Readers' Submissions

It’s All Relative, Isn’t It?




Let me start by reiterating what I have said many times. I love living in Thailand. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be here. Despite things that alternately, delight, appall, amaze, stupefy, and sometimes simply bewilder me, I definitely feel that the good things here (at least for me) outweigh the bad. So until the day when the Thai immigration just tells us all to get the hell out, I’m here to stay. Now I have only lived here three years, so I am hardly an expert on all things Thai, but I do feel that I’ve earned the right to an opinion or two. Certainly being married to my Thai wife for eight years has given me some insight into the Thai society. The question is, do I voice my opinions or simply keep my big, fat farang mouth shut.

If I was simply an ignorant no-nothing whiner, I would probably be well advised to do the later. In fact some out there in cyberspace have told me that I am obviously an ignorant American, trying to impose my “western standards” on an Asian society. In so many words, quit your complaining and simply accept that people do things differently here. My viewpoints are biased and that how people chose to live is simply relative. There are no absolute standards of right and wrong. So just shut up already. Oh please! Give me a break! That kind of intellectual laziness just doesn’t cut it in the real world.

While many things are indeed relative from one society to another, some things are not. I certainly didn’t decide to come to Thailand expecting to find the same life I was living in the U.S. If that were the case, I would have simply stayed where I was, earning a whole lot more money and generally enjoying a higher standard of living. I came to Thailand with my eyes wide open, knowing that things would be very different. Indeed that was part of the appeal; to experience a completely different way of life. In most ways my life here has been a positive experience. I don’t regret for a moment making the decision to move here. My wife and I have a nice home, good friends, and of course a beautiful little boy to keep us busy 24/7.

However life here in the Land of Smiles is not all mangos and cream. There are some serious deficiencies that beg to be addressed. Not to do so would mean that that I’ve lost all my critical faculties. Well I’m not senile quite yet, or walking around with rose colored glasses. I call things as I see them. I do so only because I do love this place, and would like nothing better than to see Thailand prosper.

In an earlier submission, “You don’t understand our culture” I discussed what I consider the three major roadblocks to progress in Thai society: apathy, face, and corruption. I won’t bother to hash out the same observations. The point I want to make today is that not only do I have every right to express my opinions, but these opinions are based on careful observation and reflection.

Yes, many things about the way people choose to live are completely relative. These include what people like to eat, how they dress, what music they enjoy, what they find humorous, their spirituality, political philosophy, and much, much more. It’s this variety that gives spice to life. It would be a dreary homogenous world without these differences. That said however, I firmly believe that there are standards of behavior that civilized people can agree on. When these standards are not being met, concerned members of society have the obligation to point this out. Not to do so is a sure fired plan for chaos.

Let me give you a few examples.

Most of you reading this consider it common sense to wash your hands with soap and water after using the toilet. On paper, the school where I am currently teaching agrees. By every classroom door is an illustrated poster explaining the importance of hand washing….with plenty of soap; and yet there is no soap to be found anywhere in the school! There is very little to be gained by asking for the school to provide some, I have simply wound up bringing my own. Gee, I guess my western prejudices are blinding me once again. Why do I expect Thai people to follow commonly accepted sanitary practices? After all, would you like me to prepare dinner for you with hands covered with fecal bacteria? And while I’m “ranting” (at least in some peoples minds) about toilets, it’s obviously a quaint western attitude to expect a reasonably clean restroom, especially if I’m paying 3 baht to use the damned thing! I don’t need, (or want) a liveried attendant. All I expect is a toilet that is not completely disgusting. I don’t care if it’s a squatter. What kind of toilet people like to use is completely relative. So I’m not belly aching that western flush toilets are not always available. If the toilet is reasonably clean, I’m happy.

On another topic, in December I was driving down from Lampang to Buriram to visit my wife’s family. I will admit that I like to drive as fast, but only as fast as the law allows. Traffic laws are there for our safety. Let’s forget for the moment that for most Thais, these traffic laws are merely vague “suggestions”. Anyway, at one point I slowed down to go through a police checkpoint. No big deal. As soon as one of the boys in brown spies my farang face, he immediately motioned me to pull over. “You are speeding. You must pay 400 baht” What the f**k? I was certainly NOT speeding! I wasn’t even going 90 KPH. And even if I had been, how would he know? There was no radar checking going on. When I explained that I was not speeding, this guy simply gives me a choice, pay here right now or come with him to the station. My mother didn’t raise a dummy, so seeing that the fix was in, I simply coughed up the cash so I could get on my way. The 400 baht was promptly tucked away in the cop’s pocket, and I was motioned to get the hell out of there. Not surprisingly, I was not given any sort of written citation. I wonder how much of the day's take had to be split with his superiors.

Welcome to Thailand!

Oh, I guess actually expecting an honest police force is another of my western prejudices rearing its ugly head again. I could go on giving many other examples of where legitimate criticism of how things are done here in Thailand, but I don’t want to seem overly negative. There is not a country on the planet that is such a utopia that it is exempt from legitimate criticism. I could go on for hours talking about my former home’s deficiencies, but this is NOT the place for that discussion. I’m talking about Thailand. I live here now. I like to be positive whenever I can. I much prefer to see a glass that’s half full as opposed to one that’s half empty. Unfortunately that’s not always possible. Not everything in life is relative. Some things are clearly right or wrong. All we can do is try our best to distinguish between the two. In the mean time I have no intention of either being rude to the Thais when discussing their country or burying my head in the sand. I will continue to be optimistic whenever possible, and critical whenever necessary.

Stickman's thoughts:

I like what you say about us having a duty to point out certain things. It is all very well smiling and pretending that everything is perfect, but doing that means that things will NEVER improve.