Poverty and Merit: Mobile Persons in Laos
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When I conducted sixteen months of fieldwork in a poor, rural village in Laos, I was required to obtain official permission from the central government. Before fieldwork began I spent more than a year negotiating this with administrators in Vientiane, and I was resident there for much of that time. When I finally received permission, it came in the form of a stamped and signed letter. I was then free to move on to my fieldsite: the letter did not stipulate where this would be, but I chose the southern reaches of the Mekong River, near the border with Cambodia and Thailand. The letter carried enough authority to allow me to pass from the national level of bureaucracy through the provincial level to the district level with relative ease. At the district level, however, the letter lost some of its force. In the capital of Munlapamook district I found that I had to negotiate afresh with the district authorities for permission to proceed to an outlying village. This took two weeks. During this time, I stayed in the care of the staff of the district education office. These two weeks were marked by a series of brief meetings with district leaders concerning my research plans, and long, directionless days filled with casual conversations with junior office staff. The office squatted in a muddy field of overgrown grass on which cows grazed, their bells clanging. The office had no electricity and was too hot for comfort, so staff gathered on a wide bench under an old tree outside for long streams of conversation, banter, and debate. After my first formal but uninformative five-�minute-�long meeting with the office head, I was invited over to the bench. “Oh you’re beautiful,” a chorus immediately began. Peng, a female staffer, was held up for comparison. “Hold your arm against hers,” a man insisted, so we could compare the color of our skins. “Oh you are very black,” the man told Peng. Peng removed her arm very quickly. “I’m not beautiful!” she exclaimed, smiling; “I am so black!”

 “Black is not beautiful,” the man told me.

“Holly, what about him?” Peng motioned toward the man, “Would you take him as a boyfriend? He’s not beautiful. He’s very black.” The group laughed at Peng’s rejoinder. “Not beautiful, not beautiful,” they chorused. I marveled at their carefree banter about such topics—race, beauty, love. These topics were held in such reverence in the cultural milieu of urban Australia, from which I had come. I felt a jolt of dissonance when this banter began: I had expected to discuss my research or perhaps the weather, but instead I found that it was my physical characteristics that were the topic of preferred conversation. In contrast to the office staffs’ relaxed and playful mood, I was immediately awkward. I felt uncomfortable in my own skin as I realized, suddenly, that my body did not seem to mean to others what it meant for me. Those words, white and black, denoted race for me, and the topic of race had long since been dropped from everyday polite conversation in Australia. Educated, urban Australia no longer talked openly about difference in terms of “black” or “white.” There, it is considered reasonably polite to ask “what nationality are you?” but certainly not “what race are you?” Difference is elaborated on in terms of “cultural” difference: there has been a proliferation of “multicultural” festivals and fairs, where food and dance form the acceptable and required modes of expressing difference, each national culture displayed in its distinct, cordoned off stalls and performances. Race, however, is unmentionable. The very term—along with the words white and black—now evokes a visceral embarrassment, and the use of such words has been “carefully suppressed among modern, cosmopolitan citizens” (Cowlishaw 2004:13). In this milieu it would be uncouth in the extreme, racist even, to suggest that white was beautiful, and black not. In one of the most famous statements against racism, Martin Luther King expressed his dream that people “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” In Dr. King’s statement, there is a strong correlation between race and body—race is associated with the physical nature one is granted at birth, and over which one is thought to be effectively powerless. In this view, race is only skin deep, an accident of birth, not an indicator of a person’s worth. Race, then, is bodily, natural, and not a useful indicator of achievement. The banter at the office confronted these sensibilities. The staff bluntly held that white skin was beautiful, black was not, and that such matters, far from unmentionable, were the subject of comparison, comment, and ridicule. Peng was assigned as my friend and companion for my stay in the district capital, and shared my lodgings with me. That night in our rooms, she was happily rummaging through my possessions, trying on my clothes and cosmetics with an absorbed but lighthearted curiosity. My collection of sunscreens, moisturizers, and skin care products evoked particular interest. “What is this cream for?” she asked of each one, before applying a little. “For my eyes,” “to make my skin soft,” and “to stop the sun from burning me,” I replied to her queries. “Oh,” came Peng’s satisfied reply. “This is why your skin is so white and beautiful. You can afford to buy all of these creams and stay inside all day. You have money.”

