Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Coming home...

The final week was a bit of an eye-opener into Tongan culture and how it relates to problem resolution. It’s a challenging thing to generalize an entire culture’s method of confronting problems but a single sentence from a friend just about summed up the overall mentality. After discussing the damage done by gossip in a situation we just left he explained, “When you have a problem you just punch each other and then everyone is fine.”
As foreign, and even extreme, of a concept as that was for me I couldn’t negatively judge that concept immediately because in this particular situation it worked. Rather than building up anger over what had been said and done, a few seconds of physicality resolved the issue as far as I could see. That’s not to say that I will take such an approach to resolving disputes in my life, but I saw in that context and with that cultural understanding a few punches patched up the problem. Whether the resolution I saw was conclusive or not, by the end of the day all involved had made amends. Maybe if time had permitted I could have discovered more of what is implied by the concept my friend shared with me.
Yet despite my confusion with aspects of Tongan culture, I left with a positive outlook on my entire experience. Coming home helped me realize and remember the big picture as well as how unique of an experience this summer was. I won’t soon forget the amazing beaches, the forests of palms, the food that took a while to grow on me, but most importantly the friendly people that I met. Initially I went hoping to be of greater help to the family than they were to me, but the life lessons I took from them top any of my efforts. Most were lessons I hope don’t fade as I continue to get readjusted to life in Provo.
Returning just a week before school started, life changed drastically from ‘island life’ to ‘student life’ with plenty to do in preparation for the school year. Part of me misses the days with little to do but go on a walk around the village. Another part is grateful for a schedule to keep me busy. Yet without a doubt it was easier to focus life on the fundamentals when I lived a simpler life. The change of pace that becomes apparent when you land in Tonga was an adjustment and lesson on its own. Similarly as soon as I got back to SLC the gears shifted and I felt the need to buy a planner to keep up with everything. Yet like anyplace, I’ll likely never fully appreciate or understand Tonga anytime soon, but in the meantime I’ll be grateful for the lessons I brought back with me.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Interviews might be harder than I thought...

I’ve started making decent progress on the next phase of my project: interviews. The first month of gathering information through conversation and observation helped provide a foundation from which I could base appropriate questions. When I say I'm making progress, I mean that I am about halfway through the number of interviews I hope to complete. Its definitely a milestone in my field study, but I define my progress as decent because most of my interviews haven’t yielded as much information as I would like to answer my research question.
In Tonga it’s relatively easy to gain access into the community, particularly when my host family knows or at least recognizes 75% of the people on the island. With a relatively small population, most people in Vava'u know each other because of an association at church, being alumni of the same school, or the most common reason is that most people are somehow related. So with host parents from two different villages and large families, I wish I would have realized earlier how huge of an asset they are in finding individuals to interview.
My current approach to interviews goes like this. I begin by making a physical map of the property. Sometimes the individual wants to walk around and point out the boundaries and it really becomes a show-and-tell opportunity. Other times the interviewee simply talks with my host mom as I take a few measurements and sketch the planting beds and house. Once the property and structures are drawn, the person then labels and explains the function of each area of the yard. That largely covers the function aspect of my project and I am satisfied with the information obtain so far on that. The second half of the interview is when I ask questions regarding aesthetics and the concept of design within the yard. Unfortunately most people get a confused look on their face as they figure out how to answer the questions. I can only hope that my translator understands what I'm asking and is conveying that idea. With nearly every question and after several interviews, I get an almost identical answer: "We do that for the beauty."
I’ve tried to word a series of questions in different ways (hoping they translate differently), but people still look confused and the answer keeps coming back the same. How helpful is the phrase "for the beauty" in defining what Tongan landscape aesthetics? There is some information to be inferred from these responses, but I want to know more. So far what I'm understanding on Tongan design is that planning and preparation is not given much forethought. Design preferences exist, I just need to find out the right questions to ask.
So in trying to get past this wall, I’ve decided to continue asking the few questions that have provided valuable information in past interviews, try asking a few new ones to better understand design tactics, and then make a lot of my own observations on common trends in the landscapes I draw. Also maybe yes/no questions on the design patters I've observed (straight lines, alternating plants, and large lawns) will open up some more conversation. I didn't expect interviews would require so much thought. But I guess I also didn't realize what concepts I assumed would translate easily in Tongan culture. Interviews might not be my strong point, but I hope I can keep working on them and get better.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

In-field post #1

My experience here on Vava’u has been an exciting challenge. Its been fun to learn how to start from scratch and develop contacts in a new culture. Tonga is, of course, beautiful with its clear waters, forests of palm trees, and friendly people. Yet I have found that people are quite reserved in their interactions with most foreigners, or palangi. This was most evident to me by how little people in my ward would speak to me at the beginning. But after about 4 weeks, something changed drastically and the lapse of time provided a much needed tool to integrate into the ward.
So far the work I’ve done on my project has laid a foundation of observations from which I can base more appropriate interview questions. It was great to actually walk down roads and stop to observe residential landscapes with varying plant material, new design principles and some interesting uses of various areas of the yard. I am just about to start the interview process with several contacts I have, and some will be people I will meet and simply ask if it will be possible to talk to them more about their beautiful yard. The greatest challenge has been not being able to identify very many of the ornamental plants used in the landscapes. I recognize a few that are used in the US, but many of them are new to me. That has also been fun to learn from adults and kids about the names of plants.
There is a strong connection to the land here. I’m still working on pinpointing how that connection to agriculture and subsistence living is related to landscaping around homes, but I’m hoping my interviews will begin to answer that question. I’m excited for what I’ll find out and hope I can find more answers rather than new questions as I begin this process.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Learning Journal 30

