Lyttleton, Chris (2011) “When the Mountains No Longer Mean Home”

This chapter looks at the Akha people living in the mountains of Muang Sing in northern Laos and why they moved to the lowlands. It analyzes the impact of modernization and capitalism on the Akha and how they changed the way of life and came up with new strategies to cope as well as the redefinition of their culture in the face of modernity. Here I will selectively discuss the following: 1) Akha Tourism and its cultural meaning, 2) Changes in social hierarchy and 3) Inter-racial marriages and conclude that the Akha culture is culture is being negotiated and is surviving.

To maximize opportunities in the capitalist context, some of the Akha turned to ethnic tourism for extra revenue. Recognizing the demand of wealthy tourists from the more developed countries for ‘the exotic’ and ‘the other’, the Akha cleverly ‘compartmentalized’ their ethnic identity and organize tourist events to make money. I like how the author uses the word ‘compartmentalization’ because we cannot simply assume that the Akha necessarily fake or stage their ethnicity when they put up performances or interact with tourists to the extent that all meanings has been lost, like what some literature on tourism have argued. The Akha may be different when they deal with tourists. For instance, rituals, when performed, may be shorter than the original to cater to the tourists. However, this does not necessarily mean that they are devoid of meanings. These can be a manifestation of their ethnicity; a compartment of their identity. Nonetheless, due to lack of knowledge of the Akha community, I cannot be certain of how the Akha feel about ethnic tourism.

At the same time, as a result of modernization and the adoption of capitalism in their lives, social hierarchy in the Akha community has emerged, especially between those who hire labor and those who sell their labor. This appears to be the inevitable consequence of capitalism. The Akha who are already more wealthy, have better connections and land would be in a more dominant position than the Akha who arrived more recently and had to depend on the former for employment. There is thus greater economic inequality and competition between members from the society. This is a stark contrast with the highland days where there was little direct rivalry within the community. At this point, I wonder if the Akha have nostalgia for the past, for the good old days marked by more egalitarianism and community spirit. In Singapore, when there was massive moving of people from kampongs to HDB flats, many felt nostalgic about the kampong days, kampong spirit and the more personal relations as they tried to cope with urban life.

In addition, given the more connected lowlands, Akha women can look to marry outsiders for the prospect of a better life. This upset the demography of the population, the male-to-female ratio and threatened the kinship system, complicating it to the international border. This is similar to Asian brides looking to marry Singaporean men as they sought for a better life or to escape poverty through marriage. Another example is Ju’hoansi women marrying the blacks. This begs the question of whether there will be a loss of culture as a result of inter-racial/cultural marriages or if it can be perceived as an integration of cultures. In the video “None of the above”, many interviewees felt uncomfortable with the ambiguity in their skin color and features and they had difficulties fitting in especially in schools. Culturally, many do not feel that they belong exclusively to any one race. While this hints at the existence of cultural integration and loss of one exclusive culture concurrently, this is marked by many challenges and is by no means peaceful.

To conclude, the Akha are responding the new changes of modernization and capitalism by “deciding what about being Akha is dispensable and what is amenable, to their new lives as modern global citizens”. They make use of their own resources and the opportunities provided by modernization and capitalism to best negotiate their position in the new landscape. The Akha culture and way of life may be affected by these changes but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Cultures are never static. We can see from the Akha’s adaptation to the new situation the resilience of their culture. Rather than being destroyed, the culture is being negotiated and is surviving.

More pages