Thomas M. Steinfatt
Encountering another culture can occur in locations that vary from the everyday to the exotic. Different value systems and past experiences, as well as different languages and different cultural notions of right and wrong, can create situations in which the intercultural participants are annoyed at each other’s reactions and at each other’s apparent interpretations of the situation. One such situation occurred a few years ago.
I often teach summer courses in intercultural communication to culturally diverse groups of U.S. college students in Southeast Asia. Part of the course involves the study of hill tribes-indigenous peoples somewhat akin to geographically and in ways of thinking and behaving. Two of the larger hill tribes in Thailand are the Hmong and the Karen.
Most of the Hmong regard Laos as their original homeland. But the traditional beliefs of the Hmong include the concept that the Lao people and government want to steal their land. These beliefs were exploited by America’s CIA during the Vietnam War period. The CIA convinced the Hmong to fight against the Pathet Lao communists, who now control Laos. Thus the Hmong believe that they would receive a most hostile reception in Laos were they to attempt to return – likely an accurate perception of reality. The Lao government exerts consistent pressure on the Thais to treat the Hmong as a hostile foreign group. Foreigners often subdivide the Hmong into the White Hmong and the Blue Hmong, according to the predominant color of the women’s dress.
Myanmar is the Karen homeland. The Karen dress less colorfully than other hilltribes, and the Karen are the only group with no identifiable ties to Chinese culture. They are the most willing hilltribe group in adopting lowland agricultural methods. Thai Karen immigrants are usually Sgaw Karen and Pwo Karen, but scattered Padaung Karen live in the area of Mae Hong Son in northwestern Thailand. By tradition, Padaung Karen girls born on a full moon have their necks stretched with rings (for photo, go to The Globe and Locate Myanmar (in Asia). The rings force the head away from the body during growth. An elongated neck is a much-prized sign of beauty among the Padaung Karen.
A mature Padaung woman may have 24 rings, with a maximum of 32. By the 1970’s, demand promoted by tourists wanting to see the “long-necked people” led the Padaung to ring the necks of most of the village girls, regardless of the circumstances of their birth.
The Karen and Hmong both live high in the hills, with the Karen usually choosing the higher elevations. Karen houses are always on stilts. A common shrine to the local god of the land and water is located on a main path into the village. Both groups are skilled in agriculture, usually of the slash-and-burn variety during the nomadic periods of their histories. As the jungle has gradually disappeared, the nomadic ways and slash-and-burn tactics have given way to more permanent settlements and less transitory methods of agriculture.
Early one morning, during one of my student’s trips, a group of four men and three women from U.S. universities left Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand with me. Two male Karen guides, Chi and Nong, rode with our group in the back of a pickup truck. Nong was bilingual in English and Hmong, and Chi spoke Karen, Thai, and limited English. The truck took us about 35 kilometers on twisting earthen roads, stopped at the edge of the jungle, let us out, and left. While I had cautioned everyone to bring enough water, several had listened to Chi’s promise from the night before to provide enough water for everyone, a feat that would have been most difficult to accomplish. The water would be too heavy for one person, Chi tended to be on the forgetful side with respect to supplies, and Chi’s water consumption estimates, though he was familiar with foreigners, were based on Karen norms. The Karen are use to arduous mountain treks. Westerners tend to be larger, softer and not as accustomed to physical activity; regardless of the physical shape they are in – or believe themselves to be in. It is particularly common for Western males on such trips to overestimate their physical abilities, and then to be too macho to admit it and ask for help. Females generally simply stop and say they have to rest.
A 30-minute rest period ended with unmistakable sounds and movement of the ground, and eventually of the trees, vines, and ferns, that only a herd of elephants can produce. Actually there were only five, and one of them was a nursing infant, but it sounded like a hundred. Each adult elephant had been fitted with a rectangular basket mounted across the forward part of its back. The mountainside where the truck had let us off was steep enough at points that the students could get on the elephant from the uphill slope. Each elephant had a mahout, a boy or young man who lives in a symbiotic relationship with his mount. Our mahouts were Karen, who also tame and train elephants; practices not found in other hilltribes. Elephant and mahout need each other for protection and for survival in a human-dominated environment. In the city the mahout sells bananas to tourists and city dwellers, who then feed the elephant by hand. Most Thai elephants with a mohout find survival easier in the city than in the countryside. Unfortunately, elephants without a mahout are driven away from villages and are often hunted down and killed in response to the damage they do in trying to find food.
At first we followed a narrow path weaving up the side of the mountain, elephants and baskets lurching from side to side along with their occupants. As the path became treacherous and slippery in spots, the elephants veered off it and through virgin jungle. This slowed our progress, since it was now more difficult for the mahouts to keep their charges from devouring the foliage they were uprooting and pushing aside as we moved slowly through the jungle.
To control their mounts, the mahouts use a long bamboo stick as a whip around the animal’s feet. If that and threatening yells don’t work – and they usually don’t – the mahouts use a pick, which is a piece of wood about half a meter in length that has a sharp, curved metal spike tied at a 90 degrees angle to the wood. As I watched, blood seeped from half a dozen spots on our elephant’s head where the mahout had applied the pick. The students appeared clearly upset, both at the flailing picks and at me for not “doing something.” One student had tears in her eyes. We had a brief discussion of this point while lurching through the brush, and a more extended one later in the day.
After several hours, the mahouts stopped the elephants and urged us off. From here on up, the trail was too steep and rocky for elephants. I climbed down from my elephant and placed my camcorder on the ground while gallantly attempting to help one of the women down from her basket; even though she assured me that she did not need any such help.
Unfortunately, the camcorder‘s designer had not anticipated that its user might place it on the ground next to an elephant. Elephants are normally quite cautious and gentle about where they step, but when they step, they step. While my university was quite gracious after we returned and granted my request for a new camcorder, I did get some rather strange looks as people read the section of the report explaining how the damage occurred: “An elephant stepped on it.”
