Religion Research Blog

Amnesia by Sara Swenson

A green door and sign are all that remain of a former lunch restaurant, which has been demolished

A green door and sign are all that remain of a former lunch restaurant, which has been demolished

November 3, 2018

If my fieldwork has a soundtrack, it is the sound of sutra chanting over jackhammers. At 6 p.m. on an intersection in Thao Dien ward, I took an audio recording of the nuns. Their sound system amplifies them through the open windows. They fill the gaps between traffic horns and concrete drilling with song. Is a chant a song? Maybe using the word “song” in its symbolic sense: the way “singing” is really a feeling and not only a sound.

There is something very comforting about patterns in ephemera.

The high-speed construction and deconstruction of Ho Chi Minh City manifests itself as amnesia. Passing out my door I paused before a vacant lot. Was it a house, only yesterday? Wouldn’t I have noticed if I lived next to a vacant lot? But there is grass in the lot, and a pile of bricks, which are old. Nothing was demolished overnight. There must have been a fence. How could I not see what is next to me? I still don’t remember. Now I see the vacant lot every morning with the same vague confusion, like a forgotten name for a familiar face.

In time-lapse image of the city, most storefronts would be a blur, like the circle of constellations captured nomadically passing by night. The night sky, which is our closest image of eternity, can’t be captured in a fixed state that includes the dimension of time. We can’t time-lapse the stars.

I thought there was a coffee shop at this intersection. It wasn’t always a bread store, was it? I would have noticed a bread store. Soon enough the bread store is a fish store, and I never could remember what had been there, before the bread store.

When I was 22 I went to visit my grandparents in Arizona. They were snowbirds in flight. My grandpa had early Alzheimer’s, which accumulated on him as slowly and gently as a snowfall. His forgetfulness, that summer, was not so different from sleepiness. We took a trolley to the mall. Did we go for donuts, or only to explore? With his bad memory and my bad sense of direction, we took the same escalator up and down three times. I only realized it each time we passed the pet store. He was so excited to greet the dogs he didn’t recognize.

I think of what Nietzsche said: “the advantage of a bad memory is to enjoy the same good things many times, as if for the first time.” Surely, it had been a fence. Now someone is raising chickens in the vacant lot. My mind can make no sense of spring chicks in October, but accepts everything with the same happy confusion.

Who was it that got lost in the desert, because each night there was a windstorm that changed the landscape of the dunes? When place shifts unrecognizably, patterns are the last things which are traceable. We find our own footprints in the sand and feel hope that someone else must be close. There’s nothing wrong with this. It keeps us going. Maybe we will find an oasis, searching for the friend of ourselves. It’s an old story and I can’t remember who wrote it.

We can’t time-lapse the stars, but we can track the sky-circle of constellations. Patterns of activity over the ephemera of landscape.

In Saigon the circle is: mid-afternoon rainfall. Which streets flood. The hours of high traffic. Pastry vendors on bicycles. The toothless man selling lottery tickets. The driver’s hunch at the wheel. The same charity driver, every Sunday.

 

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Sara Swenson

Mid-Autumn Festival by Sara Swenson

Outside of a rural pagoda, a young girl admires a string of paper lanterns lit by candles. The lanterns have been decorated by local children with wishes for peace, health for their parents, and success in school

Outside of a rural pagoda, a young girl admires a string of paper lanterns lit by candles. The lanterns have been decorated by local children with wishes for peace, health for their parents, and success in school

October 2, 2018

During the 8th month of the lunar calendar, the full moon heralds a special holiday for children in Vietnam. Historically this day was a time for predicting harvests and forecasting the year ahead, based on the color of the moon, weather patterns, and other seasonal phenomenon. The tradition of the “Mid-Autumn Festival” was inherited through Vietnam’s cultural influences from China though its origins are uncertain. Families prepare a variety of special cakes called “Mid-Autumn Cakes” and decorate candle-lit lanterns to celebrate the largest full moon of the year. Mid-Autumn cakes and fresh flowers are given as ancestral offerings to include all members of the family, even those who have passed away.

Among the charity groups I research, the Mid-Autumn festival is regarded as a fun and festive time to plan events for poor or orphaned children. Many charity groups plan parties at orphanages or bring fairs to impoverished rural areas. Children play games, win prizes, are gifted candy and school supplies. Ideally, volunteers and recipients alike can lose themselves in the magic of the night amidst song, dance, and the buttery glow of candle lanterns.

Over time, the Mid-Autumn festival became increasingly associated with children. During my conversations with charity volunteers, I heard two reasons for this change. First, I heard that in Vietnam’s traditional agricultural society, parents were so busy with the harvest season they were unable to give much attention to their children. Mid-Autumn became a night to reunite families and shower children with love and appreciation. Second, I heard that the association of Mid-Autumn with a humorous fairy-tale gave the holiday an increasingly child-like quality.

There are many variations of this story, but most contain two characters Chu Cuoi and Chi Hang. Chu Cuoi is often portrayed as a slapstick little man in brown while Chi Hang is an elegant, fairy-like woman in a silvery gown. In the story, Chu Cuoi found a magically powerful tree near his home. In one version, he warned his wife not to garden near the tree, but she disregarded him and went to plant some flowers by the roots. When she cut into the roots, the tree began to uproot itself and fly towards heaven. Chu Cuoi hurried out, clung to the branches, and was soon sky-rocketed up to the moon where he lives today. In another version, everyone knows not to pee at the base of this magic tree, except Chu Cuoi’s wife, who offends the tree and is shot up to the moon in its branches for her bad behavior. One volunteer told me that (no matter how the story goes), the Mid-Autumn full moon is the one time each year when this funny couple can return to earth, bringing treats and fun for everyone to celebrate with them. Many volunteer festivals end with a grand song and dance performance by Chu Cuoi and Chi Hang. I watched one brave Chi Hang climb up a ladder in a rainstorm to sing her song for a crowd of children, who circled her with their lanterns oblivious to (if not further excited by) the ankle-deep mud that flooded her show.

Mid-Autumn season is not without its problems. Some volunteers were concerned that the holiday had lost a lot of its traditional meaning – families no longer gather to home-make cakes and lanterns. One volunteer pointed out that the switch to plastic lanterns from bamboo lanterns meant the loss of a traditional craft and contributed to the country’s problems with trash and pollution. When I excitedly listed off all the kinds of Mid-Autumn cakes I had eaten, but remarked about how absurdly expensive they seemed, another friend told me that the price of cakes is high because they’ve become a common token of bribery. (Namely, to win favor with a boss or teacher, one might gift authority-figures an expensive, elaborate box of these cakes.)

These realities aside, others I spoke with regarded the Mid-Autumn festival as a magical time to pause and appreciate family, show love to children, and admire the beauty of nature. I join many kinds of charity projects, some of which can be very hard and heartbreaking. During this season, I got to enjoy the joy of joy. Watching crowds of children scream with glee over winning a game, smear themselves sticky with treats, and dance as only children can dance was a pure gift for me. I will always remember Mid-Autumn Festival fondly and will smile at the sight Chi Hang in the harvest moon.

 

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Sara Swenson

To Hell and Back Again: Ghost Month in Vietnam by Sara Swenson

Three elderly women are seated in chairs at the front of an assembly hall. They are about to receive gifts to honor their role as mothers. Behind them is a banner of a woman receiving gifts from her children. On the banner is another thin sketch, representing the recipients' memory of presenting gifts to her mother. The layered imagery evokes tradition and memory as important aspects of filial piety.

Three elderly women are seated in chairs at the front of an assembly hall. They are about to receive gifts to honor their role as mothers. Behind them is a banner of a woman receiving gifts from her children. On the banner is another thin sketch, representing the recipients' memory of presenting gifts to her mother. The layered imagery evokes tradition and memory as important aspects of filial piety.

September 4, 2018

The first time I came to Vietnam, I didn’t realize that I had arrived in time for a major holiday called “Vu Lan.” I have been eagerly looking forward to my second Vu Lan as an anniversary of sorts. Many of my current friends and research participants are people I met on this day, three years ago, wandering into pagodas and meeting holiday volunteers.

Vu Lan falls during the seventh month of the lunar calendar which is often generally known as “Ghost month.” During Ghost month, the veil between the spirit world and ours is a little thinner. On one hand, this means we can be closer to family members who have passed away. Strolling around the streets of Ho Chi Minh City last week, I’ve noticed several business owners standing outside their shops dropping colorful paper cutouts into small fires. These cutouts are offerings to deceased loved ones and include everything from paper money, clothes, cars, and cellphones. Once burned, these paper objects can manifest in the spirit world to keep loved ones cared for and comfortable.

On the other hand, the proximity of the spirit world can also manifest in unwanted company. After visiting several doctors for what felt like anemia and exhaustion, one friend described for me how her parents brought her to a pagoda for an exorcism. She hadn’t been sleeping well. One night she awoke, immobilized, to the terrifying sense of someone pressing on her chest. The head monk performed a ritual to invite her ghost to take Refuge in the Buddhist triple gem, so it could move on to a better life. However, my friend was concerned that the service hadn’t been effective. Now, she felt even more tired and prone to inexplicable mood changes. We hypothesized that maybe she had an especially strong, old ghost, who had only been aggravated. I explained the problem to a very thoughtful nun I know, who has mentioned “mental ghosts” to me before. She invited me to bring my friend to her pagoda on the day of “Vu Lan” to talk with a high-ranking nun.

We met at the pagoda. I was arriving late from another service which had featured a number of special singers and a grand presentation of gifts to elderly women from the community. I found my friend sitting outside the assembly hall where a lecture on filial piety was just finishing. The hall was packed with listeners who soon started chanting. During the chanting some attendees stood to present gifts of food and clothing to the nuns, who sat delicately in their golden ceremonial robes.

The different parts of these two ceremonies emphasized important aspects of “Vu Lan” slightly less related to ghosts. First, the holiday falls at the end of the monastic rainy season retreat in Vietnam. During the previous months, monastics had been minimizing travel and concentrating on their studies. Many people believe this makes their merit stronger, so making offerings to monastics at this time also brings extra luck to the donor. Second, Vu Lan has become something of a Vietnamese Mother’s Day due to its associations with the story of Maudgalyayana, Muc Kien Lien Bo tat, or Mulian. (I’ll admit, I’m adopting the Chinese name Mulian so I don’t have to keep typing Maudgalyayana.) Mulian has a vision of his parents’ afterlives and sees that his mom is suffering in hell for her miserliness. He descends to hell, faces all sorts of demons, and saves a whole bunch of other people along the way. The Buddha recognizes his filial devotion and decides to help him out. Eventually, following a stint as a talking dog who sounds a little like my border-collie mix, his mom is restored. At other Vu Lan ceremonies I attended, people performed plays and read poems retelling this story. While Vu Lan is said to be a day for remembering parents and demonstrating filial devotion, moms and grandmas are the ones who most often get called to the stage for presentations of gifts and flowers.

