Before we started this week’s session, our guest speaker had asked us to tell everyone three things: your name, the reason why you like to write and the colour of your underwear. Week 5’s session was different from previous sessions in many ways.
Week 5’s guest speaker was Yeoh Seng Guan, a lecturer of anthropology from Monash University, who writes because he feels that he has to write. And he happened to be wearing black underwear that day. (A lot of people wore black underwear that day, turns out).
Now that we have rolled over the half-point mark of the programme, I can gauge what Adriana and Veronica wants to achieve through UnRepresented KL. This programme is not trying to romanticise Kuala Lumpur in any way; in fact, there is a certain gritty realism about the things we’ve learned of the “other side” of Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia. Some days, I do feel burdened by the knowledge of what I have learned of my country, especially the negative aspects of things. But you can’t simply unlearn the things made visible to you. Opportunities come in various forms and some of them are in the shape of responsibilities.
I have to say, this week was thankfully guiltless as we took on a more academic route. Seng Guan was the only speaker who gave us an assignment weeks before his own session and handed out reading materials prior to it. Three anthropology journal articles that are knee-deep in jargons. Me and a couple of my UnRepresented friends obviously struggled since most of us left school in years. It was just like being back in class! I’m not entirely sure if everybody welcomed it.
This week, we learned about ethnography and how to delve in writing an ethnography. This is incredibly useful tool, especially if you’re trying to write about authentic characters with unfamiliar backgrounds. So, not only you will be able to get valuable data about these individuals but you’re also exposed to their wants and needs. In its most basic definition, ethnography is written works about people. As I’ve mentioned before in Week 3, we were supposed to be amateur ethnographers, interviewing and documenting the people around Petaling Street. That didn’t happen due to the weather intervention. We were still given that assignment to write though and I used my moment of being lost in Petaling Street for the ethnography assignment. At first, we all had assumed that ethnography meant writing about people in the most objective and detailed way possible, stripped from any of our feelings or thoughts that could be misleading.
But first: back to the three introduction questions above before you think Seng Guan was being lecherous for no reason!
Telling our names was a basic introduction but the reason why we like to write and the colour of underwears served a purpose. When Seng Guan asked Nazli, one of the least talkative few in this group, about why he likes writing, Nazli simply said:
“So I can be an asshole.”
That pulled a lot of instant laughs and I just shrugged it off as a joke at first. But then, Veronica put her two cents in, saying that the reason why Nazli would want to be an asshole in his writing is because he’s such a polite and shy person in real life. When you are guarded in appearance, writing gives you an outlet to have that daring streak. That’s an incredible insight, which Seng Guan related back to ethnography: when you interview someone about their lives, sometimes you can’t take whatever they say on face value. You have to learn to listen for more clues so you can peel back their protective layer.
And the underwear question? Simple, we all change underwear every day, at least I would like to think people do. So the colours of underwear are immaterial because it changes all the time; it does not define a person, the detail is not important. So, when you’re out there, doing field work and capturing scenes in your head, it is tempting to just absorb all the tiny details and vomit it all on your writing. But some details are meaningless and it might even distract you from seeing things with actual value.
So writing ethnography is not as simple as we thought it would be. There’s a lot of filtering and connecting the dots involved. Most importantly, we can’t ignore ourselves; the fact that we are going in there, in the field, to document the lives of these people means that our deduction will go through our own experience, emotions, senses, what have you. Seng Guan said that the earlier forms of ethnography are exactly what we tried to do: realistic and scientific depictions of people. But recent ethnographic works are more like novels, with colourful and emotional narratives.
Seng Guan stated further that people are “interpretive creatures”; it is impossible for us to separate our own emotions from what we deduce from other people. He even went on to say that ethnographic reports are “quasi-scientific writings” and anthropologists shouldn’t even try to be scientific. But there are negative effects to this, of course. It’s not all just warm and fuzzy deductions of peace-loving hippies.
For starters, a minor problem is when you are too familiar with the surroundings. You have been exposed to the area and the people so many times that, at the point of research, you have been desensitized. In one of the reading materials, anthropologists are asked to defamiliarise themselves with their experience and relation to the place and society. Without being able to really absorb the details of your surroundings, you are unable to be self-reflective when writing the piece. You can’t be critical of what you’re thinking or writing because the details mean nothing to you anymore.
On a more serious note, certain anthropologists interpret the cultures and lifestyles of others through their own filter of prejudice and pass them off as facts. “Orientalism” was brought up and that definitely hit a chord in me. Orientalist anthropologists write studies that make minorities appear as though they are timeless creatures living in their exotic bubble, without the capability to influence or be influenced by outside forces. Or that they are all the same, a carbon copy of each other, turning them into caricatures of their own culture. Being a Muslim and Asian, I’ve seen countless of times where parts of my identity get mauled or misunderstood by people in general. But we ourselves are not entirely faultless. Just look at our tourism ads: the way we focus on our culture and lifestyle that make us appear exotic and alluring, presenting ourselves as an alternative to the “normal life” of a Westerner.
So, what now? For a non-student of anthropology, which is everyone in the UnRepresented KL programme, writing an ethnography seems daunting. It is difficult to balance between being self-involved in the writing and being detached enough to be objective. In fact, I do feel that writing an ethnography takes too much time and energy, which can instead be funneled to the writing of actual piece (if you’re simply a writer).
However, we have a responsibility to truthfulness and reality. Ethnography is not just about self-expression, after all. In fact, Seng Guan mentioned that the final stage of any published studies of anthropology will be the affirmation and the acceptance of the researched persons. Will they look at your work and feel that they were presented correctly and truthfully?