Tuesday, April 21, 2009

space and identity

It is difficult to compare regions of Thailand to regions of the U.S., but I would still say that Isarn is like the upland American South. Stereotypes about people from both regions paint them as backwards, uneducated, and poor. On TV, characters from Isarn are darker skinned, wear overalls, and are the buffoons of the show. Sound a lot like hillbillies, don't they? There are many other things reminiscent of the South. The open-air bottom stories of houses serve the same purpose as our front porches. Waking up in Khon Kaen feels a lot like waking up in Jackson, Mississippi on a Sunday morning. Relaxed pace, clean light, tantalizing smells of fried stuff emanating from cafes... you get the picture.

What does not seem to translate is western architecture and use of space. The house of friends of my CM host family was clearly built in a western style, but the large living room area was strangely devoid of furniture. There was a table in the middle of the room with a computer, and one couch/daybed facing the TV in a far corner. When my family walked over to the TV area, they passed up the couch and sat on the hardwood floor instead. I noticed that a lot-- in my experience Thai people really prefer to sit on the ground and will often pass up a chair to do so. It's almost as if they want the outward appearance of something westernized, but in reality they prefer to use the space like they would a more traditional Thai space. In Nong Po village, the situation was similar. The tiled living room was home to a couch (pushed into a far corner), a TV, space for parking motorcycles, and a large open area where bamboo mats were spread for meals and watching TV. There was a dining table in the house (squished in the hallway), but it was never used while we were living with the family. I can't quite figure this out... do you have any insights?

Rebecca's Thai teacher, Ajaan Wilasinee, apparently told her class that the Thai literacy rate is so low compared to other Southeast Asian countries because while the educational system exists, it is not utilized by most people as intended. Apparently, the average Thai person reads 8 lines of text a year. I'm not sure where that number came from, but if it is true perhaps it sheds light on this inscape-outscape inconsistency.

Thailand was saved from direct colonization by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868-1910), who 'modernized' Thailand's infrastructure and centralized government bureaucracy in Thailand according to the western systems and values he had seen on his trips to Europe. The systems he put in place did unite the country under a shared theme, but was it just a fresh coat of paint on a mix of resilient (yet ever-changing) cultures spread throughout the area arbitrarily assigned 'Siam'? Some argue that although the country was never directly colonized, it was exploited all the same and so was indeed colonized. My observations lead me to believe that there is something going on under the surface of all of this development and modernization, at least with the families I have lived with.

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