Readers' Submissions

BG102 – Caveat Lector (Circles)

  • Written by Lecter
  • September 1st, 2006
  • 14 min read


Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

I’ve been reading a few of the articles lately, and some of them are awarded “Star” status. In BG102 I hope to discuss some of the things in these articles, some I agree with and some I don’t agree with. I’ve called this “Caveat Lector”, not because it’s cynically close to my pseudonym but because it’s a legal term meaning “Beware what you read”.

In perusing the never ending flow of articles, one gets a certain sense of doom. If you read DRB’s latest epic (which I thought was quite good actually, even though I felt he panders overly to the Thai side of the fence, more on this later), you may get a feeling of quiet despair, not really speaking Thai, not really understanding some of the cultural differences, not really knowing what all those people in the village are saying about you. Well BG102, as it is inappropriately called (as this isn’t just a BG submission) will hopefully cover some of the pros and cons of getting into a relationship in Bangkok, Philippines or Asia in general.

The concept of circles

A few of my colleagues took a cultural diversity course, being part of a large expatriate force here in Bangkok a few years ago. One of the takeaways they got, was this concept of what’s important in a Thai's life (Man or Woman) and how this effects any decisions they make in day to day life. I’ve had a go at an article to explain what it meant to me after many discussions on the subject, and it really seems to make a lot of sense, especially when you take in a lot of the experiences you read about, or have actually had. This is purely my interpretation of the “influence circles” in Thai life.

Let’s take Circle One, this is the inner circle, it’s the one where the parents and siblings or grandparents (typically the mother's parents) are connected with the lady or man you’re involved with. This is their most important circle. If anything will affect this circle in a negative fashion, they will avoid it (even if the issue is just their perception, and you’ll get a lot of this), and they are under no misconception that this inner circle is the one they are to look after (and this is repeatedly told to them as soon as they can understand anything). Now in my experience this is true, unless you are a Thai male. Thai males seem to have “no care and no responsibility” in this inner circle. A Thai male is meant to marry into another matriarchal circle and be dealt with in there. I wonder whether this is the reason the mothers pander and love their sons so much. They foresee them marrying and disappearing into another family and being lost forever. This is a western trait as well, with the female siblings in a family being far closer knit with their parents than the females that the son(s) marries. The main difference here is that the circle cannot be entered. You are immediate family, or you are not (Grandparents seem to fall in and out of this circle, I’ve seen different interpretations). This affects the entire decision making process in a Thai family. Marrying one of them puts you in a circle, but not this one. To make my point, one would have to test this circle. I don’t suggest any readers take their better halves to task over this, it’s a lose-lose situation. You may actually crack the circle, but things are never the same again. It’s like getting upset when “mum” is asking for money (not all “mums” do ask for money, but for the sake of the example, bear with me), this will alienate your better half. It’s a direct attack on the most inner circle, it hurts the most when you make them choose. Don’t make them choose and your life will get easier. Clearly where the inner circle is making unreasonable demands on your better half you are in serious trouble. In my opinion, it’s better to not be in a relationship where this is occurring. The book advertised on Stick's site (Only13.net) is a classic example of the pull of this most inner circle.

Circle two, this is the extended family. Cousins, Aunties, Uncles and Grandparents (male side, typically). This is the greater body of people that make up the extended family. I’ve deliberately left out brothers and sisters in law here and their families, as they are in a circle further out. How many can remember a call for help from outside circle one, let alone circle two? This family unit can be in or out of favor based on their fiscal status, criminal status of one of the members or for any manner of reasons. This relationship with the wider family unit is very similar to a western greater family unit. Circle one is a sub set of this, as there are no clear lines here. Sisters will help sisters always, even across circles and the Thai “Alpha” males accept this as part of their lot in life. In the Philippines, this circle concept is relevant as well and is even more pronounced as the “Alpha” male traditionally gives his pay check to the wife, she takes out what’s required for the family budget and the husband is allocated an allowance. In my experience in that culture, the woman is continuously harangued for “loans” and the husband is assumed to have nothing to do with fiscal responsibility (sound familiar?). This is a little different here in Thai culture, depending on who is working and who is not, but typically the women pay the bills and organize the house. (And no, not all Thai men are useless lazy morons, this seems to manifest itself more in the poorer regions where the coddled men are not encouraged to look after themselves). Circle two is tight with circle one, but there are lines that must not be crossed.

Circle Three. This is probably where you fit in IF you are the husband. This includes other Thai brother in laws, sister in laws etc. Circle three is where you’re taken in and looked after, but the rope holding circle three to circle one is thin and at best even tied with a firm knot. Circle three contains all of those people and relatives that are close to the family unit, but are not part of it. This will include friends from University and high school, work friends and colleagues. All is not equal in this circle and there are shades of grey as to where you might fit in. If you are the new boyfriend you’re probably really only a “circle five” person at that point. Thai girls typically don’t like parading boyfriends willy nilly in amongst their inner circles as it gives a bad impression. To be introduced into the circles one and two, you’re doing something right. There is a caveat of course, if the parents are knowingly taking money from you, knowing that their “luk sao” is on the game, these rules are easily dispensed with or overlooked. You’re still a circle five, however, but you’ll be falsely treated as a circle three. Signs of this are a very early introduction to the family, trips to the province to meet mum, phones handed to you to say hello to family you’ve never met. Circle three is probably as good as it gets for 95% of farangs in a Thai family. DRB ascertains that getting a Thai identity is the answer, well I agree, this will go a long way to being a circle two / circle three border player. Being in circle three is not a bad thing, it’s just “it is what it is!” And you’ll be accorded the due respect of your position in their lives. Clearly having children drags them into circle one, and that’s one of the odd things that happens, your child will be circle one, and you’ll be circle three. But get over it, you’re still not really going to notice it as it’s so transparent to everyday life. It’s only evident when cracks appear in your relationship, or someone dies or is hospitalized. Watch the circles “activate” and you’ll see clearly how it all works.

