Fluid Personhood: Conceptualizing Identities

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We begin with a section on “Conceptualizing Identities” because the definition of the “self” in Southeast Asia is one of the startlingly different elements that intrigue observers from other regions of the world. In the West, particularly the United States, there is a pronounced emphasis on the self as a bounded unit, autonomous, self-actualizing, and independent. We are taught (if not completely or successfully) not to define ourselves in terms of others but to be “our own selves.” This is not the dominant norm in Southeast Asia. For instance, Kathleen Gillogly vividly remembers the ways in which her “self” was redefined by friends in Vietnam over the years. When they understood her to be married, they expected one kind of personal style; when they later found her to be single, their conversational assessments of her changed. As a “single” woman, she was to be an open, vivacious person, sporting dangling earrings and bright colors, and wearing her hair down. As a “married” woman, she was held to a standard of quiet calm and reticence, and was to have her hair bound and wear darker colors. She was the same person—but what had changed? Her social role vis-a-vis the social group. This fluidity of self is marked in Southeast Asian cultures in many ways, as discussed in the readings in this section. More often than not, in this region conceptions of the self entail multiple aspects: the self, traditionally, is not a unitary concept. This can be seen in underlying (pre–world religion) cultural ideas of the soul, as well as in language and behavior. The notion of multiple and overlapping identities is a theme in Andrew Causey’s essay (chapter 2) on the Toba Batak of Sumatra, Indonesia. As Causey notes, the Toba Batak idea of the person entails several different dimensions: the “self,” a complex conflation of individual personality, the particular spirit, and the collective group. The “individual personality” is based on a combination of one’s physical quirks and character, whereas one’s particular spirit (or tondi) has a will of its own and must be respected and humored lest it wreak havoc on one’s well-being. Finally, the collective group dimension of the Toba Batak self pertains to one’s membership in an array of broader groups: family, peer group, profession, clan, ethnicity, and nation. Naming is one marker of personhood, beginning the process of incorporating a child into the community. In chapter 5, by Harold Conklin, we see one example of this when the new baby is not named immediately at birth; rather, the family waits for the grandparents to come from another village to name him. Traditionally on Bali, there are only four names for children, based on birth order. If a family has more than four children, the cycle of names is repeated again, and it is possible to have several children with the same name in a single family. The names can be assigned to girls or boys; what is important to mark is one’s birth order. Lisu children are named by birth order and gender—which caused Gillogly much confusion (since there are many people named “First Daughter” and “First Son” in the village) until she discovered each person’s personal nickname. Balinese also use nicknames to navigate the vagaries of these birth-order names. However, on Bali both nickname and birth-order name recede in importance once one becomes a parent. At that point, one is called “Mother of Wayan” or “Father of Ketut,” a practice known as teknonymy. This name shift reflects both a change in status and the idea that all are expected to become parents. Finally, when one becomes a grandparent, one’s name changes yet again, to “Grandmother of Made” or “Grandfather of Wayan.” In her language-oriented contribution to this volume, Lorraine Aragon (chapter 1) also notes the importance of teknonymy among the Tobaku people of Central Sulawesi, Indonesia. Just as the practice of teknonymy in many Southeast Asian societies underscores the importance of being immersed in webs of kinship, and of linguistically underscoring one’s connections to others, so do everyday conversational styles convey similar themes. Aragon’s contribution cogently illustrates that the absence of indigenous words for please and thank you in Central Sulawesi languages reveals much about social relations. Among other things, she underscores that the fact that so many indigenous languages in the archipelago lack these words does not mean that people do not experience gratitude. Rather, these words are not deemed necessary, as to utter words of thanks would be akin to preventing much valued interpersonal bonds of indebtedness to develop. In these island societies, she suggests, people see identities not as isolated, but rather as contingent on sociality. As Aragon writes, “Debts of significance cannot be released with a few fluffy words. Obligations are a state of being and a means to create relations anew.”Southeast Asian relationships are often marked by mutable, ephemeral identities. Judith Nagata underscores the fluid dimensions of identity in the Malay world. Focusing on Malaysia over a great span of history, she illustrates how being defined as Malay is generally based more on the language one opts to speak and the adoption of Islam. In a part of the world where many are multilingual, identities can shift depending on expediency, the need to craft bonds with others, or for other often pragmatic reasons. Speaking Malay and becoming Muslim are both equated with “becoming Malay.” As Nagata points out, under Malaysia’s constitution “a Malay is defined as one who habitually speaks Malay, practices Malay customs (adat), and is a Muslim. This is not a genealogical but a cultural profile, which technically could be adopted by anyone, including foreigners.” The emphasis on shifting identification in the anthropology of Southeast Asia has its origin to a great extent in Edmund Leach’s Political Systems of Highland Burma (1965), a historical study of the Kachin people in which he discussed the oscillation between egalitarian and hierarchical political forms, as well as occasional shifts in which the hierarchical Kachin assumed Shan (a Tai-speaking group) identity. People often define their ethnic identity or membership in a cultural group in relation to neighboring peoples and polities, so these self-definitions shift with social context. As Leach wrote, “language groups are not therefore hereditarily established, nor are they stable through time” (1965:49). Many anthropologists have further developed these insights, particularly Lehman (1963) and Moerman (1965). Moerman, who worked with the Lue (another Tai-speaking group who have settled in northern Thailand, northern Burma, and southwestern China), recounts that he had to ask himself, “Who are the Lue?” and ultimately concluded that this ethnic identity was a category of self-ascription. Language, culture, and political organization were