Stickman Readers' Submissions December 18th, 2009

Intersection of Respect, Power, and Money

In a recent submission “Mongers in Denial”, the question was raised on the social respect which a bargirl
would have in Thai society. Y Fever has the simplistic view that it’s black-or-white, a common problem for westerners who think in terms of absolutes.

Asian society can be a lot more complicated than that, and there’s an important intersection between money and respect which is not really understood.

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First, what do Thai people respect socially? Many a tourist has assumed that he is a well respected person because of the smiling faces, deferential body language (wai-ing), and the service which he usually does not receive in his
home country.

Long-term residents who speak the language know that there’s no genuine respect there. The tourist just doesn’t understand that what he sees as respect is just the locals doing what they need to do in order to either get paid
or perhaps satisfy some curiosity or perhaps just as a quick way of getting away from the farang by faking respectful subservience.

The same situation can be seen in the work place, so it’s not restricted to tourists. Many ex-patriates and employers with global operations have run into problems where they think instructions are understood only to find that the
implementation is nothing like they imagined. All that respectful bowing and agreement came to nothing. The respect was hollow – just a façade.

So where can we find real respect in Thai society? Perhaps we can look at the interaction between Thai people themselves.

Do Thai people respect authority figures like the police, village head-men, mayors, governors, etc…? Some people would say so, as they are given deference and the visible signs of authority.

But people who have lived in Thailand for a while know that the locals don’t particularly like the police and generally try to avoid getting entangled with them – same as tourists. Police means trouble, bribes, and general annoyances.
Ditto for village head-men. Repeat for political figures further up the line. Certainly the concept of respecting a political figure for his accomplishments is something I have rarely encountered in Thailand. They generally reside on a spectrum
of better vs. worse for that person’s interests but Thai people are quite aware of endemic corruption and vote-buying. Many of them either were personally paid or knows someone who was paid for their vote. Not a lot to engender respect.

How about the Thai hi-so's? Surely the Thai people respect them.

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Not really, as you can see that many of those hi-so are Chinese and Thai people resent their economic domination quite a lot. The average Thai person, while aspiring to be hi-so one day, has a lot to say about the habits of the hi-so. The
mistresses, the depravity of the spoiled; enriching themselves on the labor of others.

But there’s a common thread here, and it should be clear from the title. Within Thai society, there is little in the way of real respect for a person intrinsically. What they respect is the power or the money. Or more importantly,
the intersection of power AND money.

Thai hi-so’s are what they are because they wield both money and power. Tourists have money, but little power. Police have power, but little money. Politicians have both.

Let’s circle this back to bargirls. Middle class white-collar Thai folks indeed look down on a bargirl for her profession, but they also do the same for the sidewalk fruit seller or a factory worker. By the spectrum of power-and-money
they live by, they are superior.

The same equation says that if a bargirl obtains sufficient money from foolish customer(s), the money in and of itself gives her respectability. A bargirl who moves into the building and takes the biggest and most expensive unit will be the
target of whispered insults behind her back. In public, her wealth requires acknowledgement of her status before other residents. Her neighbors back at the village look down on the source of her money, but the physical reality of the large and
beautiful house her family lives in requires respect. Defrauding the foolish foreigner out of a few hundred thousand baht might be a shameful act on an absolute scale, but the perpetrators that end up with the money still has the fat bank account
that engenders jealousy and…. respect.

That public reaction is really all the respect that Thai people are prepared to give the vast majority of people. And you know what – that’s all that they care about. Face. The fact that the very people who smile in their face
will curse them the minute they’re out of earshot means very little to Thai people. They have the superior position while they are there, and that’s what matters.

So that Isaan bargirl covered in tattoos and dripping with gold – she’s got as much of a shot at gaining respect (or rather “face”) as her honest sister who works at a regular job. As long as the intersection of
power and money puts a Thai person higher on the spectrum, that’s all that matters.

Now – the exception. There are classes of individuals who have real respect, as in their social position is unimpeachable regardless of power and money. In this category, we have King / Queen plus the Buddhist monks. Those are the only people
exempt from the spectrum.

A final note for Y Fever. Your employees don’t respect you, and the girls you go out with don’t really respect you either. They just think you’re a rich, young guy. When you’re out and about with the legitimate
shop-girls you pick up, there’s little doubt what the Thai observers are thinking and you’re not that far above the mongers you mock.

But don’t feel bad – Thai people think the same thing about Thai hi-so’s going around with his mistress. That’s because there’s no real respect in the system for anyone.

It’s just about the intersection of power and money for 95% of the people in the country.

Stickman's thoughts:

Very nicely put.

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