When East Meets West – Or Avoiding The Pattaya Superman Leap
The relationships between the Western males and Thai females, I find, provide a unique view of how Western and Asian cultures interact. Attractions keep Westerners returning to Thailand, while aggravations consistently drive them crazy. In Thailand, one can see clearly the consequences of such misunderstandings, from lost fortunes, Pattaya Superman leaps, to slit wrists and psychotic mood swings.
So that you know the baggage I carry, I am a fifty something Asian American, born and raised in California. I have been visiting Southeast Asia for the past ten years, and lived briefly in Japan when foreigners were still considered an exotic novelty. Since my knowledge of Thailand is from being a tourist, and as I tend to generalize as to the similarities of Asian cultures, some of my assertions may not be correct. If so, my apologies, and I would appreciate any corrections.
But first let me say that the Western man comes to Thailand with several needs he does not even realize he has, which Thailand satisfies. Western culture, because of the emphasis on individualism, produces a lot of lonely people. The protestant, post pagan work ethic with a restricted kind of fun really has left the Westerner pretty uptight in comparison with the Thais' relaxed view of the world. And finally, western life is just boring. A life of security and predictability breeds a desire for some adventure (Be careful what you wish for, young man).
The Westerner brings some of his own baggage that is contrary to Thai attitudes. The Westerner who can at least afford to travel to Thailand, is probably financially well off. Many may feel even feel some sort of first world guilt over having so much money, or feel an obligation to give to those less fortunate (So what does a Thai person really think when you just give away your money to those street beggars?). This is the entirely opposite view that a Thai person may have about money, since most will have to work not just hard, but like hell, and lie, cheat or steal along the way (white collar as well as working class). The Westerner has some notions of equality and all people being created equal. Somehow this carries with it a need to spread that equality to all his interactions, wherever he is. (That Thai doorman is definitely not your equal. Do not wai him because he has helped you with your luggage.) Since democracy is an entirely Western concept, this idea of equality is foreign to the Thai person, who knows that society is an ordered ladder, with hierarchical rules.
Finally, the Westerner, having grown up in an intellectual, scientific society that values honest discussion and truth, still cannot tolerate the concept of someone lying to him. No one likes being lied to, but to the Thai, truth is not a bedrock of their society. In fact, a Thai person may at times feel that the Westerner forced him or her to lie. How? I will explain this at the end of my submission.
The attractions that the Westerner finds in Thailand may actually disarm him of his usual defense mechanisms, leaving him unprotected without him even realizing it. When a Westerner hits the bar scene he sees that Thai smile which is so inviting and beguiling. This hospitality comes from a history of welcoming and accepting foreigners, giving something but also cleverly keeping or getting something in return.
Historically, Thailand was never colonized. It was able to play off France and England against each other so that neither was able to take over the country. It gave each country something, but also hinted that the other European country was also watching affairs in Siam very closely. This shows an ability to manipulate foreigners for its own survival (sound familiar?).
Thailand did not actively fight the Japanese in WWII, thus was not subjected to the kind of destruction seen in its neighboring country of Burma. During the Vietnam War, Thailand quickly saw the advantage of welcoming the U.S. request for military bases, getting U.S. dollars and, I am told, a highway system as well. During the Asian currency crisis, Thailand originally resisted WMF reform requests, but then did a turnaround and complied. It was the first country to recover from the crisis. The guiding foreign policy philosophy of its past leaders may be summed up as “We may be poor, we may be weak, but we’re not stupid.” This attitude, as sort of cloaked cleverness, has probably permeated down to how the average Thai deals with the average Westerner, when the Thai person is in the obviously weaker position or desires something. The lonely Westerner will relish this open, without any reservations type of friendliness. Sometimes it is just that. Sometimes it is for a reason.
Luckily, Thailand has instituted fun, or pleasure, as part of its culture, and, in concert with its stubbornness to give up any of its Thai culture, it still maintains a sense of sanuk (although many people in Bangkok will say this is disappearing, with the Western style race for money and the higher standard of living. Damn it, those Westerners). As evidence of this, getting a doucing of water during Songkran is still accepted without complaint by Western clothed office workers. If something unpleasant has to been done, then by putting some sanuk into it, the task at least becomes tolerable. So if you are fat, at least be funny.
Sex is still on everyone’s mind in Thailand, guilt-free (maybe the only thing free in Thailand?). Because equality of the sexes does not exist, women do not raise the issue that any hint of sexual behavior is demeaning to a female. In fact, Thai women seem to be constantly joking about sex, flirting easily, acting out their femininity. This is a tool that the Western women have lost in their drive for equality, and maybe why they have become so uninteresting. Thai women know this is one of their weapons, and use it without reservation (Thus, you males, beware, of those siren songs). For them, the war between the sexes is not so much as the Western style of frontal combat to gain ground and position, but guerilla warfare to get what they need. Why do Western men fall so heavily for Asian women? Perhaps because the Western women they grew up with no longer have to resort to these guerilla tactics, that unconditioned Western men are thoroughly taken in by them. My opinion is that Thai men do not step into half the traps that Thai women lay out. To the Western man, it may appear that the Thai man does not pay that much attention to his Thai woman, but I have a feeling he has just seen it all before, and knows when to sidestep (or when to jump in).
