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Cultural Grammars by Sara Swenson

A golden Buddha statue foregrounds a stack of Vietnamese-English dictionaries.

A golden Buddha statue foregrounds a stack of Vietnamese-English dictionaries.

December 1, 2017

I teach English lessons at a pagoda on Mondays. The lessons are my way of saying thank you to the nuns who have offered me their time, books, stories, wisdom, and friendship. Two weeks ago, we had what I thought was a grammatical debate. We were practicing two meanings of the phrase, “I must.” On one hand, “I must,” could mean, “I am compelled to…” or “I have to…” [phải in Vietnamese]. On the other hand, “I must,” could mean, “perhaps,” or “I speculate that…” [có lẽ]. Some sample sentences we talked about were: “I must be tired” to diagnose one’s lack of concentration, or “I must be patient,” to urge oneself to be kind to others. We joked about switching the registers of meaning by saying, “I must be smart” or “I must be generous,” to compliment oneself rather than to compel oneself to better behavior. One of the nuns brought our class back to task by offering a sincere example. I wrote on the board as she read her example aloud: “I must be happy, because I am a human being.”

I told her that was a very good example for “must” as a compelling word, but asked if she also had an example of “must” as a speculative word. I misunderstood her sentence to mean, “I have to be happy, because I am a human being.” My interpretation of her response assumed an implicit comparison between humans and other animals. I took for granted that human beings would be considered a “higher” life form, and therefore we should be happy to have been born as humans.

The nun corrected me by saying that she did mean to offer her example speculatively. She patiently came to the board and charted out the differences between two types of beings [chúng sanh]: sentient [hữu tình] and non-sentient [vô tình]. (The other students declared a snack break while the two of us were contemplating the nature of the universe.) She explained that human beings are part of the category “that has life” such as men and women, dogs and cats, compared with things like plants, fans, and chalkboards. To “have life,” she explained, meant that we had “thoughts” and “feelings.” Her example sentence was intended to mean, “Perhaps we feel happiness because we are sentient beings.”

I was struck by the gaping contrast between our interpretations of her words. This one sentence revealed our very different orientations toward what we assumed about feelings, humankind, and other living creatures. Our conversation made me appreciate the importance of nuance and checking one’s assumptions as a researcher.

Of course, this isn’t always the case. The following week, I visibly overthought one student’s response with a dramatically raised eyebrow and furrowed forehead, before attributing her unusual translation to, “cultural differences...” The classroom broke out in laughter. “PhD Students must always have headaches!” one student joked. As they say, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. The importance of spending extended time studying language and developing deep research relationships is to help us identify these different moments!

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Sara Swenson

Encountering Eleanor Zelliot in the Field by Mallory Hennigar

In memory of Eleanor Zelliot

In memory of Eleanor Zelliot

November 15, 2017

Fieldwork is rollercoaster of emotion. I go from one high of discovery, to the next low of feeling like I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. In these low times, I have a source of inspiration that helps me remember the bigger picture: the memory of Dr. Eleanor Zelliot. Eleanor Zelliot is credited as being among the first American scholars to study Ambedkar and Ambedkarites, but aside from that she is remembered as an ally, activist, and simply as an incredibly special person by Ambedkarites. A few times during my fieldwork so far, people have asked me if I knew Dr. Zelliot, and have shared stories of her with me. I am told fondly that she would take any opportunity to get to know people and share something with them – going into the kitchen to help prepare food or trekking out with the other women in the morning to relieve herself without the aid of indoor plumbing. India was different back then when she first came, they always tell me, but she endured all of the difficulties and inconveniences to connect with people and learn about their lives.  

            “Maybe you will be the next Eleanor Zelliot,” some people have said to me after sharing their memories of her. Anytime someone says that to me, it feels like an impossible compliment. How could I ever live up to such a person who was so humble, intelligent, kind, and beloved by so many people? To me, Eleanor Zelliot is everything any junior scholar could wish to become. Not only did she make an indelible mark in terms of scholarship in her field, but she went out of her way to work with and for the people she studied. To be thought of as following in her footsteps makes me feel both a serious burden of responsibility and a charge of inspiration and gratitude. I am so fortunate to be able to draw upon her hard work and to feel the goodwill that her genuine kindness and friendship has left in the community I am working with. While sometimes in discussion we get wrapped up in thinking about the unkindness and potential violence of academic pursuits to the point of paralysis, the memory of Dr. Zelliot has made me feel the true beauty that comes from seeking human understanding and connection. I deeply admire Dr. Zelliot’s ability to show the beauty and power of an oppressed community while also shedding light on caste oppression. I only hope that in my growing love for Maharashtra and its people I am doing any sort of justice to the comparison that others have made between us, and maybe one day I can feel that I deserve it.