“My skin is white because my parents’ skin is white,” I replied. I was taken aback at the implication that my skin was the result of manufacture rather than nature. I felt a surprising surge of resentment at the realization that what I had taken to be bodily and given, my natural “self,” was being perceived here as the result of deliberate achievement and manipulation. “You wait until you have lived in Laos for one year,” said Peng, smirking. “You will be as black as me. Maybe more black, because you are going out to live in the countryside with the very poor people. If you harvest rice, you will be black.” Peng’s use of black and white here diverged from my own. Both Lao and Australian understandings of skin admit the notion that pigmentation can change with exposure to the sun and elements. And both also admit that the range of pigmentation that can be achieved by different people is strongly influenced by inherited characteristics. But there the similarities end. Black and white in Australia principally denote concepts of race, viewed as immutable, natural, and ascribed at birth. In Peng’s usage, whiteness and blackness were variables, open to manipulation. And the key method of manipulation was wealth. Thus the color of skin was a particularly good indicator of relative wealth and current fortunes of the skin’s inhabitant, and was subject to much comment and discussion. Later, when I had established myself in a poor rural village to conduct long-�term fieldwork, I observed that discussions of skin pigmentation in relation to relative wealth were common. For instance, Lot, a friend I made in my eventual fieldsite, echoed Peng’s sentiment. She said: Rural people are not beautiful: they are in the weather all the time, they come back black. People in the city, they are white, they are beautiful. They can look after their bodies, they have powder and lipstick and creams to wear. There’s no shortage of things to buy to make yourself beautiful. All those things on Thai TV—things to make your skin white and your hair black. Those people on Thai TV are beautiful. They have noses like yours— foreign noses. They all get operations on their noses to look like that. Those people have money. Peng and Lot understood white skin as emerging from moneyed, urban lifestyles. Black skin, in contrast, was associated with poverty and rural lifestyles. The work of transplanting and harvesting rice is often referred to, and associated with causing black skin. Rural women comment on the lack of ability to afford or to find access to cosmetics such as effective whitening creams, moisturizers, and hair tonics to combat the effects of exposure to weather. The rural woman’s gait—barefooted or in flip-�flops, feet splayed and strides long and fast—is noticeably distinct from the urban middle-�class woman’s gait—hobbled and muted in ungainly platform or heeled shoes. Rural women’s feet become flattened and hard against the soil of their rice paddies. Rural hands become rough and strong, adept with machete and hoe. Rural women’s mouths are stained red with betel nut, and their teeth are stained black. Rural impoverished life writes itself onto the physical being of these women. They are, in Bourdieu’s term, “branded” (Bourdieu 1984:178). Furthermore, exposure to illness is thought to leave its mark on poor bodies. Fevers, malaises, and maladies often go without a firm diagnosis and may receive only rudimentary treatment. When I brought a Western magazine to the rural village where I eventually worked, I asked one woman if she thought the pictures of the models were beautiful. “Of course they are beautiful,” she said. “They have never been injured or had a fever; never.” Such a categorical statement is, of course, unlikely to be accurate, but it does highlight the perception that this woman held of poverty as very much a physical experience that leaves traces on the body, especially ones that detract from beauty. Rural impoverished women experience their poverty, among other things, as a physical state, as a particular body. As one rural woman commented: Rural people are small, thin, dark, not beautiful. In the city, they are robust, white, they have soap and other things to look after themselves. The little children have white shirts and shoes for school. Here the children have no shoes, they are dirty. Wealth, on the other hand, is explicitly thought to produce beauty. The association of beauty with wealth and bounty pervades rural discourse. A bumper rice crop is described as ngaam (beautiful). Fields known to be fertile are described as ngaam. Hardy and fruitful vegetable strains are ngaam. This wide use of the term ngaam to describe not only beauty but bounty reinforces the aesthetics of wealth: bounty is beautiful, and poverty is not. The experience of poverty, then, is the experience of lacking beauty. Meew, sitting in the shade of her rural homestead, said, “I want beautiful things. But I don’t see beauty here.” It should come as no surprise, then, that aspirations and wealth are often directed toward aesthetics and beauty, especially of the body. Small luxurious items crowd the shelves of regional stores, urban markets, and the baskets of traveling vendors—skin whitening creams, nail polish, lipstick, and powder. At 1,000 to 15,000 kip (0.1–1.5 USD) each, these miniature items offer a popular choice for the expenditure of small sums of disposable income. More expensive items, such as quality silk sin (Lao skirts), denim skirts and jackets, and baseball caps, are also admired. When a young woman in a nearby market town committed suicide, rumor had it that she had been driven to despair when she was unable to obtain one of the new caps that had appeared in the markets. This rumor struck resonances with the experience of poverty as frustrated desire for personal adornments and transformations. Gold jewelry—either real or falang (foreign, fake)—is a coveted investment for larger sums of money. A young rural woman, Deeng, described her aspirations to me in these terms:

