While my primary and high school years were relatively normal, in terms of school life, sports, girls, cars and movies, I look back now and see that one characteristic distinguished my childhood from that of the neighborhood kids. As soon as I first learned about them I was passionately attracted to American Indians. Crazy Horse was my first American hero. As a child I used to fantasize I was an American Indian stalking game in the woods behind our house and rooted for the Indians in all the cowboys-and-Indians movies I watched.
This incipient interest in cultures and lifestyles that differed from the one I was being raised in got stronger as I grew older. History was a favorite school subject for me, naturally, but so was geography. My parents were part of the university’s Foreign Students Welcoming Committee. On American holidays like 4th of July, Christmas, Thanksgiving and so on they invited foreigners to our house, who in return for the hospitality and big dinner entertained us with descriptions (sometimes slide shows) of their countries and sang to us songs from their homelands. We got to make friends with people from India, Taiwan, Japan, Nigeria, Tunisia, Colombia and France. And my travel ambitions began.
I graduated from high school in 1965 and that autumn had to register for the draft and get my 1-A classification. That restricted me to only minimum-wage unskilled labor jobs and with the war in Vietnam expanding rapidly my nascent travel ambitions had a new aspect. I became gripped by the idea of seeing Europe before I got drafted, sent to Vietnam and killed. So I spent the spring of 1966 in England, France, Germany and the Benelux countries until I ran out of money and returned to America.
I got a job at once with a door-to-door magazine subscription company that, while I wound up with no money in the end, did introduce me to a wide variety of Americans, rich and poor, black, white, Hispanic and immigrant, rural and urban, young and old, as we canvassed neighborhoods in several states east of the Mississippi. Afterwards I worked as a bookstore clerk in Atlanta until I got my draft notice in the summer of 1967, when the war was getting worse but the generals were still confident all they needed to win was more troops.
I enlisted instead, “choice not chance,” but “needs of the army” was the footnote used to not give me what I enlisted for. But by luck, I was sent to Germany after armor training. This was 1968 and like so many others of my generation, a time of fast radicalization. I became an anti-war soldier activist, kept it up after my return to America the following year and eventually, as a result, couldn’t even get a minimum security clearance, which was required to be dispatched to Vietnam. So the army sent me to South Korea instead. From their point of view it was a good move. By 1971 the anti-war movement was badly split and I lost interest and joined an off-duty rock and roll band during my time in Korea.
My discharge came in January 1972 and I headed for San Francisco, partly because of the whole Summer of Love myth and partly because it was full of Asians, an environment in which I felt more comfortable now. I eventually got a job at General Services Administration but after a few months learned that my anti-war background disqualified me from getting any job higher than clerk-typist. So in late October I bought a one-way ticket to Korea, without even enough money for a round-trip. (You could do that back then.) I had a girlfriend there from my army days, but no real idea of what to do after I arrived.
Soon enough I did what other ex-soldiers did who stayed there after their discharge: taught conversational English to Koreans. That was a good job for someone who wanted to be a novelist, for it made me aware of just what conversational English was, the colloquial speech, the English not taught in schools. The job also provided insights into Korean culture and how it differed from my own. My four years as a language teacher there, interspersed with journeys to all parts of the country, later provided much of the narrative background when I finally did become a novelist and wrote The Koiran Tales.
|Swaayambhu Temple, view from my balcony winter mornings|
The first couple years were pretty difficult, getting used to the food, the dirt, the hygiene problem, etc. and I got so sick at one point I nearly died and even believed I would in just a few days. So I decided to pick out a last book to read and my eyes fell on Dick Wilson’s The Long March. This was a story about Chinese soldiers in equally bad physical condition as me but marching up and down mountains, getting shot at half the time, sometimes starving, sometimes freezing…in short, I interpreted it inspirationally and from that day started to recover.
While I got over that initial crisis, the inspiration remained and I conceived the Long March poems at that time. Kathmandu had Chinese bookstores and libraries where I could research and friends there had books that also proved valuable to me. It took me a year and a half to finish the poems, a time in which I experienced some similar hardships, like extreme hunger and cold (not intentionally!). then had a successful local reading at a poet friend’s place, but talk of publishing came to nothing.
|Bhaktapur festival procession|
Meanwhile, I was becoming more interested in the life and culture of Kathmandu Valley and soon produced my first published book Guide to Enjoying Nepalese Festivals. Attending festivals all over the Valley taught me much about Nepalese culture. At this time I took up photography, in the beginning to photograph what I witnessed that I didn’t understand, so that later I would make a print and use it to ask questions.
Machhendranath, one of the main gods of the Newars, the original ethnic community of Kathmandu Valley and still the majority in the main towns, came from Assam in Northeast India. With that in mind I first visited Assam in November 1979, when a statewide anti-government movement was just beginning. I visited the temple where the Newar god originated, as well as the rhinoceros sanctuary, but became interested in the Assamese and their neighbors, who were very different from the rest of India.
I made two more trips to Assam and Shillong in 1980 to write a story about the political movement and its strong sense of ethnic awareness. I met many of the hill people then as well and heard them describe their way of life. For the nest couple years I researched Northeast India for a book project that included all the peoples of the area. I filled my library with books from the British colonial days to the present. I studied about headhunters in the old days, jungle aesthetics, animist customs and matrilineal societies.
|With Ah Aw, my first worker, 1988|
While I kept my little farmhouse near Swayambhunath, the last few years in Nepal I lived in Bhaktapur, a Newar city east of the capital that was a World Heritage Site from the early 70s. I got involved with many local people there, learned their dialect of Newari, participated in the festivals and collected unrecorded folk tales that were published as Tales of Old Bhaktapur. Bhaktapur was a farmers’ city, with craft neighborhoods and an atmosphere that strongly resembled the medieval Europe I read about in British Council Library books.
