Marriage and Opium in a Lisu Village in Northern Thailand

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Alema (Second Daughter) walked into the community center building of RevealedRiver Village one brightly hot December afternoon as I sat at a hand-planed desk writing field notes. She slumped onto the hard bench acrossfrom me and leaned across the desk between us. She told me she envied mefor being issara (the Thai word for “free”) and then announced to me: “Mymother says I have to marry a boy with land, one outside of the village. Ican’t marry my sweetheart because he has no land here.” Alema was aboutseventeen years old; I was a thirty-something American divorced womanbeing consulted about marriage by an upland minority “girl.” This interactionopened up a whole new perspective for me on how the end of theopium economy in northern Thailand had affected marriage, which is a keyelement in the reproduction of social structure.Cultures exist through the people who live in them; people “carry” culture; it does not exist on its own. Therefore, we need to consider how thiscomes about. How do people become members of their own culture? Anobvious answer is that children are enculturated or socialized through beingraised by adults in their own culture—the language they learn, the socialrelationships they develop, the rituals they participate in, the work theylearn to do—all teach children what is expected of them in their own culture.The culmination of this is, in many societies, marriage. Marriage marksa child’s entry into adulthood, a fact that is apparent in many mainlandSoutheast Asian languages’ marker of people as “girl” or “boy” for thosewho have not yet been married, regardless of age, and “woman” or “man”for those who are married. The wife and husband take on adult roles andresponsibilities and will, as their parents before them, raise the next generation.That is, marriage is about social as well as biological reproduction. Marriagegives the children born of that marriage a social identity. Intergenerationalwealth transfer from the parents’ household to the bride and groomis a core function of marriage as well, because access to economic resourcesis through the household. But cultures and societies do not just reproduce themselves, they also transform. The Lisu were an ideal people to studybecause of the profound changes that were taking place in their economicsystem. Concomitant were changes in the systems of kinship and marriage.My goal was to look at how social structure transforms in the face of dramaticeconomic change. In particular, I looked at how people strategizedto achieve culturally constructed goals in the face of the end of the “opiumeconomy,” and in their attempts to reproduce their ideal social structurebrought about its transformation.



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