Of course, the filial care performed by burning offerings of paper goods for deceased loved ones and presenting flowers to your grandmother is one in the same. The resonances between these acts also shows how family responsibilities to the living and the dead are never truly distanced by death… but anyway, back to my friend and her ghost.

When the service ended, lunch began. We toured the main hall of the pagoda looking for the nun who had invited us. She was bustling about at top speed with a bright smile, carrying chairs and bowls to keep the lunch running smoothly. Hundreds of people poured into the pagoda for a free meal, especially for a free meal at a pagoda on a powerful holiday, which can can bring extra luck. We ate our soup and were offered ice cream. The ice cream quickly disappeared into the sticky hands of children, who cruised among the tables like a school of circling ice-cream sharks.

Soon the nuns met us again and we found a seat in the relative quiet gap between the altar and a display of artificial trees representing the four seasons. Under the red plastic leaves of an autumn which never comes to Saigon, my friend recapped her illness. When she was finished, the nun inquired about my friend’s meditation practice, travels, and general “inner strength.” At first when my friend described herself as weak, I thought she was referring to her waiflike build. Only as the conversation carried on did I realize she was talking about her “inner” fortitude. The nun recommended a chanting practice, followed by a return to meditation, as ways to build one’s inner strength and resist the influence of ghosts.

I’ve heard before that ghosts in Vietnam can come in two forms: outside ghosts and “mental ghosts.” Mental ghosts are not a euphemism for mental illness, but index ways ghosts can influence our thinking and behavior. If we are tired, frustration, or unsure of ourselves, we can quickly succumb to the influence of ghosts that transfer their anger and distracted energy. Really, this isn’t so different from the way people transfer their feelings among one another: maybe an angry ghost cuts someone off in traffic. That person arrives at work and shouts at an employee. The effect of feelings transfer is similar, if extraworldly.

I must admit, I thought I might see a dramatic exorcism that morning. What I joined instead was a calm, cross-legged conversation about meditation books and breathing methods. My friend is still working on her health, but what struck me in conclusion was that, perhaps, the veil between “Modernistic” and “supernatural” types of Buddhism may be just as thin as the veil between spiritual and material worlds. The physical science of meditation can be just as valuable for ghost management as for stress management, without needing to collapse one into the other. The Buddhist typologies I studied before arriving in Vietnam are often as much of a beautiful fluid hodge-podge of activities and meaning-making as the layered practices I joined on “Vu Lan.”

 

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Sara Swenson

Mamma Bear by Sara Swenson

Two rainbow--striped lottery tickets on a wooden table

Two rainbow--striped lottery tickets on a wooden table

August 7, 2018

This morning, I went swimming and ate fried chicken with a woman everyone calls “Mama Bear.” I’ve known Mama Bear for three years now. I honestly don’t understand why Mama Bear talks to me, except that she’s kind. She’s only a handful of years older than me but carries herself with a lifetime of cool. She often shows up in slouchy jeans and a tilted trucker cap, with manicured eyebrows but no pedicure, which suggests that her beauty means business. She speaks her mind like it’s the law, yet commands her kingdom graciously. She’s one of the smartest people I know but won’t say clearly whether she holds a high school diploma. It also doesn’t matter. I don’t say that so much as an academic as a girl from rural Minnesota: the world could use a lot more people like Mama Bear.

The first night I met her, Mama Bear rescued me on the street outside a tattoo parlor at 4 a.m. My Vietnamese language classmate in the U.S. heard I was studying Buddhism in Vietnam and introduced me with her tattoo artist in Saigon over Facebook. It turned out he was part of a Buddhist charity organization and invited me to join their charity event for a day. I hadn’t slept most of the night for fear of missing my alarm, and had also taken every pill in my first-aid kit to force an armistice between my running nose and leaping stomach. Instead they combined forces to make me dizzy. I stumbled out of a taxi toward a crowd and wound up under Mama Bear’s arm on a bus. She wore a red baseball cap and ironical smile. I told her that men in America order lobsters to impress their girlfriends, and fell asleep in her lap. I never read an ethnography where a trained researcher fell asleep on her informant after making symbolic generalizations about seafood. Mama Bear clearly didn’t care. She took a selfie with me drooling on her and we laughed about it later.

That day, I hadn’t asked the right questions to prepare and wasn’t carrying enough cash. Mama Bear paid for my bus ticket. She bought milk for me to give to the orphans we met at what felt like a hundred monasteries. Later I learned it was only a dozen. At one orphanage we visited, the outside vendors had sold out their milk. I didn’t know what to do or offer. She pointed to a toddler in a corner.

“Just play with that kid,” she commanded. I am critical of other Americans who show up in developing countries to play with orphans for an hour, and leave taking more than we gave. But I played with that kid.

I finished preliminary fieldwork, came back to the USA, and stayed in touch with Mama Bear over Facebook. This year, we met up again. Not much had changed. We went out a lot. Did charity. Went swimming. Ate a fair amount of Texas Chicken. She continuously lectures me about my need for a better haircut and to quit being so fatalistic about romance. If I take better care of my beauty, she says, I’ll wind up with a good man, and maybe even a rich one, she jokes. It never hurts to be practical.

As I got more comfortable with my fieldwork interview process, I kept pestering Mama Bear to let me interview her. I meet a lot of people with good salaries who do charity. They amaze and inspire me because they could very well live their lives without noticing the poor, and still decide to care. Mama Bear, however, struggles to make ends meet. Yet more than anyone else, she introduces me with other charity organizers. She sends me news about street children in the middle of the night. Many people in difficult situations sell lottery tickets on the street to make some pittance of an income. There are only two people I’ve noticed to buy lottery tickets every time they’re offered: Mama Bear and the fruit vendor across the street from my apartment. When Mama Bear buys lottery tickets, she talks to the sellers respectfully, like an equal. When the sellers approach us, she never makes it feel like an interruption to our conversation. I don’t have that kind of command of self. She does. She has drawn it from the deepest well of herself.

Today after lunch, Mama Bear announced she was coming to my house to look over my “research documents.” Honestly, to let me interview her. I had all my questions for her in heart, but not on paper. We had never set a time to interview and mostly she’d laughed at my invitation. Yet here we were on her motorbike soaring toward my apartment while she lectured me about helmets and cancer and I warned her that I still didn’t have any good coffee at home. We stopped for coffee at a place I suggested. She told me that the coffee was too Korean for her but drank it anyway. I told her I didn’t have a clue what that meant.

We went back to my home and talked for five hours. I made a sweeping show of setting a microphone on the table and opening a ready-made document of interview questions that really had nothing to do with her. I joked that I was being professional. Fancy-like. Pulling out all the stops. She didn’t wait for me to finish pulling the stops out. She only reminded me to press “record” halfway through. She just sat down and talked. She talked the way a torch burns.

Mama Bear buys lottery tickets because she once sold them. She isn’t a Buddhist, but drove to a monastery once to pray that the Bodhisattva of Compassion might kill her. She had two toddlers, a miscarriage, and was pregnant with her third child when she was driven out of her home. She had no job, no education, and nowhere to go. She sold lottery tickets at a table on the street because she was too pregnant to walk. As she described her story, she skipped over all the parts where she was alone, or how she wound up at the pagoda begging to die. Instead she concluded with a long soliloquy about love.

She said that now, she loves in order to set an example for her babies. She said she loves so that they will know what it means to love completely, with all one’s heart and energy. She wants to show them how to be a good person, so they can recognize other good people. She does charity to remind herself that some people have it even harder than she did. She doesn’t believe in karma because too often, other women talk about karma to justify the suffering they’ve come to bear. She doesn’t think about future lives, because, she says, this is the only life we know we have. We have to live it the best we can, while we can.

The light of the day fades and we slide off my couch. The ice in our takeout coffee cups melts on my floor. My interview questions go black on the computer screen. Mama Bear wraps an arm around my knees and cries on my living room floor. She doesn’t pause her story or wipe her tears. She just talks. Talks boldly. Talks the way she is. I cry when I see her crying. I suspect this is no longer an interview. There is nothing academic about it. It’s just pain. And courage.

 I don’t know how anyone goes where she’s been and returns.

Even as Mama Bear cries, and talks, and burns like a torch, she keeps asking if I understand everything she’s saying. Every word. I am honest about the words I do not know in Vietnamese. She writes them on a piece of clean white printer paper. There she is, crying and writing, still taking care of somebody else even while she’s falling to ash. I see why people call her Mama Bear.

Before I tried to be a religion scholar, I spent four months as an inner-city pastor. When I signed up, apparently nobody in power understood it was a church whose congregation was close to fifty percent homeless. The established middle-class congregation had absorbed its homeless ministry and made them family, without reporting the demographic change to anybody in leadership. When I arrived, I thought I’d be coping with the usual challenges of expanding attendance and church programming. I had no idea I’d be mopping up vomit, counseling the occasional drug addict, and joining hospital visits for homeless guys who may or may not have had both HIV and cancer.

I was a cocky 23-year-old and a perfectionist who rapidly determined I was in way over my head. I had grown up in rural Minnesota where there is no small share of poverty and violence. But it is a different thing to know a friends’ parents beat her in the silence of a country home than to pray with a man whose face has been knifed open on a public street corner, with nobody intervening. At least, I felt so at the time.

I asked authorities to relieve me of the position. They did. The church was closed within a year. I’ve always wondered if I could have done better. I started my PhD program trying to prove myself, thinking that, if anything, I could retreat among the books I’ve always loved in order to try and make the world a better place.

I retreated to my books, but found myself stepping through their back covers into an even bigger city, among new people who have suffered different kinds of hardships, but still known the same physical pains of violence and hunger. I don’t know how I keep ending up with good people who, I suspect, deserve better than I can offer. While I am no longer in a position to be a leader, counselor, or spiritual advisor, I am learning that perhaps the one thing I can do is try to amplify people’s stories. There are people like Mama Bear who have been to hell and back, and still take milk to orphanages. Her story is important.

Mama Bear buys lottery tickets. She takes her babies on vacation and buys them hamburgers even when she doesn’t know when she’ll get another paycheck. She has worked jobs where her bosses call her “it.” She has also worked for rich people who refer to her, kindly, as a guest rather than an employee. She can be foul mouthed and painfully honest and is exasperatingly picky about her coffee, but strives to recognize everyone around her as, “con nguoi,” people. She sees others as equally capable of her same depth of suffering, and therefore the same super-human love which eventually pulled her through.

