June 6, 2009

Understanding cultural change and gender roles through dance

It was my usual American ritual -- to dance the energy I felt about the area.  My friends and I had turned breakdancing into a roadtripping staple -- at a rest stop in the middle of a Montana valley we'd find quintessential Montanan train track-saloon backdrops to dance in front of.  And the wizened Montana wranglers laughed at us, but enjoyed our entertainment and could relate to our cramped legs and need for motion.

In the excitement of seeing Lo Monthang for the first time I busted out some moves (carefully documented thanks to my photographically adept traveling partner, Megna).  Pemba, our guide from Kathmandu, and Sonam, our porter from the outskirts of Kathmandu, laughed and smiled -- their enthusiasm for reaching Lo Monthang seemed to match our own (escalated, I assume, by their anticipation of turning right around to return to Kathmandu and their families with fatter wallets in hand!)  They reviewed the dance pictures, picking out the better ones, laughing when my shaky moves had led to a face full of sand.

In Kathmandu we had seen a hiphop festival complete with Nepali MCing and breakdancing cyphers around the Boudha stupa, only feet removed from circles of traditional Nepali dance.  The grounds were so packed that we saw a drunken man, red in the face and unable to stand, be kept upright just by the continuous clockwise movement of the crowd.  All the while pilgrims of all ages were circumambulating the historic stupa -- traditions of old coexisting with the new.  Megna and I had passed the Om Hollywood Dance Academy that featured lessons from breaking to salsa, bollywood to traditional Tibetan dance.  And we listened to a live set at The Factory, a new addition to the Thamel bar scene, of Nepali-Klezmer-Hiphop fusion.  The interface was exhilarating -- one I certainly did not spend enough time thinking through.  That was Kathmandu and Boudhanath with internet access, a constant stream of tourists, areas described even by locals as "an escape from Nepal."  (Manjushri Thapa, Forget Kathmandu).

In some ways, I entered a different world traveling to Mustang, and then to Upper Mustang.  I should have understood the traditional Loba ways when I passed by street art of beautifully garbed Loba woman, painted with traditional clouds, with turquoise, coral and pearl jewelry, spinning wool to thread.  But the visuals were conflicting.  I saw the Tibetan woman painted on the door, but walking by was Kelsang with his baggy jeans that had "Stud" embroidered on the back pocket.  He carried around a cell phone that played Shaquira and NSYNC, ACDC and Bob Marley but never Nepali or Tibetan music.  And down the street worked sweet and seemingly innocent Kanchi who always dressed in a bakku but whose teahouse walls were covered with half-naked pictures of Avril Lavigne, John and Srithaal Rasipain.  They surrounded her shrine to the Dalai Lama, Rajarani, and a poster of the Potala.  

In a supposed "cultural exchange" one night, Kelsang and another friend got me on the floor breaking to Shaquira.  They clapped for me.  I noticed a couple of girls who buried their faces in their hands laughing.  A few others had blank looks on their faces.  And days later, the incident had erupted into a debate of western influence and cultural exclusion among the youth in Lo Monthang.

The debate was conflicted.  For some, my friendships with locals had become too close and too threatening.  On the other hand, potential donations for cultural initiatives necessitated foreign donations, and I was another potential donor -- someone to keep on their good side.  

For others, who had lived in Kathmandu and Pokhara and were returning to their village, my presence was the fast-paced slightly loud and uneasy entertainment that they enjoyed in the city.  And conversations with me removed them from the monotony they identified in their lives in Lo.  But I was also a target for American visa requests.   

As for me, I had become lost in cultural extremes.  I felt young and naive -- not because I had shared my own dance culture, but because I had not, and have not yet, come to understand the tension that aspects of development, communication, and global networking can cause.  While working in Sikkim, dance had brought me close to my students -- a group of fifteen girls from ages five to fifteen.  I recall writing in my journal, five years ago, that the girls and I had danced through the months we spent together.  We worked together on basic swing dancing moves and they taught me Bollywood choreography.  They ran into my room exhilarated when, after months, they had managed to do the worm.  And they laughed at my inability to dance in Hindi styles.  But one night my friend had taken me to a disco in Gangtok, the capital city, where there were zero women on the dance floor, and only a few married women in the disco.

My memories of Sikkim led me to believe that gender roles were at the core of the issue. Was my dancing in Lo Monthang a statement of strength, individuality and power uncommon and unacceptable for women?  Could gender also explain why my presence as a single, unmarried woman, trekking into Lo Monthang and researching there alone was such a shock?  I had often wished I was a male researcher in India to make things easier, and while it wasn't yet at this extreme in Lo Monthang, I wondered how I would be received as a young, single American breakdancing male.

Gender is a cultural determinant in Lo Monthang for duties, dress, marriage rights, monastic involvement, leadership, even mannerisms.  Tashi Tsering sang about the expectations of gender in his songs. Take, for instance, the helpless Princess Kusum being forced to leave her home to marry a Ladakhi prince.   Never angry, she never argued her destiny.  But every step of the way she asked her family, villagers and friends if they were sending her away because they were angry with her.  Power plays through gender roles became apparent in songs sung by another Loba, Yanzolm.  Young women she portrayed sang to men, "don't even try to court me, I'm to expensive for you to buy!"  All the while, the woman is dreaming of her future husband, playing out the traditional role of a wife.  Meanwhile, with Shaquira mp3's pervasively loaded onto cell phones and suggestive posters of female celebrities commonly hanging on walls of remote villages, a foreign female role that involves sex, money, drugs and power is setting an uneasy tone for women, especially to accept Western culture.

The question for this blog, now, is how we, as responsible researchers, foreign aid workers, expedition members and tourists, can negotiate conflicting cultural roles when we travel.

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