Stickman Readers' Submissions August 12th, 2009

Mrs. Stick, I Beg to Differ if I May

I think it’s safe to say that no one enjoys hearing disparaging remarks made about their homeland. I sure don’t! I may not live in the U.S. anymore, but I admit that I bristle when I hear “foreigners” bad-mouth America…at least by those who in my humble opinion, “don’t know their ass from their elbow”. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of things worth criticizing. Hell, if I stepped on to a soap box, I would have no problem whatsoever expounding in great detail on why so much has gone down the toilet in the land of my birth. That being said, I feel I still have plenty of reasons to be proud to be an American.

As I write this on July 20th 2009, I am inordinately proud to remember what happened on July 20, 1969. America may have entered the race to the moon to “beat the Soviets”, but that doesn’t diminish what a tremendous achievement the first lunar landing was. Of course I am a confirmed “space nut”, so feel free to roll your eyeballs to your hearts’ content!

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Whatever corner of Farangland you hail from, I have no doubt that you can easily come up with a long list of achievements that your countrymen have contributed to society. In the Sciences, Art, Music, Literature, Philosophy, Technology, Architecture etc. There are plenty of reasons to stand up tall and say for the entire world to hear, “I’m proud to be a Dane”…or an Italian, German, British, Australian, Irish, Czech, Canadian, Spanish etc…dare I even say Kiwi? Yes I can! The late Sir Edmund Hilary is a personal hero of mine! I think we can agree that no place in Farangland is perfect. In fact there are plenty of citizens in every Western country to tell you so…in great detail!

So what does any of this rambling have to do with the estimable Mrs. Stick? Well, let me quote a response to a questioner in the most recent column who wrote:

“You talk a lot about Thais being proud to be Thai, so could you tell if Thais are so 'proud' of your country and society why do you simply ignore and do nothing about the aspects of Thai society and culture that portray Thais and the country in a negative light? Are Thais really proud of the lying, corruption, prostitution and lack of opportunity for the poor that penetrates much of Thai society and of being a Thai? Or is it a case of there are none so blind as those who don't want to see?”

Mrs. Stick says: Why do so many farang talk about the bad side of our country? We are not proud of some things so why do you say like these are the only things in our country? I think your country has many bad things too. Are you proud of them? We don't ignore these things but you know there is nothing we can do about them so we must manage our lives around them. Why must we always think of negative things and look at bad things in our society? This is not our life philosophy. Every country has a bad side but you do not always have to think about it, right? I don't know your country but I know every farang country has big problems too.

She is correct when she says that there are plenty of problems in the west, and “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”. What got my goat though was, the statement: “We don't ignore these things but you know there is nothing we can do about them so we must manage our lives around them. Why must we always think of negative things and look at bad things in our society? This is not our life philosophy”. That my friends sums up why Thailand is in the state it’s in. No one gives a shit…at least not enough do something about some truly appalling problems…or even speak out about them!

Back in Farangland, it isn’t hard to find plenty of people who vocally express their opinions. There are opposition groups up the wazoo, demonstrating about a myriad of things (real or imagined) they feel are wrong in their societies. Whatever your opinion on the issues of the day, I think you will agree that people in western countries are debating up a storm about them. That, my friends is how societies progress. Not that everything always goes smoothly. Even in the West, things can in fact get downright ugly. The point I’m trying to make is that a lot of folks in Farangland do not have their heads buried in the sand…like say the Thais, who frankly have their heads buried up their collective asses!

Okay, perhaps I’m being a bit sarcastic, but anyone who’s spent enough time here in The Land of Smiles has seen in action three principles that govern Thai society: Apathy, Corruption and Fear of Losing face. Take them in any order you like. They still add up to an unholy trinity that keeps Thailand a third rate country.

