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Thailand: The Great Misunderstanding




We all do it. We see the world through our own prism, that world we know and have grown up in and feel comfortable with. From this perspective, we then judge the rest of the world: their peoples, their customs, everything about them. And this makes us intolerant. Intolerant in the same way that we may be intolerant of people who are fat, or loud in public, or those who obviously show off their wealth.

Some things we like and we say so, some we don’t like and we also say so. In the case of Thailand, we like the way the people smile (maybe less so today than ten years ago). We like their food, both for its many flavors and unique dishes and, generally, its cost. And if we are men who have no qualms about sleeping with prostitutes or simply like to sample the young and not so young women of Thailand, we like their attitude toward sex. On the whole, the Thais don’t seem to have the same hang-ups toward sex that we find in the West. And when it comes to the sex we can buy, for a couple of hours or a long twelve hours, it’s just about the best place to find yourself.

But what we don’t like gets under our skin, and increasingly so in the case of Thailand, it seems. But why, one might ask? If we’re from the West, or not from Thailand, it’s not our country. It’s not where we grew up. We do not have Thai citizenship. We fundamentally in ways both small and large simply don’t understand the “Thai way,” even though we may speak the language and have been resident in the country for a decade. We simply do not have and live the wholeness—and it is the wholeness I want to emphasize—of Thai culture. So as outsiders we attack the pieces that are foreign to us, that we don’t like, that are different than what we are used to at home. There are particular things that we don’t like that are recurrent themes: the corruption, the lying, the apparent apathy and indifference, the educational system, an attitude toward learning and knowing that seems so “primitive” and underdeveloped compared to what we have become accustomed to growing up in the West.

But if we stand back and take a culture as a whole—a point I noted above and want to emphasize throughout this small essay—and continually remind ourselves that we come from a different place, both geographically and mentally, then there is a different way of looking at Thailand. A different way of accepting what it is and is not.

In a very real sense, everything is of a piece. In the West we have a concept of “face” that is, to say the least, extremely mild, almost nonexistent compared to what one finds not only in Thailand but in much of Asia. It is essentially important in Thailand, as one and all quickly learn, to not be put on the spot, to not be embarrassed, to not have it pointed out that a mistake of etiquette or law or anything else has been made. There simply is no real room for confrontation, for the “honesty” that Westerners—some of at rate—so love to parade (how honest Westerners are with bosses and others in fragile jobs and many other situations is another matter altogether).

Into this cultural system where face is so highly valued, then, lying and deception and all manner of fiddling with the “truth” as we know it is the West makes perfect sense. One lies and one deceives, even in the most blatant ways, to avoid looking bad, losing face. Is there something inherently wrong with this? Certainly not. To say so is to be myopic to difference, to different ways of seeing and understanding the world.

One can fairly easily see that corruption fits nicely into this system that in a pretty fundamental way revolves around “face.” One pays a teacher under the table to have a grade changed because the son or daughter will be, among family and friends, greatly embarrassed by a poor grade. And this cannot be—cannot be in a system that so highly values face. One pays to have a brother or cousin get a job for which the person really is not competent, because to be given a lesser job will cause the family to lose status, or face. Is there something inherently wrong with this? From a Western point of view yes. From the standpoint of the Thais the answer ranges from a clear no to–what should I say in this particular circumstance (i.e., how shall I lie to not embarrass you or anyone else)?

Laws are made not to be broken, but all kinds of laws strictly applied can result in a loss of face. You don’t look good to family and friends if you get a ticket, or might have to go to jail; and the way out of such embarrassments is to pay your way out of them. And paying your way out of them is, well, one of the many ways of being corrupt. Is there something inherently wrong with this? It depends on the values you have been raised with. To the vast majority of Thais, I’d venture, there is nothing wrong with paying under the table for this or that, anymore than there is anything wrong with paying for the services of a prostitute to a Westerner who is genuinely amoral or utterly disdainful of the predominant moral values in the West concerning sex and, for example, older men having sex with or coupling with younger women.