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Mallory Hennigar

Urban Religion by Sara Swenson

A road runs through a neighborhood street in Ho Chi Minh City. On the right side of the road, the horizon is blocked by a high rise under construction

A road runs through a neighborhood street in Ho Chi Minh City. On the right side of the road, the horizon is blocked by a high rise under construction

November 3, 2017

Ho Chi Minh City is under construction. Walking out my door each morning, I face the skeleton of a high-rise being pounded into life. The road is dusty with building materials. All down the street, workers stand atop emerging sky scrapers, pressing new beams against the sun. I write my fieldnotes in a half-built mall. Inside workers fix bolts and electrical wires to bring it into being. Just outside, the electric eyes of a spectacle shop blink open and closed.

The new city grows on top of the old city, but both are vibrantly alive. In the hottest moments of the early afternoon, one may find a rare moment of quiet where the old city meets the new near the Saigon Bridge. A pagoda rests in the shadow of a lulled traffic overpass. Fruit venders rest in the shadow of the monastery. Drivers idle under the shade of the vending carts, picking through the oranges and mangos that are a reminder that the concrete does end somewhere. For many people I know, that somewhere is home.

The city growth is fed by aspirations. In the last five years, millions have moved here chasing work, education, marriages, and opportunities for success they feel are only available in Ho Chi Minh City. One mother who came here for her children’s education tells me, “Everyone wants to move to Saigon. Foreigners want to move to Saigon, Vietnamese people want to move to Saigon. Everyone comes here.”

Amidst the concrete, there are two places I most often see bare ground: in the courtyards of monasteries packed down by prayerful feet, and between the metal frames of new buildings packed down by ambitious hands. The growth of religious communities is inseparably intertwined with the growth of the market in Ho Chi Minh City. Religion is thriving in this urban environment, as is also documented in Philip Taylor’s edited anthology Modernity and Re-enchantment: Religion in Post-revolutionary Vietnam (2007).

The popularity of religion is most materially visible in the rising number of shrines appearing in alleyways and businesses. Small shrines to two squat, jolly business gods have become regular fixtures on fruit carts and cafes, at gyms, and in shop windows. Porcelain statues of the two men, rarely more than six inches tall, rest in polished wooden boxes, just large enough to contain a platform for offerings of fruit, tea, and incense. The two gods work together: one catches the eyes of customers and draws them in, the other entices customers to spend more. These miniature wooden shrines also occasionally house Quan Âm, the Bodhisattva of compassion. In the alley behind my apartment complex, a shrine is only just visible in the rubble of a neighboring construction site. Inside, a delicate figurine of Quan Âm diligently protects the project site from flooding.

As my time in Vietnam continues, I look forward to learning more about how urban life in Ho Chi Minh City is shaped by religious imaginations, and how religious life, in turn, is influenced by Ho Chi Minh City’s urban growth. One thing is certain: in this setting, one cannot begin to understand one without the other.

 

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Sara Swenson

Remembering Dr. Ambedkar at Dikshabhoomi by Mallory Hennigar

The stupa at Dikshabhoomi decorated to commemorate Ambedkar's embrace of Buddhism on Vijayadashami

The stupa at Dikshabhoomi decorated to commemorate Ambedkar's embrace of Buddhism on Vijayadashami

October 15, 2017

Whenever I read the writing of B.R. Ambedkar, I feel a spark of inspiration. This spark is what drove me to pursue my current project about the lives and practices of the people who chose to follow his lead when he took 22 vows to embrace Buddhism and reject Hinduism in 1956. Every year at Dikshabhoomi in Nagpur, the place where Ambedkar took these vows, hundreds of thousands of people gather to commemorate this momentous occasion. This year, I had the opportunity to visit Dikshabhoomi with a group of young Ambedkarite Buddhists on September 30. It was an experience that I will forever be inspired by and grateful to have had. While ostensibly the journey to Dikshabhoomi consists of pushing through crowds to quickly enter and exit the commemorative stupa (without even removing our shoes!), the time spent being shepherded through the stupa to pass our eyes over the Buddha statue was not what makes this event so special. Witnessing the vast numbers of visitors to Dikshabhoomi who Ambedkar continues to inspire, and feeling the energy and joy that his memory evokes is what makes this event so remarkable.

