Mary Cook and Jacob Hickman, Anthropology
In addition to a booming tourist industry, Sapa, Vietnam is home to a number of development organizations seeking to improve the livelihoods of ethnic minorities in the region. One Hmong woman, whom I will call Maiv, started one of the first indigenous educational development programs in Sapa- ‘by Hmong people for Hmong people,’ as she describes it. In short, the organization boards ethnic minority youths (mostly Hmong) closer to a local school so they can receive an education. Maiv’s organization also provides jobs for women by running a trekking business, a café, and a handicraft shop.
During my ethnographic fieldwork in Sapa this summer, Maiv graciously extended me the opportunity to volunteer as an English teacher. As part of my research, I became familiar with the students, foreign volunteers (also mostly English teachers), and employees. My efforts focused on understanding the meanings of development work experienced by Maiv, other workers in the organization, and unaffiliated women who worked as trekking guides and handicraft sellers on the streets. Ultimately, I have found these development efforts in Sapa to be couched in the reformation of Hmong ethnic identity.
Maiv’s mother envisions her daughter as a pioneer of a great development work to elevate Hmong people out of destitution. Where some see this elevation as direct resistance to an oppressive structure of ethnic relations, I argue that her development plans are largely an effort to transform, rather than contest, the marginality that Hmong have experienced in a Vietnamesedominant tourist industry. I am specifically responding to one piece written by Duu’o’ng (2008) who follows the identity transformation of Hmong girls who sell handicrafts in Sapa. She ultimately argues that these young girls have successfully ‘contested marginality’ by acculturating to the cosmopolitan scene, specifically through the development of symbiotic relationships with foreigners and through the adoption of modern practices which allows them to defy stereotypes imposed upon them by the Vietnamese. According to Duu’o’ng, these girls have successfully engaged in creating a new identity that is ‘neither marginal nor exotic’ (p. 233). In contrast, as I will demonstrate through the case study of Maiv’s organization, that performance of ethnic identity in Sapa functions as a means to re-construct ethnic identity not merely to ‘contest marginality’ but to redefine the very boundaries within which marginality has traditionally been understood.
On several occasions, Maiv expressed concern about the way that Hmong people perceived themselves and were portrayed to outsiders. During one interview, I asked about a video that I had seen someone post about Hmong girls in Sapa. The video followed the story of two Hmong sisters steeped in poverty who would crowd the tourist busses every day with other Hmong women for a fighting chance to make foreign friends, and therefore some money. The main male tourist in the video took a liking to the younger sister and began heavily flirting with her throughout his time in Sapa as the girls led him on treks through the mountains. To protect her younger sister from being propositioned for sex, the older sister stepped in and offered herself instead. The narrative evoked a sense of despair and sorrow for the poor exploited ethnic girls in Sapa. The director had listed Maiv and her organization in the credits for their contributions to the film, so I asked Maiv what she thought of the short film, and surprisingly, she vehemently opposed its message.
She said, “I feel very angry, we are local people, but we never act like this.” She went on to say that the director had originally told her his goal was to shoot a short film to show off the beauty of Sapa. When he instead released this video, she pegged him as dishonest and slanderous in his portrayal of the plight of Hmong girls in Sapa. She said, “I was in Sapa when I was very young, and I think it (referring to sex tourism) is not true.” She continued to emphasize that she never saw any of her friends engage in these acts, and that she had never been propositioned for sex. “We do handicrafts,” she said, “not sell our bodies.” To top it off, the director hadn’t even used real Hmong actors. “They don’t know how we are,” Maiv said. “The actors are Vietnamese; they don’t understand how we are too.”
Maiv’s response largely reflects a concern with how Hmong women are being portrayed to outsiders (and even to themselves!)—as disadvantaged, poor, backwards members of an ethnic minority who resort to selling their bodies to survive. In contrast, Maiv’s development efforts focus on encouraging the autonomous recognition of one’s own capacities. The video, meant to cast light on exploitative tourism practices, undercuts the autonomy that Maiv envisions her students, and Hmong women in general, to attain. The misrepresentation of local Hmong girls by Western and Vietnamese outsiders who “don’t know how we are” is a tragic blow for those who have worked to convince ethnic minorities that they are not helpless, disadvantaged people dependent on the compassion of outsiders to cease exploitation. Rather, the message Maiv shares is one of personal responsibility, where elevation out of poverty and destitution must originate from Hmong people themselves. In her view, to victimize oneself and rely on pity from the outside is to condemn one’s future to a self-fulfilling prophecy of claiming an identity as someone from birth who is poor, disadvantaged, and something to be pitied.
While Duu’o’ng (2008) might argue, then, that Hmong women in Sapa have successfully contested marginality imposed by the state through engaging in foreign relationships in cosmopolitan spaces, I argue that this claim is directly contested by the fact that development efforts to re-imagine Hmong ethnic identity in Sapa are alive and well. Maiv’s organization is clear evidence that many girls are still experiencing the constant reshaping of their identity as they engage in larger efforts of transforming Hmong cultural symbols into indicators of Hmong autonomy in the tourist industry. These efforts are particularly encapsulated in the words of Maiv’s mother, who addresses her daughter’s model of educational development as a means of re-constructing one’s position within a larger context of ethnic and tourist relations. She essentially gets to the overall point that learning how to ‘speak the language’ of the world of tourism and the state in Sapa, which Maiv does through the carefully crafted representations of Hmong culture through her organization, allows for the re-construction of identity from marginalized ethnic minority to autonomous community leader. If you can speak, she said, others come.