We had a poignant article on our website last month, ‘What Does it Mean to be Thai’, submitted by Jaem Prueangwat, a young gay Bangkokian struggling to find his identity as a Thai man. Much of what he said resonated with me, and from the comments of readers, with many others.
As a child, I was told exactly what was expected of me as a Thai girl growing up into a Thai woman. My female cousins and I were even sent to the Royal Palace a few weeks each summer to train in the crafts of Thai womanhood — fruit carving, flower arrangements and other essential life skills I have had absolutely no need for since. My teachers, elders and yes, mother, did their damnedest best to instill the correct etiquette and mannerisms in me, truly believing that it would allow me to thrive in future society. The aim and ambition being that one day I would run my husband’s household and entertain impeccably.
I do. But it’s my house…and my fruits and flowers are peeled and cut like a normal person’s.
None of it ever stuck. I was simply not interested and failed to ever see the benefits of such practices and skills. Of course when you are young, you have no negotiating power, and I was at times considered difficult. One time a teacher called my parents after calling me a jezebel (it was a Catholic school), because I was wearing a pair of tight jodhpurs — I was twelve, and practicing dressage for the national championship. I also had my earrings ripped out by another teacher, blood gushing down my white shirt, as she called me a harlot — I was fourteen. And when I was beyond their pale, I was sent to a nunnery at least half a dozen times to meditate on my unladylike behaviour. Until today, I feel as though I have failed my mother who has only ever wanted a perfect Thai daughter. Unfortunately for her, it was simply too much to ask for.
But what on earth is Thainess? Being half British, I have spent my entire life being told that I am not really Thai, as people ask me, all the time, what I really feel like I am. I mean, at cocktail parties, you expect me to come up with a snappy little answer to THAT?
But yes, I have managed to hone a pithy answer that generates a little laugh, a sympathetic smile and a quick change of subject. I tell them that my heart feels Thai but my intellect has an international perspective. While this answer barely touches on the years of angst spent analysing the complexities of my identity, it puts me in a box so that everyone can move on, comforted to know where I supposedly stand.
I think there are many of us, those with different ethnicities, experiences, sexual orientations, disabilities, or just plain personalities, who struggle to feel, or be, this oft-touted Thainess.
Being Thai, we are supposed to be respectful and grateful to our parents and teachers, we are expected to enjoy a peer group who we love, support and pretty much hang out with our whole lives; we unconditionally revere the monarchy and never criticise Buddhism. We smile, we have patience, we are welcoming, we keep our emotions under rigid guard, and we always behave just so. We are also expected to understand our place in the social hierarchy; never presuming to overstep, while always being gracious to those we know (but are never vulgar enough to show) are beneath us. The list goes on and frankly I don’t know one single person who fits into all of these criteria.
The age of Thai conformity is — or surely must be — over. Today, we are a nation of strong empowered women who (apart from the gross disparity in the government and civil service sector) stand equal with men. We have a generation of youthful talent who are creative, innovative and forward thinking. We are, albeit slowly, changing our laws to make our LGBTQ, our ethnic minorities, our disabled and our marginalised feel included. We even have a whole different language we use on social media to further disconnect us from the turgid officious language of authority and we are as different as any 70 million people can possibly be.
So why is it that messages from governments have remained unchanged for over half a century? (I am writing this pre-election.) Instead of supporting the vibrant, complex, brave and multicultural society we have become, they remain hell-bent on trying to keep us boxed into this conformity mold. They lecture us on what we should wear, how we should behave, how we communicate and what we do, constantly attempting to make our laws more petty and enforcement more stringent.
I wasted years of my life trying to figure out how I fit into this society, and I reckon there are many of you reading this who can relate. But what should have happened was that society should have adjusted to accept me and all the other ‘non-Thai’ Thais out there. Society should not be there to censor and conform, but to embrace. The good news is that this is — thankfully — happening at the grassroots levels. But when on earth are those on the top going to wake up and get with it?
Because if they don’t open their eyes now, one day they will come out of their slumber only to find that Thailand has become unrecognisable to them. Then maybe it will be them who question where they fit in and what being Thai means. Thainess isn’t a construct to be enforced and there is no one way of being Thai. And that my friends, is the true meaning of the world Thai: freedom.
Citylife this month:
I learn all about bees this month, and am frankly utterly fascinated, I hope you are too. Tus Werayutwattana takes a deep and very worrying look at our ever-growing ageing society and we have lots of lovely interns who have contributed. There is Michael Piasetzki from Canada, an old hand journalist who left his trade a few decades ago to graze on other pastures but is now looking to return to it. He has written about the Saturday racing track in all its colourful glory. Then we have Fulbright scholars; Will Freda, who has visited a very inspiring ‘leadership home’ in Chiang Dao that is hoping to shape a new generation of ethnic minorities, and Jasmine Bolden and Amy Zhao who have come to realise that museums have a far more important role in each and every community than they are given credit for.