You Live Here, So You Should Be More Thai
I think I am at the point now where I have started to lose count of the number of times during a conversation where someone has said to me: “You know Casanundra, you are living in Thailand now, you should learn more about our culture, to understand us better and well you should just try to become more Thai because you live here…”
… In fact, as far as I can recall, my wife has said it to me once or twice, my Thai friends have said it to me at least once, some of my wife’s colleagues have said it to me on occasion and even the boss at my last place of work said it to me just before I left after some toss-pot Farang sneaked her a ‘changed’ copy of a stickman submission that I once wrote and for which they downloaded off Sticks website, re-wrote in MS word and then gave it to the Thai management team claiming it to be my original writing and well basically I am now getting curious about it what these not so subtle hints could all mean…
In fact before I go on, my wife has just looked over my shoulder and asked me: “why are you using my words on your writing to that sticky man for?” – I can only but roll my eyes and tell her that she won’t understand and so I won’t bother trying to explain.
But what the hell do they mean when they say this to me?
Is it because I have made some social faux par that no one in typical Thai fashion had bothered to forewarn me about, only to pick me up on it after the foot has been well and truly put into my mouth; or perhaps it is happening because people are astonished that I have learnt so much about Thailand, and the language and have married one of its daughters in such a short space of time, or is it because they are trying to tell me ever so subtly that I am an elephant in the Thai cultural China shop and should be a little more discerning or is it simply because like the Borg’s from Star Trek, that I have now become known as race Alpha 2569, and that it’s just become my turn to be assimilated into the Thai collective, later to become known as cyber drone 7 of 11, with a remit on the Thai mother ship to issue straws with every liquid fuel injection and to keep the minimum of change possible that I can in my cyber till.
I simply have no idea… but as with all things in Thailand, it most certainly gets me thinking about it. So what brings on these occasional turns in the conversation and is it just me or do others get this request to become part of the Thai Borg collective too?
Personally I like to think that I am the sort of guy who causes people no trouble so it can’t be anything untoward that I am actively doing, and rather its maybe something I am not actively doing or aware of. In fact you most certainly won’t see me getting into any fights with anyone and I am also the sort of person who would fit into the typical ‘spy’ mould, and I don’t mean the devilishly handsome type with a vodka martini and a licence to thrill either, but rather the type who is easily overlooked and keeps into the background a lot. As such I always make a point of quietly finding and sitting at the far corner of the bar or restaurant out of everyone’s way. Indeed I even hate being in crowded places, and I am never happier than when I have my head in a book and being left alone to my own thoughts and peaceful world. But once in a while, usually when I am deep into a conversation where the subject is interesting, I will make a point of getting into an intellectual debate sometimes arguing a point just for the sheer bloody mindedness of it or for the enjoyment that it gives me to just be an arrogant self righteous shit, but that just makes it more amusing for me because I like winding people up under the guise of stimulating conversations and to challenging things, especially the status quo and maybe it’s this that is forcing the Thai’s to making their subtle suggestions to become more Thai… or at least to shut up, not question things too much and to just stop forcing them to think a lot.
But what can I do about it, I am just after all, well being “me”… and also because I was brought up as an Englishman, that means that somewhere in my genes are notions of knighthoods, the British Empire, bulldogs, stiff upper lips, bowler hats, umbrellas, afternoon tea with scones and conversations about the weather, and unless I am going to get blasted with a heavy dose of radiation, then nothing is going to fundamentally change that I was brought up and influenced by English culture. Even worse than that, I am also a 5 foot 4 inch short arsed prankster from Liverpool, which according to popular belief, means that I will probably head-butt you in the kneecap without warning whilst wearing a cheap shell suit, and be saying things such as “Eh! Eh! Eh! Ahhh! Billy, knock it on de ‘ed then are kidder!” along with my right hand on your wallet and an eye on your car with intent to steal the wheel hubs off it later.
