Readers' Submissions

The Cultural Difference



In many submissions, a major “cultural difference” is mentioned. Many people seem to think that this cultural difference is growing by the square of the distance between home countries. Books and articles with titles like “Culture Shock Thailand” are everywhere, although they contain very few noteworthy facts or stories. With this submission I’d like to show that cultural difference is not necessarily as important or threatening as many people think.

What about myself? I was born in the capital as the oldest child of a middle-class family. We soon moved to the countryside where spent my childhood. After finishing high school, I studied business at a university in the largest city of my country. My first job after graduation was in the finance department of a multinational company where I worked for five years. OK, not very interesting. The point is: This is also the exact curriculum vitae of my Thai wife, Oi – not her real name. With a time lag of a bit less than ten years. So it’s no surprise that we share similar values and often think in the same way.

Now, where are those cultural differences? I’ll start with four episodes relating to the one that is mentioned most often: Lose face / confrontation:

Confrontation 1: We wanted to take the boat from Wat Phra Kaeo to Saphan Taksin BTS. The area is not well marked and we didn’t know when the next boat would be leaving nor where to buy tickets. So Oi asked the lady sitting behind a counter with ship pictures displayed. The lady said that due to a public holiday, no scheduled boats would be running that day, but she could get us a charter boat. She started writing an invoice for 400 baht immediately. We were a bit suspicious and sure enough, a scheduled boat was soon approaching. I asked Oi to go back to the lady and tell her that she was a liar, a disgrace to the image of the LOS, plus a few other nice things. Oi refused to go. Why? There is no point whatsoever in telling this lady.

Confrontation 2: We took a taxi from the official taxi stand at Don Muang to downtown. As it turned out, the cab had no meter and the driver wanted 500 baht for the trip. Oi got very angry and told the driver to stop at once as we would take another taxi. She kept criticizing him for driving another route than she had told him. At the end, we paid 230 baht from Don Muang to Sukhumvit, including airport and tollway fees. I’ve never paid less so far. The driver was almost crying.

Confrontation 3: On two recent occasions (one in Bangkok, the other one in Europe), we were not satisfied with our stays at five-star hotels. Since I don’t like the multiple choice hotel questionnaires, I sendt a detailed e-mail with my complaints to the GM of the respective hotels. At first, Oi didn’t like it that I was complaining. But then, both GMs wrote back, apologized for the shortcomings and invited us for a complimentary stay. Sure enough Oi proudly tells all relatives and friends about the free stays and how much money we have saved because of my complaints.

Confrontation 4: On a domestic flight, TG damaged the backpack of my sister-in-law. Very sad. Everyone was surprised when I went straight to baggage services and asked for a repair. TG was a bit reluctant at first, but at the end, the backpack was nicely repaired and delivered to the home of the owner. In the meantime, TG has repaired or replaced just about all luggage my in-laws ever had.

My conclusion for the face loss issue? I’m learning not to seek confrontation when there is no merit. And Oi is learning to speak up if an improvement of the situation can be expected. By doing so, we can have the best of both worlds. It takes some time to change old thinking patterns, but we will both get there one day.

Religion is another cultural difference. I can fully understand Thai ladies who don’t want to become a Christian/Jew/Muslim. On the other hand, I’ve never heard of a Thai trying to talk a farang into becoming a Buddhist. So as long as I can accept Oi’s religion, we can both enjoy visits to the wat as well as to the church. I do know some Christian Thais here in my country, and to be honest, I don’t like them. All of them are unpleasantly missionaries.

Punctuality / reliability is one more cultural difference sometimes mentioned. Coming from a country famous for its watches, I just can’t stand people being late. Oi has no problems with that. Some of her friends and relatives are a bit “different” in this respect. So when I said: “please be at our hotel at six when we will leave for dinner” some people only showed up at eight or so. And they were very surprised that I got angry about the delay. Neither their delay nor my anger were productive, so I’ve changed my invitation to the following wording: “We will go out for dinner at six. You are most welcome to join us if you are at our hotel by that time.” No surprise: Everyone ready by 5:45. And everyone happy.

The last but not least difference between Thailand and the West I want to highlight is status. Status is not so important in egalitarian societies like the US or central Europe, so we might neglect it. While there may be multiple reasons why a Thai girl is looking for a farang husband, I’ve yet to meet one not wanting to improve her status by such marriage. Many Thais have the perception that all farangs who travel overseas to Thailand are upper-class. And when the farang says (correctly) that he earns one million baht per year, the Thai girl is in heaven. She just can’t imagine that her Thai salary of maybe 150,000 baht per year gives her more possibilities / status than the million in western Europe. I know of many successful Thai / farang relationships, including some with former bar girls. The only type of relationship that I always see failing is between the clever / educated Thai girl and the farang of average / below average means (and intellect).

To illustrate the different perceptions of status from the other side, watch this: Oi’s former boss was looking for a farang husband on the internet. At one time, she was dating a German MD. This guy made a mistake and stayed at Jade Pavilion hotel in Bangkok. Oi’s boss only saw “her” doctor once. She told us that a farang staying at such a cheap place could certainly not provide for a family.

Is status only money related? Not quite. In his excellent submission, Jayson correctly states that white skin is very sought after in Thailand. And yes, the darker skinned Isaan girl (Oi, for example) has difficulties on the local marriage market. But then, an important conclusion should be added: The farang husband can get her fair skinned children. Having a farang husband gets her no status per se, but luk krueng children certainly do. You can’t buy the envious stares from follow shoppers in the Isaan supermarkets – for everything else there’s MasterCard. In my opinion, this is a significant reason for preferring a farang husband over a Thai.

In his weekly column, Stick has suggested that it’s almost impossible to have a happy Thai-Farang relationship. Is Oi embracing western culture or are we constantly suffering from making compromises? I don’t think so. Nowadays, about half of our meals are Thai, the other half western. You could call this a compromise – or an enrichment of the meal plan. Likewise, if Oi takes our two girls and visits her parents in Thailand for a month – can’t this be a welcome break for husband/daddy, too?

I’ve just studied the latest annual report of my hometown. We’ve had 49 marriages and 32 divorces in 2004. Is the modern relationship of the western world on the deathbed? I’ve had an interesting discussion with the owner of a Bangkok matchmaking agency (not where I met Oi) about this. She claims that oriental style arranged marriages have a much higher success rate than western style “love” marriages. OK, this is promotion for her business, but I think she’s right. Just about all Thai singles profiles mention a future husband who is “financially secure”. Yes, the girls are looking for a provider. Maybe not all farang males want to be a provider, but I don’t quite understand why this traditional role model should be so bad? For me, being the provider is a far better option than constants fights with a “liberated” local woman. And long term, it’s the cheaper option, too. As there was some discussion recently about the subject lately: All of my in-laws are hard working, no drinking, no gambling. I did pay a sinsot of 300,000 baht which Oi’s parents wanted to return to us. It was Oi who suggested to give the money to her dad since he had some debts from buying new equipment for his construction company. After she moved to Europe, we were expected to remit some monthly allowance because Oi’s youngest sister could no longer share Oi’s room while attending university. Now that she has graduated, nothing is expected.

So at the end, there are cultural differences but they should be regarded as opportunities and not threats. For me, a compatible socio-economic background and common goals in a relationship are far more important success factors than a short physical distance between two hometowns.

Stickman's thoughts:

I thoroughly agree with the very last sentence you wrote BUT believe that finding someone from a similar socio-economic background is much harder than people may think.