Cultural Identity in Thailand

Chai Lai Orchid guides Nukul and Golo On Being Karen In Thailand

By Kayla Gill

Cultural identity is powerful.  It’s important on a personal level for our sense of identity, security, and confidence. On a social level, it helps to preserve culture, history, and community.

In indigenous communities, cultural identity is especially vital as modernization encroaches on the traditional way of life.  We believe there’s invaluable knowledge to be gained from indigenous wisdom and practices.  That knowledge is important for the health of our society in the face of globalization, and the preservation of ethnic minority peoples, languages and traditions.  

We sat down with Nukul and Golo of Chai Lai Sisters to talk about the role of Karen cultural identity, how Karen communities are changing with the times and what they think the future has in store.  

Nukul and 2 elephants she has rescued
Nukul and two elephants she has rescued

Who are you and where are you from?

Golo – I am from Chiang Mai Thailand, from a village called Pe Lai Khi.  My family is from Thailand.  My grandfather is from Karen State in Burma.  

Nukul – I’m from the same village as Golo.  My ancestors came from Karen State.  

G – A long time ago, our people came from Mongolia to Southern China, to Karen State, to Thailand, because they were fleeing war. We were here before there was a border between Thailand and Burma.  We were just looking for a home with peace, water, and land.

What does Karen culture mean to you?

G – The word Karen means human.  Karen culture means to make everything easy – being human is not difficult.  When I think of Karen culture, I think about peace and solitude.  The Karen tribe does not want conflict, they want to be quiet and peaceful.    

N – Karen people like things easy, not busy like in the city.  They want to stay in the jungle and have an easy life, not a life where everything is scheduled.  

How do you feel your culture is changing? 

G – The costume is changing.  Karen women used to wear a lot of big earrings, necklaces, and heavy jewelry.

N – Karen women used to think their bodies were beautiful.  Now we don’t feel that way.  We want to look like Thai people.

G –The way of life is also changing.  Now, not many people want to be farmers.  It’s sometimes necessary for us to change, or we won’t have a place to live.  The religion is also changing.  Before we didn’t have Catholicism or Buddhism.  We believed in the moon, sun, jungle, fish, buffalo – we have 66 spirits.  We used to respect the birth cycles of fish by not fishing in the river during certain times of the year. We’ve already lost some of our culture.  

N – Karen people (converted to religion because they) can believe in things easily because their hearts are easy.

G – Also education.  Before we used to study not by books, but by memorizing and learning directly by doing weaving, etc.  Wisdom was passed from our grandmothers to our mothers to us. 

N – When I was young I used to remember many stories my grandmother taught me, but now I have forgotten them all. 

G – We use songs to tell stories. Most people start with the story of the lazy man.  Another famous story is the one of the girl and the tiger.  The tiger can speak, the bird can speak – when we were young we were so impressed by these stories.  

N – My father used to tell stories to me every night.  This helped me learn in school and improve my memory.  Now when my baby goes to sleep with my family, my father just looks at his phone.  Before we all had smart phones and TV, we spent a lot of time near each other and talking together.  Not, people want to watch TV more than they want to talk to their family. 

Golo in a bamboo Karen house
Golo in a bamboo Karen house

Has being Karen presented you with more or fewer opportunities? 

G – Sometimes more, sometimes less.  We have more opportunity when people from outside the country come to help us.  We can also help ourselves.  Not by studying, but by doing things ourselves.  We can find food for ourselves.  We don’t have a lot of power to do things with money because our culture doesn’t care a lot about money.  If we want something, we can forage it from the forest.  If we want rice, we can take care of the land.  Now, if you want to get hired by a company you have to speak perfect Thai.  Some words are difficult for us to pronounce. 

Do you think you’re accepted in Thai culture?

G – Thai people think we’re refugees, not really Thai. 

N – They think we’re just refugees who come from the mountain, don’t know anything, are stupid and poor.

G – Some people say we’re dirty and that we have small houses. But sometimes money makes you tired because you’re spending all your time making and spending money.  In Karen culture, we know you can travel inside, not outside.  Meaning, you can do something for yourself.  You can find food and cook it yourself.

N – The first time I went to the city I thought it would be easy like the jungle – if you’re a good person, you can do anything.  On the mountain, everyone is family.  We can eat together at anyone’s house.  But if you go to the city you have to pay for yourself. Sometimes it’s really difficult.  If we want to go to the city, we have to pay.  In the jungle, we can carpool for free together anywhere we want to go – if we’re heading in the same direction, we’ll ride with each other.  But Thai people think we are poor, that this means we have only one car for our village.  

Before, Karen people didn’t have last names in Thailand, but now we need ID cards to access our rights, school, and hospitals. My dad talked to my grandfather and they decided our family’s last name would be Cholobo so that everywhere I go people would know I was Karen. I was mad when I went to school because everyone said my name didn’t have meaning because I am from the jungle. I gave my son a Thai last name.

Normally Karen people are shy.  Before I came to study I was very shy, but when we have the education we don’t have to be so shy.  Going to school gave me the experience of trying new things.  Having to speak in front of people over and over again made me less shy.

G – I remember in class we had to introduce ourselves, Nukul and I would always be nervous and fidgeting.  Because we didn’t have confidence because we didn’t know how to speak Thai and had to speak in front of strangers.

Do people perceive you as Thai or Karen?

G – People know we’re Karen.  If I go to the mall wearing a Karen shirt, I will get looks. 

N – Sometimes when I go to the city, I feel awkward when I go to a restaurant or a supermarket like everyone will look at me weird for how I eat.  

We’ve seen other Thai-born Karen people look down on Burmese-Karen people because of their legal status.  But we’ve heard you express that you feel they have more Karen cultural knowledge than you. What are your thoughts on this? 

G – I feel like I should learn more Karen language.  Some Burmese Karen people use words we don’t know, because we’ve already lost some of our language from living in Thailand.  Sometimes when my Burmese friends use words I don’t understand, it frustrates me because we’re both Karen and we should understand each other.

N – It’s easy for us to learn new Thai words, and we forget Karen words.  Before, my grandparents used to speak like Burmese Karen people, but since living in Thailand for so many generations, it’s changed. 

G – I feel like Burmese Karen people have more knowledge than me.  

How do you feel Thai people treat Burmese-Karen people? 

N – They don’t like that they can’t speak Thai.  They think they are just Burmese, not Karen.  They think they don’t belong in Thailand.

What do you think the future will be like for the next generation of Karen people?

G – I think the Thai Karen will lose their culture, but the Burmese Karen will help us preserve it.  I want Thai Karen to learn more.  We are afraid the Burmese Karen will not have land anymore because the Karen in Burma is being displaced by armed conflict.

What can we do?

G – I have to start with myself, and Nukul, then people around me. 

N – Everyone who is Karen needs to talk about our culture.  

G – I want to make a Karen cultural center.  Once a month we can ask children to come to learn about Karen culture and decide for themselves if they want to accept it.

What do you want to change?

N – We want to change one thing about our culture– We don’t think Karen people should be so shy.  We should be proud of ourselves. We homestays in our villages so other people can enjoy our way of life. 

G – It’s good to remember that we don’t know everything.  That’s how we learn new ideas.  When people meet me and we have a good interaction and then they realize I’m Karen, it helps to open their minds.  I can help people like that.

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