Close to 9pm, we called it a day. Mama Bear went through my fridge and asked skeptically whether my milk tea bottles had gone bad yet. We went out for soup at a place that I regularly frequent. Mama Bear told me that the soup quality was terrible and then told me to watch out for taxi drivers who might try to rob me. Every time I went on a motorbike taxi, she commanded, I must send her a picture of the license plate. I told her I take motorbike taxis four times a day. Whatever, she said, send a picture. Then, as if completing the same train of thought, she described a news story about a motorbike taxi driver who had his throat cut by two passengers who wanted to steal his bike. He was only 26 she said. So young. The bike was only worth about $200. Compassion goes both ways.

It’s tempting to make Mama Bear into a hero or saint. I know that’s not my job. When I tried to describe her strength through trial to my dad, he said, “She’s a wounded healer.” Maybe that’s the term. This isn’t the kind of conversation I imagined trying to cram into a dissertation, partly because I know how much my own feelings are crowding into her story. What do you call religion when it winds its way into the darkest and brightest moment of a person’s story? The clearing of the moon from an eclipse?

I have a mounting stack of these things I’m calling “fieldnotes.” In some ways, they are a record of my time and research in Vietnam. In other ways, they are the piecemeal mementos of relationships that have come to represent so much more. I don’t know how I’ll balance the academic and personal functions of these documents someday. But I do know this: one would not be possible without the other.

 

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Sara Swenson

“Why Ask Why” Questions, and the Order of the Universe by Sara Swenson

A woman in a blue button shirt and straw hat down walks down a path. In front of her are a herd of water buffalo. Mountains silhouette the background.

A woman in a blue button shirt and straw hat down walks down a path. In front of her are a herd of water buffalo. Mountains silhouette the background.

July 12, 2018

We all piled out of a mini-bus at noon, on a day so hot the sky no longer looked blue. The other volunteers gathered around a river’s edge, pointing something out and chatting excitedly. I had just woken from a nap in the backseat and stumbled out under the sun’s glare, asking “What are we looking at?”

                No one understood me. I was tired, mumbling, and sure I had used the wrong word for “looking at.” I tried out a few others, asking, “What do we see? What are we watching? Are we admiring the view, right?” Finally, someone figured out why I was confused. She laughed brightly and said, “You should just ask ‘Why did we stop the bus!’” It was a much clearer question, but it wasn’t a question I had thought of asking.

I wanted to ask a “what” question. They told me to ask a “why” question.

                As a student research, and as a human being, I am learning to navigate all sorts of questions I hadn’t thought of asking. I am also learning to ask why I hadn’t thought of asking them. These “why ask why” kinds of questions lay right at the boundary of our perceptions of reality. I came into fieldwork thinking I would be learning things about other people. Most often I am surprised by what I learn about myself.

Because my dad is a protestant pastor, I grew up sensing, feeling, and seeing firsthand how religion provides existential meaning, community cohesion, and a shared framework for understanding the world. I learned to expect certain things as absolute reality – like the length of a natural life span, or the progression of linear time. This shared framework for understanding the world is called a “cosmology.” Through a “cosmology” we inherit ideas about time, power, purpose, and social order. Cosmologies provide us with our vocabularies for asking certain types of questions. Cosmologies influence everything from how we view niceness to how we think about daily activities. Cosmologies contain our “why ask why” kinds of questions.

Many people are influenced by religious cosmologies even without having a religious identity. For example, most people I know in the U.S. do not believe in reincarnation. Even the slang phrase “YOLO” (You Only Live Once), relies on the idea that people are born and die following one long, linear progression of time. The cradle and the grave are like the beginning and end of a sentence, in which we must summarize ourselves under a 100-year word limit.

This idea, that we only have one life, is reinforced by hundreds of years of Christian influence on European and American cultures, teaching that this lifetime is our one opportunity to reconcile with God. In Vietnam, I have met a number of people who would not call themselves Buddhists, but they are still concerned about karma and believe in reincarnation. Here, Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian philosophies and practices have infused local cosmologies.

Through my fieldwork experiences, I am surprised to find all the ways my personal cosmology is shifting. I have not set out to adopt local religious practices into my worldview, but it’s also not possible to be not affected by daily conversations with Buddhists or not-quite Buddhists who still believe strongly in things like karma. To be sure, this does not remotely make me Vietnamese, and the ideas I’m picking up are also limited to my interpretation of ideas as I think I’ve heard them described.

 Here’s an example.

Many people I talk with in Ho Chi Minh City believe in a karmic “law of attraction.” Due to the influence of good and bad karma in past lives, certain inexplicable coincidences are credited to this larger web of fate. When I bump into people unexpectedly on the street, we greet each other by exclaiming we must have a “predestined affinity” to meet today. The more uncanny coincidences I encounter, the more likely I am to interpret significantly less surprising coincidences as semi-magical.

This is all to say, that when I set out to study Buddhism in Vietnam, I didn’t realize it would take me to the edges of things I have always taken for granted. The tectonic plates of multiple worldviews are rubbing against each other in my own perception of reality. I am being challenged to think about everything from death to the mundane differently. Every day is a slight shift in thought, feeling, behavior, and language, that rearranges the topography of my world. The “why” behind my “why ask why” questions is changing.

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Sara Swenson

Left Side, Right Heart: Ritual Negotiations on the Buddha’s Birthday by Sara Swenson

"An image of the author lifting a metal dipper to the shoulder of a Buddha statue. The statue is about two feet tall and stands in the center of a raised ornamental garden at the entrance of a Buddhist auditorium hall. The statue platform is framed by a hanging trellis of pink flowers. Two other identical Buddha statues are visible on either side of the figure being bathed."

"An image of the author lifting a metal dipper to the shoulder of a Buddha statue. The statue is about two feet tall and stands in the center of a raised ornamental garden at the entrance of a Buddhist auditorium hall. The statue platform is framed by a hanging trellis of pink flowers. Two other identical Buddha statues are visible on either side of the figure being bathed."

June 6, 2018

The Buddha’s birthday celebration in Ho Chi Minh City started a week before the actual holiday. “Ngay Le Phat Dan” in Vietnam is also internationally known as Vesak, Buddha Day, and Buddha Purnima, among other names, and falls on different dates on different countries. I knew the pagodas I am involved with were planning rituals and activities, but I didn’t know where some of my lay friends (non-ordained Buddhists) would go to celebrate the holiday. I decided to post an inquiry on Facebook and received invitations to 21 different events. These included 5 lectures at monasteries, 7 Buddha bathing rituals, 4 charity drives, 3 lunches, a music concert, and a presentation of flowers.

Incidentally, when some of my Facebook friends saw posts and invitations from other strangers on my page, a few noted that I was going to monasteries they knew, or events they thought sounded interesting. We decided to go together and I made introductions along the way between old and new contacts. I’ve recently published a piece on the importance of social media in fieldwork and how these kinds of unexpected connections disrupt the idea of a bounded “field site.” Those with access to Bird Library can check out the article: “Mixed-Reality: Social Media as Ethnographic Method,” Journal Of Theta Alpha Kappa 42, no. 1.

For my research, I work with a wide variety of charity groups, both lay and monastic, that already make the margins of my project difficult to define. Volunteer events dive in and out of various institutional settings like monasteries and hospitals. Sometimes monastics lead or host projects at their monasteries, but also rely on lay volunteers to help execute the work. Sometimes groups are run entirely by lay volunteers, but also use monasteries as bases to house charity offices, or to distribute goods during community events. Many volunteers also choose to work with multiple groups, making multiple charity groups incredible porous. During dozens of conversations I’ve heard that people get connected with new groups through curiosity, friendships, convenient timing, and, most often, social media.

I initially struggled with the idea that I was personally informing my fieldwork too much through social media. Even before my fieldwork technically started, my Facebook page became a site through which volunteers from different groups met each other and started to do charity projects together. I became a bee cross-pollinating the various groups I visited, introducing volunteers to new groups, while the same volunteers then introduced me to more groups. Was I helping to produce the very social trend I claimed to be studying? Obviously, yes. However I also realized I had to stop thinking of myself as an agent in driving the volunteer trend. Rather, the trend was happening by and through my research and social media connections, the same way it was happening across other volunteers’ personal pages. I am one node in a process that is much bigger than me. The best way to study this is by analyzing my own experience of becoming a node.

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Sara Swenson

These are the thoughts that raced through my mind again as I introduced people who were inquiring about each other’s comments under my post or via Facebook Messenger. Social media brought together many gracious friends who helped me understand the holiday from diverse interpretations and experiences, and who also let me join in as they negotiated what to tell me about Vesak. I felt I got a richer understanding of the dynamic ways of explaining Vesak precisely because new faces were brought together in response to one post. These connections likely wouldn’t have happened organically… and yet I often hear that social media is just as infused with chance, grace, and fateful encounters as daily life, raising the question of whether anything really only happens “organically.”

In attending the myriad services, ceremonies, and projects I joined, I was also struck by how differently each person articulated the reasons for celebrating the Buddha’s birthday and how to perform the Buddha Bathing ritual. In general, most people agreed that the water should be poured over the Buddha’s left shoulder first… but after that, it seemed all options varied. Left shoulder, right shoulder, back? Head? No, just the shoulders. Should we also drink some of the water? What did this signify? Would the metaphysical efficacy of the ritual be undermined if we did it incorrectly… or was the whole point to purify one’s thoughts, so that the actions didn’t really matter? Some friends negotiated it both ways, shifting between the importance of philosophy and concerns about the metaphysical effects of actions.

Social media, and Buddhism, are both material networks of practices and beliefs that shape the lives of those who subscribe to them. These networks are, in turn, reshaped and affected by the participants who constitute them. One person, one service, one institution, or one research project can contain conflicting multitudes of interpretations, motivations, and activities at any given moment. Social media raises many new methodical concerns for participant confidentiality (for those who want privacy), yet also opens possibilities for these new connections, conversations, and generative tensions like those raised, unexpectedly, by the Vesak post. Generative tensions arise the way the tide, striking shore, leaps into waves that wouldn’t rise without stones. Seeking to understand social media as both “method for” and “product of” fieldwork is like turning analysis away from rocks versus water to consider the waves we make together.

Emotional by Mallory Hennigar

At a function in Orissa responding to violence against women on May 1. At bottom left is an image of Dr. Ambedkar and at bottom right is an image of Savitribai Phule.

