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The Akha, Part Two

12 Jul

(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.

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The Akha, Part One

11 Jul

It is difficult, nay, nearly impossible for modern, and especially modern Western people to conceive how truly different they are from others outside of their own background. We have become incapable of seeing the world outside of a given lens, having lost forever any understanding that we ourselves and our world were once radically different. And, by extension, we do not conceive that the world can (or should) function in any other way than what confirms our predispositions.

Having lived in Korea, I had inklings of this fact, for there parts of the old world lives on under a veneer of modernity. But it was not until I ventured to the far mountainous north of Laos, amongst the Akha people, that I saw a radically different world in full, natural bloom.

The Akha are a hill tribe people, one of the many ethnic minorities in Laos (or the Lao People’s Democratic Republic).  In the past century they’ve migrated from parts of Yunnan, in China, and perhaps from areas closer to Tibet as well.

When you hear hill tribe, you should certainly note the “hill” part.  Because it informs so much about the Akha themselves and also what you have to do to get there.  From the crossroads town of Boun Tai, I took an hour-long ride by songthaew up a road of dusty red clay.  We passed villages covered in road dust, with plastic litter along the sides of the dirt track.  There were spots along the way where construction was going on — some looked like preparations for future dams, others for electrical lines.

From the first village where we were dropped off, to the three others I would visit over the next few days, it was plain that I had stepped into a place distinct from my own world. It was beyond medieval —- it was tribal primitiveness, the crystallized experience of hundreds of years of inherited living in a single environment. We hiked up and down the steep ridges, passing through large swaths of burned land, used for growing dry mountain rice. The smell was incredible —- rich and burnt, yet fresh at the same time, perhaps because it felt drier and freer than the damp, still air of the forested valley bottoms. A family was clearing half-burnt trunks —- they gawked at me in curiosity. Bamboo huts often occupy the middle or periphery of such fields; it seems that they are used for storing tools or perhaps sleeping in during the planting season, since the villages were often a fair distance away from the fields.

The Akha were a tad apprehensive at first, in every village we came to. I’m used to being stared at, but this was a fearful sort of staring, mainly by the women. After long awkward moments, they often became more congenial. This depended on the family, though, a phenomenon similar to what I experienced in Mongolia.

Most Akha houses are made of wood planks, with hard-packed dirt floors, and no chimney. They were long and open inside; some would have an upstairs where the whole family would sleep together, one right next to the other, even wife with mother-in-law. Everything inside had a black tinge from the smoke, which hung in the air and stung your eyes as it wound its way toward the door. There was no electricity, save for flashlights, which they used to embroider in the near-complete darkness inside the house. The men of the house often did some of the cooking. One morning I awoke and found the chief chopping up yellow fruit —- much like a hard, dry-tasting tomato, but more citrus-y —- that he had gathered from the forest, with a machete.

The kids ran around freely, covered in dirt, the very little ones often with no pants. This kid picked a fight with me because I took his friends’ picture but not his.

He slugged me until I took this snapshot, then was content. Later he tried to fence with me using a piece of bamboo.

The last village we were in was the most interesting. There was a lot of trash, especially on the main thoroughfare and far more than other villages. This was almost certain because they had a rough motorcycle road leading to the middle of the village. Other villages were accessible only by footpath and were consequently far more isolated. But the people were also less standoff-ish, especially when I pulled out a phrasebook that had Akha in it. Each group of Akha not only lived close to each other in the villages themselves, but the villages themselves were related in a way. The final village had been established twenty-five years ago with people from the previous village (itself established seventy-five years ago). Starting with fifteen families, they had grown to eighty-seven families. The chief was a very welcoming and generous man. He shared lots of rice whiskey with us, which was perhaps some of the finest alcohol I’ve ever quaffed. Normally any kind of rice liquor is extremely fiery and harsh, but the chief’s was smooth and warming all the way down. The chief seemed to like us and gave my girlfriend permission to photograph his wife and daughter-in-law doing embroidery after the meal. He was delighted when he gave him Korean and American bills and coins. He said he would show them off whenever there was a funeral or clan meeting next.

They live in a totally different world. Up there on the hills, no electricity, squealing pigs running around eating shit (literally), burning up the hills to grow rice, knowing almost nothing but their neighbors and how to survive. They knew nothing about other countries or their location, other than Vietnam, Thailand, and China. They didn’t know about Korea.  They thought the U.S. was close by. They are completely poor in everything material and extremely rich in everything relational. They talked about the ten elephants that came through the village the night before – yes, way up on the ridge, the elephants are even there. This seemed like their greatest worry in the whole world. You could add disease, crippling, widowing, but that’s what they’ve always dealt with, and it is intrinsic to their environment. To them, there are no forces, invisible and sinister and distant, that threaten them. No vast empires, ideologies, or powers are within their comprehension.

In their close-knit life, I could only think about the distinction H.G Wells made, noted by Lord Kenneth Clark, between “communities of obedience” and “communities of will.” The Akha are the former, without a doubt. Their natural environment, the necessity of survival, and their isolation makes it so. There is obviously no room for individuality. Yet as individuals they are perhaps as interesting and varied as we are, maybe more so.

