Readers' Submissions

Love / Hate

  • Written by ABC
  • November 15th, 2003
  • 14 min read




Stickman’s recent weekly reminds me of the same love and hate relationship I have felt about Thailand. I have seen this in a lot of other farangs who live or visit Thailand frequently too.

I suspect it may be quite a common view and emotional state, given the way Western and Thai culture are so often at odds with each other. Thais are into face and status, while farangs balance this out with financial concerns. Thais tend to see money as something to display and use, while many successful Westerners see it as something to save and build more wealth on. Thais live in the present, while Westerners often plan things out and live for the future. This situation is likely exacerbated by the type of farang that often comes to Thailand, as most are well-to-do and educated in Western universities. These universities likely teach rational thought, capitalism with it’s planning and saving for reinvestment, and our traditions purport the ideals of deferring for future rewards. All of these Western ideals have served to make many Western nations quite successful at building financial wealth and material comfort. However, the Thais traditions of living for today, finding enjoyment (or fun) in everything, and in flaunting their wealth also serve them in their own society. Gaining face is important, and a good reason to display wealth in the open, because this is how the Siamese gain stature. In the West, we likely push just as hard to build wealth, as that is our way of gaining stature. The Thais are not taught to save in order to gain a life of leisure in retirement. They are instead taught to enjoy the moment, when it is there. Westerners are taught to try and build wealth, so we can control and maintain the good times in the future. Westerner, though so many fail to do this, are taught to try and make rational, objective decisions based on sound logic, morality, and ethics. Thais grow up doing what feels good and what makes them look good, important, or of “good heart” to others, especially other Thais.

When you consider the completely different way the two (Thai and Westerner) see the world, it is no wonder their actions are so different. The Thais are not rational to us, because they don’t follow our system of logic, values, or ethics. And as, I strongly believe, they don’t necessarily follow the system of morality that is “official” in the country, most farang who try to read up on Buddhism and culture are often still in the dark.

The best way to understand how the Thais think is to live with them and interact with them, not as a farang they can use or a Westerner they feel the need to impress with the “official” Thai sense of thought and morality, but as someone they truly consider a friend. Can a Westerner end up in such a situation? To varying degrees, I suspect many expats have accomplished this, and perhaps some who have married Thais, whether living abroad or in Thailand, may have accomplished this. It is amazing what you learn when you interact with them. Here are some of the things I have seen. Please keep in mind that the observations may and will likely be affected by the class of the Thai people I deal with, as well as the way I deal with them. In other words, depending on how much I am seen as a “farang resource” by the Thais around me will affect the degree of true Thai culture I am able or allowed to see. Your perceptions will be affected in the same manner. This is likely why some farang will apparently see something contradictory to what another farang will see when we are dealing with Thais. (Of course, we are also often blinded by our only seeing what we wish to see.)

I’m married to a Thai woman, and she is from the Isaan region. Her education is not as low as many uneducated Thai women, who often leave the Thai public school system of the Northeast (one of the worst if not the very worst in Siam) in the 4th or 6th grade level. She actually managed to finish the 9th grade level. She was also able to speak English and write at a level that exceeded what most Thais would have after graduating from high school. This was because of language lessons she had received before she knew me. Yet, what I have found is that learning English does not change the more fundamental Thai thought patterns ingrained in her. Even when living in the West, it takes quite a bit of time to pick up on the concepts of planning your social life, saving your earnings, or waiting for things in life, whether they are purchases or important events.

