Many of us can identify with a particular youth subculture. My dad, proudly, was a beetle crushers wearing Teddy Boy, my brother (in his early teens) was a defiant Goth who got suspended from school countless times for dyeing his hair and defying an establishment who, in their time, had most likely rebelled themselves. Most of the people I knew in the early 90s were part of a ‘drug culture’ whose often nihilistic ‘fuck everything’ attitude encompassed, and affected greatly, a large segment of young society. Even though subcultures were to some extent bound by socio-economics they could enjoin people of varying income brackets, it was the solidarity of subcultures that made them so compelling.
Those that lived through, and adopted, the hippy liberal values of the late sixties culture might still be a proponent of those same values today, while the wanton miserabalists and cynics that eclipsed the hippie era, those children of the punk subculture, may still relate to the angst that penetrated their musical epoch, parlance, symbols. Some of us, even in our adulthood, might still be listening to the same (now nostalgia inducing) songs, wearing the same Fred Perry t-shirts, gold sovereign rings, leather jackets or bright beaded necklaces. Our subculture represents ‘us’, or what we want people to think is ‘us’, more so when we are in our youth and in dire need of an identity, than in our later years. Subculture’s iconography, intimacies and heroes will always move us as long we have the capacity to reminisce.
The mother and father of all subcultures is Generation. Generations are the children of history, their view of the world is contingent on how history treats them. People born to Generation X when given advice on matters of sex, comportment, work ethic, etc, by their post-war industrial parents may have thought their progenitors quite quaint. What is true or normal or right, often is subject to change, children contradict their parents ad infinitum. Part of Generation Xs mass culture was based on consuming, or ‘consumerism’. It gave rise to subcultures like laddism, rave culture, neo-punk/grunge culture, geek culture, all of whose tenets seemed to be based on subversion, extremism and skepticism – very much a two-fingered salute to the First World that had been created for it. The X Generation has been called a spoiled culture, they had it easy, bereft of any real threat of war, abject poverty, incurable coughs or Satan. The X’s had the Bush family, AIDS and economists – more of an anxiety attack than any real threat. So naturally it turned inwards, and even though arguably became more informed, self-aware, it also turned on itself and became more self-absorbed and self-deserving than its parents were. As a result it became more a culture of discontent than previous generations, giving birth to Generation Meds. The new generation is constrained to be more conscientious of its habits in view of the world’s dilapidated environment and dwindling natural resources, it is obliged to clean up the mess that has been left by the past generation’s devil-may-care conspicuous consumption and myopic indulgence of consumerist values. Generation X and Y are said to be less patriotic, not as reliant on religion, less fond of monarchical systems, and not as family orientated, as past generations were. The collective has made way for the individual. Traditional belief systems, with their heavily punctured buoyancy-aid propaganda, are floundering in the unpredictable seas of modernity. The reality of our institutions and governments, courtesy of technology, has been tested (Wikileaks as example), the reality of individuals has been exposed via social networks and the injurious seizures of the camera phone, the new generation finds itself living in a kind of hyper-reality, freer to speak, though ironically at odds with this freedom due to the ever present censure of the cyber-eye.
Simone Rensch Nielsen, a former editorial intern at Citylife, talked to us about Her Generation, and more specifically, international youth subcultures in Chiang Mai. Subcultures, she says, are not as easily definable as they are in the West, young people often just go with what is popular or generic concerning fashion, attitude and music. Though she did say that there are broader groups which young people inhabit, such as “nerdy” or “cute” or “the wilder kids” and those obsessively into sports.
“I guess here we’re really into school,” she says, but is quick to add, “It’s different in Denmark.” Back home she is seen as “innocent”, though in Thailand she’s seen as “wild”, or even “slutty” for having platonic male friends. “I guess I don’t belong anywhere,” she says, and explains that her father is Danish and his new wife is Thai. There are contradictory beliefs in her household, one of which _ where her boyfriend should sleep when he came to the house _ became a matter of familial discord. “Most kids here don’t want to rebel,” she says, “their grades are important to them.” Peer pressure, she explains, is about attaining A and B grades, not being coerced into drinking and smoking. “Even kids who have come from the West will change,” she says, they will eventually accede to peer pressure and adopt the studious modus operandi. “Even if kids wanted to rebel, it would be hard, at night there is hardly anywhere to go where you don’t need to spend money.”
The international youth of Chiang Mai, she explains, doesn’t want to stick out, they fear gossip and negative attention within their cultural microcosm, and wince in the face of the stringent rules set by their educational institutions. Even though some kids have smoked pot, dabbled with prescription meds, or occasionally “fool around”, their parents don’t have much to worry about, says Simone. “Gossip runs fast in Chiang Mai,” she explains, “if it gets known a girl sleeps around then everyone calls her a slut, if it’s a guy then he’s just cool. That’s not really fair.” Thai conservatism and its inherent sexism has pervaded the international youth culture, and although this is very different from her Danish perspective, she feels she’s taken something, positive and negative, from both worlds.
I asked Simone to invite some more friends of different nationalities to get a better understanding of youth culture in Chiang Mai. And to some extent, try and bridge the age gap between older readers and the younger generation. Gun, (18, male) is Thai. Wei (18, male) is Taiwanese. Risa (18, female) is Thai. Theo (17, male) is French/Japanese. Mei (18, female) is Hong Kong Chinese. All of them, and Simone, study at International schools in Chiang Mai.
