Articles

Being Bai Dtong

Zari Havercome, 130 YinD

It has been a year since I wrote Becoming Bai Dtong for Sticky Rice articulating my experience being welcomed by Thailand and finding pride in my Thai nickname, Bai Dtong, meaning banana leaves, has become so close to me, almost as much as my first name, Zari.

I am Bai Dtong, through and through. Everyone who knows me in Thailand knows me by my nickname. When I go to another volunteer’s site there is always a moment of excitement when counterparts say, “Oooh, Bai Dtong!” in recognition over my real name. I feel so loved having made all these positive impressions, and I take pride that I have made all of these relationships. Those bonds have also led to me having a wide variety of experiences worth remembering for lifetimes to come.

An example of this is from last year when I was able to partake in an old Thai tradition, Duan Jawet. In a nutshell, this event celebrates gratitude and homecoming. It speaks of a time of gathering as a community with food and performance in a respected community space. It is over 300 years old and is only celebrated in two places these days: my site, Thungkhok, Suphanburi, and Chaiyaphum City.

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The community is honored with a dance performed by the women and girls of the community, which has included me for the last two years. We performed in the San Pa Boo pavilion that has three prayer structures where Buddhists will offer flowers, incenses, lotus-shaped vessels made of banana leaves as well as water and foods for the respected Buddha and spirits of ancestors. Newlyweds will come home and receive blessings from the male and female monks for their new family.

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My participation encompassed a dance performance and an interview to discuss my perspective of the event as a foreigner. It was a great experience and showed me that my community was proud to call me a community member.

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Immediately after, they started planning my participation for the following year. I could sense the excitement, but had no idea what it was that they had in mind….

Fast forward to this past March when I started dance practice, and I find out that I will be the star of the show. I was taken aback feeling a sense of pressure and apprehension. There is a woman at my site who is excellent and certified as a Thai traditional dancer named Pii (older sister) Jib, and she is who taught my routine. I felt that since she is so masterfully skilled that I could never do this performance justice as she would. I did not want to overstep as a foreigner with my social privilege. She assured me that she wanted me to take on this roll and that we could work together so that I would be great. Boy, did she know what she was doing. We practiced for two months about two or three hours daily. She took me from an awkward robotic dancer to a graceful princess; and I had the crown to prove it.

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The minute that the performance started I felt a very beautiful energy come over me, telling me that I have made a home here. I absolutely fell in love with Thai traditional dancing, or Lam Thai, because of its impeccable attention to detail and grace. I find myself practicing absently or being the first person to join dance lines at other special events like monk ordinations, weddings, and holidays.

I am eternally grateful for this experience and the opportunity to share with volunteers from group 131 upon the request of my community. After the dance, I was mic’d up for my interview, and I was able to share our appreciation for being included. It took months of practice and some sacrifices on my part, but it will forever be a huge part of my service and a testament to my integration.

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I have about nine more months of service, and I look forward to more opportunities to impact my community. It matters that I am here sharing time, food, and memories with my students, co-workers, and my new Thai family members. Being Bai Dtong is quite the privilege.

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Read Zari’s previous articles and contributions, including her prequel to this article, Becoming Bai Dtong.

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