Kitchen Klatch, Kachin Style (part 2)

Rainy day in Kachin State, just outside the Culture Committee Chairman's house.

Rainy day in Kachin State, just outside the Culture Committee Chairman’s house.

The practice of paying bride price or dowery is not Christian or unchristian, Hindu, or the province of any particular religion or culture. In modern society, it lives on. Marriage is one of life’s most significant economic transactions, and it’s supposed to be a lifetime deal. While today we stress romance  between two people, and perhaps what each brings to the table, across time the economic linking of two families or clans was given more weight. The bonds, opportunities, and obligations created among people beyond the bride and groom create the web of community in which all reside. Bride price and dowery are forms of wealth transference or early inheritance that have served the economic and social puposes of the times and societies that created them.

Where did the tradition of the father of the bride paying for the wedding come from? And how does such “dowery-mindset” behavior (along with hope chests, bottom drawers, trousseaux, etc.) contrast with the rationale behind bride price? Is one more sexist? It depends on whether you judge putting cash value on the bride (which the groom’s family pays to her father) is worse than putting it on the groom.

These are questions still being discussed and contested and well beyond the scope of this blog. But suffice to say that in traditional Lisu culture, every woman, no matter how old, remembers the exact price her father received for her hand. Usually, this price is rather predictable, but it is still a source of pride because it shows she is as good as anyone else. It supports Lisu egalitarian values. If she fetched a higher than usual price, it adds to her and especially to her father’s myi-do (repute) because it means she especially embodies Lisu feminine virtures of hard work, skill, modesty. The Lisu are competitive.

So back to the Kachin kitchen, where I’m about to test this theory on a mixed group of Lisu Christian women, mainly from fairly prosperous farming famillies. I’m a bit nervous, because I don’t want to offend my host, the Chairman of the Cultural Committee. Lisu Christians often eschew the practice, or deny it is still practiced. Paying bride price is often lumped in, somewhat mistakenly I think, with the Lisu pre-Christian practice of propitiating multiple spirits — which indeed Christians have stopped doing. The New Testament, the focus of Christian Lisu religious practice, is agnostic on the subject. As far as I can see, the anti-bride price feeling is more a cultural borrowing from missionaries than a religious prohibiton.

“So,” I ask a beautiful young woman with babe in arms, “How much did your father get?” Shyly, but with satisfaction, she said, “Four lakhs,” meaning 400,000 Burmese Kyats (pronounced chat), just over $400. Presumably, no big secret being was being revealed, but murmers of interested approval circulated this room in a country with per capita earnings of less than half that amount.

A middle-aged woman remarked that she had fetched 20,000, but that was a long time ago when the Kyat was more valuable; still another, when asked, reported that her father received 120,000 and a cow. One, married in 1976, seemed pefectly proud that her marriage had enriched father and family by 600 Kyats. It seemed each woman was waiting to be asked. Finally, we got around to the Chairman’s wife. Married in 1977, her bride price included four cows, one buffalo, 3 pigs, and 90,000 Kyats.

We were all really excited by this conversation, but just then the Chairman entered the kitchen. Uh-oh, I thought, hope no one’s in trouble. But apparently, he didn’t want to be excluded any longer. After all, my husband and the two translators were men, and they were in on it.

“Don’t forget,” he teased his wife, “about the two cows I gave your father before we were engaged, they were a sort of advertisement. So, actually, it was six cows all together!” His reminder elicited general merriment — and relief on my part.

So now, the big question to figure out is: how prevalent is bride price today? Until this conversation, I’d been told by many that the tradition had fallen out of practice among Christian Lisu, who make up perhaps 90% of those In Myanmar (Burma). In Thailand, where most Lisu practice an animist/Buddhist spirtual path, evidence shows bride price persists. Lisu brides are expensive, I’m told, and so many young men choose Lahu, or other minority mates. I will follow up next week in China, and report back.

That rainy afternoon near Putao, only one woman related a story about a daughter’s marriage taking place without “the sliver being paid.” Taking my lead from old accounts of situations in which this anomally occured, I asked, “So, she must have been crazy in love with him?”

Yes, the woman nodded, no one could talk her out of him, even though neither family approved and it caused a lot of trouble at the time. “But in this case, it worked out,” she said, gesturing to the young woman sitting next to her with a toddler in her lap.  “They are still together.” Said daughter smiled broadly, and sighs wafted around the room.