not necessarily congruent with each other. Ethnicity was impermanent; various ethnic groups used labels for other groups differently, and members of groups did not always use the same terms for themselves—how one labeled oneself was situational (Moerman 1965). Theravada Buddhist ideas of the self are also fluid in a cosmological sense. As will be seen in Part 2, on Family, Households, and Livelihoods, social relations are contextualized in terms of the relative status (gender, age, class or rank, education, or occupation, depending on the particular culture) of the people involved with each other. In Theravada Buddhist societies, this is grounded in religious concepts of merit and karma. Buddhism holds that the soul transmigrates and is reborn again and again on the Wheel of Life until the achievement of enlightenment. Nirvana, therefore, is nothingness—not being reborn. But in everyday life, people think in terms of their own immediate caches of merit and sin. As Steven Carlisle points out, karma is understood and assessed individually; if bad things happen to a person, this is interpreted as evidence of transgression in a past life. There is also social monitoring of the reward of good acts and punishment of bad acts. While people see themselves as having a particular backstory that can explain their station in life, Holly High points out that the Lao people she knew believed they were able to take action to improve their station. Like High in Laos, Gillogly was amazed to be the object of discussion for her skin color and to have friends assess their own beauty on the basis of such color. But this is a marker of status and, as High points out, it is a flexible and manipulable element of status. Wealth allows one to achieve lighter skin by not obligating one to do manual, outdoor work. People can accumulate merit through working hard, making charitable donations, and religious behavior. (Moreover, as we will see in Sue Darlington’s essay, chapter 11, the definition of kinds of meritorious acts can be reinterpreted in different settings.) Merit and sin will both be evident in the physical conditions of a person’s life; the implication is that those who are beautiful, successful, or wealthy have a store of merit; that is, there is a cosmological foundation and legitimation of status. Southeast Asia is also known for what has appeared, to Western eyes, as extraordinary gender egalitarianism. As noted in “Maling” (Conklin, chapter 5), families desired male and female children equally; the family had lots of girls, but wanted a boy to hunt with his father. “It would be nice to have the same number of both boy and girl children” says Maling. Outsiders have also noted the number of female presidents and leaders in Southeast Asia. We must be careful about how we interpret this female leadership, as many of these leaders have been daughters or spouses of past leaders. This, perhaps, tells us that the connection to power is more important than gender in and of itself. Gender parity and complementarity were relatively pervasive in precolonial Southeast Asia. Long before most European women had legally sanctioned property rights, Southeast Asian women could not only own property but could also attain prestige as healers and spiritual specialists. In contemporary Southeast Asia, women are often allocated responsibility for managing household budgets. Thai, Lao, Filipino, and Vietnamese colleagues earnestly informed Gillogly time and again that men could not be trusted to handle money wisely, so that women needed to do it. Nevertheless, household economic power does not translate into political power, nor to large-scale public economic power in states. These elements of gender fluidity and egalitarianism are not necessarily typical of Vietnam, however. The gender role of women in Vietnam is to some extent structured by the predominance of patrilineal organization. The Confucian ideal of family organization is decidedly patriarchal. Does this mean, in practice, that women have little power in Vietnamese society? The more important question may be whether Vietnamese women have status comparable to that of women in the rest of Southeast Asia—evidenced by their significant roles in patrilineal rituals—or whether they are subject to Confucian law and therefore have roles more akin to the more subordinate ones East Asian women are presumed to occupy—as evidenced by Vietnamese law that did not allow women to inherit land. Debates on this point continue. While none of the chapters in this book discusses this, many Southeast Asian cultures are also notable for recognizing a different set of gender categories beyond the simple binary opposition between female and male. There are third and fourth gender categories. For instance, the famous “ladyboys” of Thailand are in fact a modern transformation of a traditional gender role of kathoey. Such male-to-female transgender persons are accepted and often admired in Thai society—but, as with women’s roles in Thailand, there are limits to the degree of public power accessible to such people. Interestingly, in parts of island Southeast Asia, third and fourth gender category people were historically often assigned special, socially recognized ritual roles. In Sulawesi, some played essential roles in Buginese weddings, and others played roles in highland harvest rituals. However, world religions and the absorption of Western attitudes toward nonbinary gender categories have eroded these special roles. Colonialism, postcolonial migrations, and nation-building have also brought about the reworking of other dimensions of indigenous ideas pertaining to gender, as Aihwa Ong and Michael C. Peletz have underscored (1995:2). For instance, the arrival of Spaniards and Catholicism in the Philippines ultimately diminished the spiritual potency accessible to indigenous women. Missionization and colonialism generally meant that the Filipina’s role became conscripted to that of church and home. And today we find that globalization, labor migration, and other current dynamics have not been uniformly empowering for Southeast Asian women (or for those who are gay or transgendered, for that matter). While globalization offers new possibilities for Southeast Asian women to seek livelihood and mates abroad, not all these possibilities offer Cinderella-type outcomes. For instance, although the wages may be better than what one could earn at home, the positions Filipina, Indonesian, and Malaysian women take as overseas domestic workers may entail emotionally challenging long-distance parenting, long hours of confinement, or even abuse at the hands of bosses. As Michele Ford and Lenore Lyons (chapter 23) note in reflecting on women migrants they interviewed in the Southeast Asian Growth Triangle (some of whom were working in the sex industry), the border zone presents new prospects they would not have elsewhere, but also imposes risks and other costs.




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