The main rite of passage into adulthood for Thai young men is the military lottery that comes after their 21st birthday. Every April, all over the country, all 21 year-olds are assembled in their home district to be sorted. It is a tense and emotional experience.
Yesterday was the big day for our nephew, Wave, and about 100 other boys becoming men in our district.
First they are “examined” to see if they are fit for military service. Most pass. Then they are given a chance to volunteer. The military has already announced how many recruits they need. They wanted 73. Thirty volunteered. That meant another 43 would be drafted from the remaining 73 eligible males. The process is decades old. 43 red slips in capsules were put into a container along with 30 black slips. (They used to be colored balls.) The guys were called forward one village at a time, and one by one they pulled a ball from the container. If the capsule contained a red slip they were in the army for a year or two, but if the slip was black they were given an exemption form and they were free from military service for the rest of their life.
Nephew Wave was one of the lucky ones. He pulled a black slip out of the container. He said he’d not been nervous until it actually came close to his turn, but his hand was shaking. There were two 21 year-olds from his village. The other guy drew a red slip and nearly fainted. Relatives were gathered in bleachers around the arena, and there was cheering and wailing as each slip was announced. Wave came home with his exemption paper, I took his picture with it and we had a nice cook-out to celebrate.
What we were celebrating, of course, was not just his escape from jeopardy as a soldier. Plans had already been made with relatives in the Army to get Wave assigned close to home. It helps to know people. We were celebrating Wave’s formal passage into full-fledged adulthood, citizenship, and social status. There are three widely accepted rites. In addition to the draft lottery which is the big one, getting a diploma marking the end of formal education and getting formally married with relatives of both the bride and groom tying cords of blessing around the couple’s wrists (which is done on other occasions as well) are the other two. Earlier in the week Wave’s class graduated from vocational school. So, for Wave he was 2 for 3. It could be that he and his live-in girlfriend will now "tie the know" to complete the set.
Young women have rites of passage, too, in Thai society. They can also get a diploma from a vocational or academic institution and enter the ranks of the gainfully employed. Commencement ceremonies are very important and convincing rites of passage for them. They can get married. If they have a baby, that is a powerful signal. I noticed that at the very time Wave was in the arena yesterday morning, his cousin posted an announcement online to the effect, “I am proud to be independently sufficient and to be raising two children.” Of course, she and her husband are doing this together with a lot of help from extended family, as this is done in Thailand, but she was announcing the truth, she has passed well and truly into adulthood, and she’s proud.
That’s how it’s done here.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.