Strangers in a Familiar Land: Negotiating Christian and Thai Identities in Buddhist Thailand

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 15:45
Oral Presentation
James BLUMENSTOCK, Asia Biblical Theological Seminary, Chiang Mai, Thailand
In Thailand, the perspective that “to be Thai is to be Buddhist” pervades everyday social existence, fundamentally defining the unifying essence of community, national, and ethnic self-understandings. Within this contexture, Christian conversion introduces not only the restructuration of personal beliefs and allegiances, but also the displacement of the convert from pre-existing group memberships and social identities. By imbibing the new world of Christian belief and identity, Christian converts concomitantly become members of a socially marginalized sub-group. To cope with life “on the hyphen,” therefore, converts must unravel this presumed interpenetration between Buddhism and Thai national identity while, at the same time, imaginatively reintegrating “Thainess” with “Christianness.”

How exactly this identity negotiation transpires has not been adequately explicated by existing sociological, anthropological, or social psychological theories. While theorizations such as the “marginal man” or the “stranger” have contributed much to our understanding of this phenomenon, up to this point, a thorough description of the “lived” nature of religious identity negotiation in marginalized contexts has received little attention. In this paper, I will present a phenomenological explication of the lived experience of marginalization and its effects on identity (re)formation as arising from religious alternation among Christian converts of Northern Thailand. The descriptions are based on in-depth interviews that were conducted with Christian converts in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and processed utilizing the social science methodology of interpretive phenomenology. I argue that the integration of national and religious identities among Christians in Northern Thailand is negotiated via the convert’s everyday, lifeworld performance and is founded on core personal and social legitimations which provide both meaning and interpretation to that performance. This negotiation process allows converts to re-define the elements of accepted national and ethnic identities such that Christian identity is perceived as not only an acceptable, but possibly even superior, mode of “Thainess.”