This roving correspondent attended the University of Washington’s (UW) 20th Anniversary celebration of their Southeast Asian Center with a series of seminars honoring noted anthropologist Prof. Charles “Biff” Keyes. Prof. Keyes is a Cornell grad (as are most American Southeast Asian specialists of his generation) and one of the founding fathers of the Southeast Asian program at the UW, who focussed on Thailand and neighboring countries in much of his academic work. If nothing else, this seminar highlighted the extensive influence of Prof. Keyes on several generations of Southeast Asian scholars as nearly all presenters were his former graduate students at one time or another.
First let it be noted first that I am not an academic. Second, as an undergraduate I tried and failed to read and parse Max Weber’s opus and this seminar focused upon Weberian themes. Third, traditional academics divide the world into the sacred and the profane: the scared being fellow academics and their acolytes, graduate students, and the profane, worldly people like myself who may be, how shall I say, unsympathetic participants who happen to have an opinion. New Mandala exists as a heresy in that it allows the profane like me to co-mingle with the sacred. And lastly, being a single parent at the moment, I had, to my chagrin, to bail out before the dinner and keynote speech by Prof. Jim Scott.
I once was a forgettable undergraduate student of Prof. Keyes in the era before the establishment of the Southeast Asian program at the UW. I did get an undergraduate degree in Anthropology by default as that was the department that happened to have the most credits in classes that were applicable to one interested in Southeast Asian studies at the time. Later, when I completed my graduate degree in applied linguistics in 1988, I had read most of the major academic works on Thailand and Tai cultures written up to that year. Thus I will be focusing most of my comments on presentations that centered upon Tai’s of one persuasion or another.
Let’s just say that things have changed in anthropology since my undergraduate days: new vocabulary, new thoughts, and horrors of horrors, an emphasis on the post-modern orthodoxy. So please, in the words of the Animal’s recitation “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good, Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood”, nor be deconstructed.
Each presenter was given a mere 15 minutes to present a summary of an academic paper in progress, some in their non-native language, English. I am sorry, but unless you were already familiar with a working draft of the paper, you would, like me, be struggling to follow the primary thesis of most presenters. Why they do not ask the presenters to post their working papers online prior to such seminars is beyond me. Ah, but only the sacred academic journals ensconced in the cathedral of knowledge, the University library, are proper places for these modern day monastic manuscripts. For the most part, I found the presentations to be a bit embarrassing, with each presenter given a brief polite round of applause at the end of their 15 minutes. But you academics out there, when giving such summaries, do not read paragraphs from your paper, when you summarize a paper, just summarize. I am too old to be read to. And please do not bother with those silly PowerPoint slide shows that always seem to get out of hand and interfere with the presentation. Please, pretty please, go back to using an overhead projector where you are firmly in control of what the audience is seeing.
The first seminar, entitled Citizens, Thieves, and Stateless Persons, was presented by Southeast Asian scholars. Clearly, anthropology has become more interested in the political reflection of the self rather than the cultural reflection, as most of the talks centered upon minority groups in political transition, either refugees, migrants, or indigenous minorities, and how they imagined their political status vis-a-vis the State and how the State imagined their evolving political status.
Prof. Pinkaew of Chiang Mai University brought to my attention how the Thai government had long defined, along numerous lines, a person’s status in Thailand by color coding their National ID cards. I had never noticed that some of my friends had ID cards of differing shades of color. Today, with the more modern computerized ID cards, that same information is encoded into the first numerical digit of the card, to the surprise of one Thai attendee who worried about the “5” status on her card. Although all the cards can serve as general ID, they also limit one’s rights and define one’s status. All these classifications are in light, or perhaps darkness, of Thailand having no official definition of what makes a Thai citizen.
Other papers focused upon folks in political transition, Lao living illegally on the Thai side of the River and Vietnamese migrant workers living in Savannakhet with a divide, both social and political between long time ethnic Vietnamese residents having Lao citizenship and more recent arrivals who may actually have more freedom to trade by not taking on Lao citizenship. This story reminds me a bit of the tension between long term US citizens of Hispanic origin and the newer migrant workers.
At the end of the first seminar at the open question period, leave it to Prof. Keyes to show he is still one of the brightest crayons in the box as he noted that the more the States try to classify these transitional peoples the more classification categories are needed by that same State entity. Is the exercise of classification inherently an infinite loop?
