The Hilltribe people of Thailand: Akha, Karen, Hmong, Lahu, Lisu, Mien, etc. have a long and interesting history that has been fraught with difficulty. There are a lot of social justice programs out there now that are working to help these people groups get back on their feet. The real trick though is how to help them find an education, jobs and fulfillment without raping the culture. A lot of people would love to believe that the problem only exists externally. That EVIL WHITES have come in and sold these innocent folks an empty bill of goods. Sadly, it's not that simple if it were then it would be simple to fix. The reality is that the Hilltribe people are no better than any of us. They want their children's lives to be different than their own. They have lived in almost pre-historic poverty for centuries, ravaged by drugs, domestic violence, a complete lack of human rights for women and children and no medical care. Within the last 50 years they have seen the widespread advent of all of these concepts in their region. These are not a selfish, grasping people desperate for microwaves and plastics. Many of the people we work with come down out of the village and leave their tribal lifestyle behind to work a city job so their daughters won't be sold away.
So the question remains, "In the face of so many rapid changes how can we, the people working to support this culture, help them face new challenges and maintain a connection with the old ways?" Let me explain how we are attempting to do it at our girl's home.
Almost all of our staff are Akha. Our girls are all taught akha dances, the Akha language, given full Akha ceremonial costumes and we prepare both Akha and Thai food. It is important to us that we make them feel good about who they are. In a world full of racism, (and in Thailand being a tribal person is not considered a good thing by the wider majority) we help them celebrate who they are. After all, if they don't feel good about who they are at home, then how can they feel good about who they are when they're not at home? We also want to make sure they are all capable of furthering what is proud about their Akha heritage. These things must not be lost. So many of the tribal cultures, from every continent all around the world, are losing their young people and their traditions every day.
I watched our girls proudly perform an Akha dance during our Christmas celebration. I heard them singing in Akha all over campus. I watched them getting dressed in their Akha ceremonial outfits. I heard them tell each other, "You look beautiful!" At some point in their lives, they will all face racism for being a tribal woman. This is a hard fact of Thai culture. But it is getting better every day and we are raising strong, independent, women who feel good about who they are.
How are we doing it? Through language, food, culture, role models and honest discussions about race. So I remind myself once again, "If it's important at a group home then how much more important is it in my home?" Brian and I have always intended to focus a great deal of effort on these things in raising our children but I return from Thailand with renewed zeal for the culture and language of our children, which will become the culture and language of our family.