Stickman Readers' Submissions October 14th, 2002

Tolerance Of Thai People

A Thai friend recently asked me what I thought the main difference was between Thais and farangs (I broadly interpreted this to mean Western culture). This is a complex question, but to me a lot of the differences can be summed up in one word: 'tolerance'.

Some examples:

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– Tolerance of (what Thais perceive to be) minor infractions of the law, like driving on the right side of the road when there is no oncoming traffic, motorcycles driving on the sidewalk, vendors setting up shop on the walkways, prostitution, a-go-go girls dancing topless or in the nude. I don't mind the naked ladies, but the traffic violations and the vendors piss me off because it makes walking around rather difficult and sometimes dangerous.

– Tolerance of police and official corruption, which of course allow the abovementioned infractions to occur with impunity. I am sure Thais would like to live in a society where all officials are honest, but they seem to be resigned to the fact that corruption is a normal and unchangeable aspect of their society. I would have expected more public outrage in a (sort of) functioning democracy like Thailand against some of the more blatant acts of corruption that occur.

– Tolerance of the farang red-light districts, and seeing foreign men consorting with local ladies. There are a lot of countries in the world where this kind of activity would make the local population feel ashamed and angry. Sex tourists travel all over the world, but the industry seems a lot more overt and institutionalized in Thailand than anywhere else. True, it brings in quite a bit of money into the local economy, but at the cost of making the country notorious for this kind of activity.

– Tolerance by Thai females of sexual promiscuity in men, especially when they themselves are under considerable social pressure to remain chaste until marriage, and faithful afterwards. I recall a conversation I had with a Chinese-Thai female friend from a very respectable family. She related a conversation she had with her brother: he told her that he expects to marry a virgin, yet he confessed that he has slept around with many women. I told her that, according to his logic, the brother wants an 'unspoiled' woman to marry, yet he has 'spoiled' quite a few other women so they themselves cannot hope to marry a respectable man. Where I am from, we call this kind of person a selfish prick. But she said a lot of Thai men did not feel the least bit guilty about doing this, and most women accepted this as well.

– Tolerance when someone screws up something; yes, the famous 'Mai Ben Rai' and Thai smile to avoid loss of face when someone clearly drops the ball. OK, I will concede that there is some merit in this. In Western society, there are insensitive louts who will loudly point out someone's mistakes in public; this is unnecessarily cruel. There are a lot of small errors that we should just let slide rather than make a mountain out of a molehill. But significant mistakes should be brought to the attention of the person who made them; do it quietly and politely, but make it clear that the person is accountable for it if it was indeed their fault. Let them know that they are expected to learn from the mistake and thus improve their performance. I think many Thais are more concerned with maintaining social harmony than providing constructive criticism.

– Religious tolerance: Up to this point my remarks have been negative, but life in Thailand actually does have a lot going for it. Most Thais are Buddhists, and Buddhism, to its credit, teaches respect for all religious faiths. As far as I know, there has been very little religious persecution in the past or present in Thailand. I contrast this with the history of the Western world, where religious intolerance has lead to untold suffering (e.g. Crusades, Spanish Inquisition)

– Tolerance of an ethnic minority, the Chinese-Thais, being a politically and economically dominant force in society. This is another area where the rest of the world should follow Thailand's lead. In fact, expat ethnic Chinese in other countries could learn a lot from the Chinese-Thais on how to be a model minority. These people have truly played their cards right: they immigrated to Thailand, integrated with society enough to avoid any 'them' vs. 'us' conflicts, yet retained many of the positive aspects of Chinese culture – respect for education, hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit. The ethnic Thais, far from displaying any ugly and irrational envy, instead respect and admire them. This is quite rare in the world – look at the persecution of Jews in Christendom, or the hard time ethnic Chinese receive in other South-East Asian countries.

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So, is a tolerant society good or bad? Of course, it depends on your point of view. As someone raised the West, I find that a tolerant and free-wheeling place can be quite refreshing. You can break free of the restrictions that bind you in your homeland, and do what you feel like. It certainly can make for a fun vacation! Aside from my holidays in Thailand, I like to go to Las Vegas from time to time – I can do thing there that I can't do at home.

On the other hand, when I think about a place where I want to live, work, raise a family, etc., I am not sure and overly tolerant society is so desirable. Places like Thailand and Las Vegas feel to me like playgrounds or fantasy lands – OK to visit for short periods of time when we need to relax and unwind, but not such a good place to get down to the serious business of life.

Of course, the Thai who live here for the most part have good or at least tolerable lives. Its not like this is North Korea or one of those African countries torn apart by war and famine. But technological progress is making the world smaller; how does a tolerant attitude prepare the Thais to increasingly interact with the rest of the world (either by going abroad or dealing with foreigners who come to Thailand)? In my mind, I think Thais would need to essentially become less "Thai-like" – i.e. more aggressive, more competitive, more focused on doing the job right rather than saving face and having fun.

Stickman says:

I hear your thoughts, but tolerance is not necessarily the word I would use. Virtual indoctrination and ignorance are two words to me which explain a lot of what goes on in Thailand.

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