Setting out on this expedition I was really excited about the adventure we were embarking on but I was also very aware that I had dissertation research to do – there was a definite feeling of there being a job to complete. Since this is the first time I’ve properly done any research I felt quite nervous about how to go about the project, especially in such a foreign culture and conducted through a translator!
Fortunately, the amazing friendliness and warmth of the people in Kumik made my research task and our lives so much easier. People were so willing to help, speak with us and share knowledge that one of the most difficult parts of the research became our consumptive capacity of milk tea (thankfully not the renowned Tibetan butter tea) and biscuits! That said, there were some guidelines we always tried to stick to about our research, like always being clear about the purpose of the project, limiting our burden as a group on villagers time and resources and working to integrate as well as we could given the language barrier.
Specifically, it helped that the team were relatively self-sufficient within out homestay, with our own cook and purchasing our own food. Whilst we were initially worried about this segregating us from the villagers, we actually felt good that we weren’t a burden on resources and could also eat and chat together at the end of the day! It was also useful that both our cook and translator were local Zanskaris; they spoke the local dialect, had many friends in the village and even some distant relatives! They acted as something of a cultural bridge between us and the Kumikpa. Finally, whilst we were undoubtedly still quite limited in our communicative ability, we did try hard to learn some Zanskari phrases to introduce ourselves and break the ice. Most of the time this brought about great hilarity or confusion rather than actual communication but nevertheless we hope it showed our good intentions and endeared us to the villagers!
Before leaving the UK, I was also worried about doing dissertation research somewhere completely remote (no mobile signal, no internet) because it meant that I couldn’t check into methodologies or issues I was unsure about or look into new ideas whilst I was there. But as I found out, it also meant that we were totally immersed in village life because for a brief period in our lives, we didn’t have our noses buried firmly into facebook, tumblr or the guardian online! Whilst I was certainly craving internet, we all felt good about how engaged we could be, free to get involved spontaneously in village activities, like helping the construction of the path around the prayer house one morning. In the end I felt that being able to absorb these goings-on was highly valuable in itself.
After 3 weeks in Kumik, I’d summarise that trying to understand the social dynamics of the village was like trying to put together pieces of a jigsaw (a very complicated jigsaw!). At the end of the research period of interviewing and surveying we’re all aware that we’re probably only scratching at the surface. Having said that, what we did learn is fascinating and will provide the empirical basis for my dissertation. Being undergraduate researchers we probably did miss opportunities in research but we also tried our best to cover the bases, speak to and interviewed a wide cross section of the villagers and ensure the project had the very best ethical grounding. We definitely learnt a lot about the village, and in the greater scheme of things, we also learnt about how to learn!