White Man’s Burden
I have been an avid reader of this website for the past year and have appreciated the diversity of information, perspectives, and insights found in both the submissions and Stickman's weekly articles. Although I gained much from this site, I had never really made plans to contribute myself, as I had only just made my first trip to Thailand this past March and there were already an abundance of submissions on First Timer field-reports. However, in many of the recent submissions, there seemed to be an underlying theme of tension – namely tensions arising from cultural and / or racial differences in the dynamics of the farang-Thai relationship. One quote in particular taken from Dana's latest piece (not his own quote) compelled me to make a response.
"We must remember that the ways of Orientals are not our ways, nor their thoughts our thoughts. Often, when we think them backward and stupid, they think us meddlesome and absurd. The loom of time moves slowly with them, and they care not for high pressure and the roaring of the wheels. Our system may be good for us; but it is neither equally, nor altogether good for them. Satan found it better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven; and the normal Asiatic would sooner be misgoverned by Asiatics than well governed by Europeans."
Spoken in 1899 by British Viscount George Nathaniel Curzon
Nothing has changed in 100 years!
This quote, chosen by Dana, perfectly illustrates exactly what has been bothering me about many of the submissions written recently about the delicate Thai-Farang relationship, and in a broader sense, the East-West relationship. The fundamental message of this passage is, to use a very worn out cliche, – "To each his own." In and of itself, there is nothing inherently wrong about the message. However, the spirit of the passage is tainted because of the tone. Lines like, "Often, when we think them backward and stupid," and "Satan found it better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven; and the normal Asiatic would sooner be misgoverned by Asiatics than well governed by Europeans." directly contradict the spirit of the message. There is a clear implication that Asians or Orientals are inferior to their Western Brethren. The saying "To each his own," implies tolerance, understanding, and the belief that each person has his / her own unique way of expressing themselves. The more accurate interpretation of this passage then, would be "They can't help it if they live backward lives of inferior quality. In fact, they are incapable of even comprehending our superior way of life, so why bother?" Maybe Dana is just trying to make a point in a language other westerners might understand or maybe it is meant to be tongue in cheek. To me, it is offensive and small-minded.
Dana has written extensively about the instances of aggravation he has faced in Thailand and the cynicism in his voice is easy to detect. Yet with all his gripes about this land and its people, he keeps coming back. There is something that draws him here that he can't or won't explain. With all the higher thinking, the open mindedness, the utopia that is the West, he always finds himself back in Thailand. But it's easier to write about his pains. About our pains. About our collective victimization. It gives us identity. It makes us feel self-important and virtuous.
Five years ago I went to Africa for three months on a volunteer teaching position. It was undoubtedly an enriching and valuable experience. But if I am to be completely honest with myself, it was not the endless plains, the beautiful Kenyan sky, or the aura of the land where man was born, that made the experience so intense. It was the powerful, euphoric feeling of having every single set of eyes on me, captivated, curious. For those of us who are lost in utter mediocrity and anonymity in our own countries, where we are just another brick in the wall, the attention can be intoxicating. So much so that once we get a hint of this kind of attention, it is like a void that cannot be filled when we get back home, back into the nameless crowd. But the longer we stay, the more it becomes clear that this kind of attention is shallow, a novelty. It is not the kind of attention earned by respect or charisma. It is empty. We are not so special. It is only skin deep. And we become jaded and bitter, even becoming wary of the very people who gave us so much happiness in first place. We make hasty accusations and generalizations about them to make ourselves feel better.
Stickman made a point in an earlier submission that those of us who do not live in Thailand do not fully understand the racial discrimination that ex-pats face on a daily basis. It is a valid point. I also strongly believe that an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere. Racial injustice should be fought in any shape or form. However, this mistreatment has caused some of us to grow cynical and overly critical. So critical in fact, that some of us start to make harsh and unfair criticisms towards those who criticize us. We start to generalize those who generalize us, and almost without noticing it ourselves, an US-vs-THEM mentality has formed. What logically follows is what has plagued this earth since the very first tribes split, the perception that THEY are inferior. I do not fault those who write to vent some of their anger at being overcharged by a greedy street vendor or swindled by some devious Thai seductress. What I do object to are the generalizations of the Thais and all Asians, the presumption that they are an immature, stubborn, shallow, and often times backwards. Let's not kid ourselves, those presumptions all imply inferiority.
I am not writing to throw accusations of racism. I am writing to remind those who have forgotten, that every minority in every corner of the world faces some sort of mistreatment by the greater majority. It is in the western world where forced segregations existed just thirty years ago and where racial segregation exists to this day. Every problem, every injustice we have ever faced in Thailand have been faced by racial minorities all over the world, and in many places far worse. The problems of poverty, of corruption, of hatred, of greed are universal.
Do not judge the Thais or Asians in general too harshly. Those who are so enlightened might look back at some of the reasons they chose to leave their home countries in the first place.
Agreed that it is a little unfair to judge people, or even an entire culture, so harshly. And to do so as a guest in a foreign land could be considered horribly rude and arrogant. However, I feel that many complaints made are simply that people want to be treated fairly and with a small amount of respect. Some Westerners have such genuinely bad experiences that I think they have every right to complain, and when their complaints fall on deaf ears and problems are not resolved, it is inevitable that some name calling will follow. If Thai nationals in foreign lands were treated the way that some Westerners are treated here, I know what they would be saying…