Of course all of the above is nonsensical and I am no more like the average Liverpudlian than the average Londoner is who purportedly looks like the chimney sweep ‘Bert’ from Mary Poppins and who speaks incessant cockney rhyme, clacks spoons on his knees and sings ‘get yer knees up mother brown’ down at the old bull and brown whilst wearing a suit of buttons trying to get passers-by to say “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious um diddly um diddly ay” – me ole sparra! Cor blimy guv!
So here I am. I am just little ole me. No one particularly special in the big scheme of world affairs and I most certainly don’t stand out in a crowd because I am just too short, but I’m fine with that because I am taller than the average Thai anyway, and as good things tend to come in small packages; like diamonds and arsenic then I’m cool with that too. In fact, there was a rumour once that said that the best actors in Hollywood (Tom Cruise, Al Pacino, Tom Thumb, The Hobbits…) were all shorties because they fitted the camera angles better – and I don’t mean in the same sense as Mike TV off Charlie and the chocolate factory either, and so it seems if this rumour is true, then I am in good company, apparently.
So what is it the Thai’s are getting at with their suggestion to become well, more Thai? Is it because I am English with eccentric English ways that has them suggesting these things? But let me ask, what happens if I do adopt Thai ways, what happens to my culture in the mean time? Should I pack it into a box and send it off in a storage crate somewhere only to be retrieved once I decide to leave the shore of Thailand? In fact what about all the other cultures and peculiarities around the world, don’t they have their own identity of sorts too and should ‘everyone’ who travels change their being just because we happen to be in a different country? And what do the Thai’s expect us all to do with our cultures? Somehow, sticking them where the cultural sun doesn’t shine somehow doesn’t seem to be the right answer. At the end of the day we all have our own cultural nuances, indeed many of these countries spurn out different sorts of people, with many actually fitting the stereotypical mould of what we perceive that country or place to be like. For example, you only have to listen to the average Geordie or kilt wearing Scot to know that they are still essentially back water ‘tribe people’ who enjoy nothing more than fighting, swilling whisky and brown ale and well just behaving like they should belong on the movie set of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and Highlander. But isn’t thinking like this the same as someone assuming that just because you have a New Zealand accent that you are motivated by how much money you can make and to having as many wild encounters with sheep as you can, or to perhaps pre-judging someone for having a certain accent which makes people automatically grab hold of their wallets – personally I think it’s all nonsense and yet here we are in Thailand being expected to fit into Thai ways and being judged accordingly.
Naturally there are exceptions to the stereotypical rule of what the ignorant world perceives each culture to be. I always remember walking through Toronto and a couple asking me ‘where I got my lovely English accent from’, I couldn’t help but answer that there was actually a shop in little Italy just a few blocks away that sold ‘accent’ bags and they too could have one for $25 if they wanted one… what kind of question is that to ask someone? But of course we aren’t all thugs, or bank robbers or culturally ignorant either, but we also cannot essentially change what makes us who we fundamentally are either and no matter what we do, the best we can achieve is to simply just try and fit in with our sensitivities tuned in to local nuances.
But isn’t this request from the Thai’s about us being in Thailand just like the old adage of ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do?” – ok then, if that’s the case and I am to do what the Thai’s normally do then I will be getting up to lots of mischief any day now, and will be constantly drunk and doing the dirty on the missus with several Mia Noi’s in tow – well she did ask me to become more Thai. But how boring life would be if each country, city, town, state or province, or prefecture or what ever it is that divides us were the same and that we just became local clones of where we are… I mean let’s take a look at the French for example, do you think they would all stop wearing their little berries on their heads, and throw away their stripy black and white shirts and drop their strings of garlic from around their necks… of course not; it’s what makes them French. As far as I am aware, according to the stereotypical French model, most of them go around saying “hor-hee-hor” every two minutes as they cycle through idyllic French villages and quaffing wine… well they do don’t they? Also isn’t it widely believed that the girls, although dressed ever so chic, don’t wash or use soap either and that they have hairy armpits and try to cover up their ‘oh-durs’ by using subtle fragrances of perfume instead hence why Paris is so renowned for its perfumery… how would they be if they simply started to behave, well more Thai?