The movie that Ashley showed was...interesting. I'm not sure exactly what we were supposed to get out of it, but it did make me think. The approach of describing society in the clips was so bizarre. Initially I thought it was humorous, but came to realize the observations were so far detached from any amount of emotion and instead focused entirely on pure objective observation. To some degree I can see how it ties into seeing a method of creating field notes. During the first few weeks I will largely have the approach of observing without making an judgments. The reason for that is because I will not be aware of cultural norms until I have seen people interact on multiple occasions to pick up on trends.
I'm not sure if that was part of the purpose of the clip. Out of context, the result was a report of facts that was done in a way to evoke emotion. During the first few minutes, I though it was a joke, or an example of a bad way to report something as it was entirely objective. Every new concept built off of the previous and connected it to the next. Each was lumped into a simple category. Humans were described as such by their large brain, opposable thumb, two legs, and money. I'm not sure, but I don't think I liked the overgeneralized statements because it left me a little confused as to what the point was. The ending thought I had was how unfortunate for those people who rummage through the organic material not fit for pigs. It was interesting and I hope one day I'll figure out what that meant.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Learning Journal 29

I feel like these journals are starting to get fairly repetitive as the semester is winding down and there is only so much left to wonder and discuss. Actually there is still a lot to think about, but all my effort is going toward the final draft of the proposal. Today in class was another day of presentations. I was grateful to listen to those projects because it helped me realize that we all have some amount of ambiguity in our proposal since we don't really know what to expect once we arrive. We've all done some research and tried to read between the lines on the available information, but it will be interesting to see it all come to life. One presenter mentioned backup plans if she was unsuccessful at getting access into her particular community. I liked that because I realize that my enthusiasm about function may not be echoed in the people I talk to. However a lot of that may be overcome in the approach to talking about function. Most conversations will discuss it in a roundabout sort of way. I'll ask questions like, "How often do you gather in this area?" or "Why is this area so empty?" I hope that things will pan out, and I feel like they will.
Another thought I wanted to write down was the idea of significance. Something I haven't really researched before I did my presentation was the King George I, the constitution and how that essentially dedicated the people and the land to God. There is a lot that could be explored/explained about the function of the landscape from that. Because most people see it as a duty to care for the land, I suppose that will be reflected in its function and aesthetics. That idea still fits in line with my project, just to clarify that I'm not trying to throw a curve ball right at the end. Simply put, I felt like those historical events help verbally justify my intentions and interest in researching in Tonga.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Learning Journal 28

After finishing my presentation today, I felt like I wasn't able to accurately express my proposed project. In part I attribute it to the fact that my topic is limited in the information available in Tonga, which is why observations are such a large chunk of my methods for data collection. I think the other challenge I'm still finding is that applying what I've learned in school is hard. Most of what we concentrate on are residential properties based on design principles accepted in American, and generally Western culture. Since I haven't come across any specific information about that in Tonga, I didn't really have an answer to that question during my presentation. In reality though my project is designed to answer that question. The title I think I'm sticking to is "Aesthetics and Function of Rural Tongan Landscapes". That encompasses understanding the function (the interaction between users and the area) as well as the the visual aspects of design. I recognize the significance part of my project is weak, because it is largely for my own benefit in understanding how my interests can be applied in a developing country. Basically what today taught me was that I have a lot of late nights ahead to finish my proposal.

Learning Journal 27

While discussing culture shock it was interesting to think about the times I've experienced it. After arriving in a new culture there is a definite period where everything is awesome. When I moved to Ghana I felt that way. But reality set in pretty quick and it was made known to me that I was a foreigner. Within the first few days of being in Accra, my Mom and I decided to go for a walk and explore our new neighborhood. Within 5 minutes we had a small group of Ghanaian children following us around and adults giving us a double take. I realized then and there, no matter what we did we would stand out. It was the shock of realizing I was in a completely new and very foreign environment. Everything was exciting to see, but as the years passed many of those things became commonplace. In thinking about the reading, I would say that in three years I didn't reach bi-culturalism. I definitely had moments where I felt I understood Ghanaian culture, but I still came across social situations where I was surprised by the proceedings. Even after hearing an explanation of why certain things were accepted, I didn't agree.
Culture shock is a fact of traveling. It affects people to different degrees but we all have to deal with it for some period of time. Being aware of it makes it easier to deal with and recognize. However, I think its important to remember that even though culture shock may occur instantly, coming out of it can take time. Its not easy to adapt to a new culture on a daily basis. The upcoming experience in Tonga will be trying for me, but in a good way. Even though I've lived in several cultures different from my own, I either had my family or a companion that understood my culture. But I guess as I've progressed through the semester I've realized that will be the excitement of a field study.