Sin Sot: A California Perspective
After reading several postings on the subject (and lacking the better sense not to post J) I'd like to take a few moments to examine the issue a little further. To provide a little insight on my perspective I'll give a little biographical information:
I'm an American and married to a Thai wife. I live and work in the California bay area and travel to Thailand 2 or 3 times per year. Where I work many of the women are attractive, well educated and quite well off. They are great women and available but I fell in love with my Thai wife. As simple and boring as it sounds the truth is; yes we were happy together and got married. I also knew my wife and met her parents a reasonable length of time before we were married. She is from a very poor family but is a happy and proud woman. She has held a number of tough jobs to try to improve her lot in life and these have included: moto taxi driver in BKK, garment work in a Bangkok sweatshop, bar tending and as a waitress. Her dream was to be a teacher but as her family is poor she had to start working in the sugar cane fields after the free education ended. Her niece lives at home and her sister and brother in law work in Bangkok so that the little girl can attend school near the village. When I met my wife she was paying for the little girl's schooling.
My wife had a good job at a boutique hotel in a resort area. Before meeting me she provided for her parents. Her older siblings helped as well but generally provided for their own families. Her older sister and her husband work in the garment industry (a sweatshop by our standards) 6 days a week and barely make enough to survive. Her older brother and his wife do piece work out of their apartment (essentially a multipurpose room) at street level and they are a little bit better off by Thai standards. Her older siblings live in Bangkok and my wife's parents live in the Northwest of Thailand. My wife's family was one of the poorest in the village. This was more than plain to see when I arrived for the first time. I would like to note that I didn't get all weepy eyed and try to save anyone here. I am ex-military and well travelled. I am well acquainted with the ways of the world.
Despite this they let me know that no dowry was expected and I felt that this was quite genuine. They took the time to explain to me that they felt that this was a Thai custom in the country and that since I was a farang that they just wanted me to take care of their daughter and be a good husband to her. Her mom was much more concerned about things she had seen in the news about the US safety situation than any dowry. In fact it was only my wife and I that really discussed it and it was me that brought it up each time.
On my own I decided to do this because 1) I was marrying their daughter and I wanted to show respect for them and their position as parents. 2) I knew through casual observation that most Thais in the area were doing it and at what level. 3) I could afford it. 4) Most importantly the money would bring her parents a little real comfort and it wasn't going to kill me to do it. 5) It gave them face and that didn't hurt anyone either. We had a great wedding. I paid a dowry and I felt good about that. We had a band, dancers, video, photos, great food, great drink, hundreds of guests, armed army guards, friends and co-workers form the US and people from Europe and Singapore. A good time was had by all and it was still way cheaper than even a modest/average wedding in the US.
I paid a 200,000 Baht dowry which works out to 5000 US. I had promised only 100,000 and then raised it at the end because that just felt right. The wedding cost an additional $3,500 USD when it was all said and done including the wedding pictures and the rest. This didn't include airfare or the honeymoon on Koh Samui which was another $3,500 USD or so. All in all there was no way I could have afforded anywhere near the blowout we had in Thailand and everybody had a great time.
At the end of the day if you marry a Thai, especially if they are from a poor family, you are expected to help support Mom and Dad whether you are a farang or not. I believe that any marriage or relationship stands a better chance of success if the parties involved respect each other's perspectives and that this is especially true in cross-cultural marriages. Say what you like about my reasons for my decision but I feel that it was mutually beneficial to us both.
Thais and Asian cultures in general rely on their own children as the social safety net. To ignore this in a western-Thai marriage is foolish in my opinion. To do so essentially is to assert dominance over your spouse from the start. In short it would be a disaster or at least a lessening of the experience that can be very cheaply avoided. I have read quite a few louts telling everyone on the chat boards about how you should "let them know who's boss" and so forth. I'd respectfully ask these gentlemen to consider for a moment how they expect a relationship like that to work. I mean if you just want to boink an endless stream of bargirls, then knock yourself out, no harm in that. However in my humble opinion if you are going to marry a Thai then I believe it is worth learning their needs, desires, and preferences in order to have a close and fuller marriage. Please don't misunderstand me here, I am no moralist and I have had plenty of P4P all over the place. I am just sharing a perspective.