How about the Germans then, well we all know they have square heads and often fall into two types: Those with huge walrus moustaches and skin heads (like those often found in the blue oyster gay bar club scene or most certainly who hang out in cabbage town in Toronto) or to those who wear small round glasses and look very stiff, proud and stubborn. They are all either called Herr Dockter or are direct descendants of Baron Von Klinkenhoff, and they will often be called Karl or Ralf. They all excel at being very technical and have superb abilities for engineering or teaching. They also tend to be very straight and blunt in how they say things, which to the outsider is often construed as being rude and they have a love for hogging sun beds all over Europe and will often sneak out at 4am to secure them all before ze British are even stirring in their beds. They also love walking around naked on beaches with huge beer bellies and will drink from huge beer tankards whilst chomping on long spicy sausages in between bouts of shouting “allez gut” and slamming their tankards to the latest sounds of the Bavarian foot stompers, which is just as well, because their women are horrendously big boned and masculine – allegedly. Now close your eyes and imagine if the Germans said to the average Thai that they should become, well more German. Can you imagine what the Thai version of a typical stereotypical German would be like?
As for the Irish, well we all know, that the Irish just cannot go anywhere without their belt buckled leprechaun top hats and long tailed coats whilst doing a little skip and a sort of Irish jiggady jig shouting ‘top of the morning to ya” and humming “dee diddly diddly dit de deee” with a lop sided buck toothed smile and little pipe hanging out of their mouth. They are wonderfully generous and friendly and if jokes abound are to be believed, are also not the brightest buttons in the land hence why they all receive huge EU grants to get them through their Guinness filled days. But they are wonderful people and their girls are some of the loveliest in the world with their emerald eyes. Perhaps they are the right people that should be coming to Thailand to well, become more Thai because they are all perceived to be as dumb and as care free as each other.
But, isn’t it wonderful how we all have a different cultural identities? I mean I could go on and on and talk about what the perceived cultural perception is of the typical Japanese (polite, bow, very punctual, 3 hearts, two minds and fanatically proud), the Americans (Loud, arrogant, ignorant and big), the Russians (cold, hard and with women of stunning beauty who all turn into Olympic shot putters after 35), The Valhalla horn helmeted axe wielding Danes, The Abba ‘gourdy gourdy’ blonde haired pig tailed Swedes with their Swish chef from the Muppets, to the arms flaying pasta filled hipped swarthy Italians and so on and on I could continue… but by and large, none of the people I have met in my travels seems to fit any of the perceived cultural norms that they are typically portrayed to be, well at least not the majority.
But where am I going with all of this, well it all stems from the notion that the Thai’s believe and expect us all to become more Thai because ‘hey we live here’ and like the examples above which allegedly portray a typical view of people from other countries (erhum!) it gets me wondering and asking the question of what is it to become well ‘more Thai’… so I asked the wife.
Me: “Ok honey, what did you mean when you said I should become more Thai because I live here”
My Wife: “Well, you live here, so you ‘should’ become more Thai”
Me: “Uh huh! Yeah I know this, but WHAT do you mean”
My wife: “You know, just become more Thai…”
Me: [baffled] “Oh I get it, I have to figure this one out through telepathy. So what you are saying is that I should just become more Thai. Hmmmm ok then, how about if I point my feet at 45 degree angles, pointing outwards but not at anyone as I wouldn’t want to offend, and then adopt a sloped shouldered, leaned back position and then to walk everywhere as slowly as I can, to use as little energy as I can, to have no idea of people around me and to wander aimlessly left and right along the path, to get in the way of people by pretending they aren’t there, whilst swinging my arms like a grenadier guard and smacking the crotches of unsuspecting people behind me, and to strap my mobile phone to my ear and talk incessant crap for hours on end… Is this what you mean?”
