cseas nl74 Tazaki Ikuko
Post-doctoral Fellow, Shin Buddhist Comprehensive Research Institute,
Otani University Affiliated Researcher, CSEAS

Mobile Phones, Romance and Cooking for the Host Family: Experiencing Karen Life in Thailand

Experiencing Karen Romance

For the past 10 years I have been studying and living with the Karen, a minority group who live in the mountainous areas of Northern Thailand. During my fieldwork (2008–10), I noticed that many Karen people were using mobile phones, however, the way they used their phone surpassed my imagination. This is one episode I would like to share.

There was a Karen teenager woman called “Nomu” (pseudonym) who wasn’t interesting in studying at local high school, but just stayed at home about five months already at that time. Though her parents and older sister went to work in the rice and strawberry fields, she spent most of the day talking with her friends, including unknown boys, over her phone. One day, Nomu said to her parents she’d go down to Chiang Mai city for one day to register in short time class at Karen bible school, but she didn’t come back for three, never told her parents where she’d been, and what she did.

On her return, her parents were so angry and they tried to persuade her to marry a northern Thai boy. During her stay in Chiang Mai, she didn’t go to her Karen bible school but visited a northern Thai boy, who she only knew by mobile phone. Karen traditions stipulate that unmarried Karen women have to remain a virgin until marriage. If not, traditionally such a woman and parents must perform a ritual. In my research area, Karen people have been converting to Christianity since the 1950s, and those who have sex before marriage cannot have a wedding ceremony at church, but only hold it at their house. According to arrangements made by her parents, Nomu was married two weeks later, then moved to her husband’s village in a lowland area.

Fig.1 Karen teenagers of church youth group

Surprisingly, Nomu had never met him before this incident, and they only knew each other over the phone who she got to know by talking to him every day. When he invited her to come down to the city and meet together, Nomu didn’t hesitate and went. Moreover, she submitted to her parents’ suggestion to get marry with good grace. She is now happily married and had a baby with the boy.

Nomu’s experience was by no means unique and I also had a similar experience whilst doing fieldwork. An old Karen friend introduced me a nice Karen man by mobile, who was supposed to be handsome, tall, intelligent and working at a local clinic. He saw me at a mountain village, heard about me, became interested in me and then got my number from my friend and started to call me every day; sometimes two or three times a day! At first, I was a little bothered and wondered why he would call someone he knew nothing about. Yet, he tried to make “sweet talk” with me (phut wan in Thai) again and again, laughing at me so I gradually got used to his calls. Finally, after two or three weeks I began to enjoy waiting for his calls and make small talk about everyday life, even though I never actually met him then.

A month later, he came to Chiang Mai where I studied, and we met each other. We enjoyed talking for an hour and then he went back to his village. After that he made no more calls to me and I also forgot about him over time. Maybe he didn’t like anything about me or just had a new girlfriend.

In Thailand, Japanese women have a high reputation for their “white skin” and their supposed “ tempered obedient character” so they are the target of men looking for romance (in this sense, I was also considered “fair game” a number of times). But after this incident I started to see Karen boys move on girls without much serious contemplation. In a way, it is their way to slowly familiarize themselves with many girls. So I just took their advances as jokes or greetings in my stride and enjoyed seeing the way they approach young girls from the perspective of an unmarried, single woman.

Because of my then status, villagers often told me not to go anywhere alone; not to go out only with boys; not to have sex and maintain my virginity; and not to drink alcohol. I sometimes felt so stifled. As I couldn’t go to any other village without getting on a motorbike due to very bad roads, I often rode on the back of a bike driven by male drivers (a subject of gossip). If I went with a boy, villagers quickly gossiped assuming we were a couple. But instead villagers cared for me, especially my host family. They always asked me where I would be and knew where I was (and with who) and what I did all the time even if I was in Chiang Mai. Moreover, most Karen women are more or less afraid of foreign men, but not of me, a tiny Japanese woman who speaks the Karen language. They often welcomed me to have dinner or sleep over the night even outside my research village.

Family Life and the Allocation of Women’s Labor

As a female member of my host family, I was frequently tasked to cook meals, and that bothered me during the first half of my field research. However, later on in my fieldwork, it also became a source of ideas about how to manage relations and the allocation of labor in the household, especially among women and their relationships to Christianity.

Fig.2 Preparing to cook gathered nuts

My host family was made of three adult women members and me, that is, mother “Mana-Mo” aged about 50, her daughter “Mana” aged 28 with a 4-year old child and Mana-Mo’s daughter-in-law “Nope” aged 26. Mana-Mo is an excellent cook and likes to eat delicious food, so she made a great effort to cook more than three dishes each time (unusual for Karen). Mana also has good cooking skills and can prepare many kinds of Thai foods, but unfortunately she wasn’t interested in cooking and always managed to evade any cooking duties. Nope spent her childhood in a student residence at a town far away from her parents, and doesn’t know how to cook.

Observing cooking practices has long been the preserve of fieldwork and in itself, was illustrative in learning about village life. Some mornings Nope and myself tried to cook following Mana-Mo’s advice, then in the evening, myself and Nope (and sometimes Mana) went to buy foodstuffs and helped Mana-Mo. Though it took over one hour in the morning and two in the evening, cooking time was very useful to get basic villager information and pick up on gossip (something I really enjoyed).

Fig.3 Dinner time with many guests

After three months I gradually made lots of friends in the village and would visit them both in the morning and evening when they were at home and gradually started to feel more stress with my cooking duties. Incidentally, at the time of fieldwork, Nope was pregnant and subsequently gave birth to her son. Nope couldn’t help cook and Mana-Mo had to take care of her grandchild, so I put aside research for some time and decided to cook with Mana-Mo for more than one month (after that, I often escaped from my duties).

This experience required much patience, but also —to a certain extent—taught me how to cook in the Karen style. When I visited other families in the village, I frequently cooked with Karen women there and they very much welcomed this. It made me all the more comfortable to visit them. In my research village, there were many disputes over cooking duties between newly married women joining households and mothers-in-law. This was, in part, due to the changing roles in households, working styles, food orientation, and the influence of Christianity, this last one an important part of my Ph.D. dissertation. I think I can understand why newly married women entering their husbands’ villages have trouble with their mothers-in-law when their parents-in-law ask them to cook every day without providing any financial or physical help. They often have many questions about tastes, puzzle over new cooking techniques such as Thai food (something that is quite new to women from mountain villages), and especially the different work ethics in a research village heavily influenced by Christianity. Sometimes this can be the source of tension between new couples and their parents.

During field research, I was prohibited many things, and instead had many duties as an unmarried woman. These were the things that my status allowed me to do, see, and hear. I recently married and will revisit my field site for the first time as a married woman and look forward to facing a new situation and see how my informants respond to me and my married self.