It was afternoon by now. Beautiful as the jungle was, and as interesting as the birds, monkeys, and other assorted wildlife we encountered were, fatigue began to set in, along with the inevitable “Are we there yet?” comments. Our water was gone by now, and the small springs and streams of the jungle were tempting. But Chi steered us away from them as unwise, saying good fresh water was just ahead. Diseases associated with snail larvae are commonly associated with some jungle water supplies. Chi continued for more than two hours to say that fresh water was just ahead, which was perhaps a good persuasive tactic on his part. Eventually we topped a ridge and all of Northern Thailand seemed to spread out below us. Only a kilometer down the other side, to a spring that gushed forth with icy water. We all drank and drank except for Chi and Nong, who just looked on in puzzled amusement.
Several hundred meters further down, someone had apparently discarded a plastic milk jug right in the middle of the stream. A student went to pick it up and put it in our ever-expanding trash bag, but Chi stopped him with a gentle hand on his arm. Chi pointed to the plastic pipe taped on to the mouth of the bottle. The bottom of the jug had been cut away and was facing upstream. It was the source of the fresh running water supply for the Karen village, which soon appeared out of the growing evening mist, a half-kilometer below.
Wearily – except for Chi and Nong, who were as fresh and talkative as they had been that morning – we entered the village, we were greeted with many strange looks and then escorted to an empty bamboo hut set off the ground on bamboo stilts. The double-sloped thatched roof formed most of the walls as well, and the hard, uncovered bamboo floor felt as soft and welcoming to us as might your favorite overstuffed couch. Half the group was all for skipping dinner and going to sleep immediately, and they were making significant progress in that direction. The rest wanted to look around by firelight and locate the source of the delicious smells wafting through the air from other huts.
This debate ended when a tiny woman appeared and gave us a twent-minute speech of welcome, translated by Chi. The essence of the speech was on how honored the village was to have us as guests and to inform us how cold it gets in the village at night. I was not sure of the Karen norms on sleeping through a speech of welcome, but I felt reasonably sure that alert had to be more acceptable than nodding off, so I immediately stood up to greet this woman and clapped my hands and banged the floor a couple of times during her speech so as to keep the students attentive.
The speech reached its climax by pointing out the obvious: none of us had sleeping bags or blankets, since Chi had said they would be provided by the various villages where we would stay. The village would provide two blankets for each person, said the little woman, one for under and one for over. At this point I had the feeling that Chi was translating into more polite form the woman’s words that, from her nonverbal behaviors, seemed likely to indicate “smelly foreigners who do not bathe before going to sleep.” But Chi simply said that anyone who wanted blankets had to bathe, and now.
Though quite a reasonable request, after the woman left it was met with limited enthusiasm within our group. It was already cold; several people pointed out, and taking a shower would only make us colder. And besides, where was the shower?
That proved to be the key question. Mustering my most authoritative manner, I strongly suggested the displeasure I would feel toward anyone who declined to accept the Karen’s kind offer of a shower. Glumly, the troop followed Chi through the smoke of the cooking fires to the single water outlet in the village. It was the other end of the milk bottle pipe we had seen earlier, a series of right angles of PVC pipe ending in a spigot about a half-meter off the ground. “Of course it’s going to be cold,” I said, “but just get it done so we can all eat and get some sleep.” The males met this comment, which seemed reasonable to me, with acquiescence, but it was met from the females, who stared at me with a unified and purposeful glare, with a silence colder than even the piped water was likely to be.
Not totally certain of the cause of this apparent displeasure, I looked around. The spigot was the central feature of the village, with the majority of the huts facing it, perhaps 10 to 20 meters away. As we stood there, a young woman from the village approached, smiled at us, and washed her body, while deftly and easily keeping the bits of cloth she had with her between herself, the foreigners, and the other villagers. The latter were going about their business as she was going about hers, with no one except the foreigners paying much attention to the events. She finished, dried herself, and walked off, with only limited compromise to her modesty.
The men in our group were finished showering, but the added attentions of the villagers now upped the ante for the women students. All village eyes were fixed upon the spigot and the obvious discomfort of the foreigners. I thought of trying to explain that many cultures find no shame in the exposure of the human body in nonsexual circumstances. It seemed a reasonable comment from my perspective, knowing that students dutifully take in stride such cultural points in classroom settings, but this comment was met quite differently while we were immersed in the actual situation.
The resolution was for the male students to hold up towels in front of the female showerers while averting their eyes. This behavior in itself brought peals of laughter from the villagers, who likely would not have left this show for anything.
The laughter only increased when it became apparent that it is difficult to coordinate the behavior of one’s hands holding towels when one’s eyes cannot see where the towels are and where the towels are moving versus where they are supposed to be. No slapstick comedy could have been better. The response, quite naturally, was to look to see where the towels were. These efforts were met with even greater squeals by the showerers, along with a resounding slap or two, which did little to steady their hands and the towels they held. Eventually the showers were finished; the blankets distributed, and the cold night passed with our group huddled together for warmth on the hard bamboo floor, open to the wind both through the walls and up through the floor itself.
We awoke to the sounds of the pigs and chickens living beneath our hut as they rooted in the dirt searching for food, and the barking of the dogs whose job it was to keep the other animals from straying. Students were talking about the stream we would follow to the next village, and the promised pools and waterfalls. At a breakfast of fresh eggs and vegetables, which Chi cooked, a group of about 5 or 6 Karen children approached us and asked if we had any Coca-Cola; which unfortunately, we did not. Many villagers came by, bowed, nodded, smiled, and assured us that the village would welcome us back as honored guests.