Ashley Dezen, 126
The people of Thailand like to think of themselves as having common history. As many of us know though, Thailand is filled with ethnic minorities who have held onto their own traditions. I am lucky enough to live in an area that is 90% Tai Dam, which I didn’t think too much of when I first arrived. The longer I was here though, the more I realized how unique my village is. My Nayoke and Tessaban have done a great deal of work in the last few years to further preserve the Tai Dam culture, which has been really fun to see.
My first clue to this being a different culture was the sudden and abrupt shift in language. In my Tessaban and many of my schools, teachers are from outside the community and we speak Central Thai. In my village itself, when I moved here I realized that I couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying. At first I chalked it up to my shitty Thai skills, but then I asked my host family about it. “Oh yeah,” they said, “everyone speaks Tai Dam here. In the next village over they speak Tai Puan.” They shrugged and I felt relieved.
Every year in the week before Songkran, my village hosts a Tai Dam festival. This past spring we had TWO. People travel from all over the country to take part in two nights of eating, dancing, singing, and storytelling.
This year, along with the traditional dancing and singing, they put together a storytelling portion which was truly wonderful to listen to! From what I understood the Tai Dam culture began in China near the border. In the mid 1900’s the French began to lose control of the colonies in Southeast Asia and for various reasons the Tai Dam were forced to flee. They split into groups with some going to Laos, some following the Menam River into Thailand, and some following the Black River into North Vietnam (guess who did that?). Many of those who fled became political refugees, and following the Vietnam War 90% of them moved to Iowa due to an offer of amnesty by the state governor. There were also those who settled into pockets throughout Central Thailand, including my community in Phairob.
The Tai Dam culture is very similar to Thailand’s, but whenever I tell Thai’s that I live in Phairob they immediately tell me how special and unique it is. The Thais often remark on the language and also comment on how tight of a community they have. Indeed, in reading about the Tai Dam culture this closeness is emphasized over and over.
Video of a Tai Dam dance during a cultural festival.