When East Doesn't Quite Meet West.
Updated: Apr 23
How cultural fashion brought me closer to my Thai heritage.
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I identify as British.
My mornings are filled with a few cultural customs you'd expect from a UK citizen. I roll out of bed - no doubt having bashed the snooze button a few times before. If someone is up and ready before me, I might hear staple shows like the BBC news or This Morning being blasted from the telly downstairs.
I drag myself down those steps for the sake of food. Thank god it's breakfast or I wouldn't have woken up in the first place. Could be baked beans on toast, scrambled eggs on toast, or a classic slice of buttered toast on its own. Piles and piles of pancakes might do the trick if I'm feeling adventurous. Of course, you've got to wash it all down a with nice hot beverage. You know the drill. Will you have coffee or tea madam?
Not that being British is defined by these surface-level experiences. I'm sure there's much more to it than these mundane details. I'm just setting the scene.
I also have a dual heritage.
I'm half English and half Thai.
However, these two sides have always felt disconnected. I connect my 'English-ness' with my British nationality. I struggle to identify with my 'Thai-ness'.
People like to say you've got the best of both worlds, but what if you can't experience one of those worlds to its full potential?
I never learnt how to speak Thai growing up. Mum was a busy woman. She had to get used to British culture and work at her supermarket job. It's fair enough that she didn't have time to teach me.
I have also lived in the UK for all my twenty-one years alive on planet Earth. It's what I know best. But, we do travel to Thailand every few years to visit our extended family. I'm grateful for those holidays as it's amazing to explore your roots. Not everyone gets the chance.
Communication does become an issue. I can't have full on conversations with most of my Thai relatives. But, thanks to the multifaceted nature of human experience, there are ways to get around that.
It's comforting to know that there are other forms of communication which go beyond the limitations of language. There's the reassurance behind a genuine smile. The uncontrollable need to bob our heads when a folk musician twangs their guitar. The shared enjoyment over a platter of homemade food - think wooden bowls filled with spicy papaya salad and fragrant pad krapow.* All these experiences transcend language. Not a word needs to be said to understand them.
* basil stir-fry.
I've found that fashion is a great communicator.
Everyone can appreciate a beautiful garment. Strong colours evoke emotions. Delicate fabrics could remind someone of a room from their childhood. Embellishment is gorgeous enough to allude to the stars. Even if you're someone that doesn't care about fashion, i'm sure you'd find it difficult to not take a look at a century-old, royal robe in a museum.
Thai culture has some breathtaking traditional garments.
Queen Sirikit of Thailand.
The blanket term for this kind of dress is 'chut thai.' It is the national clothing of Thailand and quite a contemporary phenomenon! In the early 1960s, beautiful Queen Sirikit and a group of royal tailors researched Western fashions. From this research they created a variety of formal attire which was used to represent the country overseas. It was an elegant way to communicate Thai culture internationally, and to present oneself professionally in the political sphere.
My first experience wearing traditional Thai dress was in Chiang Mai: The largest city in northern Thailand. This wasn't just me dipping my toes in. You'd better believe that it was the full transformation!
Friends of my parents took us to a popular photo studio in the city. The Nakara Studio not only styles you, but does your make-up, hair, and takes and edits high-quality photos. It was a great way to immerse myself in Thai culture and maybe even feel closer to the Thai side of my dual identity.
Just look at the results <3
I had to go for that wonderful red.
An evocative colour that is destined to make a long-lasting statement. (And a very popular choice at the studio!)
The mixture of the striking Thai dress with the ornate background and props made me feel like royalty. I felt elegant, inclined to act graciously, and attained a deeper appreciation of Thailand's rich cultural history.
The next time I'd wear traditional Thai dress would be back in the UK.
Like with every nationality under the sun, the UK has a large Thai community. There will always be traditional celebrations happening somewhere.
Loi Krathong is a special Thai event held every November. It is celebrated at the end of Thailand’s rainy season and is a chance to pray to the water goddess Mae Phra Khongkha.
Event-goers create small water floats made from banana leaves and flowers which are placed onto rivers. You might hope that your past misfortunes wash away and are replaced by a gentle tide of fortune. It is the end of one cycle, but the beginning of another one.
There's also the Miss Noppamas beauty pageant. One of the most popular parts of the event and, on a chilly November day in the UK, I took part in one:
This was held at the Buddhapadipa Temple in Wimbledon. That's right. There's a huge Buddhist temple lurking in the middle of one of London's most affluent neighbourhoods. It's well worth a visit.
That was one strange day. When I entered, I wasn't fully aware about the gratuity of the situation. I thought I was taking part in a fashion show and not a full blown beauty pageant!
I've always been someone who is skeptical about these contests, yet I still took on the opportunity. It was another chance to immerse myself in Thai culture. The only difference being that I'd have to parade around on stage in front of a bunch of strangers in the freezing cold. Nothing to worry about.
Yet again, the language barrier was an issue. I was the only one there who couldn't speak or understand any Thai. I had to answer questions on stage... and I won't share any footage of that jumbled mess of hurried words. (The winter shivers made it sound even worse). Mind you, my walk made up for it.
- Big shout out to a contestant named Nicole who translated everything for me! I didn’t get your social media :( -
Any strength I did have that day came from the power of the outfit I was wearing. Getting into the traditional Thai dress was my favourite part. After stumbling around in an outfit that didn’t quite fit, the organiser was kind enough to find me a replacement. It was a gorgeous set in a fairy-tale pink colour. I was ready!
Even though I didn't understand much of what was said that day, I felt an immense wave of pride. It's not often that you get to wear a garment with so much cultural meaning. That beautiful chut Thai was the remedy for the 'deer in the headlights' state I was in. It reminded me to stand tall and walk with grace. If clothing can provide that much power, I'm going to harness it when the opportunity arises.
Once the pageant was over, I went to look at the little Loi Krathong floats gliding across the water. A perfect end to the day.
Much like identity, water is a fluid and changeable mass. It is one thing, but it can also take many forms. Seas, droplets, vapours. As my identity is constantly shifting, i'll never be able to neatly reconcile my English side with my Thai side. That doesn't mean they cannot complement each other. I'll keep my reserved British demeanour handy for when I'm amongst strangers, and i'll save my Thai friendliness for when it is needed.
Maybe I do have the best of both worlds.
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See you all next time!