You Can Lead A Horse To Water But You cannot Make It Drink
I am in a pickle with the wife and we have a minor dilemma on our hands… I haven’t done anything wrong, neither has she… the problem as I see it, is that ‘Thai’ society has classified us into two very different social and hierarchical parts of the Thai social and status ladder. Personally this issue hasn’t caused me any problems per sae because I can go up and down the social ladder like a rampant horny rat up a bride’s nighty with relative ease, but it does have the wife in a right old quandary because although she fully well knows where she sits in the big scheme of Thai society, I on the other hand do not.
But where to start on the issue and impact of status here… hmmmm, well I have been mulling over writing a piece about ‘the people you meet in Thailand’ but have always stopped at a certain point because there is a fine line about writing submissions on Stickman and to making yourself a target to some of the more unsavoury characters out there. We have all met them but there are some characters and events that although I would love to spill the beans about, I would never be able to do so while I reside in Thailand; at least not if I don’t want to get knee capped, barbecued, fed to the lions in a Bangkok zoo or to get involved in some kind of game of seeing who gets who first; but sometimes when I think about their behaviour and how they are (both foreigners and Thai), considering the notion of sabai jai and face in Thai culture, well it just amazes me how some of them have survived here for so long… oh hang on a sec, I think I do know, they do so by intimidation, by bullying those around them and by behaving like down right dishonourable wankers but that’s all I have to say about that… at least for the moment it is.
If I had to sum up the professional life I am ‘allowed’ to do here with the view of placing myself into a Thai hierarchical position, well I would say that I have probably gone up in the world just by my job title alone. I do have to say that I am living a totally different life to the one I had back home but for many different reasons. Back home it was all about deadlines and targets and push push push seal the deal kind of mentality! Here, it’s more about sleeping. I spend about 10% of my working time here attending laid back 5 star hotel lunches that go on for about 3 hours (paid for by others I may add…), to doing real work 50% to 60% of the time, to surfing the internet as a couch potato getting haemorrhoids and listening to the Ministry of Sound radio 20% of the time and the remaining 10% of my time doing high profile stuff such as meeting Thai princesses (new airport opening, University graduations), attending functions, meeting ambassadors, hi-so business people, doing Thai advertising and attending TV interviews (I bet that’s got you thinking…) and it’s a really hard life (NOT!)
But let me ask a question that we all should be asking here and that is, does the job I now hold really make me hi-so or medium so or any kind of ah-so (no jokes from the back please)… well the answer is of course it doesn’t but the average Thai will put you somewhere ‘up there’ once they know your position and title regardless of it being worthy or not.
I was invited to attend a Thai graduation ceremony recently (I have been to many back home but this was my first Thai one) and was one of about 6 foreigners sitting on the front row seats about 5 metres away from the princess and behind us were about 1000 or so graduates in waiting. Back home at a graduation ceremony, more often than not the family are all inside watching and cheering or whatever but here there is no family allowed inside and they all had to sit outside watching the whole thing on TV instead. Only visiting professors, high-so types and little street urchins from Liverpool like me were allowed in. Anyway, it was slightly boring as these events usually are and I was astounded by the speed of the students going through like they where on some sort of domino conveyor belt and how no-one came off the stage backwards was a miracle, although some did lose a shoe or two and stumbled. But what got me the most, was that when it was all over and we all came out, the amount of recognition and respect we just got because people saw us on TV sitting on the front row of seats inside the auditorium as the visiting professors was phenomenal. For the rest of the day and a few days afterwards even when walking home, I was treated with the utmost respect and was getting wai saluted from left, right and bloody centre from parents, extended families and graduates alike and all because I sat on the front row. But does this really allow me to deserve status and respect? For all they knew I could have just been some mad axe man who just happened to find his way in to the auditorium but apparently my title and position and being seen at the right places does gives me some sort of status here…. Quite bizarre!