Perhaps it is just a personal idiosyncrasy, maybe I am just odd, but I like to learn new things, and not just hearing tired observations that immigrant groups, refugees, and irredentist groups have issues about identity, especially political identity, that revolve around some mystical dialectical process. I know that “illegal” Lao working in Thailand would love to have Thai citizenship as it would provide them with countless benefits. Heck, even my son, a fluent Thai and Kham Muang speaker, would love to have Thai citizenship. And I know that Isaan folks are going to tell a visiting Thai professor that they identify with the Thai nation. But I also know that the moment that same professor leaves, the conversation reverts to a “Thai” being someone other than a Lao, with some slightly negative overtones.
I enjoyed, learning something new, the somewhat retro talk by Phan Ngoc Chien about the construction of modern Vietnamese identity within Vietnam relative to this holiday celebrating the pre-historic Viet Hung Kings and then comparing and contrasting (those old school techniques) how the overseas “anti-communist” Vietnamese utilize the same holiday for the same purposes of constructing the overseas Vietnamese identity. Was I the only one there to note the millennial implications with the leaving of an empty chair during these celebrations to await the return of the Hung Kings? Will some Heeb please invite her over for a Passover seder.
I thought the talk from Prof. Judy Pine about the creation of modern Lahu identity was a good example of what anthropology does best, and that is to look more closely at a smaller culture which has far less noise than our larger cultures and thus we get more clear information (noise being the antithesis of information) to see how people recreate themselves by manipulating symbols and stories.
It seems one can no avoid any longer discussions of Farang men marrying rural Thai women, and please note, as a disclaimer, that I was a very early adaptor of this marriage trend. The talk presented by Achaan Suriya, to be politically correct, reduced the discussion to power and gender and the mythic “oriental bride”, that is “oriental” ├а la Edward Said, imagined by an equally imagined occidental man. Along with “narrative”, there is far too much imagination going on in anthropology these days. The Disney Corporation is in the imagination business, not academics. So perhaps A. Suriya should also imagine the role of Thai men in this equation as they more rapidly assimilate towards the far more paternalistic and East Asian oriented culture of Bangkok (Skinner got it arse backwards) than the more traditional Thai women trying to retain their more equal matrilocally derived position in society. A. Suriya should also ask why there are so many attractive female Thai achaans who remain single while most male Thai achaans have no problems finding a mate. Sorry, this is a subject with far too much noise.
My overwhelming reaction to the event is whither goes anthropology? Over half the presenters were Southeast Asian themselves. Is a Thai professor researching illegal Laotians working in Thailand or researching Farang son-in-laws in Isaan acting as anthropologist or as sociologist? Is the study of how people define themselves relative to the State or to the world market, anthropology or economics? Apart from having to use the term “narrative” at least twice in each presentation, was there really anything new presented at this conference that was not covered by the articles in Keyes’ 1981 book Ethnic Change? Perhaps more disturbing was the report in the final talk by an Eric Thompson, based in Singapore, who noted that Singapore did not recognize the need for anthropology as there were no indigenous minorities in Singapore. Disturbing to me in that the Singapore model of Lee Kuan Yew is being assimilated by the Beijing government, a government that previously assimilated the British view of “tribals” being problems that need to be eliminated and then went as far as defining Tibet as a Tribal state to be eliminated. Well there is some hope as perhaps two other attendees happened to join myself and the other regular long time members of the local Burma interest group who organized our local solidarity demonstration last Saturday to coincide with the worldwide effort on that day to support the Burmese peoples. I just hope they were not profane attendees of the conference like me, but maybe members of the sacred class who, like the heretics Andrew and Nicholas, care about real world suffering.
Sorry, I have probably already said too much. I am sorry I missed the keynote speech and I am sorry that I was too timid to yell at the whispering Dutchman, Prof. Salemink, to speak louder so that we in the back of the room could hear him speak as he seemed to potentially have the most original comments of the day with his paper entitled “Turning Weber Upside Down: Capitalism as a Quasi-Religious Project of Conversion and Discipline.” In his case I was only able to read his PowerPoint slides without hearing his comments, but someone needs to get us a copy of his paper, or at least a profane version of it, as this guy seemed to have something original to say and thus could possibly become one of the redeemers of the discipline.