Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Day in the Life of an Ethnographer

I love my job. Literally, no day is exactly alike. Trying to explain to people what my work actually involves can be difficult though. When I ask for time for interviews with members of my Nepali congregation, their primary question is, “well, when do you have leisure time?” I haven’t found an adequate way to express that my “work” involves hanging out with them and drawing out their thoughts on issues pertaining to music, practice, and faith! Knowing that my “work” is in Western Nepal, other Nepali friends ask if I’m on holiday now that I’m in Kathmandu? I try and explain that, while I may not go to an office every day, I do have work to do—and I am free to arrange my time accordingly.

Here is a recent day I had. Perhaps this will give you an idea of what a “typical work day” for me involves!

6:00AM—Sometimes, these turn into 6:30 or 6:45, depending on how late I went to bed the night before. I have a morning routine of breakfast, Bible readings, and prayer that I try to adhere to daily.  

8:00AM—Normally, I would be translating the portion of Ashok Tharu’s work on the sakya-paiya (wrestling with Sanskritized Nepali, random Hindi terms, and philosophical vocabulary), but today, I decide to prep for my interview with Robert Karthak instead. I only just finalized my questions for him, and, while I hope to do the interview in English, I decide that I should review asking my questions in Nepali, just in case. I make notes of key words in Nepali that are not in my immediate vocabulary on my interview sheet.

8:30AM—I call my daju (respected older brother) Karjun, who drives a taxi, reminding him that he’s picking me up at 9:30 to take me to Gyaneshwar Church so I can meet with Robert Karthak. He says he’ll meet me in front of the Greenwich Village Hotel—just around the corner from my apartment (or rather the flat I’m house sitting)—which is his usual hang-out spot while awaiting customers. After this call, I resume reviewing my interview questions.

9:15AM—I receive a call from Karjun, telling me that he’s ready when I am. He is the one exception to the rule of “Nepali time”—Karjun is consistently fifteen minutes early to an appointment rather than 30 to 60 minutes late. I can’t help but wonder if he and my Granddaddy Bliss are distantly related…

9:30AM—I hop into Karjun’s waiting taxi, and apologize for being late—I tell him couldn’t find my umbrella. In this monsoon weather, no one should leave the house without one. Karjun just comments that that’s why he came early. As we drive to Gyaneshwar, Karjun points out that the Immigration Office has moved from Maithi Ghar to Anem Nagar—something I will find useful in the coming months when I need to renew my visa—and which are his favorite songs on the radio. He has us listening to Good News FM all the way.

10:05AM—Despite the traffic, Karjun is able to get me to Gyaneshwar relatively on time. He asks me what time I will be finished? I say I don’t know, but not to worry, I can find my own way back. He gives me an incredulous look, “Pukka ho? (Really?).” I smile sweetly and assure him “Yes.”

Robert Karthak is waiting just inside the gate of the church complex for me. I have been excited about this meeting for days—Karthak is one of the founding members of Gyaneshwar, and one of the first Nepali Christians to enter Nepal after the country opened in 1950. We find an empty classroom, and as I set up my recorder, he asks me about myself. I tell him my connection to Nepal, and who else I’ve talked to on this subject. When he hears that I’ve already talked to Dr. Rongong, he comments that he can’t have much to add, as Dr. Rongong is the “expert” on Nepali church history. I tell him that Dr. Rongong specifically told me to ask my questions concerning the beginnings of “stuti prashansha” to him—as Dr. Rongong was in the States working on his PhD at the time—and that it’s a good idea to ask a set of questions to more than one person when doing research. I ask my questions concerning the history of Christian practices—men and women sitting separately, church services on Saturdays, the practice of “stuti prashansha,” and the challenges that a Hindu culture gives in explaining Christian rites like baptism and the Lord’s Supper, among others. Karthak decides that I speak Nepali well, so decides to give his answers in Nepali (even though he is fluent in English himself). While he says I am free to ask my questions in English, I decide inwardly that I should just challenge myself to ask my questions in Nepali. While I do have to explain a few things in English, and Karthak occasionally intersperses English words into his Nepali sentences, the majority of our conversation is in Nepali. The interview lasts about an hour. When we’re finished, I thank him for his time, give him my visiting card, and find a taxi home, all with his blessing.

11:30AM—The first thing I do is download and back up my interview recording to my computer and external hard drive. I check email and Facebook while eating Nicoise salad. I’ve been on a raw veggies streak all summer—I seem to be making up for the lack of fresh veggies from my previous time in Dang.