“I want to be covered in gold—gold on every part of my body, my throat, my ears, my arms, my waist, in my hair. I like it so much.” While its resale value is an important factor in the desire for gold, so is its social, cosmetic value. Deeng continued: If I have lots of money, lots of gold, I will have a boyfriend, and friends. Holly, if you were Lao, and poor like me, you would be alone like me too. Lao people don’t like people who are poor. If you don’t have money, you don’t have friends, and you don’t have boyfriends. Deeng’s comments confirm the intimate link between body, poverty, and social relations. Deeng’s poverty was experienced as a physical shame, associated with a sense of social exclusion. At the approach of the village festival, Deeng mused: “The festival will be fun, won’t it? But I won’t dance. I don’t have anything to wear, I don’t have a sin (skirt) or a beautiful shirt. I don’t have any gold. I’m too shy to go.” The experience of poverty is a very personal one. It is an experience of shame in one’s appearance and limited means, mingled with a desire for the transformation of one’s physical and social status. Deeng, in fact, did not attend this festival. Instead, she traveled to a location where she could take up paid employment. When I saw her again several months later, I noted the small but important transformations that she had effected: she owned a brand-�name jacket, platform shoes, and gold earrings. Her efforts at self-�transformation through labor and consumption were indicators of the malleability that she perceived in her selfhood. Houses are also indicative of this malleability in Lao notions of the self. In Laos, a house is the largest investment made by most rural residents, and is the center of most people’s aspirations. Saving for house construction takes years, and the future home owner often accumulates materials such as timber and iron in small units whenever cash or items become available. If you ask a rural Lao person if his or her home is finished, she will in all likelihood answer boor leew (“not yet”). Most people experience their houses as continually unfinished projects, with more improvements and additions constantly planned. These desires may seem to contradict the aspirations for pale skin, gold, and clothing explored above, as they are somewhat more akin to familiar notions of practical or sensible investments. However, what all these aspirations have in common is their stubbornly personal nature, as they represent a constant project of self-�improvement. Green has noted a similar emphasis on building a personal house in Tanzania. Green links the desire for a house to a notion of “personal development” based on “recognition of the potentiality of individual agency in bringing about social transformation” (2000:68). Green points out that such a personal, agency focused view of development stands at odds with state development policies and the “participatory” community development interventions of foreign NGOs and donors, which draw on assumptions about “‘traditional’ collectivist values of rural African communities” (2000:81). The disparity, as Green has noted, is between the intensely personal and the resolutely generalizing. Skin is likewise intensely personal. Rather than emphasizing the immutable characteristics of skin, everyday Lao usages of blackness and whiteness emphasize the capacity for transformation of the self. As the months of my fieldwork passed, my own body changed and I become used to the way conversations in the field would gravitate to take note of these changes. The director from the district education office shook his head when he saw me after six months, saying, “You are so black. You are not beautiful anymore.” Small changes in skin color often escape notice (or at least comment, especially negative comment) in Australia but they do not in Laos, for these are the bodily indicators that Lao people read to gauge the current fortunes of an individual as he or she moves either upward or downward in the “cosmic hierarchy.” In this milieu, poverty is intensely personal, to the point of being “branded” onto the bodily person. But this “branding” is viewed as mutable: skins are thought to be open to manipulation and are eminently readable indicators of a person’s current fortune. This reflects a widely held view that social status, too, is open to manipulation through personal effort. White skin and wealth alike are held to be the result of achievement rather than ascription. To understand this agentive notion of wealth and poverty, it is worth tracing out more clearly how these have been understood in relation to the everyday practice of Lao Theravada Buddhism. Bun is a central concept in everyday rural Lao Buddhist belief and practice. Translated as “merit,” it refers to the benefits that accrue to individuals through their performance of good deeds. Buddhism as a daily belief system exhorts people to “Be merit mobile!” (Kirsch 1977:247). Hanks (see chapter 7) has described “the cosmic hierarchy” (1962:1248) where people find themselves enmeshed in a highly stratified social order. Yet “only the stations are fixed, while the metamorphosing individual beings rise and fall in the hierarchy” (1962:1248). One indicator of the current position of an individual on the hierarchy of relative suffering is wealth: wealth is indicative of past virtue, in this life or in past lives. Hanks notes that the notion of the meritorious poor of Christendom is noticeably missing: Buddhist tales of great merit tell of princes who give away their kingdoms, rather than beggars who gave their last coin (ibid.). In this conception of suffering, poverty is not valued and the poor are not held as particularly virtuous. Buddhism encourages people to endeavor to escape poverty and improve their circumstances more generally by accruing further merit. In everyday practice in rural Laos, Buddhism was thought to teach that poor people can transform their status through hard work and the accumulation of merit. One elderly man provided a succinct account: “Buddhism tells us to work hard and accumulate wealth. It tells us to give part to monks who observe the precepts, and to give part to the poor. It valorizes diligence and ability to earn money.” For the laity, one of the most