Kitchen Klatch, Kachin Style (part one)

Lisu kitchen, Putao district, Kachin State, NW Myanmar (Burma.)

Lovely bamboo kitchen of bamboo. This is raised, along with the house, on posts about 10-12 high. There is a hearth, or sometimes two, set into the floor. Split bamboo flooring makes it easy to clean, you just sweep crumbs and other detritus through cracks to waiting chickens below.

Lovely kitchen of bamboo. This is raised, along with the house, on posts about 10-12 feet high. It has a large open hearth, or sometimes two, set into the floor. Split bamboo flooring makes it easy to clean, you just sweep crumbs and other detritus through cracks to waiting chickens below.

So much happens in the kitchen. No matter the culture, it is the center of things.

Day five of our five-village walkabout and homestay in Putao District, far north Myanmar (Burma), and I was looking forward to getting down with “the ladies” (as women are called here). They are more direct than Lisu men, whose style tends toward animated speechifying.

But first, morning and lunch at the home of the Chairman of Putao’s Lisu Cultural Committee, with discussions and presentations attended by local political and religious leaders. These had been on the formal side, a little grand. Rain fell lightly, punctuated by downpours as we talked away, the men gamely answering my questions (through a couple interpreters) about the changes in their lives over the past 15-20 years. Lisu sayings were bandied about, along with hilarious attempts to translate them. It was tempting to gaze across the glowing green paddy fields from our safe, dry spot under the Chairman’s raised house. This was the only place big enough to hold the crowd of 25 or so. The finale of the morning was a troupe of men, women, and girls who sang and danced for us in traditional dress. A respectful, well-umbrellaed crowd of villagers along with a couple oxen pulling a cart peered in from the muddy lane at the unexpected show.

Then it was time to retire to the kitchen with about a dozen local women — from the household, neighbors, and a few drawn in from the lane. A good Lisu kitchen is a space of great beauty, a masterpiece of bamboo and light with one or two large, floor level open hearths fed by long branches that are pushed toward the center as they burn. This saves chopping wood. The Lisu, like most hill people, have enough to do without creating unnecessary work. They moved around a lot in the past; their lifestyle precluded building chimneys and the smoke simply wafts out through the thatched roof. This habit stuck, so their kitchens today continue to have the same lovely smokey smell. Whole corn cobs are dried and stored above the fire, with the smoke providing both preservative and bug repellent.

Cups of tea are poured as we settled in, perched on tiny chairs of just sitting on the floor. Lisu are known as the most individualistic and egalitarian of Southeast Asia’s hilltribes, and Lisu women in particular hold strong economic positions and are outspoken. They usually also hold the family purse strings, are often entrepreneurial, and share decision-making. The Lisu analogy for men and women is chopsticks. But they do have sex roles, and in formal situations like this morning, women tend to be quiet and let the men make speeches.

The rain continued, the hearth crackled — now it was the women’s turn. An older woman sporting a snazzy T-shirt with “Vision Trip” across its chest launched in: “Life is much better now since we don’t have to make clothes. Before, we had to gather material from the forest, and step by step make thread from hemp and then weave it into cloth, and then sew clothes. It was really bad if there were only one or two women in the household, and 4 or 5 men plus children. They all need a suit of clothes every year. Sewing for the New Year celebration would take months, and we still had to do everything else.”

Another piped up: “We had no containers except bamboo and leaves. We had to carry the children AND the water from the stream. Now we have water next to our houses, we don’t have far to walk, and we have plastic buckets.”

“When I was young, I never saw modern plates, we had only bowls we made from wood. We had to gather food from forest, and sometimes, some families ate rice only once a month.”

Many heads nodded, no one seemed the least nostalgic for the old days. The younger women, a couple with babies, listened with bemusement. They’d heard it before. “Thank God we’re not old fashioned any more,” their faces said.

“And another thing,” Vision Trip said, “parents used to choose husbands for us, now girls choose for themselves!”  This comment elicited laughter, and prompted perhaps the oldest woman in the room to speak up for the first time. “I turned down the first three, my father was really worried. But he couldn’t force me. After I said no to the first suitor, no one asked me again for year. Then finally one I liked showed some interest, and we got married.”

This turn of conversation provided an opening for a delicate question. Most Lisu in Myanmar, including the women in the kitchen, had converted to Christianity a generation or more before, Christians generally claim to have left all vestiges of animism and the old traditions behind.