At a function in Orissa responding to violence against women on May 1. At bottom left is an image of Dr. Ambedkar and at bottom right is an image of Savitribai Phule.

May 11, 2018

Emotional

As my time in India is coming to a close, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about emotions – mine and others’. Strangely, after so many months of joy, happiness, and contentment, and of course occasional bouts of anxiety and sadness, with the arrival of the over 100-degree days of summer I have begun to feel anger. In my head and in conversations with my American friends my reaction to this anger is to analyze it, to try to explain why I am feeling this way. The consensus seems to be that the heat and a bout of stomach problems certainly hasn’t helped my subconscious preparation to return home by emotionally separating from my life here. Whereas earlier people telling me I’m good was a matter of curiosity to me, as I wrote previously in this blog, now it riles me up. “You know you’re a good girl,” one boy told me after he criticized my performance at a program which was protesting violence against women and the lenient sentencing of rapists for which I was given less than five minutes to prepare to speak. “No, I don’t know,” I responded, “Honestly, I’m not interested in being a good girl.” I’ve also noticed that I’ve mentally linked my anger with my sense of my regional identity as a ‘Bostonian.’ While I was riding on a train from Odisha to Nagpur, packed in like a sardine but without any of my friends so therefore ‘alone’ in the Indian sense, I snapped at a woman who woke me up from a hard-won nap to offer me help. Part of me was ashamed for my aggressive response to a person seemingly concerned for my well-being. But in this moment another bigger part of me was proud of responding boldly in a situation where someone clearly thought I looked vulnerable, something that I immediately associated with my Boston-area upbringing.

Not surprisingly, my anger is met with confusion. Considering that I can barely understand why I’m running so hot these days, it is not a surprise that my Indian friends and interlocuters are even more baffled by my strange responses to seemingly innocuous conversation. One day while I was riding in a cab, the radio was turned to a love advice segment. The theme of the day was ‘anger management.’ Perfect, I smiled, internally mocking myself, exactly what I need. The DJ explained that anger management is very important within relationships, which can often end due to anger problems. He then turned to an anger management expert who offered the advice of wearing a silver ring on one’s index finger to cool hot tempers and also to surround one’s self in colors of gold and yellow to evoke memories of childhood. It amused me that the Western psychological concept of ‘anger management’ was being paired in this way with Indian ideas about emotion and the body. The darkness of domestic violence lurking just beneath the surface of this conversation in a radio segment about love made the advice to wear a silver ring seem especially jarring from my perspective. I could not help but think of how deeply American society is marked by Freudian understandings of the need to unearth the roots of emotion when I compared it to this seemingly superficial advice.

I am constantly being told that Indians are emotional. This stock phrase is offered as an answer to my questions about why things are the way they are, as criticism of Indian society, or as praise of loving bonds between friends and family members. And yet there have been so many times when I am shocked by my perception of people’s lack of emotional response in so many scenarios where I would not be able to contain myself. For instance, people very calmly and coolly discuss recent, sometimes violent and untimely, deaths of loved ones with me. Equally so, people are shocked by my seeming lack of emotion about being so far from my family. Honestly, it was really difficult for me to conceive of exactly what people meant when they said that emotions are culturally dependent until I have experienced it for myself. What is most shocking is how wrong it feels when someone does not emotionally respond in what I perceive to be a “correct” way. I’ve never thought of myself as being someone who was particularly judgmental about emotions. Being raised in a time when phrases like ‘everyone processes in their own way’ are ubiquitous, I didn’t even know that I ever thought about emotions as being correct or incorrect. While perhaps in America I might judge someone’s behavior as cold or an overreaction, I feel pretty secure in the fact that someone else in the room agrees with me. It feels very different when you’re the only person in the room who can’t understand the emotional response that others around you are experiencing. I think I’ve begun to learn the correct responses to certain scenarios. At first, I felt shame and awkwardness of unearned respect when people called me Didi or ‘older sister.’ I was shocked when I recently felt a prickle of annoyance when someone who I knew was younger than me wasn’t calling me Didi. But, retraining your gut or your heart or wherever your emotions are supposed to be stored is hard and tiring.

In the end, maybe the biggest reason for my anger is the heat. While I poke and prod my brain to try to fix my anger, maybe it is just as simple as needing to literally cool down. I’ll try on my silver ring and contemplate the ultimate unknowability of ourselves and see if I can find a happy place in between.

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Mallory Hennigar

Sacred (Web)sites by Sara Swenson

Sara Swenson working at her laptop

Sara Swenson working at her laptop

April 30, 2018

Admit it. At least once in your life, you’ve woken up with a headcold and googled the symptoms. Fatique. Stuffiness. Headache. The further you dug into the world of online self-diagnosis, the more convinced you became that it was something more serious. This could have lifelong health repercussions. This could even be something potentially… karmic.

In the last seven months of fieldwork, I have met a lot of people whose spiritual convictions come from the internet. When I misread a wedding invitation and arrived two hours early, I found myself watching youtube videos of a Nigerian minister dubbed into Vietnamese with the bride’s co-worker’s mother who wanted to persuade me that Christianity could cure HIV/AIDS. Another time I ran 45 minutes late to lunch with a fellow southeast Asia scholar because my motorbike taxi drove below walking speed. At each stoplight the driver turned around to show me another page of the Falung Gong pamphlets he was distributing. He had been sick for months, he explained, until he googled his symptoms and realized that his ailments were fundamentally moral. Now with daily exercise and meditation, he explained, he had more energy, more money, and a gentle spirit. I could trust Falung Gong, he explained, because it was a practice, not a religion.

Why the internet, and why not “religion”? Like that driver, some of the people I’ve talked with are skeptical of organized religion and institutions. They are suspicious of the vested interests of religious leaders. Committing to following one group or spiritual master could also mean devoting valuable resources of time and money to a system with hidden problems. The internet, however, is not only free to access, but also free to interpret, bend, combine, or leave. It is the buffet option of belief and practice.

The internet is also accessible during interstitial moments of boredom at work or waking from a fitful sleep, while many brick-and-mortar buildings require commutes during visiting hours. This isn’t to say internet activity is always at odds with organized religion: in the same restless moments, someone dedicated to a religious path may also access articles by their teacher or play videos of a soothing chant. For at least two of my friends, these kinds of restless midnight searches lead them from general agnosticism into new, definitive religious identities.

The internet is, in many ways, like the city itself. Urban anonymity is both a source of moral anxiety and creativity. On one hand, many of my friends and contacts describe the city as a dangerous place, full of strangers seeking to take advantage of the unsuspecting. On the other hand, when asked, few say they want to move back to their hometowns. Despite its uncertainties, the city is also a source of unexpected work opportunities, new activities, cosmopolitan tastes, and space for self-reinvention.

The internet and the city, alike, are sources of anonymity, exploration, and abundance. One must be careful about where one registers or shares information, but these hyper-networked spaces can also open endless gateways into new ways of understanding self, community, and the cosmos.

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Sara Swenson

Functions by Mallory Hennigar

Mallory Hennigar being welcomed at the function in Maal, UP

Mallory Hennigar being welcomed at the function in Maal, UP

April 22, 2018

As is the case for any foreigner, my time in India has been packed with invitations to various ‘functions’ and ‘programs.’ ‘Functions’ and ‘programs’ are catch-all words for a party, celebration, commemoration, or gathering. The generality of the word ‘function’ means that I never quite know what I’m getting into by accepting an invitation. Usually, however, the functions I have attended are an apparently endless series of overly long speeches to which no one quite pays attention – sometimes interspersed with song and dance performances. I am always amazed during these functions because while it seems that no one is really enjoying them, instead of the function slowly fizzling out, people are still eager to get their turn to stand up at the mic and talk to a hot, bored crowd or sing their favorite song regardless of their talent level. Indian functions are also famous for the intensely long and boring welcoming procedure for every presenter. Someone from the crowd is invited by the emcee of the event to offer a gift of flowers or some other token to the speaker while everyone claps and takes photos. Again, while almost everyone finds this process tedious, usually most especially the honoree, to not welcome the speakers would be unthinkably rude. From my American perspective, one of the most important aspects of being polite and honoring a guest is to not take up too much of their time. This Ben Franklinesque logic is the antithesis of that which supports an Indian function.

I now know that if I am invited to a function it usually means that I will be implored to stand up and speak, or even more horrifyingly, be asked to sing. Therefore, I usually try to avoid large public functions at all costs. Recently, however, I was tricked into being the ‘chief guest’ of a function in a village in Uttar Pradesh (UP). I planned a trip to stay in the home of a Nagaloka alumna in Lucknow. Organizing this venture was a little difficult only because I have a lot of trouble understanding UP accents, especially over the phone. Therefore, I was more than a little relieved when I successfully met her at the airport. Before I came, she had given me the phone number of a male alumnus who also lived nearby, but who I didn’t know well. I had thought that she had given me his number because she wouldn’t be able to meet me at the airport and she was sending him to receive me instead. The true purpose of his involvement was that he was organizing a function to celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti (Ambedkar’s Birthday) in his village nearby to Lucknow and wanted me to attend. I somehow missed these important details in my conversations with him about when I would arrive in Lucknow.

On the day of my arrival, we all went to Maal his village. I was a little bit tired from the journey and wanted some rest, but he was anxious to get us to the village, so we all set off in my friend’s family’s car. Considering that I had no idea that I was going to a function, never mind a function in a village an hour’s distance away, I was shocked at how long the journey was taking. Despite all the hurrying, when we arrived we learned that the function, which was scheduled to begin at 3 PM, wouldn’t be starting until after 8 because the speaker was arriving late. As we sat waiting for the function to begin, someone casually asked me if I’d just say a few words tomorrow about my experience. I told them no, that I didn’t want to. They implored me, so I said fine that I could introduce myself and say a few things. Eventually, my friend, her brothers and I all had to return to their house in Lucknow before the program even began as it had become too late for us to stay.

The next morning, my friend asked me if I wanted to return to the village for the function. I told her that it was fine with me if we didn’t go because I really didn’t want to speak, and I didn’t want to cause trouble to her brothers who would have to drive us all the way back and forth from the village again. Ok, fine, she told me, no problem, we would attend a function in Lucknow instead. A few hours later she told me that she and her brother decided that we had to go back to Maal because the boy would feel very badly if we didn’t come. So, of course I agreed that we could return. I packed a bag with my notebook, recorder, camera, water bottle – ready to sit in the back and mingle with the crowd, listen a little to some of the speeches and talk to some villagers. When I arrived, however, these plans to simply melt into the background were dashed, as instead to my deep humiliation when we drove up to the function I heard my name being amplified throughout the village. When I heard my name being announced I gasped and covered my face. “You’re not happy?” my friend asked me. “No!” I replied in English, too embarrassed to even keep it together enough to respond in Hindi, “Why would I be happy?” A path was cleared for the car and I was ushered straight onto the stage as if I were a celebrity. I felt deeply embarrassed.

