Readers' Submissions

Face? I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Face!

  • Written by Sawadee2000
  • December 17th, 2010
  • 22 min read


John Daysh’s recent submission,

Giving, Saving and Maintaining Face in Thailand, stirred up in me a whole lot of thoughts and feelings. While hardly the Dalhi Lama when it comes to forgiveness and compassion, I do try very hard not to be overwhelmed by anger and discord. If nothing else, maintaining some degree of inner peace in stressful situations helps my blood pressure, digestion, and lets me enjoy a decent night’s sleep. The truth is that I don’t enjoy being angry, and on the occasions when I am, I am eager to purge myself of those feelings as quickly as I can. Some people actually thrive on nursing anger. Often they prefer that conflicts remain unresolved so that that can hold on their wrath. That really is a shame, because life is simply too short to be mad at the world.

That being said however, I’m confident that a whole lot of you out there share my opinion that many Thais not only deserve, but desperately need a serious “attitude adjustment”. As far as I’m concerned, Somchai and Somporn should have received a “trip to the woodshed” (or two!) when they were children. Perhaps then they wouldn’t now be spoiled, irresponsible, selfish adults. These tendencies need to be nipped in the bud in childhood, or they will continue to grow. Let me give you a real life example.

A few weeks ago I was out with my wife and Sam at a local department store. In the middle of shopping for some cool weather clothes for Sam, our little boy threw a rare, (actually his only) full blown temper tantrum. During the course of this he said some extremely rude things to me, and his mother. He was warned in no uncertain terms to “cease and desist” immediately. He instead chose to crank up the volume. What sparked this episode is unimportant. What is important is how I handled it. I didn’t yell or scream. Lord knows Sam was doing enough of that! I simply paid for our purchases, lifted Sam up and quickly got the hell out of the store. Sam was still wailing like a banshee as he was strapped into his car seat, and continued to scream during the ride home. Above the din I informed my wife that young Master Samuel would be receiving a spanking when we got home. I also quietly informed M.S. of that fact. My wife who has been lax in disciplining when necessary for once agreed that The Ultimate Punishment was warranted in this case. Despite the racket going on around me, I was grateful to have an opportunity to cool off emotionally. I was never going to do anything in a rage. Instead I wanted to have a “cool heart” while administering my promised punishment.

Speaking of promises, I’ve learned that as a parent it is pointless to make a threat if you are not prepared to follow through. Idle threats only lead to continued bad behavior because they can be ignored with impunity.

Once home. I summoned Sam to his bed, quietly explained that his behavior in public had been unacceptable, as had his rude comments to his mother. He had ignored my requests to stop behaving badly. Now he was going to receive a spanking. I think that getting his bottom turned over my knee upset him as much the quick three whacks he got to his bottom. Was Sam ever going to do this again? Through the sniffing he shook his head and said no. Punishment detail being over, it was time for some comforting hugs before taking a bath and getting ready for bedtime.

Note to any Politically Correct people out there. This was not a beating! This was not child abuse. The slaps to Sam’s bottom were not hard. The point wasn’t to inflict pain, but to get his attention. A lesson needed to be taught. Failing to do so would be child abuse in my humble opinion! Sam being a bright child, who is generally well behaved, will certainly think twice about throwing another tantrum. Hopefully this will help in developing a keen sense of good behavior. What will be just as instructive; will be for Sam to observe how his father behaves in his daily life. With any luck, this will counteract the inevitable indoctrination he will receive in school. Being prudent, I will refrain on commenting specifically on what his little head is being stuffed with at school.

The point I am trying to make is that behavioral patterns as well as an understanding of “the way things work” are learned early in life, and was rooted, are hard to change.

Despite being married to a Thai for over ten years, I freely admit that I will never really understand the Thai way of thinking. What subtle attitudes they drink in with their mother’s milk will always be beyond my comprehension. Chief among these intangible concepts is that of face. All I can say for certainty is that the Thai obsession of avoiding the lack of face at all costs, is one factor in Thailand remaining in many ways a Third World country.

Please do not e-mail me to complain about my “western bias”. This has nothing to do with Occidental versus Oriental thinking. Other Asian countries, such as Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan and Singapore managed to pull themselves out of the ashes of World War Two to become dynamic, prosperous, well educated countries. Thailand on the other hand, while booming compared to places like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, have no reason to feel smug. Thailand has had more military coups than I can count. It has an enormous economic and social gulf, which has led to continuous civil unrest, with the pitched battles in Bangkok this past spring being only the latest episode. Thailand ranks as one of the most corrupt countries in the world and shouldn’t be bragging about the glorious “Thai way of doing things”. Close to 90% of all Thai teachers failed exams not too long ago in their own subjects! Oh, and let us not forget Thailand’s dubious honor as Sex Capitol of the World.

