Thailand’s Princess Sirindhorn was born on a Saturday 60 years ago. Now on her birthday the whole nation wears purple to honor her. Thailand is a country of colors, typically worn in rotation: seven days, seven colors. On any given Monday you’ll find many Thais wearing yellow, Tuesdays pink, Wednesdays green, and so on. The tradition isn’t uniquely Thai, but its probably practiced here more than in other places. The colors have their beginnings in Hindu mythology and represent the Gods that protect and watch over his or her given day.
Before coming to Thailand for my twenty-seven month service commitment with the Peace Corps, I had read a little about these daily colors. Some of the volunteers already serving here suggested that we consider bringing over shirts of some of those colors to prepare us for our stay. A few others chimed in that we really needn’t buy them all since many of the schools and offices we’d be working in would be buying them for us. Keeping all this in mind, I managed to find a few polo shirts in orange, green and yellow in modern, lightweight materials appropriate for the hot, wet climate I was headed to. In other words they were quick drying and were good at wicking sweat away from the body.
There were two colors on the list that I have been forever reluctant to wear: pink and purple. Many people are averse to wearing orange but not me. I went to school at Syracuse University, home of the Orangemen, and I worked for over 33 years with the Department of Transportation where orange was not the new black, but was, and is, the color of safety and identity. We had one commissioner who said that he “bled orange” to prove his solidarity to his workers. A little over the top, I thought. Thursdays are orange days and I’m prepared. I have been resistant to dressing myself in pink or purple. Pink was always soft and girly, the color of bubblegum and softness and dependance. Purple I knew from grade school was the color of nobility and power and as I got older it seemed to be always worn by strong women who hated men. I have long been hemmed in by these foolish little stereotypes knowing full well they’re wrong but unable to completely put them to rest.
During my pre-service training, I saw many local Thais here wearing a certain style of cotton shirt, Thai-style shirts they were called, collared shirts with straight tails that didn’t need to be tucked in. These shirts are quite colorful in patterns and hues I would never consider wearing in the States. But here, in this context and in the bright sun and heat, I liked seeing men wear them. Plus, and this was a huge plus for me, they were made just up the street in my little village. Local, colorful, somewhat attractive; now I wanted one. My host mother took me up to the shirt factory to look around. My eye caught sight of a gold and yellow number but they needed a few days to make one for me in my size. My host mom kept picking up purple shirts for me to consider. I wrinkled my nose and tried to dissuade her, until she found a pattern that had cute little elephants around the tail of the shirt. I couldn’t resist, being in a country known for its elephants, I mean. I still wasn’t nuts about the color but the more I looked at it, the more I began liking it. I began seeing it through Thai eyes. So I got my first purple shirt.
My new co-workers here in Southern Thailand, in anticipation of the Princess’s birthday, bought me a purple polo shirt to wear on her special day. They didn’t want me to stand out at the celebration, not wearing purple, but fully realizing I will always stand out wherever I go. Public servants and teachers from around the province converged at the city center. Well over a thousand purple clad admirers of the Princess. A sea of purple and I fit in.
I was born on a Wednesday in the same year the Princess was. Looking into the Hindu mythology, Wednesday’s planet is Mercury, its God is Budha (not to be confused with Buddha who was not a God) and its color is green. This Hindu Budha favors the written word, the north, autumn and the earth, not unlike myself. My unlucky color is pink and that explains that.