Having said this it is also important to discuss and establish reasonable boundaries. This requires discussion as well as give and take on both sides. I'd also like to make the point here about how important I believe it is that you are both able to speak at least one language together sufficiently to do this. I want my marriage to succeed so I never have intended to run rough shod over her values.
I have read a lot about Thailand and its customs and history since before my first trip. I found a lot of what I read quite helpful and useful. However in the inter-cultural area I have grown increasingly wary of nay sayers. It was quite easy for me at first to believe every negative that they wrote or spouted in the pubs. This is especially true if you hit the bars in any of Thailand's many sunny tourist beaches. After a while though I realized that for me the reason that I had found it so easy to buy into the negatives was that I brought so much of my western prejudice and conditioning with me. Also the world is changing as are the economics of Thailand…
I often think of Thailand as a very strong drink. Almost like a perfect wine, rich and complex but one that will intoxicate you quickly before you even realize it. It is important therefore to drink it in slowly and give it and yourself time to breath. On my first trip it all just rushed over me and I fell in love with the country. I was lucky and didn't get a hangover but at that point I was addicted to Thailand.
As I grew more familiar with Thailand in the best way I could through only reading and short holidays and getting to know a few Thais, my appreciation for Thailand and the Thais themselves deepened. To be sure I am not looking at them as perfect but they have a different social order there than we do in the west and I enjoy the difference. Like anyone I suppose I like to take the best and leave the rest. I am a product of my environment as much as anyone else I suppose. I am definitely not a socialist and strongly support an open market.
Oh and on the subject of Sin-Sot and poor girls supporting their families…
In the west regardless of whether it is the UK, France elsewhere in Europe or the US we all have a much more developed social welfare network and support structure. The structures in the west just as in Thailand and the rest of Asia are all economically based social contracts. Throughout human history all social contracts are economic contracts are designed to manage scarce resources and distribute goods and services.
Thailand's system is probably closer to a more natural human social contract than ours in the west. This is possible because they generally benefited by the increased global wealth and productivity generated by the west. There just wasn't the driving need to subvert the existing social structure although it has been modified throughout the years. The Kings and successive governments of Thailand have wisely increased personal freedoms within the kingdom over the years. This was a practical course given the colonization of the rest of Southeast Asia. By increasing individual liberties and opportunities for its citizens (in a relative sense) Thailand managed to deprive the West of a powerful tool for conquest, that of deep internal discontent. An example of this was the abolishment of indentured servitude. Thailand has shown remarkable skill over the years in managing its place in the world as history has swirled around it. Say what you will about the Thais but their success in managing their own affairs speaks for itself.
While the Thais lake the welfare state of the west they have a well worn and for the most part reliable system of familial support. Thais don't carry nursing home insurance like many people in the US do, they have children. While my experience with urban Thais is more limited I have seen this system work fairly well in the countryside. The extended family lives and in some cases works together and supports each other. This isn't to say that it is either blissful or perfect. It is just an example of a functioning social support network of intermediacies. The system isn't perfect but it works. It should be no surprise then to anyone marrying or entering into a committed relationship with a Thai that they are most likely going to be naturally expected to participate in what the Thais would consider the natural order of the world. For purists I realize that Sin Sot has been a little restructured over the years especially by country girls marrying farangs. <Major understatement – Stick>
Our world of course is different today. My mother likens the Thai system to one in the rural US 150 years ago. At that time it was not unusual for various immigrant groups to have some type of dowry practice operating. Later until perhaps to perhaps just after WWII whole communities might participate in rural areas in helping a new couple become established but this had long been forgotten in the cities.
