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I had dug myself into a hole and there was no getting out.
I’ve been singing nothing but praises about the Karen in this series of articles, but they are still human and as such, far from perfect. The imperfection of that particular night: their rice wine.
I felt like I was drinking some kind of alcoholic vomit out of a small, plastic blue cup. It sounds harsh, but that isn’t meant to be an exaggeration, it’s literally the closest thing I’ve tasted to vomit without actually throwing up.
To be fair, it may have been because I was the furthest away from the central camp that I would get on my trip, and the village I was visiting was small and remote. But the rice wine they had brewed up was difficult to keep down.
My mistake was this: to be polite, I had a sip, smiled through gritted teeth, and told them I liked it. Being a direct people, they took my word for it and couldn’t help but serve me more and more.
One translator was in the room with me, and we didn’t know each other very well. I was staying the night in the home of an elderly couple, and the toothless grandfather was the one snickering as he gave me more rice wine. I think they just wanted to see the foreigner get a little drunk. The whole room was packed with kids, grandkids and friends who were all digging into the staple rice-based meal.
I was witnessing a type of family culture not so common in the West. I’m not particularly critical of western culture, but it was interesting to see a community that thrived off constant interaction with one another. The entire village would raise their children, and a neighbor would be just as influential in a child’s life as would his uncle or aunt.
Sitting in that packed home, I overheard the grandfather being called “Dara-poo.” Over the din and clamor, the translator would explain to me one of the most fascinating aspects of Karen culture.
The word for grandfather is “poopoo.” I laughed at that as well. His grandchild’s name is Dara.
Now, in our culture, we have names like Johnson, Erickson, or like my mother’s maiden name, Pearson. This comes from the tradition when someone would be known as Luke, son of John (Johnson), or Luke, son of Erick (Erickson).
The Karen have no such tradition, in fact it’s the opposite. Dara-poo is the grandfather of Dara. They often change their own names as they have children, reflecting a persistent outlook toward the future rather than the past.
I asked, like many people do, which child they pick to be their namesake. There isn’t a formula, sometimes they change it with every kid, sometimes it’s just the first born. If they have a child with some kind of disability, that’s going to be the namesake since he has more obstacles to overcome than the rest of us, and that is something to be respected and proud of.
We drank and I watched families have their usual gathering. Minus the abundance of food, it seemed like Thanksgiving every day for them, and I envy that.
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