effective ways of accumulating merit is through religious offerings. This can take the form of daily offering of food to the monks, major gifts of robes or other useful items during festivals, or grand donations to sponsor temple buildings or other decorative structures. Much like Lao homes, Lao temples are in a seemingly constant state of construction and improvement as donations and subscriptions are raised, new structures planned, and old structures repaired. Spiro (1966) and Moerman (1966) suggest that such religious donation is squarely aimed at generating future wealth. In a virtuous circle, then, wealth can beget wealth through the mechanism of merit. Yoneo Ishii suggested that monks here serve as “fields of merit,” analogous to a rice field, where religious donations can be implanted with the expectation of future harvest (1986:13–20). Large donations are rarely anonymous: the names of major donors are often inscribed on signs in the temple grounds and read out at festivals and meetings. It is wealth that enables major donations, so in this sense wealth becomes a tangible and very public sign of moral virtue. In the rural village where I worked, however, residents recognize that such an avaricious approach to donation is fraught with ambiguities. When discussing this topic, a young man told me the following story: A woman went to donate at a temple. After she made her donations, she said to the monk, “Give me merit. I want my merit. I’m not leaving until you give me merit”—the woman wanted an item that would be merit, something she could take back home with her. Of course the monk had nothing to give her, as we all know that merit is not an object and cannot be bought or given. But the woman would not be dissuaded. She demanded merit. She would not leave until the monk gave her something. So the monk turned his back on her and furtively picked his nose, and made a small wad of snot. Turning back to the woman, he presented her with the wad. The woman was satisfied at last, and turned for home. She was afraid to put the merit in her boat, lest it be lost. So, she placed it in her mouth. “How salty the monk’s merit is! How delicious!” she exclaimed. Those listening to this story started to laugh at this moment. Their laughter seems to have arisen from an ironic recognition of the everyday tension in merit-�making: many people report that when they make religious donations, they do so with the hope that their act will bring them wealth and other positive outcomes, in this and the next life. Yet, at the same time, there is a recognition that official doctrine teaches that merit is not an object that can be “bought” with religious donations. In the story above, it is clear that grasping after merit is still grasping, and it is not virtuous: the woman appeared greedy and thus ridiculous. While the benefits of religious donation are recognized and desired, there is a concurrent recognition that in official doctrine, “Craving destroys the merit of any action and so conformity to the dhammic code for the sake of gain is self-�defeating” (Sizemore and Swearer 1990:4). The storyteller, Cit, concluded this story by assuring me that in order to attain wealth it was necessary to work hard and be clever. Thus, while merit is seen as a factor in creating wealth, both wealth and merit are augmented by efforts of the individual. I asked a young woman, a rice farmer with relatively little income but who had a sufficient supply of rice, if lack of merit could be a cause of poverty. Her reply was, “That’s what the old people say.” She herself did not discount this view, but her own discussions of poverty centered on tangible factors, such as few or poor fields, and laziness. It is common in rural Laos, even among the poor themselves, to depict the poor as lazy or stupid. One man said, “Poor people don’t work when the rain falls. They just eat and sleep. People who ‘have’ [m᾿ii] work continuously.” Another commented, “Poor people are lazy and don’t like to work. They are not honest, and they do not follow the precepts of Buddhism.” One farmer expressed impatience with my sympathy for the poor, explaining that his poorer neighbors didn’t plant all their fields, did not try hard enough to find money, and used it frivolously when they had it. Poor people were routinely described as incompetent at farming rice, and too stupid to improve their lives. This view of individuals as responsible for the circumstances in which they find themselves has a startlingly wide application. Illnesses were conceived often in terms of careless actions. When I fell ill with a fever, the people who came to visit me made polite conversation by speculating on what it was that I personally had done to create the illness. It was suggested that the fried bananas I ate in the market the day before had caused it. “Don’t eat just anything!” one admonished. Other suggestions were that I had gotten too much sun, that I had not eaten enough rice, and that I had walked around too much. My own theories were that I had caught a virus from the five-year-old who lived in the same house as me, as he too was sick, or that my immune system was simply not used to the environment that I was being exposed to. Abstract ideas about germs, viruses, and immune systems failed to gain traction with my Lao interlocutors, however. They preferred to speculate on specific examples of my characteristics, activities, and decisions as the source of the illness. Likewise, in discussing poverty it was often the characteristics and past actions of the person involved that were viewed as decisive in their fortunes. These dispositional explanations of poverty were discomforting for an Australian more accustomed to hearing explanations that assiduously avoid “blaming the victim.” However, dispositional explanations also maintain the hope that people will be able to improve their own lot. In popular cussions of wealth and poverty in Laos, it is maintained that hard work, diligence, and intelligence can change one’s fortunes from poverty to wealth, and this resonates with the Buddhist doctrine “Work out your own salvation with diligence” (Moerman 1966:137).

