Context

«Необязательно видеть весь путь.
Просто поверьте и сделайте первый шаг». Мартин Лютер Кинг

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Two aspects of this event illustrate the contest over the meaning of Mien culture. The household-based ritual for the ancestors, coupled with a feast forth bride’s lineage and other guests, constitutes one part of the equation. It established the honor of the couple and their new household and thus was part of the Mien discourse about weddings, households, honor, and feasting. The other side of this is the objectification of culture, via the medium of video, through the actions of the TRI staff. Outsiders’ interest in Mynas a traditional people rested on their assumed distance from modernity. Mien people’s engagements with their own traditions tended to fall outside this framework, except in the sense that they had taken to staging aspects of their traditions to suggest compatibility with national definitions of heritages the property of ethnic groups. In some respects, there was an urban, upper- and middle-class Thai fantasy that the countryside was a place of colorful ceremonies by contented farmers, people who “like to grow rice.” This then led to disappointment over farmers’ discontent or quest for more rewarding wage work. The notion was part of a national and global discourse on the coordinates of culture, space, identity, and work. The image that appeared, for instance, in a recent Thai cultural encyclopedia entry on Mien as an industrious people, was related to the politics of defining the relations between cities and the countryside. Discursive practices of both the nation and the state took place in the context of capitalist transformations that had significantly undermined the ability and willingness of rural people to sustain themselves from the proceeds of their farms. The cost of living, combined with marginal returns from farming, had made wage labor in towns and cities an increasing necessity for rural households. Those who were better off sometimes took a sizeable bank loan to finance the cost of a labor contract abroad (in Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, the Middle East, or the United States), while many others took low-paying jobs within Thailand. In the last decades, many hundreds of thousands of workers from neighboring Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and southern China entered an underground labor market in Thailand. The urban middle class in Thailand shared many basic assumptions with Western-educated academics about education and democratic reform to crew tee modern individuals, contemporary national communities, and a global order. The countryside was posited as modernity’s antithesis: a place of contented peoples who were caught up in elaborate, traditional ceremonies and deep, articulated worldviews that united them as ethnic groups. In my next example, I will show how marginalized peoples such as Thailand’s Mien played to such expectations in order to gain benevolent attention from outsiders.

 

 

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