What about money then… Well I don’t get paid a lot in the job that I do here regardless of the perceived status that it brings but it’s all relative anyway and who else can say that they get paid to attend 5 star lunches and surf the Internet whilst living in a nice, tropical warm country? The issue of money is not important here though, but what is important to me however is that I enjoy what I do and more importantly that I am allowed to enjoy what I do too… I actually feel like I am being listened to in my job unlike many folk who do get to work here with the Thais, but I also am under no illusions either that they only listen because of their western educations. Had they not been western educated I would for sure be butting the walls by now. I do manage however to save about 450,000 THB per year so I am doing better than most I think but it would be nice to earn more so that I can save more too for the inevitable exit that will occur one day, and I do struggle to see how many people can come here and stay without having at least some form of safety net behind them. I also don’t own much here either and don’t have the expense of a car nor a house and so that all helps to keeping the bills low, although I do own all of the furniture and appliances and TV in the apartment that I rent. So I know it can’t be anything to do with money that is giving me status here as I don’t actually look like I have any… although I do have some hidden away in an offshore account somewhere.
But I still get to meet many hi-so people here and it is here in this new world of hi-so connections and alleged social climbing and status that I am now having a new problem, a new dilemma, and a new twist in the Thailand hierarchical and social conscious state that I now have to deal with… because no matter how much I or the wife will grow in status in Thai society, she in particular cannot or will never really be allowed to become a part of it all. Don’t get me wrong though, my wife is lovely, friendly, educated, and smart and there is nothing fundamentally wrong with my wife ‘as a person’, in fact she has a wonderful smile and gets on with all walks of life. Unfortunately this is Thailand and here you get judged and slotted in accordingly and as such she has her limits, and her limits seem to be best placed at the office girl level and to dealing with junior to middle management types. This is where she is comfortable and where she feels more at home. It’s also where I feel more at home too but when she has to mingle with the hi-so folk, or even gets to meet the highly educated professional western jet set type, well I simply rise to the challenge whereas the wife simply runs away and hides or sits very quiet for several hours and doesn’t interact too well with those around her… this is then often followed by several hours of her giving me grief for even daring to put her in that position in the first place. I try to explain to her that her MBA studies will help her break down some of these barriers and personal inferiority ghosts she has (wishful thinking perhaps) but when I discussed this issue with my good friend in NZ he just said to me; “listen, you may be able to lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink you know…” and it was that one liner from him that made me stop in my tracks and realise something or rather made me look again in my ‘let’s not go there tray’.
In all reality he has probably hit the nail on the head and the new problem for me to now resolve is that no matter what I do… in fact no matter what any of us do here in Thailand, is that we are never going to be allowed to move our ladies very far from where they perceive themselves to be… or more importantly where Thai society allows and perceives them to be and no matter how educated you make them or how educated you are, you are always going to be both categorised into an unwelcome slot, be it correct or not.
I was on my way home last week and I had to go via the Novotel Lotus on Sukhumvit Soi 34. It was about 10 PM and on the way, the taxi driver was doing my head in because he was making a lot of assumptions and we were having this conversation in Thai:
Taxi Driver: “You want to go to Soi Cowboy?”
Me: “No thanks, I don’t like…”
Taxi Driver: “Nana then?”
Me: “No thanks…”
Taxi Driver: “How about I take you to Patpong?”
Me: “No… Soi Rangnam please”
Taxi Driver: “We could be in Pattaya in 2 hours, only 1,800 baht, I’ll get you there in time to get a lady…”
Me: “Oh for fuck’s sake… Bpai glab baan Krup!”
I got home eventually and told the wife about the conversation and she just laughed but rightly or wrongly this guy was making assumptions that put me right in the thick of the perception that all foreigners who come here are sexpats. It pisses me off.
Now we could all argue that one shouldn’t care about such things, and to be honest, I personally don’t give a flying cahoonas for it, but when it comes to my job and the wife dealing with the hi-so set, well that is a different issue because she actually does get a little perturbed about it all and is acutely aware of her perceived status in the Thai social ladder. Even Stick once mentioned something similar in one of his earlier articles where he was frowned upon for taking his darker skinned girlfriend into work one day, but I didn’t realise how big a problem it was until a few days ago when we were invited to a very hi-so dinner party and the wife made a billion and one excuses why she shouldn’t go… and she didn’t, so I went on my own and was promptly asked about 40 times where my wife was and how I shouldn’t have left her at home and how bad I was for not bringing her etc… I just shrugged it all off and in all reality it was no big deal for me but reminded me of where my wife feels most comfortable and I wasn’t going to push it.