Already on the stage was a respected community member and teacher who I knew from Nagaloka. He told me that he heard I was giving a speech, to which I responded that this was the first I was hearing about it. He told me that I was the chief guest. “Why?” I asked him, “I have nothing to say!” He said, “Because you’re English.” “That’s not a good reason,” I said. I felt especially mortified to be a ‘chief guest’ alongside this man who has devoted his life to working for Ambedkarite causes and Buddhism in India and had prepared things to say, while I was pushed onto the stage as a foreign display piece. While the legitimate first speaker was talking, I sat, furious, trying to overcome my embarrassment and figure out what to say. While everything in me felt wrong and horrible, I knew I had to say something in front of this crowd to repay my friends for their hospitality. I managed to string a few lines together about how Dr. Ambedkar inspired me and sat down, disappointing everyone with how sort my speech was, even though they got to eat lunch immediately after I finished.

After lunch, the program continued, and I asked if I could sit with the people in the audience instead of on stage. I was told no, that it wasn’t special if I sat in the audience. I was presented with some commemorative Buddha trophy and was made to hand out scholarship awards to villagers, with which of course I had nothing to do with. Then all of a sudden after a series of further speeches, the emcee announced that I would have to be leaving now and I was whisked off back to the car where people were told to make way and not bother me as I got into the backseat. My friends told me how happy all the villagers were to see me, that I was probably the first foreigner to be in that village since the British left. Naturally, that comment didn’t assuage my feelings.

I know that this is not a unique experience. Nevertheless, it was truly mortifying to be forced to confront all of my worst insecurities about how people understand my presence here. While I know that I’ve taken time to get know people and made some deep connections, it’s still hard not to feel like maybe I’ve done everything wrong when I get this kind of ‘special’ treatment for being foreign. In the end, I had to try to feel happy that these people got what they wanted from me. Hopefully my presence there helped them to draw a crowd who would listen to the other prepared speeches and programs of the day. While I have to say I know I won’t particularly miss functions or programs when I return stateside, they have been a huge piece of my experience here. I told my friend I was writing about functions and he told me that I should mention that at the last function he attended there was a disco ball and that disco balls are an important part of setting the right tone for a function. I’ve yet to attend a function with a disco ball, so perhaps I’ve just missed all the fun ones and there might still be time to change my opinion on Indian functions after all… somehow I think not.

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Mallory Hennigar

Two Types of Marathons, or "Learning to Love the Wall" by Sara Swenson

photo features a close up of the program panel of a treadmill lit with the message 'SYS OVRLD ERROR' signifying a 'System Overload Error'

photo features a close up of the program panel of a treadmill lit with the message 'SYS OVRLD ERROR' signifying a 'System Overload Error'

April 3, 2018

The temperature had reached 90 degrees by 7 a.m. Sweat ran down my back before I even entered the gym. After two minutes of jogging, the expanse of white wall in front of my treadmill was winning our staring contest. A few nights earlier, while writing fieldnotes for the day, I was struck by a whim to register for the Da Nang marathon this August. I love running, I reasoned. Exercise is great. So why put my second marathon on hold just because I moved to Vietnam? I booked my spot, settled into bed, and then realized: I would have to do 800 miles of training through the streets of a bustling megacity.

On my first, and only, attempted run outside, I could barely sustain a speed walk while skirting traffic and leaping over the occasional gutter of burning trash. This was going to be a marathon, not a Parkour tournament. I decided I would have to train on a treadmill.

I would have to learn to love that wall.

I am, by nature, not the most logical candidate for either fieldwork or distance running. I am not a patient person. Until grad school, I prided myself on pulling all-nighters, overloading my schedule, and still getting everything done mostly on-time in brilliant feats of exertion. I still prefer to write in 10-hour blocks rather than doing a little bit every day. I like to cut to the chase. I don’t like to take lunch breaks. I should be a sprinter. Marathon training, and fieldwork, however, are all about learning how to “pace yourself.”

I am fortunate to work with an advisor, Gareth Fisher, who has always encouraged me to remember that fieldwork is about showing up. The best ethnographies, he says, are the ones where you can tell the writer was present as something significant was unfolding. For instance, maybe a researcher takes a lunch break under a tree every single day for an hour. This goes on for months. Other people are also sitting around, quietly eating lunch. The researcher wonders if maybe they should be more proactive – choose a more exciting tree.

Then one day, an accident happens in the street across from the tree. Everyone springs into action. If the researcher hadn’t been there, under that tree, at that time, they wouldn’t have been able to participate in the rescue. They wouldn’t have seen how the rescue took place. They wouldn’t have been able to talk with the other rescuers about why they reacted the way they did after that moment. Maybe years later people in the neighborhood still talk about this rescue. It draws the community together. The story of the rescue becomes grander and more elaborate with each retelling. Even people who napped through the original event say they were involved. Because the researcher was present the first time, they can understand how the story changes and see what significance it has gained for the community. After months of taking a lunch break under that same tree, the researcher just happened to be at the right place at the right time. The researcher kept showing up.

Long runs and lunch breaks have something in common. They feel a lot like down time. Showing up to routine tasks, having daily conversations about the weather, liking a billion Facebook posts, or plodding out endlessly slow miles in front of a wall, is where the real work takes place. There is no cutting to the chase of a marathon or an ethnographic dissertation. Both of these tasks rely on processes, committing to real relationships, and slowly building intangible connections – between people, ideas, and nerve fibers.

When I feel anxious that I am showing up to the wrong events, not asking the right questions, and generally advancing my project too slowly, I know it is time to go for a run. For the first few weeks, I couldn’t stand the sight of the wall. As I stared at the blank expanse, with nothing to distract me from the sweltering heat or my aching legs, I found myself feeling strangely angry with the whole situation and just wanting to go home. My spot for the marathon, however, was already booked. I could do nothing but become intimately acquainted with this pervasive feeling of discomfort. I learned to greet it like an old friend.

Then I noticed the same feeling arising when I had to cope with gaps in my language skills, unreliable transportation, or unpredictable changes in a field schedule. My research includes a few charity organizations who serve populations with chronic or terminal illnesses. Some days, it is discouraging to know how little I can offer compared to what is needed. It can be tempting to slink away, to not show up, to feel strangely angry and just want to go home. Then I remember: I know this feeling already. I know this feeling well. It is my wall.

Fieldwork is full of incredible highs and lows. I have made many embarrassing language mishaps, cultural faux pas, and even some downright dangerous judgment errors, but am also gaining some of the deepest friendships of my life. I love what I do. As I strive to write through my project, my project is also rewriting me. I am learning to find joy in daily routine. I am learning to find meaning in just showing up. I am learning to take lunch breaks. I am learning how to maintain my pace through harder and easier days; sore feet and runner’s highs.

I am even learning to love the wall.

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Sara Swenson

Welcoming the Year of the Dog by Sara Swenson

a small red banner with Vietnamese writing hangs from a potted tree covered in yellow flowers

a small red banner with Vietnamese writing hangs from a potted tree covered in yellow flowers

March 21, 2018

Beyond contest, the Lunar New Year is the biggest holiday in Vietnam. This year the holiday (called “Tết Nguyên Đán,” or “Tết” for short) ran approximately February 13th-23rd. The dates change every year depending on the lunar calendar. Preparations for the holidays began weeks in advance, with red envelopes and decorations going on sale as early as December, and songs about the arrival of spring looping from taxi radios to shop aisles across Ho Chi Minh City. Potted fruit and apricot flower trees graced business lobbies and home entries. By early February, golden flower petals drifted down from the tall trees lining city streets, as if nature also wanted to get in on the celebration.

Several friends invited me to join their families for the holiday. Tết is the only time each year when many city migrants get enough time off from work or school to visit home, so their invitations took me to all three distinct regions of the country. Over 22 total hours of journey time, I took buses, motorbikes, trucks, and airplanes through Vietnam’s southern ports, misty north, and rolling mountains of the central highlands. I tried to join as many friends as I could, while also taking advantage of opportunities to meet monastics who had returned to their home pagodas amidst otherwise busy travel schedules.

Tết is very much a time for two things: family and food. I tagged along on visits with grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, second cousins, and extended family members whose distant ties couldn’t quite be remembered, but who were still family, after all. At each house we visited, we stayed for snacks of sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, dried coconut, ginger, fruit, and candy; exchanged envelopes of lucky money to seed fortune in the new year; and chatted merrily until someone swept us off to another home. I have never eaten so much good food in my life!

As a time of significant symbolic and astrological transitions, the Lunar New Year is also imbued with religious meaning and practices. When visiting my friend in the south, we went to a fortune teller who gave us advice on how to attract success in the year ahead. The augur offered suggestions on everything from beauty tips, relationships, colors to wear, and days to visit Buddhist pagodas to maximize the spiritual efficacy of our prayers. In the north, another friend and I bundled up at midnight to rush down to the hamlet pagoda for a “night watch” ceremony, where the oldest man in the village welcomed the year with an offering that was followed by a community feast of sticky rice, chicken, and beer. Afterward, my friend’s grandfather rushed home to be the first person to arrive at their house – as the first person to enter a home on the new year influences the luck and tone of the whole year. In the central region, when the days of the new year were coming to a close, my friend’s family excused themselves after dinner to visit church grounds and say farewell to the family ancestors. Tết is also a time when spirits come closer to the world of the living, truly bringing family together across even the veil of death.

New Year traditions in Vietnam vary widely across regions, families, and households. If I learned anything during my travels, it is that there is no single “Tết,” but perhaps the incredible joy and energy of the holiday is generated precisely through the abundance of activities, rituals, and gatherings. I was honored to spend these days with so many welcoming families and strengthen my friendships with those I visited. As one friend’s grandmother said, “Spending a night at a home is like spending a year together.” Following her words, I gained many years of friendship through sharing these special days of Tết.

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Sara Swenson

On Being Good and Feeling Ugly by Mallory Hennigar

Requisite selfie with Mamta after she helped me make my hair look presentable.

Requisite selfie with Mamta after she helped me make my hair look presentable.