My Wife: “Mai Chai…”
Me: “Oh… ok then, how about, I leave my brain at home and therefore not think too much. That I only have eyes and energy for food and when I do make a single minded dash to the food counter that I eat the food like a rampant pig, show everyone my tonsils and mashed up fodder and slurp and chomp merrily away without a care in the world about little nuances such as table manners and that I should also limit my spare time to either watching the honk honk, ding dong, toot toot, clown like Thai TV instead or to playing my music as loud as I can with full bass on and drinking Mekong whisky till the buffaloes come home. While I’m at it, I will get a Mia Noi and just treat you like crap. Will ‘THAT’ make me more Thai?”
My wife sighs… looks at me as if I am an Alien (well actually I am if you read my work visa) and just says “You need to just understand our culture more… you live here you should become more Thai”
She has also begun to lose interest now. I am also getting puzzled, because she still hasn’t told me exactly what it actually means to become more Thai. Hmmm ok I think some more… I know it can’t be about pointing feet, or about putting my head higher than the eldest in the room and to knowing when to wai or not to wai, ot to causing loss of face and so forth because if it is, well I know all this stuff already and am culturally as aware as I can be on this front.
So I try to reflect back on conversations I have had for clues, and in particular I focus on the one that happened as a result of a ‘changed’ stickman submission for which was given to the Thai management at my old place of work:
Management: “Why did you write what you did and why did you mention the school by name”
Me: “Huh! What are you talking about?”
Management: “Did you write this?”
A clean word processed copy of a stickman submission was thrust in front of me that I recognised although from what I was given, you would never have known it was from Sticks website.
Me: “Where did you get this?”
Management: “It was posted on the Internet… Well did you write it or not?”
Me: “Really? Can you tell me where on the Internet you got this from?”
Me: “To answer your question, yes I did write ‘some’ articles on the Internet but I can tell you now based on the little I have just seen on that piece of paper and from what you have just quickly shown me, that it is not what I wrote and it has been changed somewhat. Where did you get it from?”
Management: “Why did you name the school?”
Me: [sigh] “I didn’t… I never would name names or specific places, what you have there on that piece of paper is not what I wrote”
Management: “I think what you wrote is about me and the school… Why did you say those things?”
I rolled my eyes and started to wonder who slipped them this changed copy and more importantly who and why they changed it in some sick way to implicate me. Two suspects came to mind and funnily enough they were both mentioned in the conversation by the Thai management, in fact they were the only two Farang names that where mentioned in the conversation and funnily enough the two names represented people who not only real issues and major insecurities but cannot be trusted what so ever and have hidden agendas – never mind, that’s their problem not mine. Unfortunately Thai management would never know the difference even if it was written in Thai and shown to them in simple terms.
I did offer to go into the computer room to show them the original web version so that they could compare the two documents but as the eyes took on the normal Thai glazed look of not really being interested, I decided to not talk anymore as it was just pointless, besides no matter what I said now or did would make a difference because they were always going to be right going to be right even if they weren’t. As we wrapped up the conversation, they said: “Casanundra, I think you don’t understand Thai culture…”
Me: “Actually I do, I am married to one, I live here and have it rammed down my throat most days in one cultural form or another… I also understand the notion of Kreng Jai and being Nam Jai and well if we are going to compare apples with apples, I think, no I actually know that I know more about Thai culture than you do about our foreign ones, which is a shame considering you have 5 of them working here…”
Management: [Getting the last word in] “No I think you don’t understand Thai culture…” End of conversation, and so I got up and walked out.
