The Brand Attitude of Thais
I know the brand attitude of the Thais all too well. My wife, who hails from the middle class, was originally very brand conscious. It is only after she observed how my friends spend money and saw the difference between them and in particular the lower
middle class in Australia (walking around with Prada, Fendi, Gucci handbags, tracksuit pants and ugg boots). She is slowly learning to spend money on what she truly enjoys rather than on buying brands just to show off to her friends and society
at large. It's been a slow process because initially she was so brand-brainwashed that she didn't actually know what she would enjoy nor have any real hobbies other than shopping. Introducing her to hobbies has slowly changed that, so
now she is happier to go sailing, mountain-biking, etc, and items are purchased in order to enjoy those hobbies, rather than to show off.
When she returns to Thailand, or when she associates with Thais in Australia, then brand-consciousness raises its ugly head again. Most Thais that I see here tend to congregate together and not really mix into the Australian culture. As such, they have never really left Thailand. There are some rare exceptions and some, like my wife, actually loathe attending functions involving a Thai congregation. The Thais overseas seem to have to automatically generate a pecking order based on who is richest (or married to the richest farang). They lie about income in order to elevate themselves in the pecking order. Even worse, they spend all their money on brand name goods. What gets me every time though is if I visit their houses. They will boast and show off with expensive clothing, hand-bags, watches and jewellery, and maybe even an expensive car, but visit the house, which is often in a crappy neighbourhood, furnished with cheap crap and with a garden that is in poor condition. The emphasis has been on buying name brand crap in order to create "face" (a false face in my view) at the expense of living comfortably. This is of course a generalisation and doesn't apply to all Thais overseas, but I have seen this pattern repeated enough times for it to become a stereotype. I know some rich Thai women living in Australia and particularly those who are working professional jobs in Australia tend to avoid the Thai community altogether. The reason is they cannot stand the lies, gossip and one-upmanship.
Returning to Thailand each year can sometimes be a painful experience. Thais are very judgmental and it seems they need to know where in the pecking order someone sits so that they know how to treat them. Unfortunately, this is ingrained into Thai culture and language. Use of expensive name brand items is one of the easiest means of assessing pecking order. If my wife goes out with her old university friends, she will automatically be considered as the poorest of the group by outsiders because of what each person is wearing. However, take a look at her friends' cars and houses to get a more accurate picture of their wealth. Many are spending beyond their means and I have seen some sneak off in order to anonymously catch a non-aircon bus back home This is perhaps a reason why most of her old friends never invite us for a meal at their home but instead want to meet elsewhere (even when they live nearby). In Australia, home entertaining is a big part of the lifestyle and people invest a lot to turn their home into a resort… for enjoyment rather than showing off (although many do take pride in showing off their accomplishments as well). When we have been invited to houses for dinner in Thailand, it has typically been to abodes of rich Thais. Those houses are luxuriously decorated, but usually tend to be very "cold". The decor would be better in an office reception rather than a home. The house has basically become a showpiece to create face.
Unlike what I have noticed with many rich Australians, most rich Thais are more likely to be brainwashed by branding. They are likely to "look down" upon my wife because she was not born rich, and they automatically assume she only received a professional job in Australia due to my contacts rather than on her own ability. Quite insulting really, and I have found very few exceptions to this stereotype. I'm still trying to understand why rich Thais feel the need to show their wealth. Maybe they still feel insecure for some reason or another. My own hypothesis (and this is just my misguided view, not sounded in any tangible evidence) is that many of the rich Thais recognise (at least at a subconscious level) that the only thing distinguishing them from the middle and lower classes is their money. They may have a fancy education, but they probably cheated to get it (I can confirm the rate of cheating by Thai students at Australian universities is high). Therefore they know that skill or knowledge-wise, they are a fraud. Money wise, they were probably born into money, and much of it earned through ill means including corruption. Perhaps there is a sense of guilt or fraud here as well. Therefore, notwithstanding the money, the insecurity still exists. Therefore it is necessary for the wealthy to show their wealth. This hypothesis is just a generalisation. There are rich Thais that created their wealth themselves. There are those who truly studied overseas. There are those who, for other reasons, are not insecure.
Reflecting on how Thais discriminate based on perceived wealth, I can actually understand why rich Thais (even those that are not insecure) have to spend money on expensive brands. You are treated based on how rich you appear in Thailand. If I go to a restaurant wearing clothes I bought off the street, I get treated accordingly. If I walked into the Lamborghini dealership in Paragon dressed that way, I'm sure they would chuck me out. However, I once dropped by a Mercedes dealership in Australia wearing a white singlet, old tracksuit pants and thongs. Notwithstanding my unsuitable attire, the dealer was courteous, offered me the keys for a test drive and would have been more than happy to sign me up for a sale. I was treated with the respect I deserved and not judged (overly) based on my appearance.
I'm sure this is food for thought, and I am sure you have had plenty of experiences yourselves. What interests me is whether you have ever received poor service anywhere when you were dressed for success?
Excellent article. The way so many Thais, in particular, stretch themselves to buy luxury brand name items is really quite sad.