Thus, poverty may be an indicator of poor merit and a flawed personality, but both merit and personal disposition are held to be open to improvement if one makes personal efforts to change things. While these dispositional explanations posit a universe of “just deserts,” they coexist with circumstantial explanations. The experience of being able to create merit is simultaneously the experience of carrying residual merit from previous lives and actions. While this accumulated merit is conceptualized as resulting from past personal actions, it is experienced largely as part of the arbitrary context in which people must operate. Similarly, residents of my fieldsite complained about many circumstances beyond their control that were felt to cause poverty: lack of credit, a poor exchange rate, difficulty in accessing markets, no roads, no electricity, and natural disasters. Persons born to poor families pointed to a lack of fields, or poor fields, or no money to fund education or migration to find work. While such factors might be recognized abstractly as resulting from one’s previous actions mediated through merit, in daily life they were experienced as circumstances beyond one’s control. Yet, even in discussing their struggle with such circumstances beyond their control, the emphasis on personal effort was striking. One man explained to me his efforts to reduce his own poverty. He and his wife had spent the previous week boiling alcohol produced from their rice crop. Each morning they had risen at 4 am to stoke fires and drain clear distilled liquid. The following week they had used more of their rice crop to produce rice noodles. This involved arduous physical labor in grinding the rice on a heavy hand-turned stone mill, boiling the mixture over hot fires, sun- drying it into flat sheets, and then slicing these into strings. The couple then spent a day traveling up river, stopping at each village to sell the dried noodles and rice whiskey. Before they left, the husband said that he hoped to raise 500,000 kip (50 USD). On their return, he reported that they had raised only 200,000. They had sold almost all their produce, but people had mostly bought it on credit. “The people here have no money: it is hard to find money. Even the people on the mainland who open shops and become traders don’t really have money: they are all in debt to the city traders. It is so hard to find money here,” he explained. And it was not just that money was hard to find: it was also all too easy to spend, as expenses continually arose. In particular, he noted the onerous cost of paying for school. These costs were recurring, and he summed up the situation by stating haa ngern bor than say (I make money but not before I spend it). Personal effort and diligence—including the willingness to engage in repetitive, heavy physical labor—mingled with an acknowledgment that even such diligence had only the limited possibility of delivering wealth, due to wider economic and state-driven contexts. The theme recurs again and again—in personal poverty-reduction efforts, in ideas about skin color, in improving one’s store of Buddhist merit, health, social status, and wealth—with all of these, the primary response is manipulation through personal effort. Poverty is perceived in Laos as emerging from both circumstantial and dispositional factors. Circumstantial factors are those that are beyond the control of the individual (the circumstances in which people find themselves), while dispositional features are the province of the individual (such as their characteristics, aptitudes, and skills). This mix of circumstantial and dispositional factors echoes the “social order” identified by Hanks (chapter 7), in which people find themselves inserted into a “cosmic hierarchy” of fixed stations but nonetheless perceive of their position in this hierarchy as open to change and manipulation, depending on circumstances and personal effort. Thus, despite the seemingly intransigent circumstantial factors that perpetuate poverty in Laos, the experience of this poverty is one of contingency, causing people to understand their status, and indeed their very bodily person, as malleable.

 

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