As I reflect back on this particular event I realise it must be partially something to do with criticism and how the Thai’s don’t like to be criticised in any form what so ever, even if it is blatantly obvious and the reality of the situation. Back in the West we often take criticism, especially constructive criticism as an opportunity to improve, here it seems it’s a direct assault and should be avoided lest someone lose face over it and you don’t want to be doing that because how horrible it would be to look at muscles and sinews and bulging red streaked eyes because someone has just lost their face. Maybe the solution is for the Thai’s to clip on their faces with sturdier bolts and paper clips, or to use better stitching, then perhaps they may not lose their faces as often as they do.
So I started to thing more about the notion of Kreng Jai and Nam Jai in Thai culture instead. Perhaps I am not showing enough of this in my daily interactions, and that’s maybe the reason behind the comments to become more Thai. But in my western perspective of being an individual as opposed to being part of the Borg collective, I like to do things myself without relying on anyone, and I also like to accept people as equals based on experience and education and about who they are and how they interact with other people rather than just because they are older than me for example. Therefore in my western perspective, I cannot help thinking that Kreng Jai is some form of ‘sucking up’ and for me doing that back home in the West would be frowned upon and would get me the title of arse licker and brown nose but here it seems it’s revered and gets you browny points rather than a browny nose per sae. But no matter what, I don’t think I will ever suck up or brown nose anyone in the name of culture or otherwise and believe that they should accept me for who I am, and on this I think I am now beginning to realise where the cultural misfit I have is taking place here in Thailand. So I test the water on this and ask the wife a question.
Me: “Is it that you want me to spend more money, to give my salary to you each month and perhaps send some to your family, to become part of the Thai collective community and share and share with my new family and friends and to become more generous? Do you want me to not question anything nor to question those older than me or to try and change the system, to buy you a house and a big flash car to give you face and to build a nice new home for your parents?”
The wife’s eyebrows rise up and there is a little sparkle and wry smile there. Hmmmm perhaps this is the real reason after all. But she also knows better than to even make a comment about it, lest she get a lecture on financial planning and money management and so forth. To be honest, when I have interacted with the Thai’s, or certainly the ones who I choose to befriend or work with professionally (my last work place excluded) then they do like to show Kreng Jai and Nam Jai and are all predominantly friendly and generous to a fault and in their own way try their best to accommodate my foreign ways and to even understand them. Some of them recently even cracked open a superb bottle of 12 year old French red wine just for my benefit. I am not sure they understood the value of that bottle of wine but that for me deserves a huge favour in return at some point but that’s the difference between our cultures. If someone does me a favour then I do one back, if someone takes care of me, then I take care of them, it’s a mutual credit building exercise and works to both parties advantage. Perhaps I have yet to see the advantages that credit favour building under the notion of Kreng Jai gives back hence why I am still sceptical and untrusting of the whole thing, because in my western frame of mind I do tend to see it as a ploy to wean money or assets out of me and that simply won’t be happening any day soon because I am nobodies fool.
Maybe I should just do as a friend of mine suggests and just let it go and adopt the whole concept and see where it takes me, but my English sensibilities won’t let me. So for now my Kreng Jai abilities will extend out to maybe buying the odd dinner for friends and bringing my colleagues some fruit or chocolate instead. Maybe that will be enough to build up enough credits to get an honouree pseudo degree in Asian studies.
But if this is what they mean when I am asked to simply, ‘become more Thai’ then I don’t think I will be running along to becoming one any day soon – and one thing for sure is that when I start seeing the French, the Germans, the Brits, the Japanese, the Swedes, the Ozzies, the New Zealenders, the Yanks and the Canadians all becoming more Thai and adopting Thai ways, or conversely seeing the Thai’s adopting ‘our’ ways and to understanding us better with us all living in peace and cultural harmony then it really is time for us all to start exploring new horizons and to get on that Gattaca star ship or to enrol at the star trek academy and to join the star ship enterprise with Captain Pluk-ard and Captain Jane-way and to compare nodes with 7 of 9 and Data in search of new life and to pursuing intellectual endeavours.
Somehow though, I don’t think I will be seeing any of this happening any day soon in the one-way cultural acceptance highway that is Thailand.