Postcards from the Field

--Field Work / Field Talk--

To: The Readers of 21COE Project Web Site stamp

Field work and a self portrait

I suppose that amongst the photographs I have taken in the field, the least common are photographs of myself. The photograph shown here is of a farewell scene on one morning, in which each person present is tying a cotton thread around my wrists to wish me a safe journey back to Japan and an eventual re-union with the well-wishers. "All you have to do is press the button," I said to the village girl to whom I had lent my instant camera, but the photograph turned out to be poorly exposed, having been taken against the light.

I visited many rice-growing Thai-Lao villages of northeastern Thailand several times in 1984 and 1985. There were many days when I achieved nothing but the expenditure of time and sweat, but there were also times when I felt bathed in a feeling of exaltation, as though something had suddenly opened up in front of my eyes. I returned to D village, in the prefecture of Khon Kaen, which had been the base for my research. I had lived in this village for almost all of the previous year, but strangely enough, when I returned there following the completion of my extensive survey, it seemed a different place. It was a time when for no particular reason, I was feeling a sort of "chemical-reaction" in field work. A whole seven years afterwards, when I stayed in a village of Ta Oi people in southern Laos, I was able to put the feeling into words. In a forest where meltingly hot morning sunlight streamed in, I was evacuating my bowels when I found myself surrounded by a family of black pigs. I wandered around here and there hoping to see and to listen, but then I realized that I was the one who was gazed at and exposed to watchful eyes. I felt as if I was completely naked and confused in mind and body. It is one of those times when one feels ill at ease to encounter something of a great mass which goes beyond language.

Field work is a course that anyone can take, but it also seems to that not everyone may be able to complete it successfully. You have to have the ability to adapt to a different environment that includes strange languages and strange foods. More important still, and just as you have to learn and use the local language, you must be willing and enthusiastic to expose yourself to dense and troublesome relationships with local people. The kind of temperament required is not innate, but has to be cultivated on one's own, out in the field. Moreover if you are to fully live and understand things, you have to make efforts to get close to your objects, and to be able to retreat again into your own solitude. Repeatedly regenerating mind and body in this way seems to ensure the success of field work. While conducting monotonous activities, and constantly constructing and de-constructing yourself, what covered you from tip to toe looks like a scab. Setting aside the quality of the overall result of your work, what you can get from relationships with others must be your "self-portrait." I would not wish to undertake an area study that denies the existence of "self."

From: HAYASHI Yukio (Division of Southeast Asian Area Studies)
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