Nancy Chuang is a documentary and travel photographer and a professional designer. She has spent the last six months as a volunteer designer on the Thai/Burmese border, working primarily with Borderline, a women’s collective that helps community groups from local refugee camps sell their wares and receive basic services. Here’s Nancy’s account of some of the challenges of working in a transitory community:
“After 6 months of living on the Thai-Burma border, I’ve determined 5 areas that challenge me with nearly every new product development.
1) LANGUAGE. All of Borderline’s artisans are minorities, thus Burmese is their official language but rarely their best language. Meanwhile, the translators are used for their Burmese-to-English language skills, not their understanding of sewing techniques. Miscommunication abounds.
2) SKILLS. While Mae Sot is overrun with factories populated with cheap Burmese labor, our women have largely been lucky enough to avoid these places, attempting self-sufficiency soon after migrating to Thailand. The only minor downside is this means our artisans don’t automatically understand the production processes need to maintain quality levels.
In addition, there’s a tendency in many Asian cultures to avoid disappointing people by always agreeing to anything. I may not be informed which skills are lacking until a few weeks later.
3) URGENCY. “Thai time” (which is really “Burmese time” in this case) takes the idea of a relaxed pace to a whole new level. A meeting scheduled for the early morning means the artisans show up 10 minutes before the shop closes. A promise to come today means next week.
Borderline can only take handicrafts on consignment, so in the past there’s been little reason to suggest designs & deadlines to the artisans. Without upfront payment and without design direction, our women have grown accustomed to giving themselves very loose delivery schedules.
4) CONSISTENCY. Even our Chiang Mai-based artisans can’t always find the same fabrics repeatedly. If it isn’t popular with local customers, eventually the shopkeeper will stop ordering it.
Some of our Mae Sot and village-based artisans weave their own fabrics, but only one group dyes their own threads. So finding matching thread colors in the market is another challenge.
In the Mae Sot shop we can call this “unique,” but our overseas retailers need consistency. We frequently face long waits until the correct materials are available to fill an order.
5) STABILITY. Life on the border is volatile. People disappear without warning. Many of our migrants don’t have township IDs, let alone work permits. Some of our artisans are involved in political activities, often traveling back and forth across the border; they are safer keeping their whereabouts secret from their friends as well as the shop staff.
Most of these problems aren’t preventable, but that’s part of the challenge. We can’t truly discuss problem-solving, we can only try to work with the problems in order to deliver a product that makes everyone proud.”