Y’all come! Our village temple community is having a Poy Luang festival March 4 and 5, and you are invited. A Poy Luang festival is a cross between a village-wide open house and a community home-coming. It is a big party and a fund-raising event for the temple. If you want to be in on this come around dusk either day (the weather is getting punishingly hot in the afternoon) and we will be glad to see you and give you something to eat and drink.
“Poy Luang” is not found in the Thai-English dictionaries I have. It is a Northern Thai (Lanna) tradition with similar but not identical events in other parts of the country called different things. Here’s what I think it is and what I expect to happen. I’ll be back to you afterward with more specifics.
The other day the whole thing was kicked off by a ceremony to mark the placement of the Poy Luang Banners. These banners, called tung, are long colorful woven pieces of cloth hung in such a way as to catch every breeze and remind people that there are ancestral spirits around. They are light weight and meant to move and sway. But a long line of them in bright colors along a roadway is a sure sign they lead to a temple planning a Poy Luang festival. Each of the colors is meaningful, especially those standing for the days of the week.
Before that kick-off event, there was a major renovation in and around our temple. A dilapidated old building was removed, a wall was extended, and things were painted. Even the pavement of the road next to the temple was improved. The major income from the Poy Luang was to do these things. Another campaign raised funds for a gong collection. The old-timers have been practicing, although they don’t sound like they need much practice.
There is no set way to conduct the festival. Our community is having a lower-key celebration, but there will be a music ensemble and performances on the night of the fourth. Throughout the day and evening of the fifth of March abbots from other temples will come with delegations. The laity will visit homes first.
We have been laying in supplies. We will feed however many people come to our open house during the day and night of March 4 and 5. Artty, a neighbor, (whose supplies are pictured above) expects college friends to come and has planned accordingly. At our house emphasis will be on light food and beverage with a lot of ice. Some families are hiring music making equipment, especially karaoke music, which gives volunteers a chance to sing for the whole village, depending on the volume. To be honest, the volume will be high. Pramote and I have decided to forego that formidable aspect of the open house.
Sometime late on the second day we will carry a money tree to the temple. Every household participating in the Poy Luang will go to the temple, dancing and cavorting as they go. Almost every house in the village is beyond our house. We expect them all to pass by here.
The last time our temple had a Poy Luang was eight years ago, so they don’t happen that often. But when they do it is a community event that involves everybody who can get out of bed. I maintain that these festivals are the glue that holds Thai society as well as Buddhism together here in the valleys of the North.
Funny things happen in Thailand connected to “The Day of Love”, also known as Valentine’s Day. If you consider these things over time, trends become apparent. I have been pondering 3 reports from the past week:
Pong and Noey got engaged.
Three guys got married to each other creating a news sensation for their 15 minutes of fame.
Thailand got listed as the world leader in adultery, several points ahead of Denmark.
Once upon a time, before the Internet and Facebook, you could count on two things about an engagement in Thailand: first, it would not even be hinted at until it was formally announced; second, it would involve at least the tacit consent of both families because a marriage was the beginning of a merger of two clans. Before that an engagement involved the exchange of assurances and the Thai form of dowry, the groom presenting the bride’s family gifts to compensate them for the contributions they had made in raising her. Those negotiations could be somewhat tedious in the old days, but they assured social stability no matter what might happen to complicate things afterward. Today the romantic form of love has triumphed. A couple will decide for themselves to get married and let the families know, maybe on Facebook. So Pong and Noey made their formal announcement of engagement on Valentine’s Day, and showed us their matching engagement rings.
Assuming the three fellows are serious rather than playing a social network joke (one of the guys is nicknamed “Joke” so there is some suspicion about their announcement) in what sense are they possibly married? They are certainly not married in the legal sense. Thai law does not recognize same-sex marriages or three-party marriages. So they cannot have their marriage registered as hundreds of couples did on “The Day of Love”. Bang Rak district in Bangkok is the unofficial capitol of Valentine’s Day, since bang rak literally means “a place of love” (bang also means a waterway, referring to a canal that used to go through the district). Couples line up in the dead of night to be sure of getting their marriages registered on that auspicious day and place. The 3 guys might still be married in the social sense, which includes at least tacit agreement from families. They will solidify their place in their many overlapping social circles by how they stay connected and contribute to the needs and projects their social groups undertake. In Thailand Buddhism exercises no authority over marriages per se. There is no dogma to be considered nor even any necessary religious ceremony. They said they poured water. Water pouring is a sacred (but not necessarily a Buddhist) ceremony to ratify a covenant and seal it. So they are married if they say so, but we’ll see.
