Daily Archives: 27 March 2004

‘The English Are a Very Strange Tribe’

In 1936 another white man turned up in Phekhon, in the company of some Indians from Loikaw. He invited two of the grandmothers and some of their friends from the village who wore neck-rings, along with their husbands, to come to England. They had no idea what the purpose of the invitation was, and the Italian priest was vehemently against their going away. Nevertheless, they were all excited and eager for the journey. They were to be taken around Europe by a circus called Bertram Mills and exhibited as freaks. Since we did not have the concept of a ‘freak’, and since, anyway, we took our tradition of women wearing the rings for granted, they and their relatives were unlikely to be offended by the idea.

They were flown to Rangoon from Loikaw, and shipped to France to be shown to the French public as a test of their popularity before they eventually arrived in England. Not long before the Second World War broke out they returned to Phekhon, richer with English money. They showed us photographs of places they had visited, but could never remember the names….

The grandmothers told me that one of the photographs was taken in front of the English chief’s house, in a big village called London. They said that in this big village they didn’t have to climb the stairs, but the stairs carried them up and down. They liked the moving stairs, because they hated walking in the shoes that had been provided for them – since all their lives they had gone barefoot.

They suffered from the cold of England. Nor did they understand what spirits the English were appeasing in always having to drink tea at a certain time, although they loved the cakes that went with this ceremony. ‘The English are a very strange tribe,’ said Grandma Mu Tha. ‘They paid money just to look at us – they paid us for not working. They are very rich, but they cannot afford to drink rice-wine. Their trees are unable to grow leaves during the rainy season. They say, “Hello,” “How are you” and “Goodbye” all the time to one another. They never ask, “Have you eaten your meal?” or “When will you take your bath?” when they see you.’ Grandma Mu Tha gave up trying to account for these strange habits, which afforded her great amusement. If we had had the notion of ‘freaks’, I suppose she would have put the whole English race into that category.

SOURCE: From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey, by Pascal Khoo Thwe (HarperCollins, 2002), pp. 28-29

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How Padre Carlo Came to Phekhon, Burma

My tribe were mostly animists, although some were Buddhists, who worshipped the Nats. These nature spirits are not peculiar to the Burmans, who had received them into Burmese Buddhism, but are part of popular religion in most of South-East Asia…. But my grandfather, and later his wife, were converted to Catholicism.

It was an unusual conversion, brought about involuntarily by an Italian missionary, Padre Carlo, who was on his way to China. He had no intention of winning Phekhon for the Church, and was simply passing through. My grandfather was out on a hunting trip, and came upon this strange being, who he decided was either a wild beast or a khimakha (an ogre in the style of the Tibetan yeti, that looks like a cross between a bear and an ape and is tall as a tree). So he captured him and brought him home. Padre Carlo was chained in a pigsty for the night, where his wailings and lamentations could be heard throughout the village. He made signs that he wished to eat, and accepted some cooked rice. This made the villagers suspect that he might, after all, be a human being, and that therefore he had rights, including traditional hospitality. (Some doubts about his humanity lingered, due to the fact that he had no toes. The Padaung had never before seen shoes.) He was persuaded to stay in the village for the rest of his life, and in due course converted the whole village to Catholicism, except for my grandfather. He finally consented to join the new religion only after he lost a wrestling match with the priest, whom he had challenged about the power of his god. The Christian God was obviously potent, because my grandfather was taller and more powerfully built than the priest, who was anyway suffering from malaria at the time.

SOURCE: From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey, by Pascal Khoo Thwe (HarperCollins, 2002), p. 25

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Seoul, Ville géante, cités radieuses

Korean Studies Review has posted a review by James E. Hoare of Seoul, Ville géante, cités radieuses, by Valérie Gelézeau (CNRS, 2003), which reminds us again how much Korea followed Japanese models of modernization long after the end of the colonial period.

