Puberty is a big deal in any culture. The body changes, everyone treats you different and that funny feeling in your trousers no longer means you’ve peed yourself.
It’s time to adopt a new identity, a new set of priorities, and if you’re from Los Angeles as I am, a new credit card with a higher spending limit.
Around the world, different cultures approach puberty differently. In some parts of Africa it’s time for a boy to prove he can fight to defend his tribe. Consequently he must face off with a lion and kill it with his bare hands. In Islam, puberty is seen as a time of sexual unfolding. Consequently, the foldable parts are snipped off.
But among the Thai Yai people of Mae Hong Son in Northwestern Thailand, there is a decidedly more gentle approach towards a boy’s first awkward steps into manhood – they put makeup on him, dress him up like a girl and parade him around town on their shoulders for three days while the boy fans himself daintily with a folding fan.
Admittedly, they’re not meant to be dressed like little girls; it just turns out that way. The townspeople assert that the boys are outfitted in the style of the “ancient Burmese kings.” Apparently, the ancient Burmese kings were all outfitted like Cyndi Lauper.
Poi Sang Long is actually something like our western Carnival in that it is a big, colorful, exuberant celebration that precedes a period of austerity. Likewise, after the festival, these young boys are sent to the temple to be ordained as Buddhist monks where they will learn to transcend earthly delights. But not without letting their hair down a little first!
Yet Carnival it is not. Thailand is a conservative society and so naked dancing girls are out of the question. Naked dancing girls are not seen anywhere in Thailand. I myself have not seen naked dancing girls in Thailand quite frequently.
So at Poi Sang Long, the naked dancing girls of Carnival are replaced by the next best thing: hordes of drunken old men with missing teeth singing and dancing like, well, like drunken old men with missing teeth all over the world do: Like skeleton marionettes being electrocuted in a tar pit.
Perhaps as an incitement to the boys, that they might know the joys of adulthood awaiting them, the men all drink rivers of rice wine and then jump up and down in the hot sun while carrying the little kings on their shoulders. The boys do their best not to fall to the ground and crack their heads, else risk mussing their artfully-applied makeup. The men then engage in crazed rounds of drunk drumming. Something had to be done. I joined in to help maintain rhythm and was rewarded with having to carry a chubby kid on my shoulders in the hot sun for a mile.
All this begs the question: What does dressing kids up in drag and screaming your head off while bashing drums and gongs and brain cells have to do with becoming a Buddhist monk?
Very little, in fact. Truth is, it’s a cleverly designed bit of propaganda in which the boys are meant to be treated like royalty for a few days so that when they become monks they will think only good thoughts about their folks, meditate on their souls and thus impress the Buddhist bureaucracy into providing them all the merit they need to secure an air-conditioned tract home in heaven.
Judging by the bored and embarrassed looks on the boys’ faces during the festival, it seems they’ve seen through the charade and would just as well have the whole thing be over with. Nevertheless, there’s a fine line between boredom and coquetry and the result is that the attitude enhances the illusion that they are in fact little girls. It’s a testament to the gentle nature of the Thai Yai that they celebrate a man’s coming of age this way, and also that the boys don’t get the crap kicked out of them by the older kids in town.
So what can we learn from all this? Gender-specific behavior is varied among different populations? Puberty rites are dictated by the imperatives of the cultures that celebrate them? Dancing while drunk with a ten year old transvestite on your shoulders is not a necessary cause for alarm?
I, for one, learned this: If you’re going to dance around while bouncing a little kid up and down on the back of your neck, make sure he’s used the toilet recently.