We were less than startled to learn that Thailand leads the world in percentages of adultery. The statistics say that 56% of the married people surveyed admitted to having had an adulterous affair. Thailand, in fact, was the only Asian nation in the top-ten. I would like to offer some short-hand observations about that. Based on life here in the village, far fewer than 50% of the marriages here have ever ended. There is considerable family stability and the welfare of children is almost never jeopardized by family affairs. Since the marriage survey would probably be heavily slanted toward urban respondents, and since the nation is still heavily village and small town dwellers it could be that the statistics are a bit off. Nevertheless, I would submit that:
Monogamy was mandated at least in part to counter the charge that polygamous cultures were uncivilized and would be better off if they were subjected to social improvement by colonial powers. That rationale has never had a very strong hold on Thai thinking and behavior. Nor has polygamy ever seriously undermined the social structure or the central authority of the family-clan.
In the past, before “modernization” under the influence and sometimes considerable pressure from Europeans, marriages of young people in the upper social strata were arranged in order to strengthen social and political alliances. They were not necessarily limited to one wife or husband. Meanwhile, individuals caught in arranged marriages felt free to seek solace and satisfaction outside those official marriages as long as they did not endanger the social structure or the ranking inside the families and clans. They were married to the first spouse for status and the next one for love. Even though those extra marriages were not always official (although they often were), there was social pressure for patrons to accept responsibility for everybody involved. In other words, “adultery” and “bigamy” are legal terms in these modern times, but as pejorative terms they do not have a great deal of social support. Simultaneous multiple spouses, of course, are expensive and so this form of polygamy is more common among those who can afford it. It is less apt to happen in villages like ours.
So is LOVE undergoing change? If you are a romantic, you would say, “Love is being accorded its true place in the hierarchy of values.” If you are a traditionalist, you would say, “Love is an emotional experience that appears in direct proportion to hormone secretion. It is not a sound basis for building relationships.”
As a long-term observer, I have to say that the 3 guys are pushing the frontier in trying to establish a 3-way gay relationship if they are hoping to avoid social consequences. I will also say that Pong is a modern young man getting engaged and telling the world about it before consulting his parents. Nevertheless, we will support him and hope to meet Noey very soon.
“A” is 21. He was born in Nan and grew up there. He came to Chiang Mai this year to go to a technical college to study computer business. He works as a masseur in a “for men only” spa and gets big tips from the sexual favors he provides. He really enjoys himself and his customers, but he’s planning on marrying a woman in a few years.
“B” is 31. She was born and raised as a boy, transitioning into a young woman when she quit school. She is the “minor wife” of her older sister’s husband. She also has a hunky boyfriend of her own.
“C” is a florist. He uses feminine pronouns and gestures but dresses as the male he has always been. He has women as friends and no boyfriends of consequence.
“D” is a chauffeur. He is just 30 but has the liver of an 80 year-old because of his alcoholism. He is passionate about sex with males of any age when he is sober, which is more of the time since he got this job as a driver for a man of very substantial influence.
“E” likes to dress up as a woman. Otherwise he presents himself and considers himself to be a man with a preference for older men as lovers. He can afford to pick and choose. He is not looking for Santa.
“F” waited for his mother to die before coming out as gay, not that it mattered. Everyone knew he had two lovers as well as a coterie of happy party goers.
“G” was the first gay Thai guy to die of AIDS that we knew personally. He was a talented nightclub performer and managed a very successful Thai restaurant in Los Angeles. In his funeral memorial folder his family pointedly printed his death certificate, saying he died from pneumonia.
“H” is 17 but likes to claim to be older. He is trying to decide how to tell his parents he has no interest in marrying a girl and continuing the family line. He has experimented and knows what he likes.
“I” has two families, one includes a wife and three children and the other consists of him and Goi. The two families overlap in many ways. It works because they don’t talk about it.
“J” does not call himself gay. He does not think he is anything. He finds solo-sex best, but he can be really turned on by watching a guy “do it”.
Being gay in Thailand is not any easier than it is elsewhere in the world. It is a juggling act between being authentic and being acceptable. What sets Thailand apart from other lands is that the predominant religion does not usually launch a homophobic campaign, local communities take their signals from clans about whether a family member is OK or not, families measure their sons’ characters first of all by how they treat their mothers, and strict gender identification is a recent cultural gloss that shows signs of fading again.
Being ambiguous about ones sexual or gender orientation is not a matter of being sly or in denial. The fact that few gay guys in Thailand are clear about their identity tells more about the inadequacy of labels and diagnoses than about Thai self-awareness.
We can say that this is a convenient fog. Since being queer can lead to controversy (loss of face being one form of loss) or conflict (which is to be avoided in Thai society whenever possible), it is better to be ambiguous most of the time. Just be yourself. But be unclear about who you are. The only thing we should allow to show is our individual story, and only as much of that as may be inevitable.
That is convenient social obfuscation. It does not help the “cause” of gender equality or gay rights or greater understanding. Observers and activists object that this gay grayness hurts the cause. What would help would be coming out and being honest.