I visited Dikshabhoomi with the students of Nagarjuna Training Institute (NTI) at Nagaloka Center. These students have come from all over India to learn about Buddhism and Dr. Ambedkar. Like Ambedkar, these students come from disadvantaged communities classified as Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) by the government. Despite the fact that Ambedkar is such an important national figure as the author of the Indian constitution and leader of the Dalit movement, before coming to NTI many of these students only had a very cursory knowledge of who Ambedkar was if they learned about him in school at all. Following Ambedkar’s example, many of these students have fought all the odds – the expectations of their families and communities, gender discrimination, poverty, language and culture barriers – to continue pursuing their education at NTI. To visit Diskhabhoomi with them and chant “Jai Bhim!” (Victory to Ambedkar!) with them evoked feelings in me that are difficult to describe.

What I have learned from my experience with this community so far that I most wish to share with all of you back in our Religion Department is that we can never forget the revolutionary power of education. The mandate for everyone to do whatever it takes to get educated is one of Ambedkar’s most important legacies. It is so easy to become jaded to the idea that the things we say and do in the classroom can create big changes in our students. I admit, that after meeting a particularly brilliant student here who would sneak out to buy books on revolutionaries with pocket money even though her father opposed girls’ education, I was feeling more than a little despondent about the problems we face motivating our students back home. As teachers, we can often feel discouraged by our students’ underdeveloped knowledge consumption skills, but I think sometimes this may distract us from the need to inculcate a desire in our students to be knowledge producers. Of course, especially in today’s world where informational authority is more tenuous than ever, developing the skills to understand an argument and think critically are crucial, but we must also remember that the main objective of the primary and secondary education that many of our students receive is to train them to merely accept dominant, hegemonic social narratives. Even for those students who conceive of their own lives as easily fitting into this narrative, this kind of education dulls their motivation to learn in order to create rather than learn in order to consume.

The students with whom I celebrated Dr. Ambedkar’s life and legacy at Dikshabhoomi have so much vision for their futures and the future of their society, country, and world. Ambedkar’s legacy as a prodigious voice who contributed to numerous disciplines, producing work that shows the world from an underrepresented perspective lives on through these students’ dreams. If we want change in our society, we need to live in the legacy of people like Ambedkar. We cannot jealously guard our status as knowledge producers. We must do our best to share and spread the joy and empowerment we feel as knowledge producers with our students.

As a final note, if you have an interest to learn more about Dikshabhoomi and Ambedkar’s conversion, I would recommend reading Dr. Ambedkar’s speech at Nagpur on the day of his conversion and, if you have more time, his classic undelivered speech Annihilation of Caste. In addition to the students of NTI, I also want to give credit to the program that ran at Nagaloka Centre on October 3, 2017 on the topic of Prabuddh Bharat, especially to Dr. Bodhi from Tata Institute of Social Science in Mumbai for his talk on education, which very much inspired me to write this piece.

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Mallory Hennigar

Why Vietnam? by Sara Swenson

 [Image of green fields and a river in Vietnam over the wing of an airplane. The image is slightly foggy.]

[Image of green fields and a river in Vietnam over the wing of an airplane. The image is slightly foggy.]

October 4, 2017

I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on September 15th and have enjoyed reconnecting with several close friends whom I haven’t seen in nearly two years. I have also been introduced to many new people. Whether talking with old friends or new, one of the first questions I am often asked is “Why Vietnam?” It is a surprisingly hard question to answer!

Growing up in rural Minnesota, I never could have imagined life would take me 9,000 miles across the globe. When I moved to Colorado to begin my master’s degree in comparative religion, I started reading some books on meditation by a Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh. A group of self-proclaimed spiritual seekers from my university invited me to visit a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in the Rocky Mountains. I tagged along every week for a year and became intensely curious about the monastics who ran the temple. These monks were balancing the needs of two distinct populations: (1) a large group of first and second-generation Vietnamese immigrants and Vietnamese Americans, and (2) an equally large group of mostly white spiritual seekers from Denver, eager to learn more about the kinds of Vietnamese Zen they had read about from Thich Nhat Hanh. Instead of organizing these two groups as separate “sanghas” (meaning communities of Buddhist practitioners), the monastics facilitated monthly events where all members of both types of communities were invited to participate. The more I got to know the Vietnamese immigrants and Vietnamese Americans at this monastery, the more curious I became about how Vietnamese Buddhism in the United States differed from Vietnamese Buddhism in Vietnam.