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Apathy as defined by Merriam-Webster is “a lack of interest or concern”. Hmmm, perhaps that’s why libraries in Thailand have more dust on their shelves than books. The vast majority of Thais do not read…except cartoon books and gossip magazines that is. Remember, I’m NOT talking about books written in English. I’m talking about books written in Thai. Considering that Thais are unlikely to learn a hell of a lot while in school, not reading guarantees ignorance about virtually every area of human knowledge. Oh yes, some of you are thinking, here’s that S2000 again with his “western cultural bias”. Sorry. I don’t think so. I suppose one could debate the literary merit of some obscure (at least to 99% of humanity) Thai poet versus the works of Shakespeare. Personally I think it would be the world’s shortest debate, but that’s just my opinion. Let’s for a moment forget, Art, Music, Philosophy and such warm and fuzzy pursuits. Let’s instead talk about Math and Science. I am ashamed to say that Americans’ science quotient borders on the pathetic, but compared to that of the Thais, ‘The Yanks’ look like budding Einsteins!

One afternoon when my tee-rak and I were living in western Massachusetts, we went for a walk in a local state park that is noted for unusual geologic formations, created primarily through glaciation. I had fun showing her a minor “wonder” of my childhood: Balance Rock.

Naturally my wife wanted to know what had created it. I went on to explain in simple terms the some of what happened during the last ice age. Despite my straight faced insistence, she steadfastly refused to believe that much of the earth was once covered with kilometers of ice. Now my wife is not unintelligent by any means, and in fact has a degree in computer science. Somehow though, she managed to go through sixteen years of school without learning anything about geology. I don’t think you will be surprised to know that she was just as incredulous at the idea of continental drift. This otherwise intelligent woman was never taught sooooo many things. There are gaps in her fundamental knowledge large enough to drive the proverbial Mack truck through. Small wonder then your average Thai student today scores poorly on any standardized test, compared to those in China, Japan, Korea etc. Last year at my school (which is the highest ranked school in Lampang province), only 20% students who took the Cambridge University ESOL exam passed. Are the school officials upset? Apparently not enough to institute remedial work to bring our students “up to snuff”.

Of course to be fair, a large portion of the Thai population are farmers, and would benefit more from learning new agricultural techniques for increasing their rice yields, than the works of Aristotle. Still, the very idea of learning as a reward onto itself is utterly foreign here.

Okay, that’s enough blathering about the Thai school system, which is one of my personal bugaboos! So, what was I talking about? Oh yes, apathy. Why do the Thais seem to be so apathetic, aside from a lack of basic knowledge?

To understand that, we need to talk about corruption. Corruption is hardly an exclusive Asian phenomenon. It has existed in every corner of the planet since Og slipped Oop a few flint spear points to look the other way while Og helped himself to more than his fair share of the berry harvest. Every one of us can point to an outrageous corruption scandal or two back in our homelands.

Corruption “Thai-style” though raises graft to extraordinary levels. It really is money that makes the world go around here. Every Thai learns that at an early age. Corruption is such an all pervasive feature of Thai life that it is simply taken for granted. A Thai might deplore it, but cannot conceive of it ever going away. There are just too many fingers in the honey pot. That is why when it comes to election time, Somchai knows that all the politicians running are on the take. What he wants to know is besides that obvious fact is even one of them competent? Somchai might wonder does in fact his vote mean anything at all? If the political process is “fixed” by a small cabal of insiders, why should he care one way or another? There is little likelihood of anyone listening to his concerns. It is probably better just to hunker down and mind his own damned business!

Recently Stick wrote an informative column about “The Boys in Brown”. From everything he wrote (and what I have personally experienced) it is safe to say that “Thailand’s Finest” are hardly poster boys for the phrase “Serve and Protect”. Many can barely find the time to get off their butts…except of course to go out for lunch. There is a traffic light at a major intersection here in Lampang that is routinely out of order. Never once has a policeman gone out to direct traffic. Apparently anything to do with traffic lights falls in the bailiwick of the city municipality. If any accidents happen, oh well!

