Mei Bi & Me: Re-writing Ethnography, Bringing the Ethnographer Back In

Recently I had to bring a little bit more of my very own self into the ethnography, through a seminar on Writing Ethnography and its genres, and the auto-ethnography model of Zora Hurston ‘’Mules and Men’’. I took up the challenge by revisiting an old piece from the Clichés Chams column that I was, back then, writing for the online news media Kaset. The article was all about Mei Bi, a character completely real, gone complete legend over Cham-landia. At the time, and within the journalistic frame, it would have been irrelevant and out of place to bring my own experience in the foreground of the story. But as the tale unfolds, as I was following up all through the years – all through the roads – all through the legends – the life of Mei Bi, it became more and more personal. Until the end revealed to be nothing else but a close up on this entirely personal quest, without me even knowing about it…

Cambodia, circa 1960’s-70’s, Gabrielle Pianette, known as "Mei Bi" 
© Mousar family.

Cambodia, circa 1960’s-70’s, Gabrielle Pianette, known as “Mei Bi” 
© Mousar family.

‘’Oh, you are French… So you know the love story right? The one of the French and the Cham?’’. There were many other times when the Chamness that I was constantly trying to deconstruct would respond to me with a very essentialized conception of frenchness: the burden of taxes and ID cards during the protectorate, the maps of Champa preserved somewhere in Paris – which, at some point, one day, would help regain the original lands it was hoped – and the French anthropologist of the 60’s in the same village, on the same topic, in the same rituals, so that ‘’you two are in fact just one and the same’’.

‘’Oh, you are French…’’. There were many questions and many assumptions, some that I realized, others that I couldn’t care for, many that I knew nothing about: from elections’ results to Zinedine Zidane’s foot, from Napoleon’s grandeur to the of-course-it-is-all-true-all-real ménage à trois tradition. But there was one French touch, one that above all, somehow, I chose to prefer, that I paid attention to, responded to: this repetitive, persisting, intriguing sideline: ‘’Oh, you are French… So you know the love story right? The one of the French and the Cham?’’. And little by little, from one house to another, in the dense multiplicity of un-situated chit-chats, I left the myths quest, the deciphering of the rituals for the lying on the mat, the balancing in the hammock, the sitting at the threshold of the mosque: for with the flow of tea, in the stillness of a moment, I would be carried away by the flow of the many residues of the legendary Mei Bi.

For she was a legend: only a legend can appear here and there, then and now, all the time and everywhere. At the four corners of a country, beyond the social borders, in the mouths of the elders, in the mouths of the youths… The tea in the cup has long cooled down, drought out, but the legend is still warm, alive, and told again and again, joining the story teller and the listeners in a travel to the mid 20th century Kompong Cham province. ‘’’She was young, she was beautiful, and there she was… breathless, standing here hopeless, facing the river with no escape. There was just no way’’. ‘’I don’t know for sure but she must have been a French planter daughter’’. The middle of Kompong Cham, the middle of the protectorate: she had to be a French planter daughter. For that’s what they were famous for, the French: their rubber. For that’s what it was famous for, Kompong Cham: the landscape, an endless succession of rubber trees, of rubber plantations. The linearity only ruptured by this little figure: the young Mei Bi, running through the everlasting thickness of the rubber, of the shadow of the rubber trees forest. The exhausted Mei Bi, the out of breath Mei Bi, the out of hopes Mei Bi: the river as a wall and no option left. No way but the way back to the ones she is fleeing from, back to her hunters, the little men they say: ‘’the Japanese soldiers they were so short that their sabers would hit the ground before their feet’’. They are chasing her in the middle of this Cambodia which is itself in the middle of the confusion of World War II’s annex: French are leaving colonial Indochina – almost – Japanese are settling in – almost.

