The impurity of culture

We’re currently in Chiang Rai, having a relaxing and rather lavish weekend away. It was a spontaneous decision mostly driven by the fact that I’ve been feeling pretty worn out of late and wanted to recharge my batteries a little. If I ever needed proof that I’m about to turn 30 and that my 20s, along with my desire to always be a budget traveller, will soon be a thing of the past, I reckon staying in a 5 star resort with an infinity pool would probably be it. It’s been so great to go for a leisurely swim in the afternoon sun, lounge about, have cocktails and not do very much at all. (And actually, a highlight was talking to my parents on Skype for the first time last night — so glad I am living away from home in the internet age!)

To infinity and beyond
To infinity and beyond
The town's clock tower at midday
The town's clock tower at midday

Chiang Rai is a large town a few hours north of Chiang Mai heading towards the northern Thai-Myanmar border, which is not far away. Josh is always going on about how much he loves border towns and I think I pretty much agree with him, as they certainly tend to be interesting places where cultures have overtly intermingled for longer than most countries have existed in their current form.

One of the first things we did after we arrived was seek out the area around the large mosque in town to have lunch at a place we’d read about. It’s sometimes easy to forget what a huge minority religion Islam is in Thailand, which otherwise seems so overwhelmingly Buddhist. Northern Thailand inherited Islam from nearby China, and this connection to China is ongoing as evidenced by the design and characters from four different languages on the outside of the mosque. This building would not look out of place in certain parts of China and there are actually a few mosques like this around Chiang Mai as well. It’s in direct contrast to the shape that Islam takes in the south of Thailand, which came from Malaysia. National borders can often be arbitrary and so many cultures exist on a continuum. As I write this I can hear the midday call to prayer and, not surprisingly, it sounds so different here to how it sounds in other parts of the world that I’ve been to.

Darunaman mosque
Darunaman mosque

As for lunch, I heartily recommend the eatery a few doors down from the mosque that is a purveyor of local halal fare. We were famished after the long morning getting here and I happily chowed down the best chicken biryani I’ve had in ages. Aroy maak maak!

Chicken biryani, northern Thai style
Chicken biryani, northern Thai style

The saffron-flavoured rice was light and fluffy (not basmati), and I thought that the accompaniments were actually pretty similar to what you’d get if you order a plate of Vietnamese com tam, which I guess indicates a Southern Chinese influence to this dish. I used to be more of a food purist in my early days but now that I’ve travelled a lot more I’ve had a complete turn around and realise that so many of the best dishes I’ve tasted could be considered ‘fusion’ ones. In the case of Indian food, I definitely prefer the kind that’s been ‘diluted’ by the availability of ingredients in other parts of Asia as it’s a lot lighter to eat. The people who ran the Muslim restaurant clearly had some kind of Eurasian heritage because the woman who took our orders had very bright blue eyes. During lunch, I felt distinctly curious about what languages she could speak and wondered whether her family still spoke some other language at home. Most likely the connection was too distant and there isn’t a big enough population here to sustain another language. As it was, she spoke Thai and Northern Thai, which I guessed and then found out for sure because she laughed when I used two of the four words of Northern Thai I know (i.e. “very delicious”, “twenty” and “good morning”). Given that there’s a good chance we’ll come back here for another weekend trip in future, I’ll make sure I ask her next time. We haven’t had enough time on this trip to visit the famous White Wat nearby; and perhaps even more interesting for me is that there is a town about an hour from here called Mae Salong that is supposed to feel a lot more like a Chinese town, given that a large portion of its population came directly from there in recent times. I’d love to check it out and find out more.

Chinese goods for sale at the local market
Chinese goods for sale at the local market

Places like Chiang Rai suggest that the way some people hold up culture as something sancrosanct that needs to be preserved at all costs, are ignoring large swathes of history and perhaps even stemming a universal tide. But maybe this need to protect one’s perceived culture is part of the human condition? We often think of multiculturalism as being a modern idea but if you look into the past in many countries, they used to be so much more mixed than they currently are. Perhaps it was the rise of the nation state (as being rightful) that also promoted the idea that there were such things as ‘pure’ cultures, which in turn supported the need for borders to be more sharply defined. After moving here last year, it didn’t take me long to realise that Thailand itself is one of these places too, and that it has taken a heck of a lot of nation building to get to where it is. Thais are not just one distinct people with one culture at all! It’s certainly one reason why having a royal family has been so important here. (Interestingly enough, the Chinese influence has come from all sorts of different angles, and even the royal family has Chinese blood in them.)

In the meantime, I’ll keep seeking those spaces between so-called monolithic cultures to delve in. This includes Vietnamese which I’ve increasingly realised has never been one thing to everyone. And thank God for that, because it means that there’s no need for me to continue its traditions just as they are. I’m not saying that some of those traditions aren’t worth keeping, and that there isn’t inherent grace in passing on the celebrations that often have greater value than not. It’s just that my children will have an even less ‘pure’ form of Vietnamese culture that I experienced growing up and it used to seem like a failing that that’s the way it would be, as though this inevitability was a real loss to be mourned. But I don’t feel that way at all anymore. Mostly I just feel like it’s so liberating that I have the freedom to be able to exist in a culture of my own making.

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