Are there crooked cops back in Farangland? Of course there are, but they are a small minority within the ranks of the police. If a policeman was caught “shaking down” a motorist, the way we foreigners routinely are here, it would be a major story. I have personally been hit up for many hundreds of baht on several occasions, not because I had violated any law, but simply because I was a farang. The average cop on the beat in the west is hard working guy or gal, who often puts his or her life on the line. I think BKKSW would agree with me on that! Undoubtedly there are honest cops here in Thailand, but even they have to work within a well established system of bribery. So, are Thais bursting with pride for the police? Well, no Thai is ever likely to say anything to the contrary, at least on the record. The police here are folks you definitely do not want to get on the wrong side of!

Corruption is not limited to the police and politicians. I personally witnessed an envelope of money being passed to a certain school department head in exchange for changing a student’s poor grades. (Sometimes you learn amazing things when Thais assume you can’t understand what they are talking about!) A local building inspector who I became friendly with when we were constructing our home told me that he had been told on many occasions by his boss to ignore building code violations. If you have money, and therefore influence, go right ahead and add all the extra sand you want to the concrete mix. After all, how likely is it that your building will collapse? All I can say is there is a parking garage here that I will never drive into, for love or money!

Before coming to Thailand, I never had any real understanding of what “face” was. It seemed an abstract concept that I equated with a sense of personal honor. Even after being married to a Thai for ten years, and living here for almost five years, I can’t say that I really understand face any better. That’s not to say that I don’t see the results of the fear of losing face demonstrated almost daily. It is all well and good to want to act in a polite manner. It is another thing altogether to imitate an ostrich, because of the fear of giving offence, real or perceived.

If you or I were to witness something wrong back in Farangland, most of the time we would not hesitate to speak up. “Excuse me sir, but your vicious dog is terrorizing my children…and pooping in my yard. Would you kindly restrain Fido in your own yard?” Here in the Thai Twilight Zone, you would never dream of saying anything of the sort. You would simply keep one eye on your children at all times…and carry a cudgel in case the local soi dog starts lunging at them.

My wife is always telling me to keep my big mouth shut, and most of the time I listen to her. Sometimes though, I simply can’t help myself. Let me illustrate what happens when a Farang ignores the sage advice of his wife with this cautionary tale of woe.

The fellow who lives behind us has a habit of listening to music late into the evening. Did I say play? What I meant was blast music at decibel levels guaranteed to rattle teeth and cause blood to gush forth from broken ear drums. I put up with it…until it’s bedtime, and then I get just a wee bit irritable. Last year (against my wife’s advice), I paid my neighbor a visit, and asked, oh soooo politely if he would please turn the volume down a touch. I should also mention that in the spirit of you “catch more flies with sugar than with vinegar”, I brought along a bottle of whisky as a little gift. After smoozing and sharing a few drinks, I carefully broached the subject of turning down the volume. He did turn it down, although I thought reluctantly. The next day, I learned through my wife, who has the neighborhood pulse well monitored, that my neighbor felt that he had “lost face” to “the farang”. Suddenly I was dirt personified. How dare I ask a Thai to modify his behavior, on the flimsy excuse of wanting to sleep in peace? Welcome once again to Thailand…and by the way, shut your fxxxing pie hole white boy!

This may just be an amusing anecdote, but it illustrates well the Thai “Prime Directive”. (I can’t believe I just used a phrase out of Star Trek!) “Above all else, thou shall not complain, contradict, point out any error, no matter how grievous to anyone who is your social superior, or your senior, or in fact to anyone, on pain of losing face!” It may be a matter of life or death! Should I risk offending anyone to any degree? No way!

Let’s say you are riding in a car with your boss to an important meeting. With you in the car are several of your boss’ important business associates. At an intersection your boss turns left, when your destination is to the right. Do you politely mention this? What? Cause your boss to lose face! Not a good career move buddy!

