These are my people.
I am one of them.
James (I will call him) arrived in Thailand looking for a job and a place to live. Being a young college graduate “native speaker of English” with a willingness to integrate into an environment strange to him, he applied for a teaching position in several schools. He took the most attractive offer after wisely visiting the school and meeting his new bosses. As with any new career the learning curve was steep at first. Within a few months James reckoned he’d stay another year. Besides he’d met Oi, a colleague who taught in the same school and whose family lived nearby. During year 3, James and Oi decided on marriage. It consisted in a string-tying ceremony and wedding dinner and had no church service, which mildly perplexed James. It was just about then that James’s identity confusion began. It came into focus for him with a set of doubts about what and who he was NOT. He was not a native speaker of Thai, he was not a native of the place he was living, he was not a citizen of Thailand but an “alien” with a visa and passport, he was not sure he wanted to spend the rest of his life teaching English to children, he was not ready to be a father. On the other hand he was a husband and lover, accepted as a member of an extended family it was going to take time to get to know, a fast language learner, a successful and satisfied employee of a school with a good reputation, and he had his family’s admiration and blessing from back home. Resolution of the question of where James belonged came after year four when James realized he now belonged in two places. This understanding was greatly enhanced by the arrival of little Gai who, despite her small size, completely changed James’s life.
Refugees, migrant workers, asylum seekers, military, students, retirees, missionaries, cross-cultural married couples, adoptees, international business and industry personnel, foreign service staff, medical migrants, displaced persons, scholars, drifters, back-packers, tourists, researchers, merchants and sales personnel … what they may have in common is travel involving living apart from where they were born. A perplexing common experience is bewilderment about belonging. This can be compounded if the people around them are confused or anguished about the newcomers.
This essay reflects on ways people know they are part of a social group. I suggest it is good to remember these principles as we participate in discussions, sometimes heated unnecessarily, about who has a right to be among us, and where we have a right to be. This short series of blog-essays begins with a list of explanations about ways that social bonding happens. Note, the following definitions are not only about residency, but about membership in various types of social groups. Two more blog-essays are projected to follow, one a month.
Social membership is indicated by definition, description and designation.
Aspects of social bonding:
Physical presence – One indication that “These are my people; I am one of them,” is being physically present (e.g. resident or in attendance). Regularity and persistence reinforce this designation.
Physical presence is one of several indicators of membership in a social construction. It tends to be less deniable as time goes on. People are incorporated by longevity.
My residence in Ban Den Village tends to prove I am one of the people of this village.
A fellow from Europe built a house for his Thai family here in the village, but he is here only 2 or 3 months at a time. His identity is ambiguous for he is neither a resident nor a tourist. This does not seem to bother anyone. We all know him and have a category for him.
Emotional affinity – A sense of strong attachment and identification with a group is sometimes sufficient proof of one’s attachment and inclusion in the group. Similarly, a lack of emotional connection, especially if there is a lack of respect for the group’s values and traditions, is proof to the contrary.
One does not have to have unconditional love for everything and everyone in order to feel strongly connected. Significantly, more is needed than just psychological attraction to validate one’s belonging. Yet, without that, there is doubt about the authenticity and sustainability of one’s membership.
Our granddaughter feels so strongly attached to Thai people and culture that she would like to describe herself as Thai. She was born and grew to young adulthood in Thailand. Her passport asserts she is a United States citizen. It does not begin to tell the whole truth.
More than one ex-pat living here in Thailand fails this test of full affiliation. Profiling and stereotyping habits of speech are clues that bonding has not happened. What keeps such people here with people they neither respect nor trust must be other factors, among which are often convenience and economic privilege.
When I returned to my college alma mater it didn’t take long to realize I was a visitor rather than a member of that college society. The old buildings and pathways were familiar but the people were all new. A couple of my classmates had retained their ties to the college through visits, donations, and membership on boards, but my emotional affinity was severed. What I have left is nostalgia.
Shared endeavors – Participation in a group’s undertaking, particularly by sharing the group’s core activities regularly, is often adequate to constitute one’s link to the group.
There is no ritual to become a Northern Thai Buddhist; rather a person is a part of the temple fellowship by participating in temple events as other people are doing.
Alumni associations supposedly composed of all graduates of an academic institution are spurious unless there is actual response from alumni. The same principle applies to unincorporated villages and neighborhood associations. However, just being resident, conforming to minimal community standards (e.g. keeping weeds under control), and leaving other people alone may be sufficient to fulfill the definition of membership.