On school subcultures Theo explains that there are “less cliques” and although he listens to “old school” and “indie rock” and in the interview was wearing neo-punk skater gear, he doesn’t feel part of a particular subculture. “In Canada where I studied,” he says, “there were like over a thousand students, but here most schools have only about 200 people. There are really only two cliques, people you are able to hang out with, and people who are just weird.”
The group knows each other but are not intimate friends. It shows how small the Chiang Mai international community is when they explain that even though they don’t hang out together they are all familiar with each other. In the past Gun says, “I’d see them at interschool dances” though Theo admits that these days they are more likely to bump into each other at Zoe in Yellow. The two students of Thai families are not surprisingly at first a little bit reticent when talking about their nighttime proclivities. “My mother,” says Simone, “thinks I should learn from my mistakes,” though Gun explains that even though his parents have travelled and he has studied abroad, they “still have very traditional Thai values,” when it comes to what an eighteen year old boy should be doing. Theo’s parents on the other hand are much more forgiving, “My parents went across the US in a van in the sixties and all that jazz,” and so he says, they are fairly liberal.
Their mesh of cultures and nationalities seems to have conferred on them quite a unique way of looking at the world, being able to see both the errors in western extremist culture and Thai conservatism. On drinking and drug taking they seem almost inconceivably adult, while on matters of personal ethics and sexual liaisons they hardly put a foot wrong a propos the liberal-moderate’s handbook.
Their mode of moderation, if we are to believe it is all true, runs counter to those aforementioned generations of intemperance. On sexuality Risa explains that her parents “are really religious, they used to tell me ‘no sex’ when I grew up. I think I changed my point of view on sex when I started in the international community.” Theo and Mei both study at Christian schools whose teaching is based on “Christian values” and “abstinence”. “They teach us how to use a condom.” says Theo, “but also tell us not to do it.” He explains how his parents are ok with him having partners, though Mei and Simone both express that their dads have commented in the negative on their having male friends.
Teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, gangs, depression, aspects of western teen culture that haunt parents’ thoughts, are not an issue with the group. They worry about exams and…2012. “I worry about the news,” says Mei, “Egypt, and the stampede in India. It doesn’t look good heading into 2012, the world isn’t getting along.”
They all seem quite sure of the outcome of their futures, each seeing themselves in professional careers, with kids, husbands, wives, cars, nice houses. “I think money is a big part of ‘happiness’ in the society we’re from, but to me there’s more to life than money,” says Simone on the importance of being wealthy, adding, “I don’t think or hope I’m going to spend all my money on myself, but think more about how I can help others.”
Wei says of a money obsessed culture, “I feel that the media has influenced people to buy goods, its created the whole deception of ‘having more equals happiness’ which tricks people into borrowing money from banks and buying more goods.” Theo is likeminded in his sentiments, “Yeah, we have become a consumerist and materialistic society where the new thing is the ‘thing’ and everyone has to get it. I try not to get brainwashed by media and not get lured into the corporate traps but I look at myself and see that in fact, I do.” He expands by saying, “If I could, I would become a hardcore hippy. Wear hemp, live in a tree house and fuck the system. Too bad I can’t. So for now, I’ll buy the stuff I want and can afford and make myself feel good…If I want to buy useless stupid shit that puts a smile on my face, why not.”
Gun explains, “Money won’t be my only source of happiness, I think that relationships in society are far more important than objects…But yeah, I do want to be a successful man, with a big house, lots of money, and probably a sports car…”
“I really like what the King said, says Risa, that, “everybody has different levels of happiness, and living in a small home may create as much happiness as someone who lives in a really big house.”
On political instability at home and abroad, the veneer of online reality, global warming and God, Mei says, “I am a Christian. As for world politics…I’m not as in tune with world events as I used to be last year, Government and Politics class certainly took care of that.”
Risa explains, “My family is quite religious compared to others, but I myself started to become less religious after being in this international community. But I believe in God and I think God exists. My whole ancestors and family raised me up by putting words of God in my head since I was a baby.” Theo adds, “Religion is amazing. It has enough power to have people attach bombs to themselves and blow themselves up. It also has the power for a group of people who randomly go help unfortunate people for nothing in return. I think a lot of religions have great moral lessons and stuff but also a lot of people take it too drastically. I really don’t like the concept of missionaries. You do you’re own thing, I do mine.”
On politics and power and its quasi-transparency they all agree that the internet can be of great help concerning educating oneself against power. Simone suggests, “I think the net develops more individual opinions, you don’t just read something in the paper and believe that. You get more than one side to a story or event, and develop your own thoughts on the subject.”
Gun is quite stoic about the vagaries of world (bad) news, “We’ll keep having problems, and we’ll keep solving them”, though he adds that “Politics for me is just really annoying. Especially Thai politics, I feel that it’s just people wearing masks selfishly competing for power to control others.” Wei takes a similar stance to Gun when he says that “Politics for me is just crazy, I have a belief that all politicians seek one thing and that is only ‘power’. I like what Buddha said, ‘Do not give up your authority and follow blindly the will of others. This way will lead to only delusion.'”
“Our concept of identity will change” says Mei, explaining that cultures will mix and we’ll live in a more ‘international world”. Her positive vision is long term as she also laments that, “the world will have to get worse before it gets better.”
“I don’t believe in global warming,” Theo adds at the end of the interview, “but I know the world’s getting fucked. We have enough resources for everyone, but still we fight…Maybe ours will be the generation to flip that.”