Monday, October 19, 2009

The Princess and the Giant

Yesterday was a great example of why I will never be more Thai than the sushi at the Siamese Plate.

My two bosses Josh and Kat, the co-founders of CMRCA, are getting married in November.  It sounds like it's going to be an amazing weekend -- half in Thai and half in English, on a mountain somewhere north of Chiang Mai, near where Kat grew up.  All of the guests, or at least all of the company staff, are wearing traditional Thai Lanna dress.  For women, this means waist-to-floor length patterned skirts, silver belts, silk wrap-around shirts, and a variety of embroidered sashes and jackets, as well as lots of nature-themed jewelry.  Men wear light cotton slacks and these sort of classy shepherd shirts, with loop buttons and three-quarter-length sleeves.

Anyway, yesterday the office girls and I drove to a suburb of Chiang Mai, where a co-op of Thai women make and rent traditional Lanna clothing.  It was in a beautiful old wooden Thai house/pavillion that sort of grew into the trees, so vines hung down in open corridors and green leaves (still attached to branches) lay piled on the roof like snow.  In one long room the seamstresses had hundreds of pieces on display, as well as manequins demonstrating about a dozen different styles.  My coworkers were so giggly and excited -- just like girls going to weddings all over the world, I think -- and we all spent the next 20 minutes pawing through the patterned skirts, looking for that perfect color and design!

One by one Dao, Pui, Nid, Boom, and Benz found their favorite skirt and changed into it.  Then the seamstress ladies chose a complementary silk wrap-shirt, tied them in the style each girl chose, and picked out jackets or blouses or sashes.  They tied their hair back in buns and pinned on big fat fake buns (I have the feeling traditional Lanna women didn't cut their hair, EVER) secured with Titania-esque tiaras of silver leaves.  I was amazed... all of my low-maintenance, capri-and-t-shirt wearing coworkers transformed into classical beauties before my eyes!

I would have been much more giggly and excited myself if it wasn't for a certain uneasy foreboding that had settled in my stomach (and it wasn't the spicy pumpkin curry I had for lunch, thank you very much).  The seamstresses left me to the end, and as I compared skirts of all colors and patterns, they kept giving me worried sidelong looks.  I started to feel a sense of real cultural displacement.  Soon the reason for seamstress' nervousness became clear: after I'd changed into the relatively simple silvery-purple skirt that I'd selected, one of them hustled over to me and said in this quiet-but-emphatic way that is very typical of Thai women, "sai mai dai! san guhn bai!"

Or, "You can't wear that.  It's too short."

She was right, of course: the skirt came to a few inches above my ankles.  Over the next few minutes, I got the sense that Lanna women are serious about ankle modesty.  The seamstresses combed the whole shop for a skirt that might reach from my waist to the floor, to no avail.  Besides being possessed of secret ankles, Lanna women very rarely clear 5'4''.  

In the end they abandoned the idea that I could be made culturally congruous, and put me in the longest skirt they had.  See the picture, unless you are offended by bare ankles.  It was a wonderful outfit and I felt lucky to be wearing it!  My coworkers happily included me in a fun, girly, and self-admiring photo shoot, without a second thought.  But still, I felt bad that the seamstresses had been so uncomfortable.  Maybe they will manage to lengthen my skirt before the wedding.

Me and P'Pui as Lanna princesses (I call her "P" because she's older than me; if she was being formal she would call me "Nong Nali.")

Obviously, I'll never be Thai on the outside.  But as you can see, I am actually happy in this picture, not mortified at my extreme un-Thai-ness.  I can work on being Thai in other ways: Through language classes in the morning, work in the afternoon, fun with friends in the evening, and trying to find a place to live whenever I can. 

Happy Autumn to everyone, from the end of the Thai rainy season!

No comments:

Post a Comment