This of course sounds silly. People don’t really act like that here in real life, do they? Sadly they do. The result this kind of behavior is there for anyone to see. That is for anyone who chooses to see.

In Thailand it is so much easier to simply pretend that there are no problems. That of course is why so many genuine problems go unfixed. It is taboo simply to casually mention that they exist. In Farangland we often hear stories about “Whistleblowers”…say the guy who calls the authorities about his boss dumping toxic chemicals into a nearby reservoir. Alas, that heroic job description will never be filled in Thailand. Given the same circumstances here, not only would an employee keep his mouth shut, but if asked by his boss, go along to assist with the dumping…even if he felt it was a crime! Wait…I hear a phrase echoing from somewhere. What was it? Oh yes, here it is. you know there is nothing we can do about them so we must manage our lives around them. Why must we always think of negative things and look at bad things in our society? This is not our life philosophy.

I have often been accused of “not understanding Thai culture”. I have to admit that when it comes to attitudes like this, I don’t. Frankly at this point I don’t want to understand. Note: “understanding” in the context indignant quasi-educated Thais use the term, means not questioning any aspect of Thai society. <Probably a point to make at this point is that rocking the boat often results in revenge or retribution and many Thais are genuinely scared to make a complaint for fear of what might followStick>

So don’t be a chauvinistic fool and ask such puzzlers as: “Why is the public toilet that I just paid 3 baht to use wretchedly filthy?” “Why does Thai Immigration make it so difficult for foreigners of good standing, who are married to Thais, and spend an extraordinary amount of money here, to live here?” “Why do Thai motorists think it’s their God given right to ignore red lights and stop signs…and why do the police refuse to enforce traffic laws?” Why do Thais throw their rubbish on the ground, instead of in a trash container…which is often only a few steps away?” Feel free to send me your favorite unanswered questions…even if they are rhetorical.

Bangkok Barry recently wrote a blistering indictment of Thais who either perpetrate or allow scams on innocent tourists. Can anyone dispute a single observation he made? From the moment tourists land at Suvarnabhumi they are made to feel unwanted. Does someone issue lemon wedges to Immigration officials before they go on duty? For a place that uses the moniker, “The Land of Smiles”, all I’ve ever seen as I hand over my passport are scowls. From here visitors are scammed by taxi drivers and touts of every description. Obviously the government can’t prevent all tourist abuse, but does it have to stand idly by and do nothing? In some cases, the folks who are charged with enforcing the law are in reality getting a “piece of the action”.

Ah, the government of Thailand! What a shining example of representative democracy! Right? Surely this is something that Thais can be proud of. Each man and woman casting his or her vote, free from fear of oppression and confident that the will of the people will prevail! Let’s not forget an orderly and lawful transition of power when one party prevails over another in an honest election!

Let me be clear. Farangland has had its share of electoral abuse. The wheels of democracy do not always run smoothly. By in large though, western governments function in at least a semi-orderly fashion. Folks vote for the party of their choice, whether it consists of saints or rascals, and that party remains in power until defeated by the opposition. For the most part, the functions of government, both on the national and regional levels are carried out by professionals. Yes I can hear you laughing out loud, but I did say mostly!

When talking about Thai “democracy”, you first need to travel down the rabbit hole of your choice, ‘cause we need to turn logic and reason on their heads. It is an undeniable fact that if Mr. Thaksin were allowed back in Thailand, he would be overwhelmingly re-elected. Is Thaksin a scoundrel of the first order? It doesn’t matter. He may very well be a scoundrel, but he is the Thai people’s scoundrel! Well not if the people you are talking about are wearing yellow shirts.

I haven’t kept my score card up to date. Tell me again, how many coups Thailand has had in the past 50 years? I’ve used up all of my fingers. In a few years I’ll probably run out of toes!