Today I want to focus specifically on the much vaunted Thai method of conflict resolution, which supposedly allows all parties to walk away without anyone losing face. This may very well work splendidly if say you are talking about one Thai accidentally bumping into another Thai at the local noodle stand. Apologies are given and received, smiles are exchanged, and life goes on without a ripple. No one is stigmatized. The social order is maintained.

Of course this so-called politeness seems a bit ingenuous when considering what a violent place Thailand is. The rates of murder, violent assault and rape are extraordinarily high, as is domestic abuse. As had been pointed out many times, peaceful conflict resolution is not one of the Thais’ strong qualities. Thais may indeed have the ability to look the other way while a whole lot of shit is swept under the rug, but this is hardly an ideal model for problem solving. Often the easiest thing to do is simply run away.

Again, let me give you a few examples from my own life here. In the past six years I have been involved in two auto accidents and my wife in one. In the first, I was stopped at a red light, when guy slams into me. In a cool calm manner I ask the fellow for his name and phone number. In an equally cool and calm manner, and with a big grin on his face, Somchai heads back to his vehicle, climbs in and speeds away as quickly as he can. Was his grin one of embarrassment or one of glee at having put one over on the stupid Faranag? To be honest I don’t really care. All I know is that he wasn’t paying attention, he smacked into me, and he proceeded to do a runner. To add insult to injury, I immediately reported the incident to the police. I managed to remember Somchai’s license plate number, except for the last digit. Did anyone care? Did anyone make the slightest effort to track down the idiot that hit me? Did anyone even stop stuffing his face with som tam long enough to write anything down, let alone pursue my case? Do you still believe in the Tooth Fairy?

As for accident number two, Somchai’s cousin, who was driving a big truck, tries to pass me in an area where he is not supposed to. In the process he hits the side of my pick-up, and never even slowing down, races away. Being thoroughly pissed off; I pursue the guy and make him pull over to the side of the road. Somchai’s cousin looks at me in a perplexed manner, as if to ask, “Why you make fuss? I want to go here…this lane. You in my way, so I hit you. What the ploblem?” I immediately call the police to report the “ploblem” I won’t bore you with my ordeal at the police station. Suffice it to say, Somchai’s cousin’s boss comes down and chats with the Boys in Brown. Guess who was fined 500 baht and who walked away with a shit-eating grin? BTW, I never was issued a citation, so I don’t have the slightest idea of what I was accused of doing, other than minding my own business and driving in a safe and judicious manner.

My wife’s mishap occurred when Somchai’s second cousin attempted to make his own personal right turn lane around my wife, who was stopped at a red light. This indignant fool jumps out, screams at my wife that she has damaged his car! Not only that, but demands that she immediately pay him for the damage. Unfortunately for him my wife, after living for five years in America, was not about to do any such thing. In so many words she told him to bugger off.

There you have three prime examples of what all this saving face means in the real world. If you are not familiar with this gem of an acronym, let me teach it to you now. BOHICA “Bend Over, Here It Comes Again!” If you have never had the opportunity to use this while visiting The Land of Smiles, you will undoubtedly make up for that loss chance if you decide to live here.

Actually you may have that dubious opportunity before even setting out from your corner of Farangland. Has anyone out there dealt with, or should I say attempted to deal with the “highly trained and professional” staff at a Thai embassy or consulate abroad? If all the sad stories about pathetic and unprofessional conduct that happen daily at Thai embassies worldwide were written up as submissions, it would make a might looooong list! I’ve mentioned the following incident before, but it’s worth retelling in the context of this piece.

When my wife and I were in the initial planning stages for our move to Thailand, I wanted to understand precisely everything regarding getting a visa to live here. The information available online from the Thai immigration service was sketchy at best. Nowhere was there either a procedure for getting my visa, or a list of the documents required. I consider myself to be a good planner, I decided to go to what I believed the source for all such matters lay; that is to say, the Thai Embassy in Washington D.C. When I say go, I actually mean call on the telephone.

Nothing could have prepared me for what occurred when I dialed their number. The phone was answered, but before I could even open my mouth to say a single word, Somporn blurted out, “We are eating lunch now, call back later!” Click. WTF? “We are eating lunch now?” You know I actually believe that that even in the Thai diplomatic handbook that would be considered rude. Somporn didn’t know who was on the other end of the line, or why they were calling. I just might have been a Very Important Person, calling on a matter of grave importance. Apparently lunch…a very long lunch probably, was more important from doing the job that presumably the Thai government hired her to do, which does include answering the fucking phone!

When you finally do arrive here in The Land of Smiles, don’t expect anyone to roll out the red carpet or offer a hearty welcome to Thailand. Instead you are most likely to be “greeted” by a scowling member of Thai Immigration, who after sucking on a rotten lemon, is in the proper frame of mind to make you feel right at home.

