Survivor!

In 2002, the extremely popular American television program Survivor! staged a season on a remote jungle island in southern Thailand. Survivor!--for those not familiar with the show--is a reality television program in which a group of contestants are relocated to a remote area of the world and instructed to fend for themselves. Organized into two "tribes", they must provide their own food and shelter from the jungle while also competing against one another and against members of the tribe. During each episode, the tribes vie in a competition of teamwork, with the losing tribe forced to vote one of their members out of the tribe and, consequently, out of the game. The last person remaining in the game--often not the person most suited to surviving in the wilderness--is known as the Ultimate Survivor and wins $1 million.

Survivor! works as entertainment precisely because Americans are so ill-suited to teamwork and existing without the framework of American society, that is, they have never known a true struggle for survival. Viewers are entertained by watching the contestants struggle to survive in natural surroundings and manipulate each other to ensure that they will not be the one voted off, the latter a strange manifestation of the selfish office politics that seems to permeate today's American culture.

While watching the show, I entertained myself by imagining what would be the outcome of Survivor! Thailand if a randomly selected "tribe" of Akhas, Lahus or Miens was pitted against a tribe of Americans. The issue of acclimation to a jungle environment is so one-sidedly comical that it serves no purpose besides amusement. Within the first day, the true tribal people would have constructed shelter for themselves (possibly multiple structures) from bamboo and banana tree leaves. They would have dug up some bamboo shoots and probably caught some fish barehanded. They would have had to do without rice, of course, but in comparison to the Americans ridiculous flailings, they would have been living in the lap of luxury.

A Westerner never appreciates how specifically tailored to his society his survival skills are until well removed from that infrastructure. Volunteers for the United States Peace Corps, an organization which places its workers in some of the most remote areas of developing countries, often go through a phase of depression upon realizing how society-dependent their skills are. Skills that Peace Corps volunteers bring to rural communities in developing nations, computer knowledge, for example, are learned for success, not survival. Survival is a service that most Westerners purchase from someone else.

The feeling can be seen clearly in the confession of one Peace Corps Volunteer while visiting a Lahu village: "I am an idiot. I don't know anything about anything, but these people who I am supposed to be teaching know everything about everything." Furthermore, an embarrassing truth is that Western skills seem easier to learn. In my time in Thailand, I have taught a number of tribal people how to use a computer (one with all the menus written in English, an inaccessible language to them), yet I have serious doubts that I could find for myself a single bamboo shoot if pressed to do so.

Even more interesting and illustrative than environmental adaptation is the tribal people's understanding that teamwork is necessary to survival. There are, to be sure, personal differences (both ideological and petty) between hilltribe people of the same tribe--even within the same village--but tribal people are much more able to fall into a suitable hierarchy to function as a unit in order to survive.

Watching the contestants of Survivor! competing in one of their tests of teamwork known as "tribal challenges", I thought about the time when I stood watching nine small men carry sixteen concrete cylinders, each weighing hundreds of kilograms, up a hill so slick that I could barely walk up it unencumbered. They reminded me of ants with their teamwork and efficiency of action. Unlike with the American contestants, there was no argument about who had the better way, they just did what they needed to get the job done. It took less than an hour for them to carry the cylinders up the hill and stack them to make new water tanks. Utterly amazing.

I moved enough couches during college to be certain that the American tendency against cooperation--or towards having differing ideas of the "best" way to do even the most straightforward task--is not limited to telegenic reality show contestants. Americans are always searching for a better way to do something and each American tends to think his way is the best. It is part of the American culture that comes with independence and innovation, but at the cost of mutual cooperation.

Mutual cooperation, however, has been the very thing that has allowed the hilltribe people to exist in the jungle wilderness for centuries. It is a fact pointed up all the more clearly in the transition of tribal people from a subsistence economy to the each-man-for-himself market economy in which they now find themselves. Restrictions on land ownership rights have left many villagers without any land to farm and forced them to leave the village to find work as day laborers, often competing with fellow villagers for the substandard wages they receive. Moreover, villagers not producing their own food necessarily become consumers of the produce of others. The transition to dependency on the market economy is astonishingly rapid. Land restrictions can force a village to change from complete subsistence (purchasing only steel and salt) to complete dependence (purchasing up to 80% of their food) in as little as two years.

Such abrupt social change has the disastrous results one would imagine. Villages are fragmented, individuals are primed for exploitation and age-old wisdom of the jungle becomes instantly endangered. Hilltribe people are abandoning their beautiful and intricate way of life to become the least enfranchised consumer level in the Thai market economy.

Indeed, Survivor! Thailand might more aptly describe the non-televised struggle playing out in the mountains of the north. Moreover, as in the televised version, survival of ones lifestyle is also a game of politics, meaning those who are most suited to survival in the wilderness often do not win.