Return of the Rings

Please read our previous blog post, Meeting Malu, before you read this one as it is the beginning of the story.

School holidays had already begun and we waited a few weeks before heading up to Baan Thong Luang village. We had a busy week ahead of us booked, including a Mae Sa workshop, so we decided to visit the village early one morning without customers. As we arrived we had the normal friendly string of conversations with people as we walked amongst the traditionally constructed homes, making our way up to Malu’s house.

She was there on the porch with her father, brother and little sister, having just arrived home the night before. Her mother was away visiting family in Myanmar. We chatted together a while and gave them photos we’d taken of their family and friends when we’d visited their ancestral village in February. Of course by now they had heard we’d been there and it was fun to share with them of the wonderful experience we’d had. Malu’s dad casually mentioned they would be putting her neck rings back on soon and we were welcome to photograph and video the procedure.

Our timing again was wonderful. The previous occasion we’d seen Malu was the day she left to go to school in Mae Hong Son. If we’d visited a day or two before or after, or even arrived half an hour later, we would have missed seeing her. Now, here we were again to see her have the rings put back on.

I had assumed Malu would spend her summer holidays at Baan Thon Luang without the rings. I figured it would be too much hassle to put them on for a short time and that Malu was probably enjoying some freedom from them. It can be difficult to understand or know the ways of another culture at times, especially since, being a New Zealander, we have no deep historic culture of our own to relate it to.

Observing Malu as the old grandma carefully wrapped the coil around this little girl’s neck was an amazing expedience. Not so much because of what they were doing, but because of Malu’s total acceptance of the process being as normal as getting a hair cut. She stood there unflinching, even as a few times the old lady slipped a little and the end of the coil pressed into her neck. It took about 25 minutes. The whole time Malu stood quietly without so much as a single grimace. Once the rings were on, she reached up and behind to feel them and then cheerfully skipped back to her house to put her traditional head scarf on.

In the west our customs have included many body altering discomforts, usually associated with vanity. Piercings and corsets being some of the older ones and now days with breast implants and all manner of painful plastic surgery and gender reassignment which are becoming more widely practiced, not to forget the wearing of balance and gravity defying stiletto heels! I’ve read and heard too much criticism and judgment of the ‘barbaric’ practices of other cultures, usually by Westerners who have a shallow experience of culture and perceive customs such as the wearing of neck rings to be oppressively enforced. I was thinking about these things as we watched Malu stand so patiently stand as the grandma skillfully adorned her. I was impressed at the lack of wriggling, total absence of any complaint or attitude and her comfortable acceptance as if it were just part of getting dressed for the day. Come to think of it, having her hair cut very short at school was most likely more difficult for her – her mother has never had her hair cut, as per their tradition.

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