Gif Rakthong

Thailand

Gif Rakthong's portrait
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“I am proud to be Thai.”

“I am proud to be Thai.”

Few interviews had the vulnerability that Gif’s had. She has been graced with ethereal beauty and when we meet her in the expansive garden of her family home in Ashburton, the whole setting lends a romantic and nostalgic feel to our meeting. With her long black hair and delicate features, Gif looks like she has been plucked from a Thai niyai (fairy-tale) and somewhat strangely ended up in Ashburton. We find out later that this is how life seems to her. She is still finding her place while at the same time finding herself. She walks gracefully yet with uncertainty through our community and local cultural norms. She is still coming to terms with being here and at the same time still coming to terms with her own power as a young woman.

We weren’t sure about how this interview would go. Gif had been a willing but very shy participant and to be honest, I think that we arrived for this interview with our ow bias towards her; having taken her at face value. Oh how we were wrong!

Gif came to New Zealand only a few months ago. She tells us that she didn’t really have a choice in the matter; and that if she had had her say, she would have chosen to stay… She spoke absolutely no English when she moved here and she knew absolutely nothing about New Zealand. Lee than a year later, her English has improved slightly; or so she thinks. What she doesn’t seem to realise however is that she is there with us, surrounded by cameras and being asked all these complex and confronting questions…and she is doing great.

Gif really misses home. She tells us about the people and places she left behind, of whom and which she has wonderful memories; her home town, her aunties with whom she was very close and the festivals and street parties that she loved taking part in. She tells us that having fun is a big part of Thai culture and that she thinks that people should learn to eat less and have more fun in New Zealand! We laugh together…Coming from a tropical island where where dance and song are intrinsic expressions of our historical and cultural heritage; I can totally relate. We too in Mauritius have big parties on the beach and often celebrate. Every excuse is good to get the ravannes out and start singing and dancing the sega!

There is one celebration that Gif remembers vividly. It is the Songkran Water Festival, which marks the traditional Thai New Year and is celebrated across the country. She tells us that this festival is very popular with young people. During Songkran, most office buildings, banks as well as family-run shops and restaurants shut down completely. The large business centres experience a mass exodus, as at least half of their inhabitants travel back to their home towns for family re-unions. The streets turn into massive demonstrations of joy and people throw water at one another to wash away the past and welcome the new; clean, fresh and happy. She tells us that in comparison, she finds New Zealand celebrations a bit drab and wonders if it is because of the copious amounts of food that is usually consumed to mark our festivals and events.

Many things about her country of adoption still baffle Gif. One of them in particular I want to share with you. In her broken English yet beautiful choice of words she explains that she felt that her long hair made her stand out against the way that young girls at her school styled theirs. This is something that I can instantly relate to. Standards of beauty and femininity differ greatly from culture to culture and it is not until these cultures are brought together, by chance or circumstance that these differences become visible and new implications arise for the individual. This carries particular weight for young women, as we navigate coming into ourselves in relation to the world around us. During our conversation she tells Vanesa, Petra, Lucy and I that she thought she would give herself some to be more like them. She cut them too short but the real issue was that afterwards she couldn’t identify with this new image. In a laugh she tells us that she instantly regretted her decision. It seems like a trivial matter but when you are already wrestling with some much unfamiliarity, looking at yourself in a mirror and seeing this unfamiliarity reflected back can be incredibly challenging.

It is difficult to write this and it will probably be difficult for some of you to read this but mainstream conversations about feminity usually proceed from the standpoint of the perspectives on the dominant culture. In this context, the experiences of women and young women from “other” cultural backgrounds are often unintentionally conflated. As we embody how we view the world around us, trying to “fit in” as a result, often intrinsically means that we have to, at the same time, lose touch with or just let go of some parts of us that ultimately help make us…

Gif closes her interview in a way that deeply touches me and I think I can speak for Vanesa, Petra and Lucy when I say that spending time with her had a profound effect on us all. She tells us that one day she wants to be an air hostess or a photographer. These two choices strike me as perhaps being expressions of her own desire to explore the world around her now and also understand it in her own terms. She tells us that one day, she wants to go back to Thailand. Like me, like all of us in this project, she shares something that we all feel; like we have a foot here and and the other somewhere else and that we will forever be here and there; wherever these places may be. But deep down, home will always be leave our hearts.