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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Acting Like a Moron Before the Natives

Summer holiday's over, work has started. The PhD is written, so time for a new project. I am not going to tell you what it is, only that it is ethnomusicology - anthropology of music, if you want - and that it is just around the corner. And that I will be doing participant observation, this time, rather than an interview study.

I can't wait to start!

I was reading We, the Tikopia by Raymond Firth, an anthropological classic. And right in the beginning of the book I found a quote which reflects my feeling of embarking on this new voyage - because a voyage it is, even if the fieldwork is nearly in my back yard and the new language I need to speak is only metaphorical new.

So there we go:

"The reality of the native life is going on all around him [the anthropologist], but he himself is not yet in focus to see it. He knows that most of what he records at first will be useless: it will be either definitely incorrect, or so inadequate that it must later be discarded. Yet he must make a beginning somewhere. He realizes that at this stage he is incapable of separating the pattern of custom from the accidentals of individual behaviour, he wonders if each slight gesture does not hold some meaning which is hidden from him, he aches to be able to catch and retain some of the flood of talk he hears on all sides , and he is consumed with envy of the children who are able to toss about so lightly that speech which he must so painfully acquire. He is conscious of good material running to waste before him moment by moment; he is impressed by the vastness of the task that lies before him and of his own feeble equipment for it; in the face of a language and custom to which he has not the key, he feels that he is acting like a moron before the natives. At the same time he is experiencing the delights of discovery, he is gaining an inkling of what is in store; like a gourmet walking roound a feast that is spread, he savours in anticipation  the quality of what he will later appreciate in full."

Raymond Firth. We, the Tikopia. Kinship in Primitive Polynesia. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963 (1936), p.3.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Real People

I was in Shanghai for an ethnomusicological conference. On the day-off, we had the option to go on excursion. I chose to go to Wu Zhen, a ‘water town’ – a village with a lot of little canals and many boats and bridges. Like Venice, maybe (never been there); or Giethoorn, if you look for a Dutch equivalent.
It was hot. There were many tourists (most of them, of course, Chinese), who all had paid in order to be able to visit the village. The village brimmed with tourist shops. Obviously it lives from tourism these days, like for example Schiermonnikoog.

When we were back in Shanghai, I bumped into a fellow ethnomusicologist acquaintance, someone researching Chinese music. I asked him where he had been. He had also been to Wu Zheng, and was furious. “Why did they take us to such a stupid tourist village! Couldn’t they have brought us to a real Chinese village? There are many of them around. Much more interesting. And at least there are real people there!”

I understand the feeling and appreciate it, although I myself don’t worry too much about being a tourist at periods – every role has its pros and contras. But many ethnomusicologists are busy with research into the real life of ordinary people – and then tourist representations of real life are generally not too interesting indeed.

That is: if one takes tourist attractions such as Wu Zheng to stand for ‘the real thing’. The other option, of course, is to take Whu Zheng for what it is: a tourist attraction. I found it rather interesting to see how the Chinese handled their version of heritage tourism.


And, contrary to my fellow ethnomusicologist, I wasn’t missing ‘real people’. Because why should a tourist shop owner, a tourist temple guard, or a tourist from a Chinese suburb, be less ‘real’ than a Chinese traditional villager? Beats me.