Presently, she is working on getting her full driving permit. She is allowed 5 attempts at the test. The first one, she failed, which was not a big problem, given most people in my country go in unplanned just to see what they need to work on for their road tests. The second failure was due to her having had a hang-over from drinking the night before. It could have been avoided if we rescheduled, but she didn’t want to given that Thais must satisfy their itch immediately. The third failure was due to a fear reaction from the second failure. She scratched her itch too fast the second time, so she decided to drive slowly the third time, despite my warnings. Thais don’t like to listen when it makes them look bad, and I’m not always patient enough to phrase my comments as nice suggestions, so it was up to the testing office to give her the message that she must drive faster. They did so by failing her. Now she is up to test attempt 4. It is the last chance she gets for a normal test. If she fails, they are going to give her a specialized (very difficult) final test attempt. It will involve another written test reserved only for “problem drivers”, and a more difficult road test. If she fails that one, she loses her driving privileges, including her learner’s permit, for one year. I just convinced her she must take driving lessons to correct the problems causing her failure. She is still convinced she can pass the test without lessons, but has deferred to make me happy. This goes to two final observations I have made about Thais. First, they won’t agree with you if it makes them look bad and it counters what they think is right. The driving teacher must be wrong when he suggests she needs more lessons, as must I. Second, they may do something to make you happy, though they don’t agree with it. Because of this, it is often easier to get a Thai to do something by suggesting it will appease you, more than by trying to convince them that it is the best thing for them. They won’t admit they are wrong, but they may still chose to “help” make you happy, if they consider you a friend (or someone they have an interest in keeping happy).

The next sets of observations are going to be race-based observations and class based observations. However, is it a surprise that race and class do matter in Siam?

First, my observations are about Thais, as in those that are not Chinese or Indian in either upbringing or blood. It’s true that Thailand is a country made up of many ethnic groups. However, I was referring to those that are not from Chinese or Indian descent, nor those that were recent immigrants from countries outside of the modern Thai nation’s border.

I’ve already made some observations about the Thais, so here are my views on the Indians and Chinese.

The Chinese, who are referred to as Thai Chinese, sometimes inter-mix with the Thais in marriage, and sometimes they don’t. I tend to refer to those that have stayed 100% Chinese as Chinese Thais, in the same way that Chinese Americans are often 100% Chinese in blood though American in nationality. These Chinese Thais are Thai only in nationality and perhaps culture (to a certain surface level). I tend to think that those that have mixed with the Thais would be more appropriately called Thai Chinese. They are really a mix, in languages, culture, and genes of two different Asian races yet the dominant culture in them is Chinese. The Thai-ness is just a thin layer that sits as a veneer on the surface for these Chinese. They have kept their Chinese heritage, they do not behave as the Thais do. More than one farang have referred to these Chinese in Thailand as tight with money, cheap, controlling, and much lighter-skinned than the Thais. This is quite ironic, given the Thais think of farang much in the same way. What is even more ironic is that the Chinese don’t seem to have all these horror stories of being taken advantage of by the Thais. Why is that?

It could be the Chinese simply keep their mouths shut when they get taken advantage of by a Thai. However, it could also be that they have learned to understand the Thais, accept them for what they are though the Chinese don’t fall into the Thai senses themselves, and have learned to only interact with general Thai society at a level that is beneficial for them. It is this trait that has allowed the Chinese to work with Thai employees, own businesses and land in Thailand, and yet to not adopt the average Thai’s sense of spending all they have. Furthermore, as others have suggested, the Chinese often also are born to families with more wealth, more existing business resources, and many came to Thailand as a distinct trader/business middle class that lived among but not within the general Thai population. Whether the first or the second drives the other isn’t really the issue here. The point is that the Chinese are distinctly separate yet able to live and make a living in Thailand.

The Indians operate in much the same way, though from what I have seen, they seem to be much more low key about things. You don’t see as many Indian street vendors or shop-owners, nor are they as apparent in the country’s politics, yet they are definitely major property owners and business owners. In some ways, the Chinese may be more accepted on the surface, as light yellow skin seems to be more acceptable and sought after than the dark Indians’ skin (not all Indians are dark skinned). This is ironic, given part of Thai genetics indicate Indian blood in the past.

What this has led me to conclude about Thai society is that when you get into the Thai Chinese or Chinese Thai middle class or above, or the Indian equivalent, you really start to see more of the business mentality found among Indian and Chinese businessmen, and less of anything distinctly Thai beyond the surface culture. These people speak Thai, but beyond that they are about as different from the average Siamese person as a farang is.

