Seeking lessons from parallel experiences

As readers may recall from my last week’s column, I’m currently studying abroad for one month in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I am attending the local university. It’s been quite an adjustment, but I’ve realized there are many similarities between my homeland of Nevada and the economy and social mores of Thailand.

One big lesson and moment of perspective hit home with me this past week. Several of my friends in the program and I decided to take a day trip to the northern city of Chiang Rai, where we saw the White Temple and the Golden Triangle where Burma, Laos and Thailand all meet. On a snap decision, we also decided to visit a village of the Kayan tribe, a subset of the Karen people known for their long, extended necks that come as a result of wearing gold bands that push down on their collarbones. The Kayan tribe essentially moved to Thailand to escape persecution and conflict in Burma and many female tribe members spend time with tourists as a way to bring in extra money. What we thought would be a fun excursion to experience a unique culture turned out to be little more than a human zoo, where the Kayan people live in poverty and try to sell woven goods to visitors and the “longneck” women take pictures. Small children begged us for spare baht, and stray dogs scrapped in the dirt. Down the road, the male villagers were setting up a cockfight for sport. My American compatriots and I left with a bad taste in our mouths, as though we had invaded and pillaged a culture, and for what? For the thrill of saying we had been there.

Once we returned, however, I tried to learn more about the situation of the Kayan people and the other hill tribes that live in Thailand. They are generally regarded as having a very low social status in Thailand, and they tend to go without electricity or plumbing. The hill tribe population is steadily declining as forest cover becomes less abundant, and modernization and integration into mainstream Thai society is a favorable option as long as the tribe members can be recognized as Thai citizens.

The situation of the hill tribes in Thailand reminded me of an experience I had last year when visiting the Reno Sparks Indian Colony for a language lesson in speaking Washo. When I arrived at the portable-style building, I wasn’t prepared for the humble setting or the somewhat wary way in which the Native Americans spoke to me. Being there made me feel like I was taking advantage of their kindness and using their culture for personal gain.

Reservation life is not an easy one, as studies show high rates of alcoholism and low socioeconomic conditions. There is the question of access to resources and the cost of restitution for past harms. In Thailand, the unemployment rate is less than one percent, as the country’s economy is booming in terms of exports and tourism. It is easy to find work, and there is access to equal education for students. Therefore, it can be somewhat difficult to feel empathy for a group of people who actively reject mainstream living and choose paucity for the sake of tradition. While the situation is different for Native Americans, who were the victims of genocide, forced cultural assimilation and language death, there is still the question of what more can be done.

I’m not out to solve the problem of the systemic disadvantage of indigenous persons in one column, but I have to wonder how it is that even with an abundance of programs and opportunities, the conditions aren’t better. Is economic growth something that can be externally fostered? Does it have to come from the inside? Or are both essential for prosperity?