When I began my Ph.D., my advisor Gareth Fisher encouraged me to study Vietnamese and visit Vietnam. I came for the first time in 2015, where I met many incredible Buddhist monastics and lay Buddhist volunteers. I learned about Buddhism’s centuries-long presence in Vietnam and its contested origins, coming from either India or China, or both countries at different times in different regions.

The friendships I developed with Vietnamese immigrants and Vietnamese-Americans in the United States, and even my early exposure to authors like Thich Nhat Hanh, did not occur in an historical vacuum. The sequences of events that enabled these books and relationships today largely stemmed from the world-shaking aftermath of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War – which is called, “The American War” in Vietnam.

 One idea I hope to explore moving forward is that of being an “intimate outsider” in Vietnam. While my language, upbringing, ethnicity, and cultural background make me an absolute “outsider” in classic ethnographic terms, the histories of our countries have profoundly influenced both sides of our cultural imaginaries. In this sense, the question “Why Vietnam?” encompasses far, far more than my research project. 

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Sara Swenson

Grateful to be Getting Started in Maharashtra by Mallory Hennigar

View of Wardha, Maharashtra from Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University.

View of Wardha, Maharashtra from Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University.

September 19, 2017

Hello all! I write to you from Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University in Wardha, Maharasthra, India at the very beginning of my fieldwork experience.

After traveling for about 24 hours and landing in one piece in Delhi despite a last minute flight change due to Harvey weather effects, I knew my first post would have to be about the gratitude I feel towards everyone who has helped me get here and also everyone who is continuing to help me while I am here. While at first, I wasn’t feeling particularly grateful towards the insanely rude United Airlines employees who ‘helped’ me to reroute my flights, I even had some gratitude to spare when all of my luggage arrived safely!

Traveling so far from home often makes me feel totally helpless, especially at first. I’m used to being able to get in my car and take myself wherever I want to go, whereas in the bustling metropolis of Delhi even crossing the street can be an immense challenge (for which I did indeed require the help of a kind woman who stopped to show me a safe passage at a particularly difficult intersection on my first day). Needless to say, when I’m already jetlagged, facing an Indian city seems almost impossible. However, the amazing directors and staff at the American Institute of Indian Studies (http://www.indiastudies.org), Purnima Mehta, Rajender Kumar, and Mini-ji, could not have been more accommodating and helpful. They provided me with all the information I needed and shepherded me around so that I would be prepared to face the mountain of required formalities for my arrival. I could not be more grateful to have the aid and support of such a wonderful organization.

I am also so grateful for the friendship of my colleague in the Anthropology department Alisa Weinstein who came to welcome me in Delhi before heading off for further travels at the tail end of her research year. Her enthusiasm for her work on tailors in Jaipur helped me to feel energized to begin my research despite my jetlag and anxiety.

After finishing up my two days in Delhi, I set off to Nagpur, Maharashtra – the location of my research project. I was able to meet with some friends who I met last year who were kind and welcoming as ever to a bumbling foreigner. However, I am especially grateful for the support of Dr. Lella Karunyakara of Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya and his students and staff who have been putting up with the inconvenience of dealing with all of the required registration paperwork to host a foreign student while also helping to secure housing, phone access, and every other required comfort for me. Not only has he done all of this, but Dr. Karunyakara has taken the time out of his extremely busy schedule as a Dean to read my work and offer guidance in my research. The amount of hospitality I have received is unparalleled and I cannot but feel overwhelmed by the gratitude I feel towards everyone I have met so far.

For me, travel to India is always an extremely humbling experience. While it certainly presents unique challenges, the opportunities to meet so many kind, intelligent, and talented people have always made me eager to return.