When I arrived for this very posh dinner with a string quartet stuck in the corner playing some Vivaldi I couldn’t help realise that the tables where set in a way that skin colours of a similar type were all put together and it couldn’t have been so obvious. I swear it was like looking at a chequers board with dark skin / light skin all alternating down the room and had I hopped over all the black skinned tables with my white skin as the opposing piece I would have won the game for sure. Furthermore, as the night wore on there were clear divisions going on with the white foreigners running between both sets, but there where definitely clear class distinctions and never shall the twain meet. I have to say though that the darker skinned Thais where all having a whale of a time though… What I did find amusing as well was that the white foreign females and the not so hi-so normal level headed foreigners seemed to all be hanging out with the darker skinned Thais while those with status and titles oozing out of their pores stuck with the lighter skinned Thais… well you can guess who was having the most fun, but I had never seen such a class divide on such an obvious scale before, quite an eye opener.
As a professional here in Thailand I believe that your intellect and professionalism are something that are constantly being challenged and any notions you have of imparting your worldly skills and knowledge onto the developing world that is Thailand may as well be thrown into the nearest bucket of squid and cheesy slops because they just don’t want to know or listen (although be careful what you put into that bucket because the Thais will either piss into it or try and eat anything that cannot climb out of it instead). But I always remember meeting one guy, a Doctor Michael from Scandinavia who had a doctorate in Psychology and is working here as an English teacher. He was telling me how he positively had to *run* out of Cambodia one day because he failed to realise one important factor when dealing with the Asians, and that was to be as corrupt as they were if you wanted to survive. He set up an English language school aimed at graduates leading to an MA in English, but he tried to do things above board and had honourable notions of being incorruptible, but he quickly realised that he made a mistake with this because when he refused to grease the appropriate palms he was led to the border by gun point and told in no uncertain terms not to come back!’
Anyway, we got chatting about the Thais as one does and how difficult it is to get a decent job here that matches your skills and experience and he came up with a cracker of a question and asked me ‘why I thought this was’. I replied that I guess it was because I was just the wrong nationality in these proud lands of Thailand and how they would never allow a foreigner to have a position of power here because of the issue of face etc… and he said, ‘no, that’s not it at all, it’s because they believe that no foreigner would ever be able to do the job as well as they can, think about it, they don’t believe you can even drive a car until they see it with their own eyes and even then, they will always say they are better drivers than you despite evidence to the contrary… it’s just the Thai mindset!’
Maybe he has a point.
On the other end of the scale however, I do also get invited to many office weekends and parties that the wife has in her company. Everyone at my wife’s company knows me and so I get invited along as the token farang. At first the parties where interesting and fun and I saw some wonderful insights into how the Thais like to party. They tend to start the day with team building exercises and events akin to it’s a knock out competitions that involved balloons, bananas, lots of chanting and dancing and lots of friendly banter going on. This all then culminates with some sort of cash or gold gift being awarded to the winners. It also leaves many of the teams looking a little battle weary afterwards too with white powder marked faces, either that or the notion of wanting to have whiter skin gets taken a little too far.
Later in the evening there would be the party, and in this particular case the party was called ‘Back to School’ and everyone was dressed up as school kids in school uniforms and it was just amazing how many 30 and 40 something ladies suddenly started looking like Mattayom 6 students again… Can you imagine if the western ladies back home tried to achieve a similar result? At best they would probably all look like a bus load of fat old hookers and dinner ladies from the local comprehensive school. The night also had some interesting girls in red as the night’s entertainment dance and singing troupe and some of their moves had me wondering which bar they practised in. On this particular occasion we all had a great old time and it was fun to see how the office enjoyed having their parties.
But I quickly started to tire of the Thai night outs and on my fourth such trip it was becoming very much same old same old, with dancing girls and Karaoke being the order of the day so I decided to give it all up as I was getting bored but what finally killed it for me was when an event happened between me and the senior boss of the company that had loyalties split and made him lose some serious face.
