Here in Bangkok, the uniform that I wear gives me more privileges and attention than I could ever have imagined. Some previous exchange students had warned me about this before coming, but I didn’t fully understand it until I started spending 95% of my time in a uniform. So, here goes uniform 101:
1. Anyone with any excuse to wear a uniform does so. I don’t know why, or where the tradition came from, but it is just the way it is. During my first few weeks in Thailand, I kept seeing pictures and posters of individuals in what looked like military uniforms everywhere. Their uniforms were white and decorated with all sorts of medals and badges. Well, it turns out that they are government workers, and that all government workers wear a uniform. Even bank workers wear a uniform. Each bank has its signature “color,” and their employees (many of them women) all wear what looks like an flight attendant’s uniform.
2. “No Uniform, No Service.” All Thammasat University BBA (business administration) students are required to wear a uniform to all classes. At the BBA counter, there is a sign in English, and then translated into Thai that clearly states “No Uniform, No Service.” And they mean it. I have a friend who went to the counter to ask the BBA staff a question, and they refused her because she was not wearing a uniform.
3. No Uniform, No Attendance. Thammasat has a strict attendance policy – miss three classes and you cannot take the midterm or final exams. If you don’t show up within the first 15 minutes of class, you are counted late, and then another 15 minutes and you are counted absent, no exceptions. The kicker is that if you show up perfectly on time, but are not wearing the proper uniform, you will be counted as absent. No. Exceptions.
4. Thammasat is the Harvard of Thailand. And therefore, wearing the Thammasat uniform speaks volumes. The most crucial components of my uniform include a black skirt, a white short-sleeved collared shirt, official Thammasat pin, and a belt with an official Thammasat buckle. It is these buckles and pins that differentiate a Thammasat student from a student in any other school, as most student also wear a black skirt and white shirt. Here is a photo from the Thammasat website that shows some students in uniform:
The other night, I went straight from school to meet up with some friends on Khao San Road, Bangkok’s official tourist/backpacker/hippie heaven. As I was walking through the streets, everyone was staring at me. The foreigners were staring, seemingly wondering “Who is this white person in a school uniform?!” and the Thais were probably thinking the same thing. I went into a McDonalds to buy a water, and the girls behind the counters were whispering, and all I understood was “Thammasat, Thammasat.” So in Thai I said “Yes, I am a Thammasat student.” They couldn’t believe it.
Most days, if I am walking in my uniform, I hear the people behind me whispering “Thammasat” or the people crossing my path in the other direction staring at my belt with intense eyes, trying to see which school I study at. When and if they are able to figure it out, I hear a chorus of “Ahhhh, Thammasat!” My favorite uniform moment came this evening when I was in a 7-eleven with my roommate, and the employees behind the counter were obnoxiously greeting incoming tourists in Thai, which I’m sure is their way of messing with tourists to make a boring work shift fun. It was hilarious, so we couldn’t help but laugh. Soon, the employees were also laughing, and they quickly noticed my uniform and figured out that I was a Thammasat student. As soon as I confirmed this, they started saying “Ohhhh, Thammasat, Thammasat!!” and each of them reached to shake my hand, meanwhile repeating “Ahh, Thammasat, Thammasat.” I have to say, one of my favorite Thailand moments.