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Facing Facts



Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

China Hotel Guide
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• Tianlun Songhe Hotel
• Times Holiday Hotel


The most destructive aspect of Thai society is face. No question. To me, it’s way above anything else. To a greater or lesser degree it affects everyone, all the time.

Not that it is a feature only of Thailand, although it does seem to be all-enveloping here. It’s an Asian thing. Not pan-Asian perhaps, because I didn’t detect it on a week-long trip to India, or during many trips I’ve made to Indonesia, especially Bali, but I might be wrong. I doubt, anyway, that it exists to the same intensity as it does in Thailand. The first time I experienced ‘face’, although I didn’t realise it at the time, was on a visit to Hong Kong. I didn’t have much experience of Asia back in those days, maybe 20 years ago. All I’d done before was flash through Taipei and Singapore, spending a week in each.

Excuse me while I deviate. I began my Asian experience by staying in a fine hotel that had bird song playing through ceiling speakers in the corridors. I thought that was pretty nice. There was a school outside the window, far below my expensive sanctuary, with the kids all lined up in the yard with some loudspeakers – and I do mean LOUDspeakers – blaring out whatever to the students. My first experience of Asian noise pollution. The loudspeaker thing has now become commonplace for me, as these days I am occasionally woken by some kind of ceremony in a school about 150 metres or so from where I live. Why they think the entire neighbourhood wants to hear their business I have no idea. Maybe it makes them feel important. The loudspeakers in the villages, with the village leader broadcasting the local news, can also be a bit of an earful if you live too close, and it’s always a bit of a contest whether he or the chickens will be the first to wake you. But what a great system, keeping everyone informed about village activities, local government news and so on. I suppose in villages in the West we still grapevine in the local post-office/general store to know what’s going on. If that life still exists. I hope so.

Talking of being awoken unexpectedly, I was in Dubai a few weeks ago and was suddenly awoken by the sound of bagpipes. WTF? I looked out my window, and sure enough, gathered in front of the hotel were a large group of locals wearing their usual white dish-dash robes while tuning up their bagpipes ready for some kind of parade. I have no idea what that was about. It wasn’t at the crack of dawn on that occasion, maybe around 10, but I’d been at a Philipino night club until three so was still slumbering. You can’t touch the performers there, by the way, but they had a delightful habit of coming round the club shaking hands and chatting briefly with the imbibers after their set. Jeez, they were good.

Although my hotel in Taipei was fine, the place where I worked was not. It was a sports hall, and now and then the smell of the toilets would waft across the arena. Lovely. The only telephone I could find was a wind-up affair on the wall, and one evening I got locked in the place and had to try and find my way out and a taxi back to my hotel with the associated challenge of trying to track down a driver who understood English. The smell thing has now become commonplace for me in the streets of Bangkok of course, either from the drains or the putrid klongs. It’s far worse than my Taipei experience and sometimes makes me want to throw up.

After Taipei, I moved on to spend a week in Singapore. What a contrast. I was amazed to find English so widely in use and I loved it, with the cleanliness and tropical greenery. I must say I’ve sometimes found the humidity rather unpleasant at times on subsequent visits, though. Worse than Bangkok, but still not as bad as Washington DC can be in the summer, or Houston, or New York. Enjoyed my first experience of getting some shirts made to measure, and they lasted for years. Also discovered pirated cassettes for the first time (the big sellers back then, before CDs). The pirates have pretty much been banished now I believe, as they have in Dubai. Where there really is a will, there’s a way, while Thailand continues to have it’s once a year public show of destroying a pile of stuff while things carry on as usual.
I was really quite disappointed with Hong Kong. It was at the head of the list of places I most wanted to visit at the time. I really wanted to see the famous harbour (and I did do the Star Ferry thing). But I found the harbour to be a very poor second to Sydney’s magnificence, and I was amazed at the seeming over-reaction when a typhoon struck. Businesses and stores closed down for the day on what to me was nothing more than a Far East version of a wet and windy November day in London. That visit came together with my first experience of face, so deviation over. I went into an Aussie-themed restaurant/bar and ordered some chicken wings (no flaming please – I ate local food as well). The waitress took the order and disappeared. And she remained disappeared. Thirty minutes later, no wings to be seen. Eventually I called over a waiter and he went to investigate, and it turned out they hadn’t got any wings and she had not wanted to come and tell me, I realise now because she would lose face.

Now let us address that. It wasn’t actually her fault that the place had run out of wings, so why should she lose face for something that wasn’t her fault. Strange, actually, when so many deny any responsibility for anything at all in these parts.

I’ve read some quite enlightening explanations of the importance of face in Thailand, and arguably by association the same might apply to some other countries in the region. But the bottom line is it’s childish. I mentioned in my last post that I have a theory that many Thais appear to stop maturing in their early teens, and to me the face thing is further proof of that.

In the West, most of us are taught by parents and teachers to face facts and to deal with them. It’s called growing up. You not only become stronger by dealing with a problem, but you learn from it. You certainly don’t bury your head in the sand. I’m generalising, but in the West only little kids deny point blank that they’ve done something wrong. Here, I’m constantly reminded of something I remember Prince Phillip saying when I was a teenager. He was and probably still is a pompous old sod, but I was so impressed with what he said that I wrote it down so I could remember it. ‘Ignorance is not not knowing, it’s not wanting to know’. There’s no shame in not being aware, but there is in not wanting to learn from the experience. Try telling a Thai that they could go about something in a more efficient way, and watch the reaction. In a best-case scenario they might nod and smile and you think you’ve got your point across, but if they don’t agree or accept what you’ve said they won’t argue their point. That’s seen as confrontation to them, not as a healthy discussion. They’ll just ignore everything you’ve said. In a worse-case scenario they’ll walk off the job, blank you, or even get violent.

Another aspect of face is spending money on things they don’t really need and probably can’t afford. An expensive car is the usual status symbol, even though some owners can’t even drive the thing and never use it. The neighbour, who is meant to admire them, instead sniggers at them spending so much for something they don’t need. Not that they’d admit it, because they are playing the same childish game. Look at paying sin sot. It’s all about face. The money is received, and then often just passed straight back. Everyone knows it, so what’s the point?

The reason Thais cannot easily accept criticism and in their own mind lose face can only be because they think they are perfect and cannot possibly make a mistake. I’ll tell you what. I was once a shy, retiring kid, afraid that if I opened my mouth I might appear stupid. Note, I said as a kid. But I eventually came to a realisation that everyone is the same. Everyone farts. We all screw up at some time. Live with it. Grow up and stop acting like children. Learn from your mistakes, learn to open your mouth and put your point across. Maybe it’s a good one. If it isn’t, you’ll learn why not. I know the school system in Thailand doesn’t encourage that, but that’s another well-worn thread. Swearing that black is white just to keep the peace ultimately doesn’t fool anyone. It might establish a false sense of mental well-being and stability, but it is built on quicksand. Which might help to explain why so many Thais can throw a wobbly and explode into screaming violence without warning. Trying to hold in their real feelings just becomes too much. As Popeye used to say before reaching for the spinach, ‘That’s all I can takes, I can’t takes no more’.

Only when Thais really learn to accept they can make mistakes, just like everyone else, will they mature and be able to really tackle the problems and challenges that life presents every day.

Stickman's thoughts:

I really enjoyed this article about the damage that the concept of face does.

On the subject of checking orders, only in the better restaurants do the service providers actually check what you ordered. As a customer I will often ask them to check what I ordered – and you often find mistakes. One should not have to do this, but it is prudent to do so. Of course when you discover that the waitress made a mistake then she will……lose face!

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