We were all in Rayong and for some odd reason we ended up in what I can best describe as a derelict housing estate that was now being used as some sort of Butlins holiday home. Worst of all, unlike other events where me and the wife had our own hotel room, on this occasion they wanted us all to share a house together, sleeping in communal rooms and sharing bathrooms and I am talking about 15 to 20 people per house here. I was not impressed and told the wife I wasn’t sharing a room with anyone, least of all a bunch of Thais that I didn’t really know that well. So we got elevated to senior status and secured a room to ourselves but that put the wife into an awkward position because behind the scenes many people where frowning about it. Tough shit was my answer. Anyway, the fun and games went on as normal during the day with the Thais using some of the derelict shell houses as a place for hide and seek and as some kind of treasure hunt. It was ok but I don’t think even the Thais were that impressed at the venue. Later that night, the wife and I were the last to leave the communal house and when we got to the night’s entertainment area, there was a very long communal table with all the Thais sitting along it merrily tucking away into the food, so we arrived and went looking for our places at the table… but of course there weren’t any, so I just shrugged my shoulders, and went for a walk down to the beach area and looked out towards the setting sun whilst keeping an eye on what if anything was going to be done about it.
So I saw a table appear with 6 chairs and it was plonked some 20 feet ‘away’ from the rest of the diners and one or two of her friends moved over to join us at the table. But I wasn’t impressed, and thought that if they didn’t want us to be part of the table then so be it. So I took the wife’s hand and dragged her off up to the main restaurant area, sat down and started to order our own food. I could see that the wife was in a dilemma at this and all her friends at the table were wondering what the hell was going on but this was now a matter of pride and face between me and her boss. It was a bit childish when I think back to it, but it was just one of those things that made me dig my heels in and not budge on principal, besides the food I was ordering was better than the shit they had on the tables down where they were sat so I was happy but the wife was increasingly less so and I could see her shifting in her seat torn between loyalty to me and not being part of the collective. I knew exactly what was going on and knew the impact it could cause for her and me but I wasn’t interested and just told her to stick her ground next to me using such notions as ‘if her friends were real friends then they will be over’ and I was right. Within about 5 minutes all of her closest friends had moved cart blanche to our table, drinks and food alike, and within a further 10 minutes different grades of manager were slowly filtering their way up to the table to come and ask us to join them all on the main table, even bringing food offerings along the way. In each case I refused and we stayed where we were. At one point though the wife was a flood of tears and was begging me to go down to the main table but I refused to budge… <I admire a man of principle, but from what you have said here, you went way too far. A flood of tears from your wife and still you didn’t budge….hmmmm, seems questionable – Stick> I had a point to make and I was not so subtly making it. All the time I was being impassive and nonchalant about the whole thing, but could see the stir it was causing.
This was now an issue of face and a meeting of two equal ranks across the battlefield and I wasn’t going anywhere until the boss man himself came and made peace and accepted that he made an error by not ensuring that we had a place at the main table. It probably took about 45 minutes all together with us slowly going through the ranks of his managers before he finally came up and made a peace offer to foot the bill for the food at our table, for which we gracefully accepted and then went down to join the throng. I think we all learnt a lesson that day, especially those on the Thai side of the encampment and the boss was caught between being my wife’s boss and treating me of equal stature which in his Thai mind could never be allowed because I was married to a Thai of less status to himself and he simply didn’t know how to play it, at least that’s my take on it.
I did worry about how this would impact the wife but nothing seems to have happened untoward, in fact she has received two pay awards since and I have been asked to join many a party since then too but I have always somehow been busy ever since this event.
The other time I knew that class (or something) was an issue was when me and the wife met up with a senior friend who I had worked with for several years as he passed through Bangers one day. Things where going fine at first and then the wife started to refuse to even enter into any part of the conversation with us. It puzzled both me and my friend. So we thought it was a language thing, so we started talking slower and we even made a ‘huge’ point of asking my wife specific questions to include her in the conversation but all she did was just gave low key, one syllable yes / no answers… in the end, we just tried to live with it the best we could and me and my friend enjoyed our meal and had a great laugh catching up. In the end, my friend went out of her way to hug my wife, even gave her a kiss on the cheeks as a good bye… for me it was a successful get together and the wife was just being extraordinarily shy for no obvious reason. Boy did we have a fight when we got home though. I very rarely ever argue with the wife and can probably count 3 arguments in the year we have been married, and when we do it’s usually about a face issue. In this case, she was miffed because she said she couldn’t understand our English and so felt out of it, despite us trying to include her at every opportunity and talking slower… but then the argument took a turn and I eventually got accused of all sorts of things; even of wanting to sleep with my friend who I had not only known for many years but she was also about 54 years old too… err hello! Needless to say, we have now agreed that whenever one of my more western educated friends are in town that the wife stays at home and I entertain alone.
