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Poverty becomes you 69 69 4 Poverty becomes you Black, White and Gold In the previous chapters I sketched out the development of some of the contemporary context in which Don Khiaw residents find themselves. When viewed through the lens of family, oral and written histories it is clear that poverty on Don Khiaw is shaped by factors well out of local control. In this chapter, I follow Deleuze’s suggestion that, even in contexts such as this, where opportunities and alternatives are shut down and constricted, that there are always lines of escape. These are not necessarily successful: he acknowledges that there are always “sticking points to cut off ” or re-routings of these escapes into new assemblages.1 These lines and their blocks, checks and re-routings are for Deleuze the very stuff of any given society. In this chapter, I investigate poverty in Don Khiaw today: what it means and how it is experienced locally; what the aspirations are for change; and how people go about pursuing these aspirations. What processes of transformation are imagined and pursued in this context? What are their blocks? I focus first on what poverty meant for the women I became close to in rural Laos. I then turn to the fantasies that both women and men constructed in their attempts to refashion themselves and the blocks but also the triumphs they encountered within what were often extremely adverse conditions. Becoming black, becoming white, becoming beauty When I arrived in Laos for my first fieldwork, I was provided with a letter of research permission from the national office of the Ministry of Education. This stated that I was permitted to conduct anthropological fieldwork in any Chap4 (69-85) 69 2/20/14 3:12:37 PM 70 Fields of Desire village I chose, and requested that government officials assist me. This letter was enough to deliver me through the Provincial level of the bureaucracy to the District level. At the District level, however, the letter lost some of its force. The District Chief was uneasy about my choice of fieldsite. He suggested something closer to the District capital, somewhere where it would be easier to “visit” me. At first I had thought this was a well-meaning but misplaced concern for my well-being. Eventually, in a conversation with some low-ranking officials over dinner, they explained that the authorities wanted me close so they could keep an eye on my activities. As one said, “this is not Thailand: foreigners cannot just go wherever they want. There is government.” As I learnt, there was not just one government. In this District, it was the word of the cao muang (District Chief) that trumped my letter of permission from the central authorities. I was forced to negotiate afresh for research permission, this time with the District Chief. I stayed in the care of District education staff for two weeks while these negotiations took place. These weeks were marked by a series of brief and rare meetings concerning my research plans, and long, directionless days filled with casual conversations with office staff. The office squatted in a muddy field of overgrown grass where cows grazed, their bells clanging. The office had no electricity and was too hot for comfort, so staff gathered on a wide bench under a broad shade tree outside for long streams of conversation, banter and debate. After my first five-minute meeting with the office head, I was invited over to the bench. “Oh you’re beautiful,” a chorus immediately began. Peng, a female staff member, was held up for comparison. “Hold your arm against hers,” a man insisted, so we could compare the colour 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 explained theatrically to me. “Holly, what about him?” Peng motioned towards 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 marvelled at their carefree banter about such topics—race, beauty, love. All were held in such reverence in the cultural milieu from which I had just emerged, that of urban Australia. In contrast to their relaxed banter, I was immediately awkward. I felt uncomfortable in my own skin. Suddenly, my body did not seem to mean to others...


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MARC Record
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