12:30PM—I leave my flat and make for Man Bhawan, where my former research associate institution is—Salvation Worship Ministries. I have a 1PM appointment with Solomon, who is transcribing interviews I took during my last visit to Dang. Writing in Nepali is a tedious process for me, as my spelling is atrocious, and I can’t always distinguish nuances between sounds (was that “da, dha, Da, or Dha?! Or maybe “ngha”?!), and the wrong sound transcribed could mean completely different word and meaning. Solomon, a performing musician, was interested in an opportunity for extra income, so I hired and have been training him in interview transcription. He had texted me the day before that the most recent interviews were done, and upon further texting, we arranged to meet between his music classes at SWM for the handover.

It has been exciting each time to see my interviews in textual form. I ask him what he thought of the interviews? Solomon comments that he enjoyed these last interviews—he didn’t realize how rich Tharu music culture was, and how integrated it was to other aspects of Tharu life. The two people I interviewed—a village leader and a shaman—were especially good at explaining the ins-and-outs of these cultural aspects. He himself is Limbu, from Eastern Nepal, and he isn’t aware of any comparative traditions within his jat. We tally up his hours and agree on the amount I am to pay him, and arrange for me deliver the payment, and two additional interviews for him to transcribe, on Saturday.

2:00PM—Because I’m in the area, I visit Claire—my housemate—at the WomenLEAD office. Claire is someone I grew up with in Nepal; she helped found and is running an institute that equips high school senior girls with leadership skills. The institute is situated in two bungalows on a tract of government land where the institute’s neighbors are government or political organizations that advocate for the rights and issues pertaining to Muslims, Dalits, and women, and what appears to be a curriculum development department—with a well-frequented canteen smack in the middle of the complex. I meet the staff, and comment on how good the grounds look. Claire waves at the broken-down shed by the gate, with rotting door and window frames and tall weeds growing out of the smashed glass windows—that was what all their buildings looked like when they first signed the lease! In addition to creating curriculum, Claire has dealt with contractors and subcontractors to rebuild the bungalows, install toilets, among other things. On my walk home, I buy fruits and veggies in Jawalekhel, and take pictures of the Kolor Kathmandu murals that decorate the back wall of the zoo.

3:00PM—I decide to spend my afternoon under the fan reading a book—If Each Comes Halfway: Meeting Tamang Women In Nepal by Kathryn March—accompanied by a tall glass of iced tea. When its not raining in Kathmandu, it can be drainingly hot during monsoon. Kathryn March’s book is one of many that I’ve picked up from Mandala Book Point or Wisdom Books over the course of my time in Nepal. Being out in Dang, I can only take what I can carry on my back, which excludes books. I do my best to catch up on reading when I’m in Kathmandu.  

6:30PM—Tila Chaudhary comes by my place to help me transcribe the Tharu lyrics of the songs I’ve recorded. This is where perhaps I got lucky in my research topic—Tharu uses the same Devanagari alphabet as Nepali, so as Tila dictates sounds to me, I can write down the Tharu words (Also, while Tharu songs can be long, they involve a lot of repetition. A six-minute song only has two-minutes worth of words!). Then Tila explains their meaning in Nepali. 

I attempt to document all of the Tharu vocabulary meanings she gives me in Nepali. She comments that I can write down meanings in English if I want to, as that’s perhaps easiest for me. I tell her that sometimes I do—for example, beside the Tharu word “naaTha” and its Nepali equivalent “nattha,” I wrote in English “the rope through the nose and over the back of the head of a water buffalo or cow,” because I couldn’t think of an immediate English word equivalent (halter? though those are usually leather…). She laughed. I tell her that, it is easier if I write the meanings in Nepali, that way, she will know whether I really understood things or not. Tila realizes that she’s working triple time—she has to explain things three or four ways in Nepali because of my limited vocabulary, as well as explain Tharu cultural mores as we go through the content of the songs (Why do they keep singing “sakhi ra?” What’s with all the jewelry inventories in these songs? Are there set lyrics to these songs, or are people just singing whatever pops into their head?). She’s very patient, has a sense of humor, and thankfully enjoys this word play. Plus, I sometimes send her home with baked goods made by the cook that my housemate and I can’t eat as fast as he bakes them.

8:00PM—After Tila leaves, I eat dinner, and try and make some headway on my translation of Ashok Tharu’s work. I’ll be meeting with my language instructor the next day, which, in addition to discussing the dozen or so words I’ve highlighted in yellow—which means I cannot find in my dictionary, and cannot guess from the context—or my confusion over unfamiliar grammatical structures, I anticipate that our conversation will also be about the month of Shrawan (for another blog post), her preparation for teaching Nepali to the incoming Fulbright ETAs, and asking if all my former housemates—also Fulbrighters from my cohort—made it safely back to the US (I’m the only one left here).

10:00PM—after a shower (Nepalis bathe in the morning; I bathe at night to clean off all the Kathmandu dirt, smog, and sweat accumulated during the day in attempt to keep my bed sheets cleaner), I am in bed.