I left Nepal at the end of 1987 and by spring the following year had established myself in Chiang Mai. I began working with Akha villagers in the northern mountains soon afterwards, producing traditional handicrafts like jackets, but big enough for Westerners, and shoulder bags. I did the colors from natural dyes, which I learned in Nepal, and they did the rest. Profits were always small, for this was a niche market, but I lived cheaply and it paid for the research. It also familiarized me with the animist view of life. The first book I published in Thailand was Meet the Akhas and later, after traveling in Laos, Myanmar and Yunnan, The Akha: Guardians of the Forest.
(below, some of the Akha women I employed in handicraft production)
|Bu Sheu, Doi Chang|
|Aphi, Doi Chang|
|Ah Aw, Saen Charoen|
|Ah Saw, Saen Charoen|
On a longer visit to the northwest a few months later I became convinced that the ethnic minorities in Yunnan were in a revivalist mode, resurrecting customs and practices once proscribed, and that ethnic pride was back in favor. How long this would last was an open question, but for the time being ethnic culture was strong and visible and someone should record it while it lasts. It seemed to be equivalent to the situation in my own country in the 1840s. Native American culture west of the Mississippi was at its historical peak, while that east of the river had already been undermined by white immigration. George Catlin realized this and took it upon himself to record the tribal ways in the West before they were gone forever. He taught himself painting and spent several years in his self-appointed task. Today his work is one of the most important sources we have on the American Indians of the Old West
So I developed a new ambition. I would be the George Catlin of Yunnan. I was properly qualified, for I had studied and worked with ethnic minorities for some years already, from my years with the Mizos, Newars and Akhas I was comfortable with ethnic minorities and I was also a longtime student of Chinese culture and politics. I decided to concentrate on the northwest first, for the Naxi, Yi, Mosuo and Tibetans lived in distinctly different environments, all within easy reach of each other. Over the next few years I spent most of my Yunnan time there, while taking excursions to other places in the province as fast as they opened to foreigners. By the end of the decade I had published Children of the Jade Dragon, about the Naxi and Yi. Work on the Tibetans and Mosuo will come out as an e-book soon. I was lucky in choosing that area first, for that is the part of Yunnan that has changed the most since then.
|with Mosuo friend, Lugu Lake, 1995|
|at the Jingpo Munao festival, 1997|
The next part of the province I explored at length was Ailaoshan, the mountain range along the Red River that is home to several ethnic minorities and the region’s most ancient and spectacular rice terraces. It took a few years, with excursions three or four times a year, to visit every significant ethnic sub-group and nearly all the local market days. I combined the trips with shorter journeys to places in the province I hadn’t been yet in order to produce The Exploration of Yunnan, a portrait of the province and its people, past and present. It had three printings in Kunming and an updated, slightly expanded edition came out in Hong Kong as Yunnan: South of the Clouds a few years later.
The Ailaoshan work lay in my house for some time before finally coming out as an e-book called The Terrace Builders, just when the heart of the area was declared a World Heritage Site. Because the mountain range extends into northern Vietnam, with the same minorities on both sides of the border, in the interest of that research I made my first trips to Vietnam at the end of 1999, early 2000 and a follow-up in 2002. Having fallen in love with Hanoi on the way to the mountains, from that time on I began making regular excursions to Vietnam.
Originally I thought that if I should have a career in Vietnam it would be researching minorities, as I did in Yunnan. But virtually nothing in English was available about Vietnamese culture, other than small books dealing with a single aspect, like the water-puppets or the communal houses. So I found a niche there, too, and began researching traditional culture to eventually produce Uniquely Vietnamese, about that part of Vietnamese culture that developed out of the Red River Delta historical experience, and not what was imported from China.
|riding a rope-bridge|
Yet I hadn’t run out of projects to do in Yunnan and shortly after the turn of the century began serious research in the Nujiang canyon in western Yunnan. This is the Chinese name for that portion of the river known to Southeast Asia as the Salween. The dominant ethnic group here is Lisu, at least half of them Christian, but still very traditional in clothing and lifestyle. In Nujiang I climbed mountains to get scenery photos, rode rope-bridges, learned how to use a crossbow and joined caravans for a day. The research results came out in Kunming as Grand Canyon of the East.
With that project done I shifted to Xishuangbanna in the south. Being from Chiang Mai gave me an advantage in this prefecture, for the plains people were Dai, with language and customs close to that of the people around Chiang Mai, and most of the mountain minorities were the same ones as in northern Thailand.
And if they did not also live in northern Thailand their way of life was nearly the same. As elsewhere in Yunnan, the people were friendly and cooperative and there seemed to be little distinction between the work of research and the pleasure in carrying it out. As with my other Yunnan projects, I dragged out the research time partly to be thorough and partly because it was so enjoyable. At last, Xishuangbanna: the Tropics of Yunnan is now available as an e-book.
But also as elsewhere in Yunnan, changes in Xishuangbanna, in the lifestyles, architecture, world-view, customs and habits were proceeding with exponential rapidity. Photos I had taken early in my research were now impossible to replicate, as landscapes had changed or villages had destroyed their traditional houses to replace them with modern ones. This had been happening all over the province and only in the furthest reaches, well off the highways, did traditional ethnic culture remain relatively unaffected. But at least, like Catlin in the American West, I got there before that all happened.
|most recent published work on Vietnam|
I can’t say I have finished with Yunnan, for I have accumulated much information and many photographs over the past two decades that I can draw upon for one project or another. Nor will my current work on Vietnam be my last one on that country, for with every visit I learn something new. The nice thing about living in this part of the world, for a writer with an inquiring mind, is that the number of interesting things to write about is practically boundless.
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