In the past year we’ve seen the yellow-shirted terrorists hold hostage thousands of innocent tourists with the police practically escorting these thugs into the airport. We’ve also seen red-shirted goons shut down an important international summit in Pattaya. Does anyone want to place odds when and where the next debacle will take place?

Okay then let’s start to tally up things Thais can be proud of. We’ve eliminated democratic government, the police, and a well educated populace. What about having the dubious reputation as The Sex Capitol of the World? Somehow I don’t see that making TAT’s tourist promotion list!

First of all, you won’t find me condemning the practice of exchanging sex for money. Prostitution isn’t called the World’s Oldest Profession for nothing. It exists because so many people want it to exist. A word to those who are outraged by it. It ain’t going away…ever!

When Thais refer to the “Prostitution Problem”, they are referring to the venues frequented by foreigners. I use the word foreigners deliberately, because there are plenty of non-farangs who indulge themselves with the ladies. There are plenty of places that cater to Japanese. However garish and tawdry some of these bars and other venues might be, they represent a tiny fraction of the sex trade in Thailand. Most sex…let’s say 90%, is being sold to Thai men in every hamlet, village, town and city across the land. Outraged Thais should look no further than their own neighborhoods if they want to attack prostitution!

As for places in Bangkok like Nana, Soi Cowboy, and Walking Street in Pattaya…well, theoretically they could be shut down overnight…along with every massage parlor and other place where sex is obviously being sold. Don’t hold your breath though waiting for that to happen. No cyclone of morality is predicted to roll through the streets of Bangkok and Pattaya anytime to my knowledge. Why? ‘Cause we are talkin’ ‘bout money…lots and lots of money… oodles of money. I really wish someone, someday could calculate how many hundreds of millions of baht enter the Thai economy via the bars and bedrooms. The number must be staggering. Besides the bar owners and the girls, who else is getting a piece of the cherry pie? The cash permeates through the economy in many ways, but I’m talking about the out and out bribes, payoffs etc. How much are the cops and other government officials skimming off the top to “look the other way”? There is a word for people who profit from prostitution…aside from the girls with shiny heels. What is that word again? Oh yes, I remember now. I believe the term is pimp…and there are some high powered pimps out there…and they are Thais, one and all. Are we feeling particularly proud to be Thai today? Don’t answer all at once.

Do Thais feel proud at having the right to free speech? Let’s put it this way, anyone who feels there isn’t much in the way of free speech is well advised not to mention it too loudly.

The dissemination of news and information in Thailand is controlled by a clique of socially conservative elitists whose mission is to maintain the status quo. Everything is filtered to promote their political viewpoint. Other points of view are simply not allowed. There are entire areas of discussion which are not allowed. Being prudent, I will refrain from touching one in particular. I have no desire to see the inside of a Thai prison!

From Thai television, newspapers and websites, you will see little or nothing of international news. Schools here teach little or nothing about world history. Yes, many westerners are sadly ill informed about what is happening outside their own borders, but that is more due to intellectual laziness than any lack of available information. I must say though that since moving to Thailand, I have learned more about international affairs by watching CNN Asia than I ever did from the U.S. version. What is available to Thais in the Thai language is quite meager.

By now, undoubtedly many of you are probably thinking, “If that whiner S2000 has so many negative things to say about Thailand, why does he continue to live there? Why doesn’t he just shut his mouth already and slink back home?” That is an excellent question! The answer might just surprise you.

I personally have a fine life here! I have a wonderful family and a beautiful home in an area I feel comfortable in. I have many wonderful Thai friends, who would come to bat for me without question in an emergency. I have a job that I enjoy and colleagues who not only like me, but respect me. My daily life is pleasant, if possibly not all that exciting. I do not live an area heavily visited by western tourists. There are not that many Farangs living here and those that do are in my age bracket and have Thai families as well. I have tried my best to integrate myself into my community. I do my share of volunteer work. About the only thing I wish for is a bit more of the “cool season”…and perhaps a better selection of beer!