The end of the story is its very beginning: there is no end to Mei Bi escape, but a beginning to something else, a renewal. She is getting another life, she is going to be an-other. For there is a beautiful young Cham man coming by, a fisherman no doubt, on his boat. For he had to be a Cham fisherman’s son. For that’s what they were famous for, the Chams: their fishing. For that’s what it was famous for, Phum Trea: the village standing right across the un-crossable river. The village the young-beautiful-Cham-fisherman is from. The village he will go to with Mei Bi on his boat, saving her from the short men and the long sabers. The end is a beginning: it is a perfect love story happy end: ‘’for they long lived happily ever after and had many many children, and grand children’’. The French woman is now beginning to be a legend: ‘’She became Cham you know?’’, ‘’She married him, lived like a Cham, spoke Cham, was Cham’’. She is not real: she actually doesn’t even have a name. She is just the ‘’French from the Cham love story’’. So she is nothing but a legend, no reality in that.

Well isn’t she?… How does a legend begin? Why is everybody talking to me about her. How come, despite all the imprecision, all the vagueness, all the versions, despite the absolute absence of details, of name even, how come does Mei Bi reappear all over, all the time, at exactly the same place: out of breath on the Mekong river banks, right in front of the village of Phum Trea. In the middle of the fluidity of the stories melting into one, there is this salient element, with no confusion, no hesitation: Mei Bi confronting the end, the end confronting Phum Trea, and the small rowing boat slowly coming ashore, coming to save her, coming from Phum Trea, going back to Phum Trea with her…

I didn’t jump on a young and beautiful Cham fisherman’s boat… There is a ferry now. From this side to the other. A ferry crossing the immensity of the river: a river that is the only thing ripping apart the clouds of laterite dust, the mist of the sand’ winds. And then the Grand Mosque. Phum Trea as a capital of most of religious activities in Cambodia for Muslims of the now, but also of the then. Way way back then. But I am not here for Phum Trea’ history. I mean… I may be, a little. That’s probably very important for my research right? But right at this moment, I am asking around, if, by any chance, we never know, yes it sounds crazy, but… ‘’Was there a French woman living here at some point?’’‘’Oh sure. Our French Grand-Ma… The blue house, over there, by the riverbank, at the ferry crossing. She passed away though… A long time ago.’’ Passed away… Implying she was here and then she wasn’t no more. But SHE.WAS.HERE. She was real. A couple of years already that I have heard the story. A while that I have been half believing, half willing to believe.

An old little lady, full of life brings the tea: ‘’I am the niece of Ta Ahmat’’ she says. She pours the tea. Smiles. That’s it. Silence. Nothing else. I can hear the sipping. Then hesitating: ‘’I am sorry, but who is Ta Ahmat?’’ ‘’Oh, he is dead kiddo, a long time ago… But he was my uncle. And she was his wife. Your French Grand-Ma that is. The French Mei [Grand-Ma in Cham]. Mei Bi’’. This was the end of the intrigue. The end of the chasing. No more wondering about, wandering around. Mei Bi did exist. I didn’t have any more questions. I let Mei Khadija do the talks: the talks of scarves too lousy or too tight, the talks of noisy grand children running around and-would-you-now-stay-put-and-quiet-I-am-having-a-conversation-here, the talks of pictures excavated from the tin of cookies: who was whom, who did what, who went where. And the talks of Ta Ahmat: ‘’Oh my uncle… He was a handsome man, I can tell you that. Tall. Charismatic. He was powerful you know. People respected him. They were scared of him even. Yes, he was really tall… They say he was an Arab. Who knows. But he was tall. And handsome and powerful’’. Mei Khadija remembers him and how he stood at the head of Phum Trea riverbank, always on the edge… Far from any boat, no fisherman at all. Prosperous trader, administrative officer of the protectorate, head of the mosque: he apparently did all that, but fisherman, no, that he didn’t. ‘’I heard that he was young, just like her’’, I say. ‘’Young? No… She was young. But he was already a man. Let’s see, the French Grand-Ma was what… his second… no, hold on third… wait… fourth wife I think. Yes that’s it, she was his last wife, there was the Cham wife, the Khmer wife, the Chinese wife and then the French wife, now I remember. But you know she really was Cham in the end: she dressed like us, ate like us, prayed like us, spoke Cham like us’’.

