Western Writers in Thailand – What Can They Really Tell Us?
One weekend, when I was visiting my girlfriend’s family in a small city in Issan, the local chief of police came to house for a visit. After a few beers shared among family members, he invited me to go with him for a ride. I looked at my girlfriend and she gave me look like this was a great honor for me to accept this invitation. So, off I went in his Isuzu truck with beers between our legs and smile on our faces. He did not speak much English and I not much Thai, but between smiles and hand gestures I think we were both happy to be on this journey. After twenty minutes of driving, we stopped in front of an outdoor restaurant in the local town. An elderly Thai man approached and spoke to the chief for a few minutes and then shook hands with the chief in which he passed what looked like a couple of thousand baht bills to him. We made couple of other stops like this and then we ended up in another open air restaurant in town, only this time we got out and sat at a large table. A waitress brought us a tray of ice, water, and Mekong whiskey. She put ice into two glasses and poured in equal amounts of the liquids and then handed them to us. The chief raised his glass to me and we both took large swallows. After a few minutes, a couple of cute girls came out from the back room and sat beside us, all smiles and laughter. After much toasting, some other Thai men arrived to pay their respects. The chief always made a great show of introducing me to his friends and they always waied me respectfully, and then gave the chief a handshake of Thai baht. After a while, we started the old game of stump-the-chump; Thai people asking me questions in broken English and then laughing heartily at my awkward answers. All the while, my “baby” for the evening was giving my back and crotch a thorough massage. After a couple of hours of this surreal party with my head spinning, the chief drove me at breakneck speed to my girlfriend’s house. She led me to bed and I slept until noon the next day and awoke with a splitting headache. For the next six months, the chief always invited me out for similar nights and surprising, my girlfriend always encouraged me to go. Them without any discussion, they abruptly stopped and I never saw the chief again. Why did the chief do this? Why did my girlfriend, who always watched me like a hawk at other venues, agree to let go on these debauched nights? When I asked her she always said something about it was good for us. If so, did my girlfriend tell the chief I was someone I wasn’t? Did I bring some sort of legitimacy to his corruption or respect to my girlfriend’s family? I have thought about these evenings many times and talked about them to Thai friends and longtime ex-pats, but I have never received a satisfactory explanation. Why can’t I understand something as simple as this about Thai society? Are farangs and Thais so different?
Funny enough, this wasn’t the first time I had this sort of experience. When I was a kid, my sister’s boyfriend let me ride in the backseat of his Chevy Impala while he and my sister made their social rounds on a Saturday night. They drove around to many fast-food restaurants and pizza parlors, having many conversations through their open windows, with me in the back trying to make sense of it all. Yes, I was there and I saw and heard everything that was said, but I had no idea what was really happening. If I wrote a report about it for school, it would have all the relevant facts but it would be devoid of the real social interactions that reflected the teenage scene of that time. I now know that gossip was exchanged on the hippest kids, a car race was scheduled for 10 PM, and a giant outdoor beer blast was planned afterwards, all conveyed in code words and gestures I was not familiar with. So, as farangs, are we always in the back seat of the Thai car trying to comprehend all the actions and words happening in the front seat?
Since then I have thought about this question many times. I once imagined that with enough language skills and cultural accruement, I could one day sit in a board of directors meeting at Bangkok Bank and understand all the discussions taking place. Now happily living with my Thai sweetie in Farangland, I know the answer to that question is “no”. Although my Thai better-half is pretty smart and has a good command of farang language and culture, I can’t imagine her participating reasonably well in one of my weekly sales meetings. The slang language, body gestures, and eye contact we use to communicate our complicated sales activities would quickly overwhelm her. She just has not lived here long enough to really understand the western mind. How long does that take? Or does it only come when you spend time in a foreign land when you are young and you absorb culture into your brain without thinking? I suspect this is truer than so-called Thai aficionados would like to admit. Personally, I have devoted many hours of study to Thai history, culture, and language, yet I am as lost at a Thai birthday party as if I was sitting in the backseat of that Chevy Impala
So now, back to the question in the title; what can western writers tell us about Thailand? Yes, we can report facts, interview natives, and write about how we feel, but do these activates really reflect what Thailand is about? As we all know, Thailand is not just a different culture with a different religion, it is an ancient culture that has learned to survive intact to the present day. Although they seem to be intrigued by foreign culture, they absorb what they like on the surface but retain their Thai uniqueness underneath, safe from the casual probing of most farangs and disguised by the ever present Thai smile.
But not all is lost for these writers. The Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville wrote probably the best analysis of American society in Democracy in America many years ago. Robert Hughes, an Australian by birth, wrote a wonderful book on Spanish culture called Barcelona. There are many other examples of authors who have that rare ability to convey the true essence of a host country. But are these exceptions that prove the rule or examples of the kind of herculean effort of exploration and talent it takes to write these cultural classics? I will not pass judgment on the efforts thus far of foreign writers struggling to explain Thailand to a non-Thai audience, except to say that probably the best effort I have read is J.M. Cadet’s introduction to his brilliant translation of The Ramakien. In this, his opening sentence says it all;
The Thai are one of the most elusive peoples of the Orient.
It would be interesting to ask the Thais this question. Can foreigners reach the point when they really understand Thai culture? I think I know what most would say…