But what is it with this issue of class and status in Thailand anyway? I mean when you ask what it is that constitutes class and status and indeed what is it exactly that makes a person classy well you will find a whole sting of answers.
This issue of class and status is huge in Thailand and let’s make no bones about it; it is one of those fundamental building blocks of how Thailand works. Many here in Thailand would probably say that the cornerstone of status and class in Thai society is based on how much money you have, breeding (predominantly Thai Chinese / Luk Kreung for the superstars), coupled with the kind of education you have (the more western the education, the better it is) but for me, I have trouble with these three categories mainly because for me the corner stones of what constitutes class and a person of stature involves such things as honesty, integrity, and nobility, all of which are unfortunately lacking in huge quantities in the average Thai fabric of society. So let me ask first then, does having an education give you class or status? Hell no! is the answer but what it does do is help you become more balanced and open minded and it does open doors that where previously closed, although I have to say there are still many alleged educated idiots out there who are not only arrogant but arrogant fools too and who have not learned anything. When you speak to a Thai about what their education means to them, they will more often than not say high GPA scores and making my family happy to have achieved a high GPA. There is rarely any thinking about actually learning anything along the way, as long as their GPA score is high.
So perhaps it’s the money that is important. But does having money really denote class in a person. I think ‘no’ again is the answer and although it all helps give the impression of being hi-so, I know many a rich idiot out there too and one only has to see how some of the lottery winners back home suddenly behave now that they are millionaires to see that money and class are two very distinct things. If you look at how many grade 6 educated bar girls are currently sitting on farang fed gold mines or inherited life insurance payouts after hubby farang popped his clogs well I wouldn’t want to put any of them in the bracket of having any class, would you?
OK then, it must be the breeding and title that you have. But what did breeding do for Little Lord Fontleroy back home who had to endure a life of cold showers, being buggered by the prefects in the boarding school as he grew up and who now sits in his inherited mansion in his Wellington boots, tweed trousers and jacket whilst fondling his shotgun and eating runner beans from the little vegetable patch he has at the back of the apple tree orchid wondering how on earth he can continue with the council tax payments and electricity bills. He is of course thankful that he still holds an honouree title in the House of Lords that he also inherited from good old pa but so much for breeding back home then because it all reality he doesn’t have anything either. When you look at breeding in Thailand, well it all comes from the money orientated Chinese (who along with their Japanese brothers) believe that all other civilisations, especially us white foreign devils are uncivilised and shouldn’t really be here anyway and that their tradition and how much money they can make in under the table business deals puts them higher than everyone else on the food chain. But does this really constitute good breeding? One has to wonder about such things.
Perhaps it’s just being classy that does it. I have heard this term used about cars, but does having a beautiful paint job, curvy lines and a figure hugging slim lined body really denote someone or something as being classy? Many people would like to think so, but me, I say there is no whore better than a high class one.
So what about me and the average Thai or Farang? Do we have class or status here? Well of course the answer is ‘yes’ we do but it’s one that the Thais make up and put you into. Personally, I have to probably say that the real answer to this question is that ‘no’ many of the Thais despite what they think about themselves are no better than some hillbilly hick tribe not long out of the caves and some of the foreigners who come here are no more advanced than that either, despite what they think about themselves, and that the class system here was introduced simply to make people feel better about themselves.
Anyway, what got me thinking about this whole subject in the first place was that I had a phone call the other day from my very good friend in NZ and he couldn’t help but merrily gloat smugly away about his new life in NZ (he recently left England) and how it was the best decision he had ever made for himself and his family. His phone call came in on the back of an e-mail that he sent me several hours earlier showing me pictures of his new football field sized house that he had just managed to finally buy after finally wading through a few estate agent hassles down there. I have to admit his house is lovely, it looks over the beach and has a big glass balcony to vegetate out on and no doubt will provide him with the best views for sun rises, bikini clad ladies, Tsunami sized tidal waves, thunderstorms and sea wrecks… but if I’m not wrong about such things, I am sure he will soon forget about the great view he has as he and the family begin to embroil themselves in their everyday life there. In addition to that, he has also managed to secure for himself a new job, and the pay he is such that it puts him somewhere near the top 1% of the highest earners that one could possibly earn in NZ as a salaried man. It would be easy to just say that he was bullshitting of course, but as we practically grew up together and trust each other implicitly I have no reason to not trust him on this… the Jammy git!