After the few years spent chasing the legend of Mei Bi, I will spend a few years sipping tea with Mei Khadija each time I would cross by Phum Trea. Getting closer each time to Mei Khadija, getting closer each time to Mei Bi. And then I paid one last visit before crossing another immensity, the oceans and the continents, the plane long hours, the back-to-France-for-a-while. ‘’I was thinking, you always said that her actual descendants are in France, maybe I could visit them now that I am going back?’’. But Mei Khadija didn’t know their names. They were somewhere over there, but there was no address. Absolutely no way to find them. They were gone. Gone from Phum Trea, gone from Cambodia, gone from the Mei Bi story. Gone for the history I had been trying so hard, so long, to piece together. A little part of my own world crumbled that day. With that absence of ‘’the end’’ to the story, with the emergence of an absolute end to the story. For that was the end. I wasn’t going to find the descendants. And no love story is perfect without the long line of cosmopolitan descendants I was already imagining. The story was ending here. In Mei Khadija’s home, on Phum Trea river bank, on the edge of the immensity of the river, with nowhere else to search, nowhere else to go. I felt so close to the lady I followed for so long, that there was this moment, where I would go on day-dreaming an encounter with those who were born out of a legend, borne across the immensity of the river, borne across the immensity of the world. How nice it would have been to meet them, how nice it would have been to know them. What a perfect ending to the story.

The china clinking woke me out of my day dreams. Mei Khadija may have read in that disappointment. Or not. She brought me a consolation that she knew would always put a large smile on my face: the pictures from the tin of cookies: who was whom, who did what, who went where. Not that I was really listening, looking or concentrating. Until… A series of pictures I never saw before came out of the box. I could date them. They were less than a decade ago. I could feel the atmosphere: a side light from a shy autumn morning. I could tell this was an apartment in peri-Paris: something in the arrangement, something in the walls that was so familiar, that transpires from all the walls in all the suburbs it seems. I could almost tell I knew the beautiful bride in this wedding picture. I could certainly tell who was her elegant groom. But no, it can’t be, not like that, incidentally, thousands miles away, years apart… Could that be… I mean he so looks like him, but it just can’t be… This is just unbelievable, hold on… Yes, it was. He was him. An old friend. A friend from France. From way before the research and the anthropology, way before the Cambodia, way before the Chams. Hisham. A friend that happened to be Cham. A friend who hanged around the same corridors in the undergraduate years. A friend who got married just when I first met him. The cousin of one of my closest friends. The matchmaker of The One. The kind of friend you don’t always see, don’t always meet, don’t always speak to, because sometimes lasting closeness just doesn’t need to be too close. Because those friends are just part of your world, of the gang, of a reconstituted family.

The picture: I will never make sense of that scene. Of the picture in my hands. Of the descendant of a legend I had been following for years. I will never make sense of that. Not at Mei Khadija’s home to whom I explain the chance in one million, the surrealism of all of it. She smiles, pours some tea, next picture, no surprise. I will never make sense of that picture in my hands, of the friend in my hands, billion years, billion kilometers apart. Not on the motorbike ripping the silence of the evening falling on the rubber plantations. Not on the ferry back to Kompong Cham city. I will never make sense of that scene. Until… Another scene: before I can even realize what has happened, what is happening, I am home, friends sharing drinks and food, wishing me safe-travels and soon-come-backs. A balcony in Phnom Penh: Hisham is here, in the breeze, standing, reflecting, smoking. Where to start… Mei Bi, the grand mother of his mother. Mei Bi, the daughter of a vague French administrator who never flew the Japanese, who never was in any plantation. Mei Bi, the unpronounceable Gabrielle Pianette. Mei Bi, the teenager ‘’seized’’ by Ta Ahmat at the Phnom Penh Lycée Français’ doors. Mei Bi…

‘’Hisham, there is this something I have to tell you…

I think I found your grandmother’’ I said…

… Or maybe:

‘’Hisham, there is this something I have to tell you…

I think your grandmother found me’’


The End Beginning.

I would like to thank the Mousar Family… for everything.

The original Mei Bi article can be found here.

Ithaca, April 26, 2014, Emiko Stock.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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