March 13, 2018

            One way that I learn as an ethnographer is by trying to understand how people interpret my foreign behavior and manners. While this way of learning has resulted in rewarding revelations both about the culture of my fieldsite and about myself, it is truly mentally exhausting. In my life in the US, I have the luxury of spending relatively little time thinking about what other people think of me. This is because I can quickly interpret social cues and hints to understand how my actions and words are being perceived by others around me. Here in India, I am faced with a language difference in addition to learning a whole new set of cultural codes, so I spend a lot more time and agony puzzling out what it meant when someone laughed at me or raised an eyebrow or if I should have responded to someone’s question in a different way. Since my success as a researcher also depends on my relationships and the kindness of strangers, I sometimes feel desperate to fit in and be liked in a way that I haven’t felt since I was eleven years old in middle school. This combination of factors makes it feel like by the end of some days my sense of myself is completely unraveled, and I have to take time to remind myself that I don’t need to take everyone’s casual comments to heart.

            At first, the most difficult comments to handle were about my physical appearance. This is an experience I have shared with many of my foreign friends who travel regularly in India. “Why is your hair like that?” or “Why is your face so red?” were constant frustrating questions. “It’s 100-degree heat!” I wanted to shout in response, “How else am I supposed to look?” I also got almost daily commentary on whether I had lost or gained weight since my arrival, which as an American woman was particularly psychologically challenging in a way that no one here really appreciates. I implored my friend to stop commenting on my weight because it made me feel sad, and even then, she was never truly able to stop herself. Every small mark on someone’s body is a cause for conversation in India – every pimple, every mosquito bite, every freckle. Under this constant scrutiny, I felt hopelessly ugly and dirty. Despite people equally as often telling me that they liked my shirt or thought I looked beautiful, all I could think was that I was being complimented out of pity, as people clearly thought that I didn’t even have rudimentary knowledge of how to care for myself.

One day I was speaking with a friend about all of this. I told her that in America we don’t often criticize someone’s appearance to their face so bluntly and regularly. She explained to me that if no one comments on changes in her appearance, she actually feels very bad. She said that to her, these comments feel like care, that people are taking notice of her health and well-being. She thought my negative reaction to these comments must mean that Americans think its insulting if someone assumes they can’t take proper care of themselves. I had to agree with this astute analysis, since this was exactly how I was internalizing these comments. Since then, I’ve learned to take appearance related remarks a bit more lightly, although I admit that I’m still finding it difficult to accept them as a form of care.

            A comment that I constantly receive, and which remains baffling to me, is that I am very good. I know it seems disingenuous to complain about being called good, but the more times people say it, the more I want to know what this extremely vague compliment actually means. Even after very short conversations with people, they will very often tell me that I am good. “But why?” I press them, “What am I doing that’s good?” It is certainly an exercise in extreme ego to ask people to explain why they think I’m good, but as I am studying morality and ethics it seems like a missed opportunity not to. One girl’s elaboration on what was ‘good’ about me lead me to another unfamiliar term: “When I watch you, your way of talking is good, your behavior is good… you’re very simple.” ‘Simple,’ I thought, ‘now what does that mean?’ I learned that I am simple because I dress plainly, I don’t wear a lot of jewelry, it seems like I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my looks. So, I thought sardonically, ‘simple’ is just a way for people to put a positive spin on how disheveled they think I’m always looking. I thought my ‘simplicity’ in the Indian sense is merely a product of my being ‘simple’ in the American sense about Indian dress and beauty aesthetics and habits. I eventually learned that simplicity does have some of the connotations of stupidity that it does in American English as well when a group of girls concernedly told me that I need to be more careful about people trying to take advantage of me because I’m so simple and honest that I can’t recognize when others have bad intentions.

Another common explanation of my goodness is that I can manage and adjust. A few days ago, someone told me that to them I seemed like a perfect person because I was able to mix with all different people even though I don’t know them. My acceptance of any food that is given to me or my willingness to jam myself into an over-crowded auto-rickshaw are other markers of my ability to ‘manage.’ At first these comments made me feel hyperconscious of my foreigner status and that people assumed that I wouldn’t like Indian things just because I was a foreigner. But what I came to realize is that all of the things that I am perceived as managing well are things that the person speaking to me doesn’t like themselves. In fact, I’m sure that if I was in the US and had to eat mediocre dorm food, ride on a crowded bus, and talk to strangers all day, I probably wouldn’t be managing well at all, but my desire to fit in and be ready for any experience that might come my way makes me forget to be frustrated. Often the situations that I manage are some of the most memorable and enjoyable – like when I took an auto with so many people that some of the boys had to stand on the back bumper. What I’ve learned is that I can manage almost anything as long as I’m with people I trust and whose company I enjoy.

People often contrast my alleged goodness with their less satisfactory experiences with other foreigners. These compliments, unlike most of the others, I always greedily accept and make me feel particularly smug and self-righteous. While my pride at being told that I am the least foreign-seeming of the foreigners is really yet another mark of my desperation to fit in and be liked, I have to say that after meeting some fellow ex-patriots I cannot disagree that maybe I am a little bit good by comparison. If I try to judge my foreigner fellows with the most compassion I can muster, I can’t help but appreciate my own good fortune to be able to come to India as an ethnographer and not in some other capacity that forces me to stay aloof. I met some British NGO workers who were constantly talking about how their insurance policy barred them from partaking in many activities that I had since come to consider part of my average day. For instance, one was chastising the other for riding on a motorcycle, telling her that she risked injury. I listened on guiltily remembering all of the motorbikes I have casually hopped on the back of for the sake of participant observation or simple enjoyment with friends. Catching the look on my face, the NGO worker said, “oh it’s fine to ride on back roads, don’t worry!” After my conversations with them and some others, I felt fortunate that I have the freedom to approach my life here with a spirit of optimism and a desire to make connections rather than primarily with fear and anxiety. Although I often feel nervous that I’ve done something wrong or that I’m being misunderstood, I’d rather have this anxiety than be so concerned about injury, illness, or attack that I can’t accept a kind offer of assistance from a friendly person.

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Mallory Hennigar

Ye Ishq, Ishq Hai Ishq Ishq: A Love Song in Lahore by Ann Grodzins Gold,

Ann Grodzins Gold, now and then

Ann Grodzins Gold, now and then

February 20, 2018

Syracuse University Student Malavika Randave asked Watson Professor Ann G. Gold to write a reflection for a student-initiated publication called The International.
The international tells stores that are of interest to international students. Please take a moment to read Dr. Gold's piece, "Ye Ishq, Ishq Hai Ishq Ishq: A Love Song in Lahore."


Ye Ishq, Ishq Hai Ishq Ishq: A Love Song in Lahore
by Ann Gold

It is May 1968; I am 21 years old, a college drop out. My then husband and I have made our way from Germany to Lahore by train, bus, and rides with other travelers. En route from Turkey to Tehran, we were fortunate to meet two Pakistani brothers, on their way home from the London School of Economics. Their names were Akbar and Abbas. They were somewhat older than we were. We learned that their family had been refugees from Kashmir at the time of partition, and were now re-rooted and flourishing in Punjab. The two brothers were equally fluent in English, Urdu, Kashmiri and Punjabi. My husband and I lacked any knowledge of South Asian languages, and knew little indeed about regional history, colonialism, or partition.

When we re-surfaced in our traveling companions' city a few weeks after parting in Tehran, they took us under their wings with that famous Asian hospitality, and we spent many delightful evenings in their company. At their homes we met the young women in the family, who scolded me for my drab attire, and on several occasions dressed me in silk and gold.

Akbar and Abbas introduced us to a third and younger friend, Aki, and the five of us spent a lot of time cruising the city in the same car that had taken us across much of Turkey and Iran. Most of that time is a blur to me now. It was a heady mix of passion, poetry, congeniality, delicious food, and blazing May heat unlike anything I'd ever known. The relief of evenings was unparalleled in pleasure. Memory's selective processes illuminate just a few moments from several weeks in Lahore.

One particular night Abbas, the most exuberant of the three men, proclaimed with his overflowing energy and booming joviality: "Now, we will go make an attack on some firni . . . . " After we savored this lovely, cooling, milky delicacy – purchased from one of many small vendors who occupied an entire street -- he demonstrated with panache how to smash the clay bowl to the ground.

My especially cherished and most vivid memory is of a song playing on the car radio: ye ishq ishq hai ishq ishq ('this love, is love'). Abbas explained to us after turning up the volume in the car that this was a song about love reigning supreme, love being more important than all names or beliefs. He told us that the song had verses in multiple tongues, that it denied the differences dividing Hindus and Muslims, and told of an all-powerful "religion of love." I later learned this was a qawwali, a musical genre of devotional performance that had moved into popular films. The song's refrain and melody seeped into my brain, and with it the emotional pitch we had shared in the car.

Many decades afterwards, in another lifetime, I downloaded the lyrics, and learned their author was a well known Urdu poet, Sahir Ludhianvi. His verses do indeed speak of a "religion of love" (mazahab-e-ishq). They assert that "neither [Muslim] sheikh nor [Hindu] Brahmin knows anything of love, which in itself is the single dharma and faith." The opening verse is framed in the imagery of quests, caravans and wayfaring travelers, making it all the more appropriate as the theme song for our encounter with Akbar and Abbas, a half-century ago. Now in 2018 and I have an ongoing friendship with their extended family, many of whom live in Texas.

Lahore was my first experience of South Asia. I had not been to India yet, and had no inkling that India would become for me a second home, and the source of inspiration for my research, writing and teaching life.


Ann Grodzins Gold is a professor of Religion and Anthropology at Syracuse University. Her research is concentrated on religion and culture in North India. Her research and travels have taken across the world. This is an account of one of her travels.

Originally Published in The International on their Facebook Page.

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Ann Grodzins Gold

Love by Mallory Hennigar

A rose from Nagaloka's gardens

A rose from Nagaloka's gardens

February 15, 2018

Love

On 7 February upon entering the canteen for breakfast, many of the students greeted me with a smile and a handshake saying, “Happy Rose Day, Di*!” After I asked them about Rose Day, they proceeded to explain to me that Valentine’s Day has been expanded. 7-13 February each have their own “day” related to love: Rose Day (7), Propose Day (8), Chocolate Day (9), Teddy Day (10), Promise Day (11), Hug Day (12) & Kiss Day (13), culminating in Valentine’s Day. But, it doesn’t end there! After Valentine’s Day, a second week begins to celebrate the darker side of love: Slap Day (15), Gift Return Day (16), Kick Day (17), Quarrel Day (18), Try to Convince Day (19), Breakup Day (20), & Find Another one Day (21). A true whirlwind of emotions in the style of a Bollywood melodrama would ensue if anyone decided to earnestly celebrate these days. Turning Valentine’s Day into a two-week What’sApp greeting image-filled** extravaganza is a true Indianization of the holiday. All that I had previously heard about the celebration of Valentine’s Day in India was that some conservative people saw it as an imposition of Western immorality and protested it by burning Valentine’s Day cards and the like. Therefore, I was amused to find not only that Valentine’s Day has survived these attacks, but has flourished!

