About a year ago I was working on my Bachelor’s thesis about representations of translocality in the city of Cologne. Strictly speaking I was investigating how native citizens of Cologne (with German nationality) are understanding, interpreting, and assessing foreign representations in their daily streetscape. I did this using the example of Thai restaurants (as well as fast food restaurants) and Thai massage shops, which I took photos from to be used while interviewing people. The results of my investigation were manifold, reaching from almost expected ones (e.g. without symbolic references, a place will not be perceived as “Thai“) to results that I would not have guessed right away (e.g. differences in the assessment of representations depend on the pre-existence of travel experiences and the practice of “othering“ in this context or the impact of other spatial scales for the process of assessment).
I was very lucky to be given the chance to visit Thailand shortly after finishing my thesis through an internship at an NGO in the “northern metropolis” of Chiang Mai. Although this internship was not especially focused on the international migration processes, it definitely gave me some good insights into Thai culture and mentality. In this sense, it put me in the position of a changed perspective which allowed me to catch a glimpse of the fuller picture in this field of negotiation, interpretation, and anticipation of culture and its revelations in a Thai context.
During my leisurely trips to the quite touristy city center I noticed the impressions “farangs“ (or Westerners) give about their own culture, of how they sometimes (intentionally or not) preform their own cultural “packaging,” creating images of their home countries. This, in turn, I found to be observed by many Thais and which was then rebundled and used to make a living.
I will give you a little story as an example:
I befriended some women who ran a guesthouse in the “square”, the touristic epicenter of Chaing Mai. One woman, Noyna, is married to a “farang” who lives in London. She is the one in charge of the guesthouse which is partly owned by her husband and equipped with staff mostly from her own family (cousins etc.). Nooch (Noyna’s Cousin) is in charge of the business during the months of the year she regularly spends in London with her husband. As I booked a room at this particular guesthouse, I kept asking myself what made this place so appealing to me? And, in addition to this: What made it so appealing for many “farangs” who often returned and/or stayed there for quite some time? Because if you looked at it, quite frankly, it was neither the cheapest, the most “trendy“, the most cozy or the most promoted of places around, nor was its location somewhere special (eg. at one of the channels) or had an especially nice view.
My guess about this is that answer lays in the “transnational life” Noyna is living, her gained intercultural competence which she perceived as an advantage and actively tried to pass on to her staff. To speak with the vocabulary of Bourdieu, the enlarged cultural as well as (and especially) the social capital she diversified, facilitated the creation of a (translocal) place like this guesthouse. One example of this would be the emphasis of cultural differences where they contribute to a relaxed feeling of being abroad paired up with the very deliberate rejection of them in situations where they might seem to be “too risky” for the “farang” (eg. everything that had to do with flights and so on). Another one dealt with “cultural performance,” e.g. in the way that the guests were approached in a quite informal way (rather than a shy or obedient manner).
This last point seems especially interesting to me since in my Bachelor’s thesis I came to the conclusion that cultural performance is assessed differently in the context of the “home” (Cologne) and “abroad” (Thailand). It is only through more travel, experiences, and connections that I will start to learn my own meanings of “home” and “abroad.”
Images: Massage shop in Cologne (left) and Chiang Mai (right), Thai restaurant in Cologne (left) and lady selling food in Thailand (right).
Image Credits: Anja Lamche (both lefts), and Esme Vos and Serra Boten (both under CC BY 2.0)