So, what’s with all the complaining? My complaint is not so much the problems as I have outlined, but the attitude of Thais, like Mrs. Stick, towards these problems. Pretending that problems don’t exist, or that they are only problems in the minds of foreigners who “don’t understand Thai culture” irks me no end. Any society, whether in Farangland or Thailand can never progress without coming to terms with problems…and I will be the first to admit that western society has a looong way to go in addressing things like poverty, legal injustice, political corruption etc. But the Thai attitude of either looking the other way, or shrugging one’s shoulders is one of the key reasons Thailand remains a Third World country. Japan, Taiwan, China, South Korea are examples of Asian countries, with Asian attitudes, morals and philosophies which have lifted themselves by their bootstraps to become Asian tigers. Thailand on the other hand remains a mangy tabby cat…Dare I risk a bad pun and instead say “pussy”?

When I lived in America, I was never shy to voice my opinions. Why should I be hesitant to say what’s on my mind now? Do I have to live here for a lifetime to venture an opinion? Even them, would I ever be “qualified” to understand the Thai psyche? I do wish my Thai was much better. At this point in my life my short term memory is short indeed, but I can honestly say I’ve made an honest effort at learning the language.

I should also say that just because I am “mouthing off” here that I NEVER complain to my Thai friends and colleagues. What would it accomplish? I save my views for my Thai wife, who after five years of living in America is perhaps a harsher critic of Thai society than I am!

Okay, enough complaints! Believe it or not I would rather not complain about anything! It’s always nice to end on a positive note, and so here (in no particular order) are some reasons why Thais can be proud to be Thai.

1. Thais love their children. Teaching these days in Anuban, I have ample opportunity to see genuine warmth and affection that flows between parents and children. It is my friends the real deal.

2. While I find serious fault in the Thai education system, most of the teachers I know are dedicated professionals who work diligently day after day for very little money. The Anuban I currently teach at is as fine as any I have seen anywhere in the world…especially considering the extremely limited resources available.

3. Thais can be proud to be Buddhists. That’s not to say that Thais are particularly devout. Hell, two of the eight strictures of the Buddha proscribe alcohol sex outside of marriage…and most of the Thais I know “drink like a fish”…and as for sex, I think I need not say anything you don’t already know about that subject! Buddhists may have some damned bloody wars, but at least they are not shoving some god down anyone’s throat!

4. Many Thais work like a dog, in the hot sun, day after day, year after year…but still have a cheerful attitude.

5. Thais take care of their aged parents, instead of sticking them in “retirement homes” like all too many westerners do. It is nice that Thai children grow up knowing their grandparents so well.

6. Many Thais have an excellent artistic sense. When I taught Mattayom classes I was always amazed at how well Thai students can draw and paint. During festivals, Thais are second to no one in decorating things, whether it is carving a watermelon into a dragon or arranging flowers.

7. Speaking of festivals, Thais can be proud of Loy Krathong, which in my humble opinion is one of the loveliest spectacles I have ever experience, and Songkran…at least here far, far away from Bangkok is the best (and wettest) party I’ve ever been to.

8. Thais certainly know how to grow things! Of course this has a lot to do with fertile soil and a year long growing season. In any case, Thailand is an overflowing cornucopia…so much so that while severe poverty exists, few people go hungry.

Yes, there are plenty of good things to say about Thailand and its people. Oh, did I mention the fact that the woman of Thailand are among the most beautiful in the world? I have no complaints on that front!

So, Mrs. Stick, perhaps I should extend an olive branch…or perhaps more appropriately a jasmine branch. There are good and bad things to say about every country. There are certainly more positive things for me here than negative. I humbly suggest though that Thais at least recognize the existence of both…and begin to think how Thais can make Thailand into what it could be.

Stickman's thoughts:

I really think the comments I made mid-story are a big part of it. Many Thais are genuinely scared to speak up for they do not know what will happen – or perhaps they do and they don't like what may be coming.

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