Journalists who write about Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, often dwell on the supposedly “Stalinist” characteristics of its high-rise apartment blocks, and their reduction of human beings to ant-like creatures. To the writers, these blocks are clearly a bad thing. Yet some three hundred kilometers further down the Korean peninsula, in the South Korean capital of Seoul, tower blocks seem even more domineering. Clustered together in miniature cities within the greater conurbation, they have become the preferred dwelling place of the affluent and successful. South Koreans boast of their tower blocks and the urban infrastructure of elevated roadways, underpasses and bridges that go with them, comparing Seoul’s Yoido Island to Manhattan. There is nothing negative about this assessment of such buildings….

In this fascinating book, the French geographer Valérie Gelézeau examines how this came to be…. She traces the origins of the modern dwelling complexes to the industrial complexes established in the Japanese colonial period, but argues that the real take-off for high-rise buildings was only practical with improvements in water pressure and the reliability of electricity supplies, for central heating and elevators, that had to wait until the economic transformation of South Korea under President Park Chung-hee began to take effect. It was thus only in the late 1970s that the widespread use of buildings over four-six stories became possible. Before then, the typical Seoul “high-rise” was about five stories, with no elevator and with a water tank on the roof. In a society where few people owned their own cars, there was little or no need for parking places. Some of these low high-rises survive, now updated, with the water tank used only for emergencies, and where possible, with parking spaces for the explosion in car ownership since the mid-1980s. In general, however, the mighty blocks that now dominate so much of the city have replaced these early efforts….

Gelézeau also sees the development of the high-rises as an important part of Park’s commitment to modernize South Korea. Perhaps drawing on his experience of Japan’s Manchukuo experiment, Park equated the traditional with the countryside and the countryside with the backward. Not only should people move off the land, but they should also change the way that they lived. And the new blocks with their “Western”-style bathrooms and kitchens were a potent symbol of that modernity. But as so often happens when one probes into developments in Korea, the inspiration for the new blocks that began to appear from the mid-1970s came from Japan rather than from the West, despite the Western-sounding nyu t’aun (New Town) appellation that the Chamsil first mega-complex received. The chaebol [conglomerates called zaibatsu in Japanese] built their blocks following what had become the standard modern Japanese layout, “LDK” – that is, a set of bedrooms around a “living, dining, kitchen” area….

While her contacts praised the apartments for their comfort and safety, some at least look back positively on older styles of housing because there was more contact with neighbours. People clearly miss the friendly greetings of the old communities. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the world that Gelézeau describes is how isolated people seem from each other. Community, and even family, life hardly exists. The staff charged with looking after the buildings complain that the residents will not sort their rubbish or take responsibility for the communal areas. Yet these blocks are not the bleak social housing that has given high-rise buildings such a bad name in Europe, but the acme of middle-class living …

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Morobe Field Diary, October 1976: Stages of Language Learning

I believe I’m at a point now where things I had to concentrate on to hear several months ago I can hear ‘at a glance’ now. A lot of the language worked its way into my subconscious or spontaneous memory/capacity while I was in Mosbi [Port Moresby, the capital]. It is as if my subconscious is where my conscious was two or three months ago. Analysis is a language production device, I think, only or mostly for the conscious mind. Rote formula thinking handles a hell of a lot of the production at the level of daily transactions.

The local stages of language learning are:

A. ‘Ulongoni wai/Yu harim pinis/You know the language’, i.e. you can carry out basic exchanges of betel-nut, food, going and coming and the like. By these rules it’s true that people learn Numbami in a month.

B. ‘Unenela i/Yu winim mipela/You know it better than we do’, i.e. you know some pretty esoteric vocabulary: the archaic/nonborrowed word for ‘to buy’, words like ‘thump’, ‘saliva’, ‘spouse of one’s cross-sibling’ [= sibling of the opposite sex]; words people seldom use because the things they designate are seldom talked about or because the native vocabulary has been replaced by borrowings.

There is no evidence that ability to tell a good story (or tell a story well) is considered a language ability.

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