It isn’t as straightforward as you think to tell the gender of skeletons, ancient or contemporary. Wide hips do not always equal woman, then or now. We have no idea how Ban Chiang people thought of gender, really, and if we look at bones through a binarist, essentialist lense, we will see (and tell) a simplistic story.
9 Things About Thailand
This grew out of a longer piece of, er, short fiction I began working on last year, set in the area and approximate historical era now known as Ban Chiang in Northeast Thailand.
This was a Thailand before Tai people, Brahmanism or Buddhism. The inhabitants were likely Mon-speaking peoples, an ethnic group who were the earliest to settle in Southeast Asia. I read basically all of the available literature on the University of Pennsylvania website in an attempt to get enough information for a short fiction setting, but I still didn’t feel confident. (Maybe one day…)
Ancient Ban Chiang people are argued to have practised residential burial. That is, the bones of their ancestors were buried within their homes. As life went on, people would shift the locations of their homes, and would set up house above someone else’s ancestors, like musical chairs but with dirt layers and corpses. I’ve heard the modern inhabitants of the Ban Chiang site would be spooked when they occasionally unearthed human bones by their houses.
Pretty much all the items mentioned in the poem were actually found at the ancient site. You begin to see how this civilisation thrived–the haematite used for some of the famed Ban Chiang pottery wasn’t found locally, nor were certain metals they used in their tools and jewellery, so they likely traded for it.
I’ve never been to Ban Chiang specifically, but I’d very much like to. I’ve been to various parts of the Khorat countryside, since that’s where all my mother’s family come from, and it’s a beautiful place. Maybe you think, since it’s remote, inhabitants of the countryside are isolated and low-technology. That’s really not the case. Not to downplay relative economic hardship, but in some rural areas people definitely have TV, electric rice cookers, and 4G internet for their smartphones, and would probably be confused if you expressed wonderment at this. (And if that’s what rural life is like, imagine what it’s like in the heart of Thailand’s many bustling cities.)
(Let’s be clear for a second that access to certain electronics doesn’t mean access to all other tangible/intangible privileges and absolutely everyone deserves clean water, healthcare, education, and not to be occupied by foreign forces, ok? Ok. Good.)
It’s wrong and boring to write a static Thailand, charmingly backwards and worthy of tourism and feel-good charity without any regard for the people who live there each day, a Thailand there to be stared at or rescued. I wanted to write about small everyday moments similar to what I briefly live when I get the chance to visit. Let’s be real: I’m a Westerner, my passport, life experience, privilege, and ignorance say so. I’m also Thai, a gift from my parents, which I want to honour.
I’m tired of depictions of LGBTQ Thai people as punchlines or villains, their gender and sexual identities described through a reductive Western lense. Please. Here’s a hint: if you describe a gender identity in the same way as Alan Partridge, you’re doing it wrong.
There is, as with any other country in the world, a strain of conservative thinking which leads some people to think queerness is a “sin,” and certainly there’s a level of structural oppression. But sometimes people live as their true selves despite emotional and material difficulties; being blessed with loving families helps. That should be the norm. It isn’t, but I still wanted to write a series of short, bright, queer moments. If you think ‘Uhhh how the f do you know that Ban Chiang is full of queer families’—I don’t. But I’ve written what I know and what I imagine, and it just seems so silly and obvious to say it, but myself, my friends, and my parents’ friend are queer, and it’s not that big a deal in our social circle. And is it any less believable than ghosts chatting to you? Hmm? Ok.