The new fad among some relatively young female Chinese tourists to Thailand for dressing like Thai school girls in uniform perplexed many Thais, including the local media which claim it is Thailand’s new soft power.
BBC Thai-language news service was among the local media reporting about it. It interviewed a 36-year-old female Chinese tourist on why she likes the uniform, and the answer was she feels young again and “wearing Thai school uniform made me feel pure.”
Her answer says a lot about how tourists have a strong tendency to idealize, or at least stereotype, the host country and culture. It is well-known in Thailand that there is a persistent movement among male and female school students in calling for the abolition of school uniforms as they regard them as a symbol of coercion, lack of free will, and a straight-jacket society.
That is not how the Chinese tourists see these Thai school uniforms, however. As a tourist, you can choose to idealize certain cultural artifacts of the host society whichever way you like. When you are a tourist, the penchant is for an idealized and stereotyped version of the society you are visiting.
This is simply because most people spend time and money to travel and visit another country to have a good time and relax so they more often than not see things through pink-tinted lenses. (There are also those who see things in the host society with exaggerated negativity and distrust, such as some westerners strongly believe all Thai cab drivers will try to cheat them, but it can also be argued that both ends of the spectrum still constitute a form of stereotype nonetheless.)
Think about Paris syndrome as another example. Some Japanese tourists who flock to Paris suffer from Paris syndrome because they have painted an idealized image of Paris as arguably the most romantic and civilized city in the Western world. When they were met with rude waiters, dog manure, olfactory of canine urine, relatively dirty metro that comes with pick pocketers as fellow commuters, moody Parisians, and suddenly it was beyond culture shock and threw them into a state of disillusionment and trauma.
Back to Thailand, we do selectively appropriate many aspects of foreign cultures and artifacts as well. Some (increasingly old) Thais enjoy dressing up like cowboys from hat to boot and indulge in American country music. To them, the history of American oppression against native Americans in the Wild West is irrelevant – they selectively imagine themselves as cool cowboys and do not associate their cosplay with any guilt related to American historical oppression against native Americans.
Many younger Thais meanwhile adore all things K-pop and by extension South Korean society, but too little is being discussed about the fact that women, and particularly LGBTQ people, continue to face substantial discrimination, making the society far from its idealized version often perceived by young Thais or portrayed by mainstream K-pop industry.
Like a heavily edited or photoshop picture, we see what we want to see and would not let some inconvenient reality get into the way of our enjoyment over the idealization of certain aspects of foreign culture and society. Reality and certain facts are just too inconvenient for some tourists, both armchair and non-sedentary ones, or even irrelevant to their enjoyment of foreign countries and cultures.