Due to the young adult ages of the people with whom I have been spending most of my time here, I have been learning quite a bit about love among today’s Indian youth. For instance, the first time someone told me that they “proposed” to someone, I was shocked because I assumed they meant they proposed marriage to them. I then learned that “proposing,” means telling someone you love them. However, I was shocked again because I discovered that quite unlike popular American dating customs, a proposal, i.e. declaration of love, is required at the very beginning of a relationship to establish someone as your boyfriend or girlfriend. While in arranged marriages, marriage takes place before falling in love, in the Indian dating scene, love is supposed to happen before dating even begins. Relationships are largely conducted via phone calls and text messages with occasional public meetings. These days, many parents allow their children to choose their own marriage partner, but pre-marital relationships are usually under near constant surveillance if they are disclosed.  

I have come to appreciate how much marriage has faded in importance in America by the contrast of how truly central marriage remains here in India. Women I have just met on the bus or in a shop will ask me, “Shadi ho gayi? (Has your marriage happened?)” before even asking my name. Another common question, “when is your marriage?” often proves difficult to answer. I have been definitively told that I absolutely must marry before age 30 even if my studies aren’t yet completed. If I explain that I might not have anyone to marry since even if I don’t find anyone myself, my parents won’t arrange it, people shake their head in dismay at the sorry state of American society and I am told that someone simply must find me an Indian boy. “Why don’t people in your country marry?” I have been asked more than once. To which I reply, “marriage isn’t as important in America.” “Yes that’s good,” people will say, but will then reflect on the horrors of ‘live-in arrangements’ or ‘love before marriage.’ While my initial American response to these moralizations is variously frustration or amusement, in the end I remember that in India, love often leads to danger. Certainly, across cultures love can easily lead to danger, and I do not mean to diminish the very real risks that people take for love that goes against their familial or cultural norms in America. But in my conversations here in India about love, murder and suicide almost invariably come up as very present risks of falling in love outside of marriage, across caste or religious lines, or against heteronormativity. It is startling how many people have a story about a friend who has committed suicide because of a love affair gone wrong.   

While we often idealistically claim that love knows no boundaries and crosses all barriers, I have found that conversations about love, dating and marriage often leave me feeling the least prepared to respond and the most culture shocked. My American ‘individualism’ creeps up on me in these moments and my internal monologue is something along the lines of: “We should love whoever we want wherever we want! And who needs marriage anyway?!” But what I have come to realize through these conversations is that the word ‘love’ means something different in India than it does in America – it comes with a whole set of connotations, associations, cultural systems, and ideals. To any anthropology student this isn’t a shock, but to me I must admit, it has been sometimes shocking to experience it, even as I can intellectually understand it. Love is universal in the sense that all humans love other humans, animals, places, things, etc. – we all have the capacity to love. But how we express love, think about love, and maybe even how we feel love is different.

Here at Nagaloka, every day the residents perform Maitreya Bhavana (friendship-love feeling) meditation, the last stage of which is to try to feel love for every person in the whole world. This is an undeniably beautiful way to end each day and a reminder that no matter how many different shapes and shades that love has, we can all recognize the capacity to love and be loved in every fellow human being.

So, I suppose I will end by taking this opportunity to wish everyone a most happy Kick Day! 

*Di – short for Didi, meaning older sister

**What’sApp – for those who have not experienced it, What’sApp is an instant messaging program which is extremely popular among all Indians with data plans on their smartphones. A popular practice among all age groups is to send greeting card style images to one’s friends. For instance, on “Chocolate Day” I received a What’sApp message from a woman that included an image of a basket filled with Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate bars with the phrase “Happy Chocolate Day” written across it.

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Mallory Hennigar

Caring by Foot by Sara Swenson

A young woman carrying a plastic bag on her arm, walks along a busy city street at night. Her silhouette is hazy against the glare of traffic lights. Several trees line the left side of the photograph.

A young woman carrying a plastic bag on her arm, walks along a busy city street at night. Her silhouette is hazy against the glare of traffic lights. Several trees line the left side of the photograph.

February 5, 2018

On Thursday nights, I join some friends who give away homecooked dinners to homeless people around Ho Chi Minh City. The young mother who organizes our gathering prepares the meals herself. She has plenty to keep her busy between work and family, yet she takes several hours each week to carefully cook and package each of the 130+ meals that will be distributed.

Two weeks ago, I invited a friend I met volunteering with another organization to join me for this Thursday night dinner run. For the sake of confidentiality, we’ll call her Jewel. Like Jewel, many of the charity workers I meet don’t have fixed relationships with just one organization. They tend to volunteer for multiple different groups, whenever their free time and interests align with the task at hand. We agreed to meet at the usual gathering point, and Jewel offered to drive me on her motorbike. Motorbikes are the fastest and easiest mode of transportation in Ho Chi Minh City, though notoriously not always the safest. Most charity runs happen with two people by motorbike: one person drives while the other carries the food. Jewel was already waiting for me when I arrived with 28 meals in Styrofoam containers and a large sack of milk pouches. I loaded my arms full of plastic bags and Jewel balanced the milk pouches between her knees while she drove. We turned onto a major street and stopped almost immediately when we found a group of four dusty, middle-aged men laying out cardboard to sleep on near the steps of a bank. We exchanged meals, thanks, and smiles before setting off again into the night.

It was easy to spot people bedding down on sidewalks and ATM kiosks. An elderly woman was laying out blankets in front of a freshly locked store gate, lit by the glaring neon lights of shops that were still open. A single mother was soothing her baby on a highway curb. I spotted a young man leaning on a park bench, but Jewel pointed out that he was only on a cell phone. We drove on.

We were chatting about Tet, idling at stop light, when suddenly Jewel’s motorbike sputtered to a stop. She broke out laughing. I did not. At the thought of having to push her bike while carrying 21 dinners and a sack of milk, the bags on my arms suddenly felt much heavier. We rolled the scooter to a vendor advertising bike repairs but the woman manning the stand couldn’t get her husband to wake up. We rolled on to another stand. Along the way, an uber driver stopped to ask if we needed a push. We remounted the bike. The young man set his foot against our back pedal to push us through traffic to a bigger repair shop. I nervously clutched the bags of meals between my knees and crushed one of the containers as we flew down the street, eerily soundless without an engine. There, the shop owner kicked-started our bike without a problem and refused to take any payment for his time. I felt a growing sense of irony. We had set out to do charity work, and instead we had become charity recipients from all the people who were helping us.

The bike died a second time at the next stoplight we hit, where a young couple rescued us with another motorbike-tow. 10pm had closed in on us and we were met by the blank stares of locked shop gates.

“We’ll have to finish our work on foot,” she joked. I laughed at the image of us toddling down the street with all this food under arm. We’d have to finish the job when her bike was fixed. Jewel directed our rescuers back to her home, where we rolled her bike inside around 10:30pm. I was already recalculating my schedule: if we put the remaining meals in her fridge to distribute them tomorrow, what time could I meet her again? While I was thinking, she pushed her keys and phone into my hand and took the milk sack out of mine.

“We’re going to look very strange,” she said, “Delivering rice on foot!” She laughed and set off down the street in her delicate golden sandals and a polka dot dress.

I jogged after her. “I thought you were joking!”

We crossed the street, followed the highway, and jumped the highway divider to give a meal to another elderly woman sitting on the sideway. “You aren’t even wearing good shoes!” I chided her. Jewel, however, was undeterred. We had a task to complete. Neither my pessimism nor her shoes could slow us down.

We walked close to 7 kilometers (over 4 miles) until midnight searching out people in need. While we walked, I was surprised again by how many people we had encountered already had dinners. Our group is hardly unique in Ho Chi Minh City: many friends like mine congregate at someone’s house to prepare meals and give them away to people in need. This informal charity infrastructure permeates the city to the point that I joked, “I think we need an organization to organize the organizations. How do we know if everyone gives away food on Thursdays, but no one gives away food on Mondays?”

Jewel shook her head and reminded me that this wasn’t the point. “A meal like this costs only 10,000vnd [0.44 cents US].” She implied it wouldn’t take much for people to be able to purchase their own meals. Rather, she explained, giving away food was only a small help, to show people that they are still cared for… but giving away meals alone, “doesn’t solve the problem.”

I was skeptical that we could find another 21 meal recipients wandering around on foot in the middle of the night, but it didn’t take us as long as I thought. As we gently set the last two packets of milk next to the head of a sleeping cyclo-driver, we finally relaxed and went off in search of a late dinner for ourselves. We split a few glasses of sugarcane juice and Banh Bao at a sidewalk café and marveled at how quiet the streets got after midnight. While Jewel daydreamed aloud about traveling to Korea, I quietly admired my friend’s dedication to finishing our volunteer work. She had never paused for a moment to put her own troubles ahead of our task.

I count how lucky I am every day to meet people like her, and like the mother who organizes the food distribution. Many of the people I meet hold no illusions about the impact they can make – they know offering one meal doesn’t solve the bigger problem of urban homelessness. Yet, that reality doesn’t stop them from doing whatever they can. Even if it the job must be completed on foot.

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Sara Swenson

New Perspectives by Mallory Hennigar

One of the gopurams of the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai

One of the gopurams of the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai

January 24, 2018

Over the years, Nagaloka’s students have come to Nagpur from 25 of India’s 29 states. One student from Madhya Pradesh told me that she never dreamed of having friends from outside her home-state before coming to Nagaloka. Similarly, for me, staying at Nagaloka has been an amazing opportunity to meet people from so many states that I haven’t yet had the chance to visit – Orissa, Arunachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, among others. Even though there is great internal regional diversity among the student body at Nagaloka, it is unmistakable that we are all living in Maharashtra while we are there. As a foreigner who has spent most of her time in India within Maharashtra, sometimes it’s easy for me to miss the small signs of characteristic local culture.

