(For the first in this two-part series, click here.)
On the last morning, we left the Akha village and headed down the motorcycle road to the closest Lao village around. Even early in the morning, we ran into Akha women returning up the road to the village, toting long pieces of bamboo or hearts of palm trees on their shoulders, still fully clothed in their traditional garb, despite their labors. As we wound our way up and down the ridges, the Akha presence disappeared soon, and for a good stretch we didn’t run into anyone. Then, gradually, we started running into Lao people, who came up the road and disappeared out into the forest to forage or tend to their plants.
I came around a corner on the road and to my surprise, there was a black mid-size pickup truck parked on the side of the road. I looked at the manufacturer badge; it wasn’t one that I recognized. The license plate was blue and white, with an unfamiliar character on the left side —- I realized this was a Chinese-plated vehicle. As I walked past, peering in, I was startled to see a man sitting inside in a Chinese short-sleeved military uniform, replete with PLA patch on the left shoulder. He did not look Lao or Akha, for sure. He stared at me and I at him, and “What the hell is he doing here?” was surely on both our minds.
Zelow, our guide, noted my surprise and said that the Chinese were inspecting the tall, bent-over grains growing on the hillside in preparation for harvest. I knew of the colonial influence the Chinese were exerting in the development of Laos — the dam and power line construction I’d seen on my way upland were their doing — but I hadn’t realized that their presence stretched so far and into fields as simple as hillside agriculture. That the world’s second greatest power was farming here, not far from the seemingly remote Akha, was unnerving to say the least.
It was impossible to know what the chief and those in his village thought of the situation. But our guide, Zelow, was more than willing to share his opinion, albeit one perhaps different from what the rest of his people thought.
Zelow originated in Luang Namtha, in the northwest of Laos. He was the first Akha to ever learn English (or so he claimed). He couldn’t speak it well, but he made up for it in energy. Zelow had studied Lao and trained to be a teacher, but hated the classroom so much that he gave it up and joined a trekking tour company. He loved trekking. And he loved his people. He was a bit of a figure, it seemed, among the various Akha tribes scattered over the mountains of several nations. Zelow told me of visits to Vietnam, Burma, and China to meet with Akha tribes there, ones both planned and already undertaken —- perhaps a liaison between them or some sort of inter-tribal governance, it seemed.
He had big ideas, for sure. Zelow wanted to start a trekking company which would bring more tourists to Akha villages and thus more village fees. But one could sense that it was not all noble-mindedness. A germ of the outside world’s ways had taken root in his head, for he had the language capacity to travel and understand something of foreign ways. Zelow had great things to say about the Chinese and their success in business. “Oh, China, so good. Business, you know? So good! Great money. Very good, China. China help Lao, help Akha, you know? I want trekking business, like China, you know? Good, ha ha!”
Every day Zelow talked about his ideas and aspirations, especially for the Akha. He reiterated how hard their life was. “Here, poverty everywhere! Oh, Lao Akha soooo bad. So poor!”
“What about in China? How are the Akha there?” I asked.
“Oh, so great! Very big houses, cars — very good! You know? Very good! Lao Akha, oh, so bad!”
He saw things from one side of the equation: get stuff! bigger houses! cars! cash and more cash! He was not interested in what the Akha had, but what they didn’t have in comparison to their brothers in other countries. This was why he viewed the Chinese as a boon to his people.
Did he realize the cost? Almost certainly not. He wanted his people to be strong. But strong in material terms. He was operating under the assumption that most people have that culture, and its effects on us as humans, is merely a willed thing. Desire to keep it and you will, no matter your actions. So to Zelow the Akha would still be Akha even if they drove Hilux trucks, had air-conditioning, and lived in town. But this is far, far from what actually happens.
For our culture, as I said, affects us. Culture is not merely art or music or political ideology or any of the trite meanings we associate it with. Culture is what we do, everything we do to survive in the natural world. Change the way you act to survive and your culture changes as well. We change our actions toward our conditions, and conditions in return change us beyond return.
For the Akha to give up their existence would be for them to give up who they are. They would still be Akha, but a new kind of Akha. They would be defined not by their old ways, but by how that old culture caused them to adapt to being modern. They would be merely a different flavor of the same basic modern person.
So what to do if you want to stay Akha? Well, in short, don’t change. Keep doing what you’ve always known, and go back to what you’ve given up.
Most of us cannot agree with this. For we think that such an old culture has no corollary to our own ways, the dominant direction of the world today. “Give it up,” we want to say. “You have to change sometime, you know.”
Yet take the words of Andrew Lytle:
“Do what we did after the war and the Reconstruction: return to our looms, our handcrafts, our reproducing stock. Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall. Forsake the movies for the play-parties and the square dances. And turn away from the liberal capons who fill the pulpit as preachers.”
At some moments, time and space mean nothing. Lytle here is urging a return to primitive ways, to traditional habits. He is essentially saying, “If we want ourselves back, go back to the way we actually did things.” Yet this man was no hill tribe man whose photo would make a nice desktop background. He came from a line of Tennessee farmers, people we moderns would sneer at as bumpkins and troglodytes. He is as Western as you and I, but he offers dissent and reproach.
The instruments, festivals, and priests are different, but the situations of Lytle’s people and Zelow’s are the same. The Akha here are like much of rural America, and especially the American South, through the nineteenth century: subsistence in their farming, self-sufficient in their oikonomia, poor but independent, short-lived but possessing a rich spiritual life.
And what was Zelow looking to? He was idolizing the same forces that destroyed the traditional life of rural Americans, and would destroy his people. The same forces. A rationalist ethic ruthlessly applied, through technology and skill, to exploit, to centralize, to connect and make dependent, inexorably, those who did not wish for such a world, but lacked means to resist.
The Chinese and their Lao puppets build dams, cut roads across hilltops to distant villages, peddle consumables to those ill able to afford it —- their methods are the same as the Progressive ethic of Gilded Age America. Infrastructure is built, people are dragged into markets beyond their control or understanding; the people adapt to survive, perhaps even believe that these new ways are better. But their cultural and spiritual poverty is now assured, and their material poverty is not even up to them, not even excusable on grounds of fickle Mother Nature —- their welfare depends on the actions of those far more powerful. Thus Hu Jintao and Roscoe Conkling, Sinohydro and Standard Oil are no different from each other. Nothing has changed.
Not one thing. For all the ostensible advancement and progress of our world, we still operate in the same paradigm as over 150 years ago. It was in its nascency then, and it has ripened to full maturity now. And we Westerners, but Americans especially, pioneered it.
That’s the fact that we must face up to, if we care a whit about being honest. What we do now unto others, we did unto ourselves first. We destroyed our traditional selves and the world we lived in. And we, while not the same, were once similar, once closer in our humanity to them. If similar, then surely we should act in accordance with what we profess to value, that simplicity we feel a gut connection with, which has a corollary in our own past, if we care to look for it.