In our village there is an “onion growers’ association” comprised of only some of the onion farmers. The rest do not attend meetings or apply for benefits, so they are not members.
Genetic relationship – A major and undeniable indicator “that these are my people” is being part of the family and its associations, especially when the connection is genetic (by “blood” and DNA). Hardly anybody can be denied affiliation if the group is composed of people born into it. Therefore, being attached otherwise (as by adoption or marriage) generally involves specific rites or processes.
In fact, if people are selected for membership rather than inherit a right to it, the group generally has to specify that requirement, as Christian churches do. On the other hand, in certain religious traditions genetic issues take precedence over almost all others. It can be said, “Being born into a family (and the larger social constructs in which the family is included) prove one’s right to belong, by definition.”
Thai society is socially stratified and geographically segregated, but specified membership in groups is generally an imported concept. Examples are local Chinese Chambers of Commerce, Rotary Clubs, and the like. Attempts to form other types of associations, fraternities, and unions do not often succeed over long term in Thailand, unless there are over-riding benefits (as in the case of credit unions, military officer clubs, and golf clubs).
Sworn loyalty – The most common entryway into membership in a closed group is by making a pledge of affiliation. These oaths are formal.
Swearing loyalty and associated promises (often monetary) are control mechanisms used by groups to limit access of new members based on the group’s own perceived best interests (rather than the desires of the applicant).
In cases of citizenship, one generally needs to acquire a working knowledge of key patriotic symbols to display dedication and sincerity. It is expected that this loyalty will be strong enough that the new citizen will willingly make sacrifices equivalent to native citizens when called upon to do so.
One of the most “useful” filters of membership in “exclusive societies” is elevated membership fees. Throughout most of my time in Thailand, access to elite schools required a substantial donation along with the application form, followed by high tuition and other fees. This optimized the likelihood that children of the social elite would grow up with children similarly endowed. Exclusive clubs obstruct access by also charging exorbitant membership fees. Obviously, money is an alternative to other less concrete promises.
Legal designation – To preclude any question of validity, groups with constituted memberships and vested authority can, by various acts, designate who has rights and responsibilities of membership. Membership thus designated cannot be subsequently deprived except by the constituted group acting with the same authority. Even individual members must ordinarily take particular action to withdraw from membership.
Citizenship in a country (or a component part of a country such as a municipality), for example, is designated by law. Such laws are basically restrictive; keeping people out and limiting their prerogatives is the essential purpose. Other persons than citizens within the boundaries of a country are also subject to legal designation (i.e. as “travelers” / “non-immigrants” etc.).
One of the contentious issues of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is a general trend toward overruling local consensus by regional and national action. At the extreme, ethnic-cleansing and genocide are the result. Currently the USA is engaged in another round of authoritarian controls and restrictions of access. It is one of the bases of President Trump’s popularity with his political support group that he is building a wall, impounding alien children at the border, deporting “illegals” rather than facilitating their acquiring citizenship, and enacting surveillance never before endured except in time of declared war.
In Thailand the process of acquiring citizenship is daunting and often expensive, although recent recognition of residency over more than one generation, or pertinent genetic relationship to a Thai citizen have made it easier to acquire citizenship documents. When it was noticed that the boys trapped in the flooded cave a year ago were not Thai citizens, these provisions were called on to speed up their acquisition of citizenship and travel documents.
Community consensus – The most abstract but potent factor indicating a social bond is general agreement within the community about individuals’ affiliation.
An alien resident may be a vital part of a community if there is general agreement about that. On the other hand, some individuals remain “outsiders” despite fulfilling other requirements.
A key episode in the film “The Ugly American” shows South East Asian villagers protectively surrounding an American with whom they had bonded when a communist unit tried to abduct him. The power of community acceptance is not to be discounted, nor is it to be taken for granted. It is just as likely that aliens will be reported and abandoned when it is to the advantage of members of the community to do so. This happens routinely when tyrannical regimes attain power.
When a village treasurer “misappropriated” (i.e. stole) funds, the village consensus turned against the family, insisting they move away. To make the point, the village turned off water and electricity to their house. In other cultures, of course, such abuse of trust would be subject to legal prosecution.
Blessed are you if you have many ways of belonging where you are, and none conspire against you.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.