What can a Western learn from them? I think there are a few things. Farang can learn that you don’t always have to be in a relationship where the Thai dictates the rules or takes from you. You can actually take from them, yet be fair to them within reason. You can be nice to them and be their friends, but just as in the West you don’t have to be their source of loans or free money. You can live by your own society’s rules, while respecting Thai society, without having to always give way by saying “that’s the (Thai) culture”. In fact, Chinese society is quite imposing, and most Thais that marry into Chinese families with a strong sense of their own culture are forced to live by the rules of Chinese society. This is demonstrated by the fact the Thai Chinese are still distinctly Chinese. Their very survival demonstrates that it is necessary to know who you are, even when living in Thailand. The Indians have done the very same thing. Yet, the farangs have not, from all the luk kreungs who grow up Thai only in both culture and in absentee farang fathers.

So when we say Thailand is the Land of the Thais, is that really true? In truth, I think Thailand is the land of opportunity, much like the West, for whoever understands the land, it’s laws and rules, and perhaps most importantly who they are beyond that land. Unfortunately, farang are still learning this reality, so in a sense Thailand is truly “The Land of the Thais” for farang. For Indians and Chinese, one may well argue that Thailand is much more “The Land of Smiles”, given it is truly the land of milk and honey for many of them, and they are not necessarily smiling because of the cheap bargirls at Nana or Patpong, but because of the wealth they have amassed.

I think the case of Westernized Thais proves the case of not getting sucked in by the local culture quite well. Many have stayed in Farangland for decades, while their children are likely more Western than Thai in mind. Yet, they still have their temples, their language, their food, and heritage. At work, they often pass for just another British, Canadian, American, or Australian national. Yet, they go home to their own families and friends, which are so often other Thais. They have found success and relative wealth in other countries, yet they still retain their identities. I know, as I see a much higher ratio of new, expensive, and large vehicles during Thai temple holidays than in most parts of town. I don’t think they are more wealthy though, they are just doing the Thai face thing. And how does one explain the slow pace of temple additions and construction in some American wats? A friend suggested they are operating on “Thai time”! Why not? They are after all Thai? Why should they let the locals, even in Farangland, dictate what they must do. That may be the most valuable lesson a Thai can teach you — look at them, they refuse to change or lose their identity to us, so why do farangs so often forget who they are in Siam?

Don’t get caught up in Thailand to the point that the “Thais” are able to bully you with their culture into things you don’t really want to do or should not do, whether it’s paying for a high sin sot or loaning out money to poor in-laws you know will never be able to pay you back, only so you can look like a fool, get angry, and start to hate the place you once loved. In my opinion, the best way for a Westerner to enjoy Thailand is to try and understand it, while knowing distinctly who you are (not a Thai) and to not try to become one. This will only end in failure and negative feelings, as you are never going to look like a Thai however hard you try.

On the other hand, trying to justify everything the Thais do, thinking it is all paradise and that your own homeland is only full of terrible things, will only set you up for eventual disillusion and potential bankruptcy from those looking for a naïve farang to fleece.

Am I suggesting the Indians or Chinese are perfect or that there are not poor ones or failures among them? Definitely not. Nor am I disavowing the existence of a distinctly Thai upper class. I have not addressed them, simply because my experiences among them are not adequate yet to form any conclusions I felt were worth mentioning here. Interestingly, I have worked with a prominent Thai in the States who is a member of the Thai upper class and whose parents are either royal blood or high ranking officials in the ambassador corps of Siam. Yet, she was born abroad and Western educated, like many of the upper class, and that makes me wonder if Western societies have more influence on Thailand than the Siamese would want to acknowledge. On the other end of the spectrum, my wife had a Chinese Thai friend. In fact, she helped me create the term and understand there are Chinese/Thai offspring that are distinctly Thai only in mind. She was from a poor family and squandered opportunities to build up wealth and become part of a wealthy Japanese family.

Stickman says:

Submission # 500…nice .