Buddhism plays a huge role in the Thai view of morality. Thai people in general know what is right and wrong. Every bargirl knows what she is doing is bad (I hope!). That she does it anyway is what is interesting. I will make a very broad statement and say that in short, I think that they do not have a lot of conviction, or what you might call strength of character, to withstand against the temptation to go out and make the quick and easy money. As evidence of this, I would say that in two years a smart bargirl could make enough to have startup capital to run a small business. But how much does a bargirl actually have in savings? How much is just frittered away?
However Buddhism, as a religion, does not engender a strong conviction to do only right. There is no concept of heaven and hell. The Thai people’s Mai Pen Rai attitude also contributes to a lack of conviction, or what we in the West may call Drive, or Ambition. That Thai people in general seem to lack conviction, but rather kind of float along in life, probably also contributes. And since it is a group oriented society, if a person’s social group lacks conviction, so will that person.
In Thailand I think the mia noi factor is huge. This is not just an Asian tradition, but Westerners can look to their own European ancestors for how mistresses have been part of society. A bargirl may know she cannot make the mia noi cut with a wealthy enough Thai man, so the Western Man becomes the second choice. I think the Thai girl will then Westernize this concept to fit the situation. So the bargirl with multi-national income streams may not see herself as a lying cheat, but instead a kind of multi-tasking mia noi (After all, aren’t Westerners themselves always multi-tasking anyway?). My own preference is to call her a time-share girlfriend (another concept from the West). The honest and straightforward Westerner may abhor the concept of the mia noi arrangement. It is not openly admitted to, to avoid embarrassment by everyone (Please do not take your bargirl friend to brunch at the Oriental Hotel). There are no clear rules (Ever expect a bargirl to follow rules?). It is more of a touchy, feeling type of relationship (not just that way!), as opposed to a real marriage, which has definite rules. But since people get what they want, others will look the other way. This may be hypocritical, but all societies have amounts of hypocrisy, Western societies as well. In the U.S. the notion that we are a true democracy, and that campaign contributions do not influence politicians, is a nice little hypocrisy that we still like to cling to.
In Asian culture, if a man is supporting a woman then he is in the socially superior position (whether mia noi or not). However, the Western man wants to treat the woman as equal. The Thai woman senses that he does not know the concept of the social hierarchy. So other social conventions, such as proper behavior, are also thrown out the window. The Thai woman will try to take the dominant position in the relationship. In her view, if the Western man believes that a bargirl is his equal then he is weak and a complete idiot anyway. This is not the idea of “If you give her an inch, she will take a mile”. It is the concept of “if you give her an inch, she will pull you off the ladder”. That is why trying to compromise is futile. Again, the Thai man may seem so mean in this kind of relationship. But the Thai woman can compensate for this, and has enough in her bag of tricks to get what she wants out of the Thai man. So he can keep his face, and appearance of position, while she makes her own moves behind the scene. When the Westerner tries to set up a relationship with a Thai woman, based on love, trust and equality, instead of the hierarchy, she can easily knock him down, like a Mac Truck. And she’ll be polishing her nails while she’s at the wheel. She can turn any of those Western equality concepts around to get the upper hand. What makes some Western men look even more idiotic is that they are captivated by this abuse, most likely some version of masochistic desire (I hope it is not some form of white male first world guilt tripping. If so, then you get what you are asking for). Maybe it’s the idea of the strong sexy Asian woman beating them up that really gets them going. <This paragraph is in my opinion really excellent and I very much agree about the power games you talk of here – Stick>
One of the mysteries of Asia is that it is a non-verbal culture. People do not verbalize their feelings, but use their actions to express themselves. So a stranger can perform an act of kindness for someone that touches the heart directly, and then disappear completely (I call this the perfect Thai moment). Also, the act does not get cluttered by the difficulties of verbal misunderstandings. The conversation of Thai people thus remains largely intellectually uninteresting, since Thais do not define themselves by what they think. Talking is instead for entertainment, so there is a huge amount of joking around in conversation. This is what makes the Thai bargirl seem so adorable. But in my opinion the most perfectly adorable thing is watching a very proper Thai girl, who still looks like a virgin (who really knows?), go about making a sex joke.
Again, on adorability. I once heard a saying that a European’s emotional maturity is that of a university student, an American’s is definitely high school, and the Japanese are in junior high. With that analogy, I would put a Thai at one grade level below Japanese. So at that emotional level, how can a Thai girl not be adorable?
Thais are skilled, and sometimes expected flatterers. Since talk is just talk, people can flatter without reservation. Everyone knows it is just flowery talk, but love it anyway. If a woman calls you a bark wan, it is usually with a big smile. Just as likely, she will bark wan you, since you are such a “Hansum Man.” Just remember, this is only sanuk, part of the way to have fun. Don’t take it as if she really meant it.