Now the Akha are animists and understand some truths but not others; will is necessary in the search for truth; but so too is peace and contentment in the truths we already know. Obedience to what we know and, more importantly, to whom life, in all its mystery, has bound us, is equal to will.

We totally do not understand that relational aspect of the Akha and, indeed, we deny it in our contemporary modern civilization. We have gone from a prescriptive ordering of civilization’s necessary institutions, powers, and laws, to an activist one. Yet these things are incapable of acting humanly in their activism. But activism is necessary for life, especially life together. We must do things to solve our problems, disagreements, predicaments, shortages of material necessities, et cetera. These things are done best, most compassionately, on a human scale — that is, as close to humans themselves as possible. I am sure that the Akha chief has great power to solve disputes and make commands in his community. Yet he is immediately bound to those people, for he lives with them, survives with them. What better can temper power and guide action than sleeping, waking, eating, washing, talking with the same people mere yards from you for all your life?

What a world theirs is, where people and their life together are the force and the rule for all existence.  Would that it were so everywhere.

(For the second in this two-part series, click here.)

The Trees

20 Feb

Whenever my thoughts needs clarity and perspective, some solitude amidst old things always helps straighten things out.  Curiously, I’ve never been to the oldest thing near me in over a year here, almost in my backyard — Suwon Hwaseong Haenggung (화성행궁).  I’ve been all around the Hwaseong fortress wall itself on my bike and explored the labyrinthine neighboors contained within, but never inside the palace, the Haenggung.

In the summertime, when my aircon was broken and I didn’t feel like sitting in a room that was surely growing mold, I’d bike over to the Haenggung at night.  It was always closed, but I’d just sit down and enjoy the lights shining on the front gate, the taegeuk on the front door glowing beautifully.

What I enjoyed the most, though, were the zelkova trees (느티나무) in the front.  They’re claimed to be over 350 years old, which would have put them there well before the palace was even built in 1793.

I like trees in any place because they are the finest living link we have to the past.  They outlast us humans, with our frail bodies and flawed memories.  And yet they are not the dead planks, stones, and mortar of the buildings and artifices which we first associate with our history.  They live, as we live.  In the case of the Haenggung, these trees even outlasted the palace’s original buildings.  The Japanese tore down the palace, but who thinks to tear down a tree?  A tree is no symbol of culture to be eradicated; leave it be; it will enhance the greatness we will build now.  But the tree knows the truth.  It grew and lived before the palace, and would keep on doing so.  It outlasted the Japanese and their visions of empire, silently, patiently growing, living in the face of what went on around it.

On those nights I came here to the spot in the picture above, I found it far easier to imagine than at other historic places in Korea.  I really do think that’s thanks to the trees.  A noble, a porter, a messenger, a coterie of servants and handmaidens, a farmer — any one, or perhaps all of them, could have sat in the shade of the trees in the summer heat.  Perhaps they carried out their business or casual conversations.  Their world, their frame of reference was wholly different — yet they lived under these tall living things that spread their branches.  The tree has witnessed more human lives, more hope and tragedy, more varieties of existence than any of us could ever hope to.  And the tree keeps on living.

The old and veteran of us humans can tell stories of what happened and the ways things were.  But trees cannot speak; they cannot tell us what King Jeongjo sounded like, or what the local people said about him after he had gone away somewhere else.  Yet they enable us to imagine these things.  We think of the trees and how they were, way back then.  They survived and they live.  And with that, even our slightest notions of what is beyond our reality begin gain space to breathe and run free.

Alien by Choice

4 Feb

I hiked Inwangsan the other day.  It was a surprisingly quiet mountain, considering how close it is to the downtown regions of Seoul.  I thought that surely it would be swarmed with middle-aged power hikers elbowing everyone else in their blitz to the top.  But I saw perhaps only a few dozen people all day.  One of them stopped me on the trail and struck up a conversation.  When a Korean stops you to speak in English, you know it’ll either be funny, perhaps even endearing, or annoying, bordering on creepy.  But you’re almost always guaranteed to get a story out of them.

“Hi, my name’s Kim.  Are you from the US?”

I found out why Kim was interested.  The thin-haired Korean showed me his green card.  Been in the States since ’82, but never naturalized.  I didn’t ask him why, because he kept talking a mile a minute about living up and down the West Coast.  He kept asking me if there were mountains like Inwangsan in America.  By that, he explained, he meant with lots of rocks.  I told him there were, but he didn’t seem to believe me.  “There aren’t any on the West Coast.”  Well, I would have thought that 30 years in the US would have taught him that there’s just about every landform imaginable.  I insisted there were, but he didn’t seem to have heard me and kept saying, “Ah, but there’s no paths like this.”

He kept repeating over and over that he’d grown up here.  But it took a few minutes before it was that he meant here, right next to Inwangsan.  “I lived here for 13 years,” said Kim.  “I used to walk up part of the mountain when I was a kid.”

