At the recent Chiang Mai Expats meeting
one person asked the speaker, Lee of Akha Ama Coffee, if he felt his culture
was under threat by modernization and expressed disappointment in seeing
that people no longer wore their traditional clothes. Lee’s answer was that
almost nobody wore the traditional clothes unless for ceremonies and
holidays but said that his culture was alive in his heart.
I think many foreigners come to a new culture and hope to see the
traditional clothes, thinking that shows it is more “real” and perhaps feel
that without those trappings they are missing the something.
This thinking, to me, ties in with the notion of “Lanna Fridays” where
students and teachers wear traditional Lanna style clothes to school on
Fridays, and also the commercialization of the dress by spas, massage,
hotels etc. who want to give the tourist the “authentic Lanna experience” by
having their staff wearing the clothes while on duty. Certainly it is
attractive but do clothes really make the culture? Is the life of a culture
and community kept alive by simply wearing the clothing? Does requiring
people to wear it on Fridays make them want to wear it the rest of the week?
I think it is pretty clear that it doesn’t since you don’t ever see kids
wear them on their days off. They, like every other kid in the world, want
to wear what is popular, what is cool.
I don’t think that Thai culture is in danger because people don’t wear the
clothes but rather it is a symptom of the greater changes that are occurring
at a very high speed due to eruption of social media and the internet. These
changes are happening world over and, as Lee rightly pointed out,
inevitable. I think it is a fallacy to think that you can keep a culture
alive solely by wearing “the right clothes”. But you can keep it alive by
honoring its traditions, beliefs and values. You can keep it alive by
learning your cultures stories and myths from your elders rather than from
creating stories and getting your values from the internet.