If you, as a Westerner, do not understand what is really going on in a situation or relationship, because your colleague or girlfriend is not talking about something, you are not alone. Most people don’t know what situation they are in as well, and have to talk to others, hear what is on the grapevine, get someone to ask someone, and from many others determine the true situation. Also, the words of just one person do not get the weight of 100% truth, the way a Westerner would value those words. Lying is much less a serious offence because there is a required verification process. So you may hear the same questions being asked of several people different times. This is one of the reasons why Asians are in general a group culture (or what came first, the chicken or the egg?).
If you are not in the group, then you will not have access to the gossip that fills in all the details of what is not being said. So what you have to do is to find out who your girlfriend’s real friends are, and be nice to them. They will be the go-betweens who will tell you why your girlfriend is really mad at you. And of course, if the Thai girl really does love you, she will tell you everything that is going on, except how she feels about you.
As a foreigner, an outsider, the normal rules of the group do not apply to you, so people (girls) can feel relatively free doing, acting anyway they like with you, since you are obviously not Thai. Again, the price of all those immediately friendly girls is that you may never know what is really going on, since you are not part of the Thai group. This is a very subtle thing. I think it is best to just accept the fact that you will never be able to figure out the games the Thai girl is playing <Lecter's circles submission explains this fairly well – Stick>. Just be content to drift along as a player in her game. The only trump card you have is to let her know you can quit the game at any time, and find a new girl to play the game with. I think Thai men know this is the big game card they have, and they use it unscrupulously. The Thai girl can easily outplay the Western man who gets caught up in the game. The Western man, conditioned to win, will try and catch the girl as the prize, and thus is forced to remain a player in a game the girl is directing. The classic trap is when the Western man finds out the girl has another boyfriend, and forces her to choose. It is his ego saying he wants to be the winner. The girl will usually then try to get more money on the table, and then pick the highest bidder. By staying in the game, the Western man has already lost. He thinks he can go home a winner. He does not realize the girl will, after a short time, just start up the game again, with a few new players.
The appearance of face, and keeping everything smooth, not making a scene are all factors of the keeping group harmony. Face is interesting. I think that because people must go along with the group, the one outlet they have is to keep face. To lose face is probably the Western equivalent of being publicly embarrassed in front of all of your classmates. So think about that the next time you feel like criticizing a Thai in public. And remember the Thai gossip tree. Everyone eventually hears everything you have said.
Tribes (or circles, from a previous submission) – a Westerner is never a member of a Thai tribe. He is always an outsider. The Westerner may think it is because he is white, or that Thais are prejudiced, his background is different, etc. But I think the underlying reason is simply because of his passport. He can leave Thailand basically any time he likes. Everyone else is stuck there. In this case you are without hope, and I think most Westerners have it in the back of their mind they would return one day to their home country. For those who will stay, marriage or buying property are not keys to admittance. I have a feeling children may not be either. I speculate that the sure fire way to get respect is to have your parents move to Thailand! You are in effect creating your own Thai tribe. From a previous submission we now know the head of every tribe is the MOTHER. I will leave it to the reader to figure out it if this really is true. Maybe this a good conversation piece, to see how your Thai co-workers would react to “What do you think if my parents came to live with me in Thailand?” Or “Since I cannot go home for Songkran, I think I will have my mother come visit me here in Bangkok.” Father obviously does not count.
One can get honorary membership or a nod of respect, I believe, by knowing the intricacies of Thai grammar, history and culture, better than the average Thai person (which, fortunately, is not hard). In this case, you are "out-Thaiing" the Thai. As a corollary, insisting that the Western way is the right way will definitely throw you over to other side of the pond. You won’t even get to use the Thai tribal outhouse. <One way to do this is to speak Thai to a very high level. There are Westerners who speak Thai with superior pronunciation to some rural Thais – and this gets them a HUGE amount of respect – Stick>
So how did the westerner force the Thai lady to lie? This brings together the above items. The Westerner asks the Thai lady a question, and the answer is one the Thai lady knows will be upsetting. She does not want to say anything negative, so she says nothing. But the westerner, in his search for truth, and being so tied to words, needs an answer. He does not realize that silence is the answer. He starts to pester her to reply. She now just wants him to shut up, to not make a scene, so just says whatever she thinks will keep him quiet. It is irrelevant to her whether it is a lie or not. He has forced this situation upon her.
Western-Thai relationships can be a great high with bad crashes. Just like drugs, the bad trips make you want to go again to get back to those highs. Or chasing after a Thai girl may be your same old problem, chasing after the dream-like, movie version of love, or trying to relive the high school crush, just a different locale, and different leading lady. Real, long lasting relationships are the same worldwide. They are slow moving, at times boring, but have the cumulative effect of tremendous satisfaction.
You say you have only ever been a tourist in Thailand, but I would suggest that you have learnt an awful lot. I really enjoyed this submission and thought there were some absolute gems of wisdom in there. I would love to read more from you.