guilt. I don’t know. Consult last weeks post for additional extensive rationale. I did decide, rather trivially to me, to distribute the rice only the the Moken households, thus leaving out the two Thai denizens of Koh Hlao, namely, a certain Acarn Vichay and Phi Naw herself, who incidentally hasn’t slept on the island for even one night since I’ve been here, and only started opening her shop during the day after I distributed the rice and was on the island (confirmed by surprise trips back to the island to check). Phii Naw has since made hay of this fact, claiming that she and Vichay feel hurt and neglected, and that I am horribly inconsiderate for not also giving them a bag of rice, never mind the fact that a) their not Moken b) the Moken are afraid of them and c) they’re not nearly as poor as the Moken.

Acarn Vichay is a former Thai pastor, former best friend of Acarn Sien (pastor of the church in Ranong), former UN diplomat of some kind, and current sketchball. He is small, probably 5’6”, thin, over 70 years old, and is currently sporting long, stringy white hair on a mostly balding head, a new addition since last year. Acarn Vichay has a past of having affairs with women, then remarrying, then repeating. When he was assigned as some sort of pastor to Koh Hlao after the church in Ranong began their outreach there last year, he decided he wanted to move to Koh Hlao for life, to live with the Moken, in order to help the children and distribute medicine, according to his own noble claims to me at the beginning of last summer. Anyways, his wife at the time refused to move to the island, Vichay refused to compromise by moving close to but not on the island, so he felt justified in not worrying about that wife anymore I guess, and in a matter of three or four months had his very own Moken wife, of some approximately 40 years. She is a very small woman who has always talked very little to me.

This year, when half the Moken village moved to Elephant Island primarily for fear, helplessness and frustration with Phii Naw herself as I now correctly understand, she went also. The Moken have on numerous occasions referred to this event as Vichay's ‘throwing away of the wife.' I have no idea what actually made her want to leave. Anyways, Vichay evidently has a long history of inviting young girls, usually teenagers, into his house for reading/writing lessons, coffee, and snacks. Usually it has been a single girl (that is, one girl at a time), making repeated visits. See (my consultant) was once one of these girls, and learned to read Thai from Vichay, but now is afraid of him, saying most Moken women don’t trust him, are worried he might rape them. She tells of one incident when she was with him in his house, drinking coffee, and he shut the door, and just looked at her, but she says nothing happened though she knew what he wanted to do, because he was a coward.

I know he did sleep with one younger girl, how young I’m not sure, but she became pregnant, and gave birth to his child, but the child died, and the girl was sent to live with her family in Burma.

About three weeks ago, Acarn Vichay asked the oldest sister of a three orphaned sisters if she would give Vichay her youngest sister, Honey, as his wife. Reports of Honey’s age range from 15-18, she claimed to not actually know her age when I spoke with her, but she looked 15 and said she was 13. Vichay was offering B3000 ($90) and a cell phone to her oldest sister for facilitating the transaction. Many Moken were very upset by this turn of events, largely by the 60 year age gap, though they did seem to think it was good that he had money (he receives a monthly pension from the U.N.).

See, my consultant, was among the most outspoken in her opposition, and last Saturday night her opposition came to a verbal exchange with Phii Naw, who was supporting the Vichay purchase, possibly (hearsay) on account of a substantial loan Vichay made to her last month. I imagine that this initial event made Naw feel even more uncomfortable with my presense for two reasons. First, See being my consultant and coming to verbal blows with Naw basically shows my implicit acceptance of her position, and secondly, I stated very clearly to Naw the week I was staying with her that I thought Vichay’s behavior on the island was plain wrong, so she knew by coming to his defence she was in a sense putting herself at odds with me.

Earlier this week, as concerned about the situation as the Moken and myself, a western couple who have been doing some reasearch for NGOs on this Moken group contacted a couple Thai NGOs to inform them of the situation. They (the two westerners) were informed that something would be done. I called Acarn N. in Bangkok the next day, who also said something would be done. I waited for two days, and nothing happened. Meanwhile, See said that Honey had already told her that she would like to leave Koh Hlao, and go live with a group of Moken in the province to the south if possible. Then on Thursday, I met with Honey and her older sister, the middle of the three, who also opposed the union, and asked her if she had the money, would she leave. She said yes, her sister agreed to help her leave, so I gave them the money, and they left yesterday.

I don’t know if this sort of aggressive intervention was ultimately good or bad. I don’t really want to think about this anymore. By Friday, Naw was spending considerable time on Koh Hlao, stirring up any kind of trouble she could, and I just got sick of it, and was basically done with my fieldwork anyways, so left. On Monday I’m going to Krabi, hopefully going climbing, and hopefully doing my very best to completely forget about the whole situation for a couple days. I’ll probably come back next week for just a couple days to say ‘Hi’ again, and maybe do some followup.

This whole story has taken so long to tell I don’t know what else to say. Despite everything, my relationship with almost all the Moken on the island, besides the close confidants of Naw herself, is better than ever. They all want me to come back, they say they’ll miss me, etc. At the same time, I’ve been having a rising doubt as to why I even came here in the first place.

When I first started studying linguistics, fieldwork seemed to me to be the ultimate life and academic experience all rolled into one: living with a native people group, trying to work out complex linguistic patterns while seamlessly integrating into their lives. “This is pretty Indiana Jones for a linguist," Jude, the female member of the western couple, said to me on our way to Koh Chang a couple weeks ago, and I shrugged it off but beamed inside.

Still, a lot of questions have been coming up lately that I don’t have good answers to. Like maybe I just don’t belong here--maybe these people really just shouldn’t be seeing white people at all? Am I anything more than a reminder of Western patriarchy and wealth, and while there’s humanity to meet beneath it, and that’s meaningful, do I add anything to their lives that someone else couldn't add just as well? (Does love need to travel?) And is there really a pressing need to understand the complex inner workings of every single language under the sun? Maybe there are just some things we shouldn’t know.

And then there’s me and my life. The Moken live in such close community, brothers, sisters, children, cousins, parents, everyone is around, sometimes under the same roof, often next door, at most a couple islands away. But we are so spread out, and we live through lines and screens, and wait in enormous shiny buildings for the people we love most to come walking out a big shiny door, but we ignore the people on the streets, because we choose our community. Please don't take this as an accusation against anyone, just an observation, and me trying to share a sense that I'm feeling that despite how much we have in a country like America, maybe there's just as much that we don't have.