Over the past week, I’ve taken some time to travel to Delhi, Jaipur, and Madurai. While initially I was hesitant to spend time away from my fieldsite, I have found these travels extremely helpful to gain perspective on what is unique about Nagaloka and the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra where I have spent my time so far. In Delhi, I attended the American Institute of Indian Studies Junior Fellowship Conference where I was able to meet the other graduate students on fellowship this year and hear about their research experiences. While the projects were extremely varied in method and topic, it was inspiring both to hear about other researchers’ challenges, questions, and successes in the field. After hearing others’ responses to my research so far, I was able to generate some ideas about which directions I want to go in my research. The most surprising reaction I had to my experience at the AIIS Junior Fellows Conference was that I felt visceral culture shock from my quick re-immersion in the American academic world. I realized that the clothes that I considered a dressed up and professional at my fieldsite left me feeling uncomfortable and out of place at the conference. Conversing about conference proposal submissions and the academic job market, mundane topics in my grad student life, felt suddenly more foreign than speaking in Hindi. I woke up with the Pali chants that are sung twice daily at Nagaloka running through my head. It was a definite reminder of how much fieldwork changes you as a researcher in ways that often go unnoticed.

After Delhi, I spent two days in Jaipur with my friend Alisa from the SU Anthropology department. I hadn’t returned to Jaipur since 2014 when I studied Hindi at the AIIS Summer Language Program there, so it was a lovely experience to return to a city I remembered fondly and spend time with a good friend. She is in the data processing and writing up phase of her research. At our different phases, we both found it useful to bounce our ideas off each other as we considered the progress of our respective projects. I also had the pleasure of meeting her research partner Surendra who has been working with her throughout her fieldwork and hear some of his responses to my findings which helped me see some of my questions from a totally different perspective.

The last stop of my short tour was in Madurai, Tamil Nadu to visit recent graduate of our own MA program Julie Edelstein during her year studying Tamil with AIIS. Since I began studying Indian religions I have had a curiosity to travel to Tamil Nadu, so it has been exciting to see some of the things I have only read and heard about in person. Julie’s life and experiences in Madurai are so different from mine in Nagpur in so many ways even though our approaches to research are quite similar. For instance, in large part due to my research interests and interlocutors, I have only ever visited one Hindu temple in Nagpur. I had never been in a temple that even came close to the size of the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai. Experiencing the beautiful sculpture and architecture firsthand was totally different than simply hearing it described. Julie also took me to visit Pandikoyil, the fieldsite of her MA thesis, and it was a special experience to see a place I had heard so much about and meet some of the people from her stories. Of course, Julie was a wonderful host and took me to eat at all the best spots in Madurai and fill my cravings for Tamil food which may just be my favorite cuisine in the world. Even though I was only able to stay in Madurai for a short time, seeing a completely different slice of Indian culture was incredibly valuable for thinking about my own research. Also, of course, visiting Julie renewed my gratitude for the friendship and support that we have built in our community of Religion Department graduate students.

All in all, while before I left I was extremely hesitant to spend time away from Nagpur and was worried it would be a waste of my time, I have found that some new experiences and reflection time are incredibly useful in the research process. It also made me realize how much I have acculturated to my life in Nagpur and how much I miss my friends at my research site. As I wrote in a previous post, part of fieldwork is being open to change. I thought I had noted most of the ways that my fieldwork was changing me, but by taking some time away, I was able to notice other things that had changed like new tendencies in how I analyze social interactions or my sense of personal aesthetics. Finally, I cannot close out this entry without taking some time to acknowledge the incredible work of the American Institute of Indian Studies which is not only supporting my year here in India, but is enabling so much important research and opportunities for rich cultural engagement throughout India.


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Mallory Hennigar

Sister Wisdom’s Cup of Tea by Sara Swenson

The image shows a brass incense cantor, red apple, sliced fruit on a white plate, and two china cups filled with tea, set in a circle on a black tabletop

The image shows a brass incense cantor, red apple, sliced fruit on a white plate, and two china cups filled with tea, set in a circle on a black tabletop

January 1, 2018

I have recently undertaken a research project alongside one of my monastic friends, Sister Wisdom. Originally, she wanted to help me understand more about the origins of Buddhist teachings, and the differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist philosophies. Shortly after our project started, however, Sister Wisdom was contacted by another monastic friend of hers, who is doing research for a graduate degree in Buddhist Studies overseas. Her friend has been working day and night to translate English Buddhist studies texts into Vietnamese so that the can then translate them into Chinese to cite them for her thesis. Sister Wisdom asked me to write and translate several chapter summaries from a Buddhist Studies text book, Paul Williams’ Mahayana Buddhism: the Doctrinal Foundations to assist her friend.

Our project demonstrates how Buddhism is ever-evolving across international borders. While many Buddhist studies scholars come to countries in Asia to find sources perceived as ancient and authentic, here my monastic friends were reading textbooks written by scholars in the USA and Europe perceived as well-researched and authenticated. Perhaps Buddhism is something that happens beyond these two types of sources, and is, instead, something much more embedded in local, daily practices.

Even this thought isn’t completely mine, but an unexpected lesson from my monastic friends. On Monday morning, Sister Wisdom agreed to meet at my apartment to discuss the Mahayana philosophy of Trikaya – the idea that Buddha has three kaya or “bodies” that exist in various physical and metaphysical realms. I woke up very early to prepare and was still reviewing the textbook she had loaned me when she knocked on my door. I opened it to find this tiny, delicate woman in her flowing blue robes wielding a heavy box and two bags, which she had hauled to my flat by motorbike.

“Ngai Noodles!” She exclaimed, unpacking bulging bags of soup, noodles, and greens. She prompted me to boil water, and then unpacked the other bag: a fragile china tea set, two cups, green tea, apples, clementines, and an incense cantor.

“What’s all this?” I asked, anxious to get to my page full of questions to discuss.

“We will drink tea to celebrate the New Year in your country,” she told me.

“Do Vietnamese people drink tea during Tet [the Lunar New Year]?” I asked, unaware of the tradition.

“It is a Buddhist practice,” she responded indirectly. She showed me the precious tea she had been gifted from a monastic friend of hers, then carefully poured boiling water over the pot and cups to warm them before filling the cups to the brim. She lit the incense and explained it helped her to focus. She often kept the brass cantor on her desk while she was studying. I sat on my couch, in front of my papers, prepared to do the same.

“Can we sit here?” She asked, indicating the floor. I left my papers and we moved the end table to sit in the middle of the room. She demonstrated for me how to balance the cups between the thumb and forefinger of one hand. We drank so quietly I could hear us swallowing. The tea was exquisitely bitter.

“How many sips in a cup of tea?” She asked playfully. I paused to think.

“Four?”

“The same as me!” Sister Wisdom chimed, refilling our cups. We drank again, and this time I paid attention to the number of sips. She watched me with insightfully kind eyes that made me understand why she had been given her monastic name. “That is mindfulness,” she said simply.

“Is that why this is a Buddhist practice?” She didn’t answer, but prompted me to take some fruit slices. I asked for a photograph of the table and she helped me rearrange for a more beautiful picture. We chatted for awhile and she instructed me on how to warm up the Ngai noddles for lunch before I realized we both had meetings to attend.

“We forgot to discuss the chapter!” I slapped a hand to my forehead, glancing regretfully toward my stack of papers and textbooks. She smiled knowingly and answered, “We can study books, and philosophy, and history, and that is very important. However, the most important thing is to practice.”

“Practice is also important,” I agreed.

“Practice is the most important,” she corrected me, gently.

Her lesson finally dawned on me. When she agreed to come discuss Buddhist philosophy, Sister Wisdom felt that we had shifted much of our focus to ideas and theories, without remembering the self-application. That is why she had hauled a dainty, fragile tea set on a motorcycle through Saigon’s morning rush hour to my house. Sister Wisdom had come to remind me that, Buddhism, at the end of the day, is a set of practices and a way of orienting oneself to the world, even more so than it is a set of ideas.

 We can study Buddhist texts until we intimately know the turns of a Sanskrit phrase, but until we understand how Buddhism affects people’s daily lives, choices, behaviors, and feelings, we may be missing the most important part. This is why I love being part of the ethnographic branch of Buddhist studies. Through ethnography, I can share stories precisely like Sister Wisdom’s, which demonstrate the often overlooked value of practice for Vietnamese monastics and beyond.

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Sara Swenson

Impermanence by Mallory Hennigar

A photo of me and my friend Divya

A photo of me and my friend Divya

December 14, 2017

Impermanence is a double-edged sword of a concept. The Buddha taught that nothing in the universe is essential – that everything that comes also goes, everything that lives must die, and everything that is created will crumble. Accepting this concept can radically change the way a person sees the world and lives their life. On the one hand, as the Noble Truths teach, human suffering is caused by our attachment to impermanent things, and yet on the other, it can be freeing to know that even this suffering is changeable.

While I am not Buddhist, I have found the concept of impermanence useful in giving myself a bit of perspective every so often. During my months in India this year, impermanence often comes to the forefront of my mind while I analyze my experiences. “Impermanence,” one of my friends at my fieldsite jokingly consoled me, as I worried to her about my hair falling out due to my reaction to the water quality. Impermanence, I think as I sit down in the meditation hall surrounded by all the special people I’ve met and anticipate how much it will hurt to leave them at the end of the year. Impermanence, I wish, while I listen to people’s painful stories.

I spoke to one woman about what it means for a community to try to build an identity around a philosophy of impermanence. I want to pursue this question further in my work, but here I will reflect on how my fieldwork experience has forced me to confront the impermanence of my own identity. I’ve had to accept small things, like my hair falling out or that sometimes while hanging out with friends, I will be asked to sing a song and I should try to do it no matter how bad my voice sounds or how many words I forget. I didn’t know that I felt so strongly attached to being someone who only sang along to the radio and whose hair looked a certain way until I had to face these things head on. I know these examples sound silly – but what these small incidences add up to is that most of the time while I’m doing fieldwork I feel like a total idiot who has no idea what she’s doing. This larger feeling is the hardest truth to face as someone whose identity is, I realized, wrapped up in being smart and capable most of the time.

During the beginning years of graduate school, it feels like we are constructing an academic identity to wear like a suit of armor, to protect us as we venture into literal and/or figurative unknown territory for research. But really, I think research of any method requires us to be open, often uncomfortably so, to being changed. In the process of seeking answers, our selves are transformed in some small and some large ways. It is this potential for change that makes research so terrifying and so exhilarating. No matter how anxiety-ridden I get about feeling stupid in the field, ultimately when I reflect on the knowledge and relationships I have gained by being open, I know that the only fulfilling way to proceed is to continue putting myself in this vulnerable position.

In today’s world where research and knowledge are ubiquitously being deployed in the name of security – to build walls to contain us, to cease growth and change – I think it is important to approach our research from a perspective of impermanence. I don’t want to write to maintain the status quo, I want to write to aid transformation, whether it be my own or someone else’s. 

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Mallory Hennigar

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