It wasn’t long into the conversation when the inevitable question that two such friends could have came about, and that was: “Listen, you are well educated, you have several degrees that span multiple disciplines and your skills and knowledge are unique in that they are in great demand down here. Why don’t you just get yourself out of that Bangkok and get yourself down to NZ where you can earn some real dosh and put your talents to good use instead of being truly wasted there.”
Uh oh! Now there’s an idea… and as we all know, the longer you stay here the itchier your feet become and so good ideas and opportunities like this are always welcome and could actually be the catalyst for getting the hell out of Dodge City… but wait, screech! Unbeknown to my friend, I have already given such an idea some thought for oh I don’t know, at least 10 seconds, and have dismissed the idea as just being one of those grass is greener on the other side notions… don’t get me wrong though because it was certainly a tempting offer that’s for sure, but as I explained to him, my goal for coming to Asia in the first place was not about the money or about landing the great job that paid shit loads of cash because in all reality, I could have those any time I want and I actually left those opportunities back in England as I just didn’t want the stress and petty corporate crap in my life anymore… although some would say that I have merely replaced western bullshit with Tai officialdom and bullshit instead.
What my friend doesn’t know is that I also went through the motions on the NZ website to see if I could qualify to emigrate to NZ. Now they work on some point scoring system based on education, experience, key skills and so forth, and what I found when I did it was amusing to say the least. First I entered my details as if I was a single man along with my qualifications and experience and I got something like 150 points (you need 90 to qualify). I then entered it again as a married man to an educated Thai woman who spoke TOEFL English to something like 600 or above… the score came down to about 130 points… still a good pass and we could apply, but then I entered it a third time to reflect my ‘wife’s reality’ of although being educated, she does have a low / medium English ability with a TOEFL of say 500 and as such we failed to qualify to emigrate to NZ and couldn’t quite reach the magical figure of 90 points as a couple – oops! – so at this moment in time, even if I wanted to emigrate to NZ I wouldn’t be able to unless I did so as a single guy and most certainly not as a married man. I could always go alone of course and the wife can just stay here at home in Thailand, but we all know that Thai girls at home alone behave like little puppies and leave pee puddles on the carpet and pine quite a lot, so I guess that’s not a real option either. We could always get divorced mind… but I don’t want to put her or me through that either so it seems my options are limited to either staying on here or to just going back to the UK or even Europe, with the latter two options not really being ‘that’ appealing just yet, so Thailand it is for now then. It does however bring a new meaning to the word ball and chain though – ho hum!
It was nice to have the idea put my way though and I can always keep it on the back burner for one of those acid rainy days in Bangkok to mull over, but for now, after due consideration and all that, my answer is ‘no thanks’ as it just doesn’t fit in with my plans ‘right now’ thank you very much, maybe next year!
But oh… did it get me thinking… because there he is with his trappings of success around him and a great job and I’m here in Thailand trying to find my way through cultural minefields and swimming upwards in a very fast Thai stream with treacherous obstacles coming the other way. What it did do though was get me thinking about my wife and her perceived status or pecking order in Thai society compared to mine (both allowed and perceived) and more importantly how she would fit outside of Thai society. It also made me think about the opportunities we could make for ourselves and the people we will need to interact with both here and maybe back home on a regular basis.
So like I said at the beginning of this submission, we are in a pickle. I am constantly being asked to take my wife with me to dinner parties and events that I know she is not going to be comfortable in attending and I don’t want to attend many of the company functions she has to go to either because I find them incredibly inane and boring. She is also apparently a hindrance on any plans I may have to emigrate to NZ and as long as I stay in Thailand we are going to be ok, but as with all things in Thailand where we are merely accepted as floating entities I do have my exit plans and strategies in place and right now with this issue of class and perceived status of a Thai both at home and overseas well I am not so sure where or how she is going to fit into a plan that takes me away from the shores of Thailand because as my friend in NZ said, “I may be able to take my Thai wife to the water, but sure as hell I cannot make her drink from it…”
And oh so many other Thai / farang couples are in exactly the same situation….not easy at all.