Of course, I would be remiss not to mention all of you back home in the Syracuse University Department of Religion who have supported me and prepared me for this amazing opportunity to fulfill my intellectual passions! I especially want to thank Dr. Tej Bhatia, my Hindi teacher in LLL, without whom I would be totally lost while here in India, as well as my ‘guides’ Drs. Waghorne, Gold, and Fisher who have helped me every step of the way.

I’m sorry to begin with such a sentimental post that recounts very little adventure, but I hope this will be resolved in my next post. Until I write again, I hope you all are having a wonderful beginning of year back in Syracuse! As the chill begins to set in, you can be grateful yourselves as you think of me sweating in Maharasthra.

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Mallory Hennigar

The Practice of Preparation by Sara Swenson

[Image 1: Cardiff Castle chapel ceiling with geometric patterns: Cardiff, UK]

[Image 1: Cardiff Castle chapel ceiling with geometric patterns: Cardiff, UK]

August 29, 2017

Greetings Syracuse students and company!

I am writing from Amsterdam in the Netherlands, where I am waiting to start fieldwork in Vietnam in ten days. In many ways, my fieldwork started weeks ago with language review, IRB protocol forms, and visa paperwork. After hearing the wonderful news that I had been awarded the Robert HN Ho Dissertation Research Fellowship in Buddhist Studies, I immediately emailed friends and contacts in Vietnam to let them know I would be returning this fall.

Starting my ethnographic project means starting a long process of changing my personal habits and way of thinking. Ethnography is equal parts research method and lifestyle, noun and verb. I have been practicing listening carefully in conversations and observing details around me that would be easy to overlook. I have also been trying to journal every day, to get in the habit of writing. The biggest change for me was buying a camera. I have never been much of a photographer. This decision was prompted by the realization that if I want to publish images from my fieldwork in the future, they will need to come from a quality camera.

 That said, a quality camera is only good in the hands of a quality photographer. I've been practicing my photography skills at every chance, to make sure my camera has the operator it deserves. I’m learning that photography isn’t an art form. It is a process of negotiation. Things move, colors change, people laugh, and the camera even turns itself off sometimes (in protest to my clumsy thumbs). Either way, it seems I very rarely succeed in taking a picture. Mostly, pictures succeed in taking themselves. I am one thread in a net of circumstances that sometimes captures something beautiful.

The same may be said of ethnography. Ethnographic texts are a product of circumstances and negotiations. Things move, colors change, people laugh, and language sometimes turns itself off – in shock, heartbreak, joy, or protest. As I prepare to start fieldwork, I have also been reviewing a few influential texts on ethnographic methods, to make sure my project has the ethically attentive researcher it deserves. For those who are curious about what this means, I’ll end by including a few helpful and informative resources, here:

  • Alcoff, Linda. 1992. “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” pg. 5-32 in Cultural Critique (20).
  • Creswell, John W. 2013. “Five Qualitative Approaches to Inquiry,” pg. 69-110 in Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
  • Creswell, John W. 2013. “The Process of Designing a Qualitative Study,” pg. 42-68 in Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
  • DeVault, Marjorie L. and Glenda Gross. 2006. “Feminist Interviewing: Experience, Talk, and Knowledge,” pg. 173-197 in Handbook of Feminist Research: Theory and Praxis. Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber (ed). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
  • Dewalt, Kathleen M. and Billie R. Dewalt. 2010. “Doing Participant Observation” p. 41-65 in Participant Observation: A Guide for Fieldworkers. 2nd Edition. Lanham: AltaMira Press.
  • Dewalt, Kathleen M. and Billie R. Dewalt. 2010. “Informal Interviewing in Participant Observation,” pp. 137-156 in Participant Observation: A Guide for Fieldworkers. 2nd Edition.  Lanham: AltaMira Press.
  • Okely, Judith. 2010. "Fieldwork as Free Association and Free Passage," pg. 28-41 in Ethnographic Practice in the Present. Marit Melhuus, Jon P. Mitchell, and Helena Wulff (eds). New York: Berghahn Books.
  • Rodriguez, Dalia. 2010. “Storytelling in the Field; Race, Method, and the Empowerment of Latina College Students,” pg. 491-507 in Cultural Studies: Critical Methodologies (10.6). Thousand Oaks: Sage Journals.
  • Stacey, Judith. 1988. “Can There Be a Feminist Ethnography?” pg. 21-27 in Women’s Studies International Forum (2.1).

 My next post will come from Vietnam! Until then, be well.

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Sara Swenson