Western Writers on Thailand: A Reply to My Friend Korski
My original observation, “Western Writers in Thailand – What Can They Really Tell Us?” was originally started as a response to some writers of this web site who, after a few trips to Thailand, make pronouncements that make most Thailand veterans shake their heads in amazement. I was hoping to impress on these writers that what is happening before their eyes may not be what they perceive it to be due to language or cultural misunderstandings. The smile, the wai, the gentle nature, is used to mislead more often than not. And when you get to more complex behavior, even the savvy veterans have trouble understanding what is happening. I was originally asking writers to present fewer judgments and more facts into their stories. But, I’m afraid I went off topic a little and got into the realm of “what is really real “and Korski legitimately took me to task on it. Rightly put:
Perceptions no more “real” or “right” than what someone—even a native–at the exact moment looking at the same person or experience sees and claims to be the exact opposite. The world is not just what it is: it is what each individual believes it to be.
Yet we have all been in this situation before in person or in writing. “I’ve been here 20 years and I can tell you the Thai smile is fake and they think nothing about lying to your face.” The many times I have heard a variation of this made me wonder was it 20 years experience or one day’s experience times 7,300. Or “I gave her everything she wanted yet she shit on me. All Thai women are greedy and selfish.” Let’s see, to a woman you barely knew, you gave her a wad of dough without any conditions and she did what she wanted to do and not what you wanted her to do. On this experience, your judgment is all Thai women are predators? If you have read the submissions on Stick for very long, you know I could go on and on until I reached 20,000 words. Some of this is pure stupidity but some writers have genuinely tried to understand their experiences in Thailand but have not been able to connect all the dots. Then there are the very few among us (of which I am not a part); knowledgeable of Thai ways, free of western prejudice, and yet can clearly explain Thai happenings to a western audience. It is from these writers that we can gain our greatest wisdom
This brings us back to Korski’s central premise: the world is what it is to each of us. As even the Buddha acknowledged on his deathbed, telling his disciples to find the God within them. Certainly most Thais have taken this to heart and practice a religion that fluctuates between Buddhist and Animist beliefs. Yet is it wrong to put our impressions into type and publish on a public web site? Of course not, as I am a true believer in human expression. My only caution from my original article, and only a caution, is that writers realize their own limitations in approaching a place so foreign from their own like Thailand, question whether what they see is what is really happening. Here’s a good example, getting stopped by Thai police for some silly reason and being made to pay 200 baht. In our countries, this is no less than extortion. Yet when I broach this situation with my Thai family, they acknowledge the illegality but suggest it is merely paying a tax that goes to pay the salary of the police who help us in many other ways. When I protest that it always seems to be farang people who are stopped more often, my family say it is just not farangs but seemingly rich Thais that are stopped often as well. And besides, they say, these people can afford this tax more than others. When I originally stopped to think about this concept, I soon realized that what they were talking about was a progressive tax system, something that exists in most western countries. Now apply this principle to car accidents or personal injuries, knowing that the wealthier litigant almost always pays, and you start to see the bigger picture. Making the assumption that most wealthy Thais, and possibly farangs through their fortunate place of birth, have acquired their wealth through means not available to the average Thai person, then these seemingly unfair judgments do start to make a little sense. It’s not what is right or wrong in Thailand, but what is fair and serves the greater community. So now, does that change your perspective on some of these stories?
As a western-bred person brought up as a law-fearing taxpayer, I cannot agree with this attitude where rules are arbitrarily applied. Yet, I also know that many laws in my home country, or lack of them, are in place to enforce an unfairness for the rich and powerful that would have had my forefathers in open rebellion. Which is the better system? These are the questions that any writer of Thailand needs to tackle before they pronounce their version of reality as what is really true.
As Stick has reminded us many times before, there is a huge language and cultural gap for westerners who marry Thai spouses. But isn’t the same in effect for businesses, laws, society, or any other interaction we have with Thais? For me, I can only quote my French brethren: vive la difference!
I have always felt that everyone is entitled to their opinion and to voice it. I find it annoying however when some people purport their opinion as fact. That's not a criticism on this site, but one in life, generally.