Letter Five

I am about halfway through my field research. We recently moved from Thabaung township to Kyangin township. The four-hour drive wound through some spectacular parts of the delta region. The young green stems in the rice-paddy fields wriggled as the wind tickled them, and the hills beyond were a dark, solid blue like a Myanmar man’s everyday longyi. As we urged our driver to please slow down, we read through World Bank reports on CDD and domestic violence reports in Myanmar. At five o’clock streams of white-topped, green-trousered school children frolicked on the road side as they walked home, kicking stones and jumping on the backs of bicycles as they went.
We arrived earlier than expected, probably because of our driver’s penchant for speed, so I jumped into some shorts and shoes to take a jog around the town. I run only in straight lines if I can help it, because if I make too many turns I always get lost on the way back. Getting lost means I have to run farther, so I try to make my routes economical. I reached the edge of the small town, crossed over some train tracks, and made my way down a straightaway between the paddy fields. The setting globe to my right threw its hues on the water in the fields. The rice grows in little rectangular plots filled with water, like pools. Everyday someone gets up to tend to them, to hoe them, to press the earth back into the rectangular walls so the pools stay distinct and separate. To my left the air above the fields began to purple like a bruise ripening. The orange globe had dipped beneath my sight and said its final words, the color of tamarind, to the sky above.

Consolidation of ideas—the fun, where mysteries are sometimes solved and sometimes become even more complex. For the first time in my life, I think, I am writing a report about research that I actually did. For the first time I am not writing about others’ writing about stuff; I am actually writing about stuff. The academic way to say this would be that I’ve never been a primary researcher before. It’s hugely fun, but also a big responsibility.

At this halfway point—finishing one of two townships—I am taking a couple of “writing days” to consolidate the findings from Thabaung. It is sort of like pouring all the memories, conversations, and experiences into a scrapbook of words. I organize by heading, writing and writing until I realize I have strayed from the initial topic. I am obsessed with the colors in their stories, all of the individual experiences that make essentialism both dangerous and impossible. In a way, it’s unsuitable to put these people’s experiences under headings, in sections of a report to analyze. It would be more holistic to write short stories about their lives. Because telling stories is messy. Sometimes consolidation of ideas—of women’s common experiences, really—feels like brushing wisps of hair into submission when they really all have their own direction. In this short time, I’ve found that poor, young, and ethnic minority women face particular challenges. Lack of experience. Fear of outsiders. Opportunity cost of social work. To say “women need x” or “women need y” is to treat them as one group, and they are not one. Women are like water, but they are all different. And each deserves a pathway, a story.

Ema Klugman is a T’20 Undergraduate and a 2017 Kenan Summer Research Fellow

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