Whilst I cannot claim to be any kind of expert on Thai or Karen life, it did not take much time here to realise that there are some profound differences between family life here and that in the UK.
For starters, my family consists of grandparents and young children. The generation linking the two is missing, completely. And although this may happen in the UK, it is not the norm, whereas here in the village, it is more common than any other family setup.
An entire generation being raised by their grandparents.
Albeit a lot of these grandparents are the age of many parents in the UK, often only in their mid-forties. I was nevertheless surprised to find such a huge age gap – an entire generation simply missing from their communities because they are away working in city, usually Chiang Mai, sometimes Bangkok.
Chiang Mai, though the nearest big city, is over 250km away and takes at least 4 and a half hours and several hundred Baht (around £5) per journey. It is therefore almost completely impractical for most parents to return on any regular basis. Some seem not to return at all once they have dropped their children off with grandparents.
From an outsiders’ perspective, it is difficult to distinguish between Thai custom and Karen custom, as in the community in which I live, much of it is blurred, and all of it is foreign to me.
However, I cannot help but feel that much of life here is a collection of dichotomies, extremes held together by threads as strong and invisible as spiders’ web.
It is Thai Buddhist belief that children are indebted to their parents for bringing them into the world. As such they ought to repay their parents for this in their twenties. Many men repay them spiritually, joining a monastery for some years which earns spiritual blessings for them and their entire family. Women, who are not able to be monks, often support their parents financially. And whilst Karen people are not Buddhist, this attitude has certainly influenced their own cultures and traditions.
In stark contrast then there are the children who give birth to children of their own in the city and then thrust them upon their parents in their villages to bring up. I am under the impression that many are left with little alternative. Working conditions in the city often do not allow for a family and, as in most countries around the world, the villages offer little in the way of job opportunity. Some send money back to their parents for their children, it seems others do not.
Though Thai pop songs mirror Western culture and are obsessed with love and (in)fidelity, it seems people here have a more pragmatic approach to marriage. Often people marry in order to start a family, for company or simply for security. This last one becomes particularly important in a country with little or no social security (at least from what I understand). It is not uncommon for people to be married within a few months of deciding to do so and meeting their partner. Having said this, many people seem to live with their boyfriends/partners without marrying.
Infidelity seems to be common, particularly among Thai men. It is no doubt gossiped about but generally everybody seems to turn a blind eye. It also appears to be the same with regard alcoholism and domestic violence. Sometimes it is difficult to exist in a place in which people will talk so openly about these things, and yet little, if anything, is done to change them.
Having said that, sometimes people do leave their spouses. Single mothers are not as uncommon as you may think. It seems many women leave their drunken husbands, or are left by them. However, whether they were born in wedlock or not, women with children already seem to be able to count on being single for the rest of their lives. Thai men, as a general rule, do not want the responsibility of another man’s child and thus will not consider a woman with children already.
All of this sounds very negative, and I have had moments when it has seemed that way, but of course it is not really like that at all. The community I live in is still made up of many families living side by side. Sisters, now grandparents both looking after their children’s children wander in and out of each others houses. They share such as implements as nail clippers and cotton buds and once a week they gather on each others’ porches to inspect their childrens’ toes and fingers, ears and eyes and so on.
Of course, a few observations over a couple of months in a small place cannot possibly define family life here. More than anything I have realised that so called “social problems” exist the world over, but despite it all, somehow families tie us together in unique ways.