If a daughter makes her money by going to bed with foreigners, and this money finds its way back to the local village and to the parents, those in the village “know” where the money came from. They’re not stupid. But they’re not going to make a public moral showing of what they know, for to do so once again violates this basic principle around which so much of Thai society revolves—having one’s dignity intact, not losing face. Is there anything inherently wrong with this way of “hiding” what is so patently obvious? It all depends on how one has been raised with regard to matters of “transparency,” whether to make an issue of what might be considered “wrong” or let it go without comment, in the same way that one simply ignores an offensive remark aimed at one’s family or friends because a fight or worse might ensue.

Then there is the often commented upon dismal educational system in Thailand. But what is so special about being aware of world events, or world geography, or being “analytical?” Obviously to a Westerner these are important values, but do they somehow make a person a “better” Thai? I think not, and not least for the reason that part of what we mean by being intellectually aware and analytical is that we can point out the “mistakes” of others—their faulty reasoning, how their plan to do such and such is inferior or less profitable than another plan concocted by a more analytical mind, one more aware because of more education and a different business ethos (in the Western sense) of how things work. But again, being analytical, standing out with and showing off one’s superior knowledge goes against the fabric, tears at the whole of Thai culture, and the whole fundamentally revolves around being a good and well functioning member of society. Not any society, not a Western society, but a Thai society. And one, it might be said that in founded in the Thai language, with its ways of saying some things and not saying others.

What about scams, and lying about the product sold or what one is giving, as with the bar girl who says she is going to stay the night but really has in mind leaving early because she doesn’t want to stay the night for a myriad of reasons. Well, this is just the way things are, and it all fits with a culture that does not place any particular emphasis on being “honest,” sticking to one’s word. Is this wrong? Well it clearly is in the West. But in Thailand? Look at the whole set of cultural values, and in this light, and in light of the significance of face, there’s no big deal about scamming a Westerner or anyone else. In fact, not being scammed more than Westerners are suggests that many Thais, and bar girls in this example, are going against the fundamental grain of a system of values that they grew up with. Ditto other Thais in their business and other relationships with Westerners.

A couple of final points to wrap up this very brief note. One is that the many things that bother Westerners—the lying and deception, the corruption, the lack of an analytic mind—are of a piece, a whole, and one quite different than the whole that one might identify with in the West: a place where on the whole face is unimportant, where on the whole forthrightness and honesty are valued, where on the whole corruption (all relative to be sure) is frowned up and punished, and where on the whole the analytic mind is valued because it leads to “progress.” (But is progress as we know it an inherent good, or a “good” that is seen as such within a different cultural system?) The point, to reiterate: cultures are a whole and this is how they must be seen.

Another point is that we should try to, learn to, take things as they are—in a sense a very foreign idea to many in the West. Thailand is what it is and not another thing—to paraphrase the famous Wittgenstein. Take Thailand for what it is, just as the wise man understands that when he gets married or hooks up in a relationship (short or long term) he is getting what he sees and has come to appreciate and not another thing. And if he doesn’t like the “whole” of what he is getting—a woman who is obviously going to get fat, or will occasionally be bitchy, and will occasionally be demanding in terms of material needs, then he will find someone else, if he is a wise man. And so it is with Thailand. It is neither good nor bad as a country and a culture. It is simply different, and changing to something yet different, as everything changes to something different than what it was. If one doesn’t like what Thailand is, and can’t take it on its own terms, then don’t buy into it in the beginning (or its women or whatever) by going there, or get out and move on to another place as soon as it’s apparent that the country or its people are simply incompatible with one’s own quite different culture, and the difference or differences cannot be overlooked.

Stickman's thoughts:

Interesting observations. I would suggest though that based on what I have heard – and I was not around back then so this is NOT first hand – is that the classic traditional Thai did not necessarily approve of the corruption and lying. It may have existed in the past but many did not approve. And apparently it has got worse and become more widespread. but like I say, this is simply what I have heard.