That is a real tribe name, honest.
I people watch a lot. I always have done. When I was a child I was very shy and I still feel like that anxious child relatively often. So I watch and I listen. And I learn. I’ve visited a few hill tribes recently and in Northern Thailand you can tell instantly which tribe someone is from because their dress and behaviour is utterly distinctive. It started me thinking about the academic study of tribes. There is a notion that western culture has destroyed the idea of tribes based around blood and geography but rebuilt them based around shared belief systems: musical, artistic, pastimes, politics and so forth. While the glue that binds these tribes together is very different, the idea of dressing in a specific way in order to communicate your membership of a particular tribe is one that appears to be close to universal in human experience.
I’ve become a bit obsessed by this whilst in Thailand. If I wanted to integrate with the Thais in terms of my dress, I would wear jeans and heavy cotton t-shirts and some branded sports footwear: exactly as I would wear at home. Few modern Thais wear traditional dress; you will definitely see more Thai clothing on Westerners than you will on Thais. I was told a story once about a taxi driver in India asking why Westerners insisted on dressing like Victoria era Indians – for the taxi driver the concept of eagerly buying old-fashioned and shoddily constructed clothing was ridiculous. Imagine Indians arriving in the UK and instantly buying bowler hats, pin-stripe suits and umbrellas, except it too would be a poor facsimile of the real thing: maybe a thin paper bowler hat and a t-shirt with a print of a shirt and tie on it. And paper shoes that go over your sandals. It would be almost right, but not really. And we would laugh at them, as the Thais may at us.
I think that most travellers would cite practical reasons for wearing traditional clothing: it’s cooler in the heat, it’s cheap and light, it dries quickly etc. etc. But I think the more important reason is tribal in nature, it sends a signal about the sort of person you want people to think you are.
I often feel anxious that I’m not part of a specific tribe when I’m travelling. I’m under the illusion that I’m one of the few people travelling that doesn’t conform fully to a tribe – for I am my own tribe, obviously. Of course, most people claim that they are gloriously individual, free-spirited and in charge of their own destinies. Me? I’d like to just conform and be part of a group. At least that’s what I think I want. But I can’t find or at least I can’t define what that group is.
I love the hippy travellers, but I’m just too damn cynical: everything isn’t cool, not everyone is nice and yes I’m probably less happy for having such negative thoughts. I like to go out dancing and partying, but not every night and more importantly I’m just not manly enough to fit in with that crowd, where men are blokes and girls are birds; I’m sorry I’m just not interested in football. I love the adventurers, the people who are out discovering new trails and villages, who learn the language, who keep off the beaten track and stay in mud huts with the hill tribes, but I DO like a bit of luxury. Air con I can do without, but my own bathroom? I want that. So I look at the people who I feel have it sorted – ‘this is who I am, this what I wear, this is what I do’ etc. – and I get jealous. Because I always feel like an outsider: a non-conformist. But that’s not right: I’m not a non-conformist I’m a multi-conformist; a pluralist; a sit-on-the-fencer. This is a problem (just ask the Liberal Democrats).
People are drawn to like-minded people, so if your clothing or behaviour sends out mixed messages, then it becomes harder to find social acceptance. Of course, a quick conversation can do wonders in breaking down ‘tribal’ assumptions, but how many ‘get to know you’ conversations can you have in a day? I was thinking of printing a fact sheet with my name, where I’m from, how long I’ve been in Thailand, where I’m going next etc. so I can just hand it out to people. But that betrays the fact that I’ve always been uncomfortable with small talk, which is more about communication and ritual than it is about actual ‘information’.
The one thing that seems to unite people who (I assume) are part of specific traveller tribes is that they are completely oblivious to the concept of ‘tribes’ and being part of one: they just do their thing, it just so happens that they do it with a bunch of likeminded people. This is my problem: I’m so self-consciously fascinated by social behaviour, communication and interaction – particularly the use of clothes (among other lifestyle choices) as shorthand ways of communicating underlying belief systems and personality traits – that I find myself caught awkwardly between tribes. Which is not to so that I’m in the midst of some sort of tribal exchange programme; or that my tribe has dumped me; or that I’ve been made redundant by my tribe (‘Yeah, I’m between tribes at the moment actually’). It means that I send a number of mixed messages through both my clothing and my social demeanour that confuses even me as to who I align myself with.
I have a rule, for example, that is quite strict; yet I had never told anyone it till last week. It is: I can wear a hippy top, I can wear some hippy trousers (fisherman’s pants etc.), I can wear a bandana but I can wear only one of those at any one time. I am currently wearing a floaty white hippy top, with some urban camouflage shorts. Yesterday I wore some dark blue long fisherman’s pants, but I wore them with a very western black vest. I have some excellent bright orange low crotch Thai trousers that I love, but I’ve never worn them outside my room. I know, I know: I have issues. I need to just get on and do my thing and not worry about ‘tribes’, but it’s hard to observe human nature (for the purposes of writing fiction) without taking your observations on board. So I listen and I observe, and I try to position myself in between all of the tribes, conscious that in doing so I’m separating myself from all of them. Perhaps that it the place of the ‘artist’ anyway: to sit at a distance and self-consciously observe, note, analyse and dissect. If this is true then I am indeed an artist.