After our lunch of southern style dishes, Tawn and I did some shopping at Bangkok’s famous Chatuchak Weekend Market. With thousands of stalls and vendors, you can find most anything for sale and the people-watching is entertaining, too. Along the way, I stumbled across some disturbing signs: swastikas.
First off, some of the interesting sights. We encountered this cute Jack Russell terrier who was dressed in full kit including shoes. He was nearly as stylish as his owner!
We also encountered a fortune teller (in the bandana) who was giving a reading to the young man in the (potentially offensive – sorry) black shirt. Based on the shirt’s message, I can only imagine what questions he is trying to have answered about his future.
Actually, as an aside, his shirt is an example of something I see often here in Thailand: Thais wearing shirts with English language messages that would broadly be seen as offensive or not particularly appropriate for wearing in public in an English-speaking country. I always wonder to what extent the wearers understand the message and its meaning. Would they wear the equivalent message if it was in Thai?
Which brings me to the swastikas.
In a number of shops, I encountered buttons, t-shirts, and other items that featured swastikas. Now, the swastika has a history that extends back a few thousand years before the Nazis came along and appropriated it. Even in contemporary Buddhism, you see the swastika as a sacred symbol. I feel comfortable, though, concluding that the use of the swastikas in this commercial context was not religious, but was meant to evoke the perceived “revolutionary” feel of the Nazis. Witness the Mao Zhe Dong buttons as a similar “statement”.
This sighting of swastikas brought to mind an incident from September, when a private Roman Catholic school in Chiang Mai (in northern Thailand), had a sports day in which a group of students dressed in a Nazi theme and marched carrying swastika banners and wearing swastika arm bands.
There was widespread outrage and several foreign consulates as well as the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles denounced the event, citing it as insensitive and inappropriate. The school authorities, no surprise, claimed they had not been aware of the students’ plans, even though their protestations seemed a bit thin.
What followed (before the floods) was a lot of discourse about how poor the Thai education system is and how the teachers and administrators had failed to educate their students. There were others who pointed out that students in western countries are often just as unaware of similarly significant events in Asia’s history and are sometimes even equally unaware of the details of the Holocaust.
I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon and denounce the students or the teachers. There has been enough said to that effect already. Suffice it to say that I was disturbed that in a short period of time, I saw several signs that the history of the Nazis and the Holocaust is not very well appreciated by some people in Thailand and the symbols of that history are seen as benign fashion statements.
There are probably countless examples in other countries where locals appropriate words and symbols from other languages, cultures, and countries, without fully understanding what the meanings are, sometimes causing offense. I guess that more than anything, this is a reminder that we need to be aware when we adopt things, whether they are words or symbols, that are not originally our own. Meanings are not universal and it is easy to be insensitive to others’ feelings.