He pointed down the mountain toward the construction barricades visible in the picture below.  “That was my apartment building. The Ogin-dong (옥인동) Apartments.  They tore it down now, the Korean government did.  I grew up there.”

“Do you know how much they cost?  The apartments, do you know how much they cost?  Ah . . . ah . . . ah, in 1970 . . . two thousand dollars.  Yes, two thousand dollars to own a 500 square foot apartment.  The smallest kind.”

He rambled on about something else as the sun continued dropping and the temperature along with it.  He somehow made it back to his point.  “Two thousand dollars in 1970.  And the Korean government is reclaiming the land.  It’s very valuable.  Now they pay . . . for the 500 foot apartments, you know, the small ones . . . three hundred thousand dollars!  Three hundred thousand . . . oh, that’s a lot of money.”

He then rambled on about random places he’d been around America, his glass tinting business, his Korean friends and family back in America, his father’s disaster in an ice storm.  Kim even came back to the topic of the mountain, asking the same questions again.  He kept talking on and on, but I listened anyway.  He was one of the fellows who either doesn’t know when to end a conversation, is lonely and starved for conversation, or might be a tad on the mentally unstable side.  Perhaps a slight touch of all three.

“I’m thinking about moving back here,” he said.  “The economy in America is pppffffffffffttttttttt.”

Eventually, we parted ways and he directed me the right way to get down, headed toward Gwanghwamun.

I’m thinking about moving back here.  His words stuck in my head as I descended Inwangsan.  How quickly things can change.  His parents probably struggled to escape poor ’60s Korea and were thankful to do so.  That’s the Korean Dream in large part — getting the hell out of your own country, while not assimilating too much into another culture so as to become a ‘bad’ Korean.

Kim had never naturalized himself in the States, even after 30 years, and now, when he looks at the hand the world deals him these days, he thinks about doing what perhaps his parents had fantasies of but never truly expected — going back to Korea.  And now Kim’s decision not to become a U.S. citizen looks like a smart move to him.  He’s still got the Korean passport; though his whole frame of reference is the United States, he lucked out on how he played this hand and can move back to Korea with ease, where the economy is good, the crime is less, and the people walk everywhere, as Kim pointed out.

But is it his home?  After all, his parents, brother, friends still live in America.  He wants to come back to what is nominally his homeland, but after being away since he was 13, how much does he really identify with it?  All he knows is his perception that America is pppfffffffffftttttttt, as half-formed as his notions of American geology, and his feeling that somehow this place, Korea, is the future.

What kind of future, with whom, for what end — well, those things didn’t seem to weigh on him.  I wanted to castigate him in some regard, but after some thought, I couldn’t.  After all, am I, or others like me, that much different?   I jumped to the other side of the world for a job, for adventure, to just get away in a certain sense.  My time has been a couple years, his longer.  At some point, perhaps arbitrary, one makes the shift from being a temporary interloper like myself to a permanent exile of one’s own choice.  But are our ends, our methods that much different?  Aren’t we both gaming the system?  Kim is not really that much different from me and my English ability which I did not work for and my passport which I did not earn but grants me the freedom to jump about and be respected anywhere I go.

Searching for the 마을 bus, I found the construction barricades and the spot where Kim’s old apartment building had once stood.  There will surely be a new, taller, sleeker one in its place, crammed with more people than before.  I wonder, what will those who grow up there be like?  Will they end up like Kim and me?  Biding their time with one eye on the look out for the next leap to be made, never existing fully in a single reality, but always guessing, planning, trying to game the system to jump to the one that looks better, only to find themselves doing so again?

Perhaps this is a necessity for survival in this modern, globalized world.  Perhaps we cannot fault ourselves for the ways and views set within us, recognized only once beyond the point of altering them entirely.  But that does not strip away the harsh fact that, as long as we act like this, we are homeless people.  Us as homeless does not mean we are without land, state, plenty, relatives, friends, and acquaintances.  Rather, it is the fact that none of those things coalesce into a larger whole, a home.

Pity us not, though, for it is our choice.  We love the journey, the change too much.

Mystery Box

14 Jan

I saw many of these mysterious boxes passing through the northern parts of Gyeongsangbuk-do and the southern parts of Gangwon-do.  They were spread throughout sections of forest, sitting on cliff ledges, or, in the case of this picture, situated at a remote railroad siding.

Does anyone happen to know what these boxes are used for?  I speculated initially that they might be urns of some sort, or perhaps an urn is stored inside them.  They seem have some sort of common purpose, for various points of their construction are similar, particular the three bored holes at the base on the front side.  Are they for shamanistic uses or old Confucian rituals or just some old weird mountain tradition that not many know about?  I saw a lot of them in one place, perhaps forty or more scattered all about an old, run-down house.

If anyone knows, drop a comment or shoot me an email, I’d appreciate it!

Pleasant Peninsula

1 Dec

Si quæris peninsulam amœnam, circumspice.

Jebudo Sunset

1 Nov