Southeast Asia and Everyday Life

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Southeast Asiais one of the most dynamic, complex, and fascinating areas of the world. And yet, for most Americans, it also remains one of the world’s least understood regions. Often, people lump it into the category of Asia (along with China, Japan, Korea) and are unaware that Southeast Asia includes eleven very diverse countries. American news media portrayals of Southeast Asia tend to present it in sensational terms: as the setting for some of our major wars (World War II, the Vietnam War); as an incubation zone for militant Muslims; as a natural disaster–prone “Ring of Fire”; or as a region that generates despotic leaders, refugees, and labor migrants. Alternatively, travel media and some tourist blogs present more “seductive” visions of Southeast Asia: as an exotic tropical vacation zone, surfers’ heaven, bargain shopping Mecca, sex tourism destination, homeland of lovely “mail order” brides and delectable spicy cuisine. There are some truths here, but these are partial truths. There is far more to Southeast Asia than these extreme and often problematic stereotypes belie.

This volume represents our efforts to convey some of the richness and complexity of Southeast Asia via explorations of the daily lives and experiences of diverse people living in this region. In approaching contributors for this volume, we requested essays featuring the everyday practices of ordinary people rather than purely theoretical pieces. Highlighting the minutiae of everyday life—dressing, conversing, schooling, seeking livelihoods, rituals, recreational activities, and so forth—offers a provocative lens for reflecting on more abstract cultural principles and transformations. People’s ordinary everyday activities, even when apparently distinct from other dimensions of life, are invariably tethered to broader social, economic, and political processes. Our “everyday life” approach is grounded in a now established tradition of scholarship, dating back to Henri Fernand Braudel’s 1949 treatise on the long-term social history of the Mediterranean. In his now classic work, Braudel illustrated that the everyday practices and techniques of ordinary people, the farmers, fishers, and potters, the migrations of flocks of sheep, and the tides that carried sailing vessels, were all important to understanding the longer-term flows of history in the Mediterranean. A number of celebrated anthropologists of Southeast Asia similarly focused on the rhythms and microdramas of everyday life with an eye to revealing broader cultural themes. Many of Clifford Geertz’s classic writings on Indonesia embrace this approach (for instance, see his “Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” or “Ritual and Social Change: A Javanese Example” [Geertz 1973]), and his work has had a profound effect on anthropology as a whole.1 Likewise, many of anthropologist Harold Conklin’s early writings on the Philippines embody the “everyday life” approach embraced in this volume. One of his articles, which follows the daily activities of a young girl from a shifting agricultural society in the late 1950s, is included in this volume as it gives us insights into a way of life that is increasingly rare in contemporary  Southeast Asia.

 

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