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