Its tempting to look at our time in language and culture study as mainly about getting the Tigak language. Culture study seems less tangible and less impressive than speaking a new language. However, we firmly believe that language should be learned in the context of culture, therefore, our language & culture study among the Tigak is done primarily through what is called “culture events.” This blog is about culture events and is intended to give you a taste of what it means to be a full time student of culture.
A culture event is any naturally occurring event, scene or setting in the life of the community. Each culture event occurs naturally and involves people, speech, objects, setting, action and underlying values and motives. Basically it is anything any person does throughout any given day or longer. They include all aspects of a person’s normal daily routine all the way to longer, more complex special events.
Making a List
By way of example, if I wrote a list of everything I do on any given morning, the list would include waking up and getting dressed, brushing my teeth, making coffee, having some breakfast, reading in the Scriptures and some prayer, checking email and then starting work. Each one of those items are culture events. Of course as the day progresses, I will engage in other culture events, including eating lunch and dinner, taking a shower at some point, various activities spending time with my family, and maybe checking facebook. The larger culture event of “work” is full of smaller culture events within itself. If you observed my life, you would come up with a pretty good idea of our general daily routine of simple culture events.
Likewise, one of the first things we did before starting into language & culture study was walk around our village simply observing and writing down every single thing we saw people doing. Through this two-day exercise of going out at different times, I came up with a rough list of about fifty things that go on during different points of the day on our island. Of course, this was only the beginning and I have learned much more since we started, but the list got us going. We saw simple things like women sweeping, washing clothes or making a fire. We saw men making new canoes or going out fishing. Kids played games or cracked nuts open for a snack. All of these things were included in our list and much more.
Of course, culture events are not only simple daily routine, but also complex things like funerals, feasts, village court, etc. Prior to this point, much of our initial culture study was limited to the more simple culture events, such as daily routines and other simple day to day activities.
One Thing at a Time
Going back to my morning routine, think about the culture event of “brushing teeth.” Imagine that you are tasked with the goal of observing someone brushing their teeth. You need to observe who is doing it, what they are doing step-by-step, what they are using, and where it is taking place. An event that might seem pretty straightforward actually proves to be full of information.
Here are my field notes from an actual Tigak culture event, “Scraping a Coconut:”
Went over to Willam’s house to see if he had come back yet and came upon Lapan scraping coconuts outside. He was sitting on a bench with a scraper on the end of it. Under the scraper was a large plastic bowl. To his right, on a mat, was a pile of half coconuts with the coconut still inside. To his left, on a mat as well, was a pile of half coconuts already scraped. Nearby was a metal rod sticking out the ground with a pointed end.
Tiban was also standing nearby. I saw him reach down and pick up a coconut still in its shell from the ground. He rammed the coconut into a metal rod that was sticking out of the ground nearby and then pulled on the coconut, ripping the skin off. He did this a few times, until the shell was completely off. Once it was off, he handed it to Lapan who then cut it in half with his bush knife, let the water fall to the ground and then placed the two halves in the pile to his right.
I watched him work for a little while and this is what I observed: He would lean over and pick up one coconut from his right, and then using both hands, scrape it on the scraper. The coconut scrapings fell into the large plastic bowl sitting underneath it. The total time to scrape one coconut half was maybe ten seconds. He repeated this process until all the coconuts were finished.
Every once in a while as he scraped, he would eat some of the scrapings.
At one point an old man came up and sat down. He grabbed one of the scraped coconut halves and pulled a knife out of his basket. He used the knife to scrape leftover coconut out of the shell and then ate it. He did that for the remainder of the time I was present.
After Lapan was finished, he took his bowl of scrapings over to Ngurvalen and set it in front of her. Then he went and sat on the beach with a child.
When we file our field notes, we also write follow up questions based on our observations. Why was Lapan scraping coconuts? Who did the coconuts that Lapan was scraping belong to? What was going to happen to the coconut scrapings that Lapan scraped? Why was Lapan scraping coconuts near Willam’s house? All of these questions might seem simple, but they have important answers. You wouldn’t know this, but in studying Tigak culture I know that the answers to these questions are significant to understanding property ownership, relationship obligations, personal identity, and even death customs.
Something as simple as brushing teeth in our own culture would be the same. Where does someone acquire a toothbrush? Where do people typically brush their teeth? Who teaches people how to brush their teeth and when? Why do people brush there teeth when they wake up? Why do people brush their teeth at all? Do people brush their teeth in groups or by themselves? The answer to these questions touches on economy (buying from stores), family relationships (parents teaching children to brush their teeth), transportation (getting to stores), personal hygiene, individual responsibility, and much more.
As you can see each individual culture event, even the simplest of ones, are packed with culture information. We begin with the material aspects of culture and move on towards the social and on into the abstract touching on core values, which will include worldview study. Each culture event is then revisited multiple times where we can continue digging deeper, getting our previous questions answered while adding more to the list.
As we observe culture events, we also take lots of notes and pictures, specifically noting the setting, steps, who is involved, what they are using, etc. All of our notes and pictures are filed in a special language and culture computer program we use- and no, its not Rosetta Stone. 🙂 Getting shots of main objects and actions is key for learning words, phrases, and so on. These pictures will later be used for creating what is called a “photo book” that tells the story through each picture. Again, the purpose of this is for language study.
Think about all the objects and actions for our American activity of brushing our teeth. As for objects (nouns): man, bathroom, counter, sink, toothbrush, toothpaste, mouth, teeth, hand, water, face, towel, etc. Through these pictures, you could get words for all the parts of the face or articles of clothing, etc. As for actions (verbs): entering the bathroom, walking, turning on the light, picking up toothpaste, holding toothbrush, looking in the mirror, removing the toothpaste lid, turning on the faucet, brushing, spitting in the sink, etc.
As for our Tigak example objects (nouns) would include: coconut (there are five different names depending on the age of the coconut), coconut water, coconut skin, coconut shell, bench, scraper, man, coconut scrapings, bowl, mat, etc. Because this event took place outside, like many events, we could also get some names for outdoor things like parts of a tree or descriptive words for the ground, etc. As for actions (verbs): walking, standing, sitting, scraping the coconut, holding the coconut, getting a coconut, placing a coconut, cutting a coconut, draining the water from the coconut, etc.
Through our picture books we collect language and slowly over time expand from words, to phrases, to sentences and on to paragraphs and full discourse.
Now you have a little bit of a taste of what it means to be students of culture. To me, the whole idea of culture events is the funnest part of learning the Tigak language & culture. In this way, everything is culturally derived and requires total immersion into the lives of the people. However, it is not only great for understanding culture and not only does it provide material for our language study, but it also establishes our role as non-threatening learners among the Tigak people. We respect them and their language & culture and taking the time to observe their lives really shows them that we are interested in them, not just in a superficial way. We really want to know them, because as we grow in knowing them, we are growing in our care and concern for them. I love that we can say that the Tigak people are our friends in the truest sense of the word.