Circle Four . This is the circle of work or obligation. This encompasses the work ethic, going to work, being part of a working organization. Going to work for a Thai, in my experience, is about necessity (when they start) and moves on to “face” as they get more senior in an organization. A Thai will leave an organization if a rival is given a promotion over them. This circle epitomizes what we perceive as “work ethic” as it’s influence on the Thai persona is far less than the emphasis placed on the inner circles. Don’t get me wrong, they all want to be paid, but if they have to take a day off to get “dad” to the hospital, they will. I’ve had Thai workers ask me for sick leave three months in advance. I smile, thinking I should approve it, as they’ll not be here anyway that day. Many of the work colleagues will be well known, and close friends and will be part of circle three. The rest are out here in circle four. Plenty of “wai’s” and “ka’s” all around to show the correct levels of respect. But Thai workers are like western ones, once they’re next door chomping on a bucket of noodles and some “gai tod”, they’ll be slagging off the boss and all the other slack arse workers to their hearts content. Circle four is like a work function, they do it because they have to. Circle four covers all of the things a Thai feels obligated to do, people they are obligated to talk to. What is worth noting here, is that you easily fall into this circle as a farang, and you’ll mistake the attention you get as respect and liking. In fact you’re getting what anyone they see will get, lots of smiles, nods, wais and “kas”. Be under no illusion that this actually means anything. They’ll drop you in it sooner than crack another rambuttan at lunch time. This is similar in western society, but no one ever admits it. The other thing about work ethic is that it can appear that the Thais are lazy or irresponsible. This is not the case. What is happening is that the obligation is wearing off. This is why Thai companies are quite Machiavellian in some of their rules for their staff. In a large western corporate organization it cannot work like that. Thais have mixed feelings about working in a large western corporate, and I always notice there is animosity towards the “foreigners” in meetings. One has to work hard to get these people on side (especially if you’re project based, like me and have no “weight” in the organization you’re attempting to work in). Senior Farangs are given due respect, but it’s all face. From what I can tell, and from those I’ve spoken to, a senior Thai is going to get a lot more genuine respect than a Senior Farang, even though, outwardly one could not really tell.

Circle Five – The rest of the world. One could be forgiven here for thinking that Thais are like Americans. They know nothing outside their borders (hehehe, broad generalizations for all). Asking rudimentary questions of many Thais from all walks of life will get you some interesting answers. As a New Zealander, I have to actually show them a map to explain where I come from. General knowledge here is limited. Schools don’t teach Thais much about living life, sex education, relationships, where in the world they are or even how to add. I believe it’s because it’s all related to the outer circle number five. This is where the disdain for everything not included in the inner four circles comes out. This is why you get comments regarding the suffocation of 63 protestors in the south like “Well they were bad”, “Why were they there anyway?”. It always looks to us like there’s no value for life here. This is not so, it’s just that the circle five is that, it’s the Pluto of the Thai influence circles. Now you’re firmly in circle five when you start out with your girl. Slowly you’re dragged in circle by circle. How many times I see the boyfriend sitting outside, patiently waiting while Circle two and circle one activities take place. Thais know, instinctively, what’s going on. They stay out of it if they are not in the correct circle if they know what is best for them. Circle five is everything else, and Thais ignore it with pleasure. They watch the gore and violence on TV with sadistic pleasure. They go to the temples and donate to make merit. They will give the beggar in the street 10 baht consistently. Circle five is not a bad thing, it’s just the warm fuzzy circle that protects Thais from the reality around them. You think that smile you’re getting from the lady serving you means anything? Is the girl in the bar you’re talking to really interested? Think about the circles and you’ll have some perspective. Also think of the internal struggles and justifications a BG has to overcome to actually lie on her back while you do your grim business. Yes, you cynically think that the money makes a difference. Sorry, you’re wrong; it’s the circles that make the difference. She’s only doing what she has to, to meet the obligations of her inner circles.

Conclusion?

Many issues occur when these rules break. Thais are renowned for their ferocious and unrelenting tempers when they decide they have to react at all. “Beware the women with a knife at midnight” when you’re coming home late with lipstick on the collar and hair all over you. Beware trying to deliberately crack the circles. Working within them is where I believe DRB was coming from recently in his article. I personally believe that you can go too far with this as well. I don’t want a Thai identity, and I probably will never have one, but I can get on fine with the inner circle, as long as I let them be their inner circle. On occasion, they’ll open a circle door, ask for some input, and then close it again.

This is as good as it gets. The key to success is understanding where you stand, be happy there, enjoy Thailand, your spouse (or GF) and live a happy full life. Sure you’re going to effect their lives fiscally and in a positive manner, but you’re never going to be inner circle.

Thais don’t care what happens outside circle four. Now this is changing, there is social responsibility creeping in to Thai society. But when you analyze what Thais care about, you can see it manifesting itself in one of the five circles.


Stickman's thoughts:

A very interesting way to look at life in Thailand. I like the way you explained that most farang guys in a relationship will never get closer than circle 3. This comment has often been made with farang husbands coming way down the list of things in his wife's life in terms of importance…