Intimacy as the Ticket to Progress

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The Akha are aware of the changing ground rules and the difficult trajectory facing them now that they are entering a consumer culture. As one elderly man remarked to me: “In the mountains life was different, it was easier; we had money [from opium] but nothing to spend it on—here in the lowlands we have more desire to buy things but no money to do so.” One option many Akha are embracing is the possibility of a future windfall to be gained from planting rubber for the booming Chinese market. Everywhere, both private and government land is being turned into rubber plantations as people dream of future fortunes. Market uncertainties and contractual difficulties aside, the headlong rush from both the Chinese and Lao side of the border to capitalize on rubber has meant a huge increase in the number of Chinese investors and agricultural advisors coming into numerous Akha villages in search of opportunities to invest in joint plantations—the locals have land, the Chinese have money and know-how.

     New business opportunities for Akha involve more than land use and profit-margin negotiations. As mentioned earlier, capitalism deeply intrudes on one’s sense of self and how to negotiate one’s place in the world. These inevitably involve social relations. One example is the increased incidence of local Akha women marrying Chinese men who visit or temporarily work in Laos. Women indicate that such marriages offer them more chance of prosperity and well-being. They are aware of the dramatic difference in lifestyle just 2–3 km across the Chinese border, where all Akha villages have running water, electricity, and high levels of material consumption. Some village authorities (and the Lao government) have tried to actively control this marriage strategy, but to little avail. The practice has major repercussions for Lao Akha cultural reproduction. If a percentage of the marriageable women leave, the complex kin relations established between groups by marriage will be fractured by the presence of an international border (and child-bearing policies) and there will be fewer potential wives for local men.

     It is not only cross-border marriages that threaten the integrity of Lao Akha culture. Lao Akha culture permits premarital sexual relationships as a means of allowing young men and women to choose their ideal marriage partner. Such relations are often misrepresented in lowland Lao, Chinese, and Thai cultures as “primitive” and “promiscuous” ethnic practices (Lyttleton et al. 2004). Chinese Akha are aware of the traditional Akha cultural sys�tem that no longer exists in China or Thailand, which allows Akha men the opportunity to spend time alone with local women, and which in turn sometimes ends in sexual relations. The local Akha women have a choice as to whether to accompany non-�Akha visitors, but in a noticeable shift from earlier times, Chinese Akha men and their lowland Chinese colleagues are introducing another bargaining chip. In the past, cigarettes and whiskey were given to young men in the village to facilitate introductions. Now gifts and money are given directly to the women. This, coupled with the potential prospect of cross-�border marriage, promotes an increased number of commodified casual relationships. Increasingly, lowland Lao men are similarly seeking sexual access to Akha women. When we mentioned earlier that the inside–outside distinction is rapidly disappearing, the ways in which outside men are increasingly hoping to find Akha partners is one direct indication. At face value, there should be no moral difficulty in recognizing young Akha women’s desire for greater choices about how and with whom to further their engagement with modernity. For some, acquiring an outside partner is the most obvious strategy to bring this about. But nowadays the traditional system that allows local men a degree of control over women’s sexuality also increasingly promotes sexual opportunism. Both married and single Lao Akha men are eligible sleeping partners for young women (men sometimes take more than one wife if she becomes pregnant). More recently, lowland Lao and Chinese men are seeking to exploit this sys�tem of orchestrated relations with single women. Following local mores, they ask village men to facilitate introductions for them. Some of these men, bringing money and gifts as the enticement, have no more than a short-�term relationship on their minds.

     This raises the issue of potential health threats that such broadening sexual networks represent. Mobility and the intersection of disparate groups of traders, travelers, truck drivers, and local communities are often a precursor to the spread of infectious diseases including HIV. The Akha in Muang Sing and Long have a history of high levels of STIs, in particular gonorrhea and chlamydia. No one knows if HIV is now part of the picture, as no testing has been done in this previously removed part of the world. It is certainly the case that the Akha are no strangers to health threats, in the past they commonly suffered from malaria and infectious waterborne epidemics when they moved out of the highlands. Given the rapidity of change and broadened social relationships, it remains an optimistic hope that new sexual diseases are not also part of an insidious underbelly accompanying modernization.

 

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