Saturday, October 9, 2010

Free to be ... YOU, Free to be ... ME

Mu Kuhl Formerly of Ban Nai Soi Refugee Camp
Last night, I watched an episode of the television series, "Taboo", dealing with the concepts of body modification and how it relates within a culture's definition of beauty.  I had seen the program before but since it featured several people that we have met along the Myanmar-Thai border, I watched it once more.

Ma Nang Formerly of Ban Nai Soi
 The portion of the program that interested me the most dealt with the Padaung people of the Karen tribe.  The Padaung females are famous for their cultural practice of wrapping brass rods around their necks creating the illusion that they have very long necks.  In reaction to this many outsiders refer to them as "Long Necked Women" or "Giraffe Women".  In reality, the women's necks are not elongated but it is their clavicle which is forced downwards towards their rib cage which creates the illusion of a long neck.

Padaung women have been wearing the brass coils (rings) around their neck for over one thousand years.  The heavy metal coiled around their neck and subsequent body modification is a cultural identity and heritage for the Padaung people.  They, male as well as female, consider the ornamentation and illusion of a long neck to be beautiful.  We have met and spoken to many Padaung women and have yet to hear any Padaung woman state that she did not like wearing the coils or that she had been forced to wear the coils.  To the contrary we have met and spoken to some Padaung women who have chosen not to wear the traditional brass coil around their neck.  Those women had exercised their right and freedom to make their own choice.  Other women have decided to honor their mothers and respect their heritage by deciding to continue the practise of wearing the brass coils.  They, too, have exercised their right and freedom to make their own choice.

In the same refugee camps where you will find Padaung women, you will also find Kayaw women who practise their cultural heritage of extending their ear lobes to be "beautiful".  Ever increasing diameters of disks or tubes are inserted into the ear lobes to elongate them commencing at a young age.  Some of the older women of the Kayaw people wear heavy ear rings to accentuate the length of their ear lobes.

A Young Kayaw Girl

An Elderly Burmese Refugee with Heavy Ear Rings
I support people honoring and respecting their cultural heritage.  I respect this within the context of their culture and in their own land whether or not I agree with or approve of their practises.  What people do, and believe in their own country is none of my business.  Just as I would resist any outside attempts to impose changes or to impose aspects of a foreign culture on my culture, I am confident that our efforts around the world, no matter how "well" intended, are not appreciated.  I expect people to respect my culture.

The program appeared to me to question the practice, the Padaung heritage, of placing brass coils around the neck of women and young girls.  It talked about the discomfort that the coil sometimes causes and how heavy the coils are.  It pointed out the young age.  The film showed scars on the shoulders of some of the women from the coiled brass.  This questioning is typical of many Western programs as well as articles in the Western press.  There seems to be a quasi-moral calling to set the world right - right to our society's standards.

Far from considering these efforts, to be well intentioned and morally motivated actions, I consider them to be tantamount to be cultural imperialism. 

Mar Song At Phuket Vegetarian Festival
My objective in taking photographs is to show the differences between the various peoples and cultures of the world.  I want to celebrate this diversity of mankind.  I do not feel any compulsion or obligation to change another people's culture or practises.  I hope that my photography efforts do not motivate or inspire anyone to run rough shod over another cultures.  In sharing aspects of other cultures I hope to raise awareness and appreciation of how other people live, and what other people believe.  My photographs and blogs are not meant to deride anyone or any culture.

Fresh Meat For Sale In Vietnam
It is arrogant and self centered, in my opinion, to consider that a particular culture, beliefs, and practices are superior to all others.  Having pride and comfort in your culture, beliefs, and practises is entirely justified and should be encouraged but never at the expense of disrespecting others especially within their own country.  The willingness to inform others of your culture by living it and setting a good example is admirable.  A willingness to explain, and teach others about your culture WHEN ASKED is commendable.  A willingness to incorporate desirable aspects of other cultures into your life or culture is wise.

Mar Song Pierced to Demonstrate the Power of His God
 I do not approve of many practices or beliefs that I have encountered in different cultures.  The fact that I or anyone else does not agree with certain practices or beliefs does not give us the right or justify any efforts to change those realities.

My travels and work around the world has exposed me to many different cultures, beliefs, and practises.  My experiences have perhaps given me more of a global view of life.   However I do not consider myself to be a Global Citizen.  To the contrary, I am against One World Government.  Just as diversity is considered to be desirable in flora and fauna, I believe that the diversity of  human culture and traditions are treasures to be protected within a nationalistic environment.

Local solutions by local people for local problems or local issues are the most effective measures that respect the sensibilities and sensitivities of the people affected by the situation. Respecting but not necessarily approving aspects of different cultures is not systematic of weakness or a lack of morality but is the "good neighbor" policy.

People need to be free to be themselves, free to honor their traditions and cultures within their own national borders.  Others don't have to approve of it but they need to at least respect the wishes of the people.  Tolerance and minding their own business will go a great ways towards a less confrontational world.

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely Love and appreciate your images and insights.
    I travel to North Thai and have worked on projects there and will return this Fall.

    Many thanks for your beautiful images and the informative commentaries.