Asian American · Expat

The problem with holidays, evolution

Christmas comes to Lamphun.
Christmas comes to Lamphun, 2012.

A recent comment about tourists having shallow brushes with Thai culture made me wonder about my own experiences. Take Songkran for instance, this Thai New Year celebration of block party meets water fight probably doesn’t hold much religious significance to the passing tourist, expat or non-Buddhist Thais.

I’ve celebrated it three times in three different ways and to me, it is a water fight, with religion somewhere in there along with the alcohol and aloha wear.  In 2009 I was in Lamphun with my family where we spontaneously decided to fill up a plastic garbage bin and put it in the back of my cousin’s truck.

We drove around the city moat ambushing strangers, sitting in traffic, making new friends at “refill stations” aka someone’s water hose, stopping for beef noodle soup only to leave puddles of our own behind in the restaurant. I learned that blocks of ice were put in the water and perfected my water throwing aim or “sling” technique with my little bucket.

In 2011, I was shown the party side of Chiang Mai’s celebration from the music stages and firemen  hoses at Kad Suan Kaew to the dancing girls on Loy Kroh. This year (2012), we walked around the northern half of the moat, laughing and splashing, and watching the procession of Buddhas from the city’s wats parading down Ratchadmnern.

Are my experiences shallow? Perhaps just as shallow as my mom’s in America. Christmas and Thanksgiving felt like we were just going through the motions. My brother and I learned about Thanksgiving at school and my mom learned to cook Thanksgiving foods. And Christmas? Not my favorite.

When I was a kid I wished we could afford more gifts and I wanted my father to be alive again. When I got older I craved some sort of meaning or tradition or something that felt significant. I wanted the Norman Rockwell family. I’m not sure what my Thai mother thought or understood about the holiday.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been invited to celebrate Krishna’s birthday, the Japanese day of the dead, a Tibetan sand mandala deconstruction, and many pagan holidays as celebrated by Waldorf schools. Throw in some Thai, Ecuadorian, Hawaiian and Native American ceremonies and well, I guess you could say I have enjoyed a cafeteria tray of cultural experiences.

The best part of it is I haven’t sought these ceremonies or traditions, they have found me. Maybe we’re supposed to have these varied experiences so that we truly become: one people. Who’s to say that the gang of tourists having a blast during Songkran aren’t bonding with the Thais? Who’s to say that some of the Thais are thrilled to share their holiday with folks from around the world?

I don’t know. I used to think tourists visiting my home State of Hawaii were having shallow luau and hula dance experiences. Now I think, they are on vacation and having fun. If they are learning about Native Hawaiian culture, great. Do I want them to be respectful? Of course. I don’t like seeing the half naked tourists wearing hill tribe headgear sauntering about CM either.

But I’d like to think that the majority of tourists are more thoughtful. Then again, maybe I’m too optimistic. Stupid behavior, for some reason, gets more attention that intelligent behavior. I’d like to think I’m on the other side of stupid but maybe the stupid think that too. And maybe someone over there is looking at me wondering, for a Thai, she sure is trying hard to be white.

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