The business of graduation

The second most expensive season in Thailand is upon us

It was once a solemn, sacred day, more scholarly than social, more ceremonial than festive. But around five or six years ago, with the boom of digital cameras and social media that allow self-celebratory broadcasts, the commencement and graduation ceremonies in Thailand have shifted to a whole new level. They've become our culture's most glorified rite-of-passage milestone _ not to say the second most expensive, perhaps only after a wedding.

His Majesty the King handing out the degrees surely lent prestige to the ceremonies in the time of our parents, and although the King no longer does so now, other members of the Royal Family still do, making Thailand the only country in the world to have royalty giving out university degrees. That means the day has always been a big deal, but how people respond to this big deal has changed from, say, 40 years ago: it is much more expensive and wasteful, if not blown quite out of proportion.

The graduation season is upon us. Throughout this month, most universities will be holding rehearsals for the actual ceremonies in July.

In the current mindset of fresh graduates, such an auspicious event calls for all things professional, whether documentation or maquillage. It has become the norm for graduates, of both genders, to get make-up and hairdos done by hired make-up and hair stylists, as well as their professional photographers to follow them everywhere. What used to be seen as a sober day has evolved into somewhat of a vanity fair, with the help of flashy signs and flower bouquets of varying shapes and sizes.

"Back in my day, the commencement was an austere ceremony. People took formal-looking photos, not kooky like the ones you see today," says Pisit Chaiyoraj, a Thammasat law graduate from 1969. He adds that practically anyone with a pulse that knew how to operate a camera was good enough to be the designated photographer for the day.

Today, graduates hire photographers to take hundreds of photos, on the rehearsal day and on the actual commencement day, while people in the past only took photos on the real day. The development of digital technology is obviously one of the reasons for this. With the equipment available, photographers can make graduates look like a wonder _ whether there is a nice backdrop or not (See P9 for a story of one such photographer). There is also no need to worry about wasting film so clicking away is deemed logical, considering that decent photographers will charge no less than 3,000 baht for an entire day of shooting.

An entire day of posing under the sun requires make-up that will not melt away, and while graduates of the past could get away with doing hair and make-up themselves, it is no longer the case. These days commencement day is an occasion for a show-stopping extravaganza.

Ironically, there seems to have been a more relaxed attitude towards attire in the past. Another Chulalongkorn University arts graduate from 1977 adds: ''There were hardly any regulations regarding shoes, jewellery, make-up or anything at all. Probably since there weren't so many accessories available and no fake eyelashes back then!''

In previous generations, an army of friends or relatives did not attend the graduation and hardly more than a dozen showed up. Chatpong Tangmanee, a Chulalongkorn University graduate from 1985 says: ''It used to be a day for yourself and your family. The only friends who would show up were your close ones, because it was harder to keep in touch then. Today, family seems to take a back seat to all the friends and colleagues and ironically, grads can't even allocate enough time to their guests because they invited practically everyone on Facebook.''

Pisit adds: ''It was the way society was and it wasn't necessary at all for you to buy something for the graduate. It was enough to simply show up to congratulate him or her and share the happiness of their success.''

Most previous graduates we talked to recalled that there were no suffocating hordes of well-wishers on commencement day, nor a bounty of flower bouquets everywhere.

''The only flowers grads got were usually from their boyfriend or girlfriend, which would make them the envy of all their friends,'' says a Chulalongkorn graduate from the mid-1970s. ''Even my parents didn't give me anything!''

When we hear of commencement ceremonies and rehearsals today, the reflex is to avoid it like a plague. Crippling traffic was hardly a problem back in the sepia days, where campuses were nowhere near as packed, and definitely not to the point that it is disruptive of life outside the university's gates.

With classes getting bigger, especially with some faculties opening international programmes, it can only translate to a larger number of graduates and more money for businesses that feed off this big day.

The act of getting up on stage to receive your degree also seems a lot less romantic, and Pisit sneers at what he sees as a ''robotic experience'', with each graduate moving along like they are on a conveyer belt, in sync with others one step at a time to simply grab and go. His experience, Pisit says, was clearly much more golden.

''I felt as cool as hell with all eyes on me as I was walking across that stage alone. In fact, my parents got to sit inside the air-conditioned auditorium hall as well and got to watch their son receive his degree from the King with their very own eyes,'' he recalls.

Commencement day survival tips

1You must have a test run of the make-up and hairdo you plan to have; don't wait until the big day to find out if it looks good on you or not. Bad hair and make-up can really diminish your confidence.

2Have patience and expect people to be late _ they will usually get lost, distracted or stuck in traffic along the way. The hot weather also makes everything more frustrating!

3Decide on a clear number of locations you want to shoot at and plan an efficient walking route so that you are not jumping around all over the campus. Get your single shots done early in the morning when no guests have arrived so you can devote time later to the people who came to see you.

4Along with face oil blotters, lip gloss and face powder, it is essential to carry around eyelash glue, too.

5The much needed assistant who will have to follow you around all day carrying your junk needs to be tough and energetic. Make sure he/she is easy-going and amicable because you'll be stuck together all day. Leave the whiney/moody siblings at home.

6Failed phone signals and dead batteries are a common problem so settle on a location to meet up with everyone you expect to see. Take the time to explain where the location is in advance.

7Sew one flat pocket under the waist of your skirt if you don't have any. It is harmless and can be very handy to store money and tissues.

8Walk around in your graduation shoes as much as you can in order to break into them. This will make them much more bearable on the day.

9Don't hesitate to tell your photographer what you want. Popular photographers who play hard to get and get all worked up if you want them to alter their style is not something you have to put up with. Find alternatives because there are plenty of nice ones out there who will snap what you want, willingly.

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About the author

Writer: Parisa Pichitmarn
Position: Feature writer