For example we in the west lost the power of community and family and experienced the manufacturing of the concept of the paternal nuclear family relatively recently. This occurred first in Europe to support the nobility's land seizures (partitioning) for wool production and later to sufficiently fracture the social order to create a popular dependency upon wages for the growing factory and mining interests. In both cases it was required that the underlying social fabric and support structures be destroyed so that there would be sufficient land for production and labor for the mills and mines.
The church and state worked together to destroy the old social orders and then to manufacture our current social structures to support the economic gains of a small elite class in each nation state. As time passed, the new system appeared status quo to those that were born into it. Over time western populations grew and placed greater and greater demands on authority for goods and services for themselves. The late 19th and early 20th century bore witness in Europe and America for the increase in need of the west's populations and the consequences associated with the ignoring of either opportunity for social mobility and or the basic support of large urban populations. In a nutshell world wars, revolutions, real wrath or God stuff…
In the west we destroyed the traditional support networks and need drove us to create new ones. When all is said and done Sin Sot is nothing more than another component of the Thai social security network. Like any social program in the west Sin Sot can be abused. If a person feels abused after considering Thai traditions and is fully informed about them then a personal decision should be in order about whether or not to continue a relationship with someone that isn't trusted. Also the farang should consider the reasonableness of their own position taking Thai social values and traditions into account. I say this not to support any position other than the happiness of the couple.
So it seems that reasonably there are 2 simple choices unless your Thai lady is far wealthier than you.
1) Don't pay any Sin Sot. Stand your ground and assert your rights. She will understand and there is nothing wrong with that. Please just make sure that this is what you want and that you are very clear with her in her terms as well as yours.
2) Make the decision to share her culture as you share her life. Discuss together a reasonable set of boundaries and keep communicating. Pay the dowry but keep it reasonable. Consider what you would pay here in the west and for what you would get by way of comparison. There is no way your Sin Sot should come anywhere close to the cost of a wedding in the west. Where I live simple modest weddings cost about $18,000 USD before you factor in honeymoons and rings…
Of course there are other choices. For example if you are living on a budget in Thailand and you can't afford it, let her know that. There are other ways you can help here and her family. If she really loves you and not your money then she will understand that. She has eyes after all. If you live on local wages or within a budget she will see this unless you just run into things or unless you have created a perception of greater means. Communication is key, and when it is all said and done it is up to you. This is after all a personal decision for the life of me I can't possibly see how it is a scam. If you spend any time at all in the northeast or northwest or read any locally produced books by successful expats the history and evidence is quite clear. Books from Asia books like the late Roger Welty's "Successful Living in Thailand": Feel at home at home with the Thais, and at Peace with Yourself in Unfamiliar Surroundings. Lay it out pretty well. Sin Sot is an old tradition in Thailand with Thais and even farangs. Sin Sot as a practical matter for most Thais helps pay for the wedding for the couple – <No it does NOT, this is very clearly wrong. Weddings essentially are self-funding and the envelopes given will invariably cover the cost of the occasion, and then some. If there is a shortfall, it would be negligible – Stick>. Money given at the wedding also goes to the bride and groom and is used to help set up housekeeping for the new couple. In my case we gave the wedding money (40,000 Baht) to my wife's parents.
They are not well off and by Thai standards I am quite well off. How is Sin Sot in most circumstances a scam? No one coerced me or cried about a sick buffalo I can see with my own eyes how much of a difference this relatively small amount of money made in their lives.
I also have no illusions about money with her parents either. If I gave them everything I had which includes cash, stocks, and real estate they would probably run through it all in a year or two and it is a fortune by Thai standards. In fact it isn't bad by US standards.
Her family simply has no experience managing money beyond basic farming. In their world they give what they can and hope that their children won't forget to give to them when they are too old to work.
My point is that I know I married her family, her traditions and her country when I married her. She knows that she has done the same for me. So having said all of this we are quite happy being equal… A little brown Thai lady and crazy farang from California.
Thanks to you all for the time you spent reading my ramble.