It is the nature of these narratives to be individual and not to conform to categories. The smaller the pigeon-hole the less pigeons will fit into it. Clear sharp definitions are analytical and comparative tools, but not helpful in promoting individuality. “Causes” need masses. Individuals need to self-identify with the mass whose cause they decide to espouse. So far the convenient fog feels fine.
February 4 was a historic day in our thousand year-old village. On that day trash collection began. Those of us who signed up for the service were provided 18-gallon trash cans identified with a code number. We are entitled to fill the can once a week. There is a collection fee equivalent to $1 a month.
Everybody in the city that I’ve told about this has had the same reaction, “What? You’ve not had trash collection before? What did you do?”
Well, in the days before trash collection, which were all the days before this week, there was a lack of system. First, everything of value was sold, and that included aluminum cans and glass bottles. Some plastic bottles and cardboard boxes could be sold as well as large heavy plastic sacks. Light weight paper and plastic wrap, along with leaves, weeds and plant trimmings were kept for burning once in a while. Table scraps became fertilizer. Neighbors without a space for burning found a place to toss their trash. One by one those places were posted with 500 baht warning signs, but ours is a big farming area with lots of “places”.
We are delighted to have the trash collection remove the temptation to create unsightly nuisance sites. This trash collection is, so far, the one benefit of our sub-district of villages becoming a municipality. I understand another more limited and more immediate advantage is that the sub-district officials’ incomes have gone up in various ways they are hesitant to talk about.
I have thought about this health and safety innovation as an aspect of vanishing village culture. The question I ask when we see anything new affecting village life is, “What was it like before this?” Was there a time, “before trash?” It might amaze young people, even those born and raised in our village, to know that there was a time when there was almost no trash. There were forces of nature working on everything, of course, but trash? No.
To get a handle on that we have to look at our trash item by item.
What happened to bottles in the “olden days”? There were bottles and they were used over and over. There were bottles because there were no cans. Before there were even bottles there were few liquids that needed to be transported in small amounts. Larger amounts came in pottery jars. Dippers were important. Before glass there was clay, lots of clay around here. Those jars never wore out. If they broke, which was inevitable, they became used for something else in some way depending on how broken they were.
What about plastic bags in former times, what was used in place of them? Plastic bags are used to transport retail purchases from one place to another, right? Using our three-era system of considering village culture, we can remember that before plastic bags there were paper bags and before that, baskets; but retail shopping did not happen very far from home. Baskets were important. One of the rural icons (now vanishing) is of older women with two baskets suspended from a shoulder pole made of bamboo, trotting along to the rhythm of the bouncing baskets. Lunches were carried in little baskets. Great loads of rice where carried in great whopping baskets on ox carts. Some baskets were coated in lacquer to hold ground and powdered material, or water for a short time. Smaller portions of foodstuffs were wrapped in leaves secured by bamboo pins that looked like large toothpicks. All those things made of leaves and bamboo were exquisitely bio-degradable, helped by a great multitude of tiny bugs and worms, ants and mold.
What about garbage? Amazingly, even today in a village there is little garbage. What people don’t eat village dogs and cats are happy to have, and what little is left might attract birds. Peelings and fruit scraps unceremoniously become fertilizer. Only a large community meal is likely to produce enough residue to require united effort. In the olden days meat was not a daily food item, and vegetable parts of recipes were generally gathered as needed. In other words, food production for a family did not create waste products that no one knew what to do with.
If we sort out the contents of our black garbage bags, most of it is containers for products that have been used up, or wrapping material that products came in. Modern packaging has two purposes as far as I can see, from my perspective as a village consumer: the packaging is designed to get the product from the point of manufacture to the consumer in good condition, and it is designed to display the product attractively in retail markets where decisions about what to buy are made on impulse rather than from lists and order blanks. Some food products come in packages 3 and 4 layers thick as do my individually wrapped cheese slices and my chocolate coated wafers.
Almost all of this sort of waste has been developed within my own lifetime. Now we have junk yards with acres of cars waiting to be stripped for parts, mountains of rubber tires waiting to mysteriously catch fire and burn for months, and vast plastic lined and unlined trenches being filled with municipal waste that will be dangerous until the end of time. What do we do with all the toilets in a large hotel when it is torn down or the concrete from a highway that is being replaced? The human race never has had to confront this before.
Trash has meaning. In terms of village life, the increase of trash and the need to get rid of it systematically are indications of change. There will no longer be basket weavers in every village, and nearly every household. Even now the basket weavers in our village are growing too old to do it and they have no one to teach. Terracotta pottery objects have become cultural artifacts and are used for decoration rather than as necessities. The sound of chopping no longer means someone is fashioning a wooden utensil or implement.
The range of our dependency has expanded. We now “need” products that come from distances unimaginable by our ancestors just a century ago. And soon we will think we need them more quickly than even steamships, railroads or highways can provide. We will want pipelines, electronic product transfers, and delivery sub-stations nearby. We will think we have to have them. We will not be able to do without them.
Our little trash cans will look pathetically inadequate.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.