I plowed in, hoping not to offend: “So, how much did your father get, when you finally agreed to marry?’ Amid twitters, she said with pride, “One cow, that was a lot then.”

We were talking about bride price, a traditional practice given up by many, but not apparently not all, Christians. Philosophically, it is the opposite of dowry: the groom’s parents are seen as the winners in the marriage transaction because the bride moves in with them and they gain her productive labor. This is her family’s loss, so they must be compensated. In India, traditionally the bride’s parents give the groom’s a financial gift, almost as if they are paying to have her taken off their hands. (to be continued…)

Back from Myanmar’s Wild Blue Yonder!

Main Street, Siti-Lo Two Village, Putao District, Kachin State, Myanmar

Main Street, Siti-Lo Two Village, Putao District, Kachin State, Myanmar.

Rumors of my demise exaggerated. We have been completely off the grid for two weeks in Myanmar (Burma) except for a few very busy days in Rangoon. Reports of this adventure coming soon, but since we returned last night to modern life in Thailand, I will post a few pictures to appease scolding/worried friends and show that in fact we were not taken hostage by any of the 12 (or is it 21?) insurgent armies fighting the government. We were just on a long walkabout to many Lisu villages to try to understand the profound changes of the past 15-20 years. My last experience in this part of the world was in 1985 and 1997. Though no doubt these images of recent weeks show people and circumstances that seem very far from modern or developed, there has been dramatic improvement in the material and political lives of Lisu and most others in Myanmar since the 80s and 90s. Yes, poverty, political oppression, and racial discrimination persist —image image

Strong nerves and a little sure-footedness sometimes needed to cross streams. Showing fear is not Lisu custom.

Strong nerves and a little sure-footedness sometimes needed to cross streams. Showing fear is not Lisu custom.

but past overwhelming hunger, paranoia, and government suppression of information and free thought have decreased significantly.

Stories to come, here are a few pictures that show some of the beauty of this country and of the Lisu  people.

Back on the Lisu Trail


Chiang Mai, Thailand

I was overjoyed to track down old friend and mentor Otome Kline Hutheesing in Chiang Mai. Otome is an anthropologist who has been studying and writing about Lisu since the late 1960s, particularly Lisu women. Her study village Doi Lan, about 3 hours north of Chiang Mai, was one of the first Lisu villages in Thailand. We had a great adventure together in 1997, when she accompanied me to Yunnan and was able to translate Lisu dialect there, working from her knowledge of Thai Lisu.  Otome doesn’t “do” hightech, so keeping in touch over the past 15 years has been hard. I found her through Victoria Vorreiter, a musicologist/filmmaker documenting the songs, music, and rituals of  Thailand’s minority peoples. (Look for her book, too: Songs of Memory, Resonace Press, Thailand). I met Victoria through Doree Huneven, a Suzuki method violin teacher and sister of my old friend Michelle Huneven. Doree and Victoria taught violin together in London in the 1980s, so of course when she heard I was going to Thailand, Doree  passed along Victoria’s email to me. An astonishing linkage of people is ushering me and this project along — magical, logical, I don’t know, I’m just grateful. Otome is now in her 80s, beautiful as ever, and still game to help me get this book, meant to come out in the late 1990s, published. Here she is in the Lisu hut she built in the garden of her Chiang Mai house where she mostly lives these days.

Anarchists of the Highlands? New book will explore premise.


With a Lisu woman in China in 1997.

For the next two months (July and August, 2014) I will be working on a popular ethnography on the Lisu, a group of about 1.5 million people, most of whom live in remote highland areas of Southeast Asia. I first wrote this book the late 1990s, but my then-publisher went out of business before it saw print.  “Close to the Water and Far From the Ruler”  will now be published by University Press of Colorado in 2015/16.

I have some updating to do, and will be visiting China, Thailand, Burma. Like the world in general, the world of the Lisu has seen a lot of change in the past 15 years. Then there’s the author: the (relatively)  young and bold 40-something has also moved on to a different life and career, slightly more sedentary. Note to self: must get chops up!

But how could I not take up this second chance to go back and rewrite my first book? The opportunity to complete long-marinating unfinished business, and to keep a promise to bring the story of these unusually resilient and independent-minded people to a broader audience, is a great surprise and an even greater gift.