Having made the acquaintance of a shining representative of Thai Immigration, don’t expect any new found warmth on subsequent meetings. From the moment you set foot here, to the moment you depart, despite the rosy picture painted by the Thai Tourist Authority, do not suffer under any illusion that you are actually welcome here. Your money is of course always welcome. Ideally you should spend every last bit of it …and then get the hell out!

The tortuous path of obtaining a visa to reside here has been covered in agonizing detail by many of you. In the context of this submission, it is sufficient to say that the powers that be have deliberately made any interaction between them and foreigners as difficult as humanly possible. Whenever there is an issue…and it seems there’s always an issue lurking in the shadows, you are bound to come out of it the worse for wear. There can be no possibility of a reasonable dialog when your status is precisely zero.

The very expression “conflict resolution” when dealing with any part of Thai government officialdom, is an oxymoron. From the lowliest paper pusher in the tiniest village in Nakhon Nowhere, to the highest poo-bahs in Bangkok, you, as a Farang will never be granted anything remotely resembling justice. The Farang Is Always Wrong. End of story.

You may have lived here peacefully for many years. Your wife may be Thai. You may have devoted yourself to learning the Thai language. You may have spent a small fortune building a house. You may be both generous to a fault, and kindness personified. You may have embraced Buddhism, and donated regularly to local temples. You may have wisely kept your mouth shut, and not given anyone offense. In short you may be a model resident. None of that, I repeat NONE OF THAT means a thing. You are and will always be a Farang! BOHICA…and again and again!

God forbid you should ever be accused of anything…anything whatsoever. Once accused, you are guilty, even if there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Heaven forbid that an official investigation come up empty handed. That would result in a massive loss of face. Better to simply squeeze as many baht as possible out of the accused.

I am going through some agitation right now over some shit that I just know is headed my way courtesy of Thai Immigration. Oh, it’s nothing about my visa. Mine was renewed in July. It has nothing to do with my work permit, which is up to date, due to the diligence of a very nice woman at my school who takes care of that for me. Nope, I am talking about my 90 day place of residence report.

For the benefit for those who don’t know what that is, all foreigners must fill out and submit an official paper every 90 days which lists your current place of residence. Considering all the other forms that need to be filled out here, this one is a breeze. You don’t even have to submit it in person. You can mail it to your local Thai Immigration office. You just need to photocopy the front page of your passport, along with copies of the page where your visa is stamped, a copy of your departure card, and the slip of paper attached inside your passport that says when the next 90 day report is due. Include a stamped self addressed envelope and you’re all set. You will get in the mail a new slip of paper with a new date for sending in another report. When I first moved to Lampang, I used to actually drive to Chiang Mai to hand over this piece of paper. Once I found out that you could indeed mail it in, I started doing so.

Now to my little nightmare. In July I applied for, and received my new one year visa. When the Thai official who was processing this was going through my passport, she removed the slip of paper with the date for my 90 day report. The problem is that she never bothered to put the stinking paper back into my passport! I only discovered this when I went to fill out my new 90 day report. Oh well, how big a deal could that possibly be? It turns out it was a big deal. I dutifully filled out and sent in my report, along with a letter explaining why the dated slip of paper was not enclosed. It wasn’t enclosed because someone removed it and didn’t put it back.

I think you may know where this is leading. When I received my self addressed stamped envelope, there was a letter which said I had to produce the missing paper. Once again I wrote and explained that I didn’t have it, and again why I didn’t have it. I have yet to hear back from them, which frankly scares the shit out of me. I know exactly what is going to happen when I finally drive up there to straighten out this mess. I am going to get a massive fine. <The fine is 2,000 baht *and*, believe it or not, it technically means you have then a criminal record in Thailand!Stick> All these SOBs needed to do was check the fucking ledger where all these things are recorded and they would have seen when I sent in my last report. Despite this being the computer age, in a kind of Dickensian throwback, every scrap of information is recorded in enormous ledgers. Actually that’s not a bad thing to do, just in case some massive glitch wipes out the data stored on their computers. In six years I have never been late with a report. If anything, I send them in a bit early…just in case. <Simple solution to this whole process is to NEVER do your 90-day reporting in the first place. I know many who have done this for many years and never had a problemStick>

Will my truthful explanation and my past history of compliance mean anything when all is said and done? Not likely! Immigration will deny that anyone removed the missing paper from my passport. Everything will be found to be my fault so, BOHICA…and make sure that I bring my own tube of lubricant.

And to add yet another layer of insult, I will have to stand there smiling and not call them out for their incompetence. After all, we wouldn’t want someone to lose face now, would we?

Hell’s bells, how I would love the opportunity to calmly and quietly tell the whole lot of them exactly what I think of their entire operation. (I’m not that much of a screamer or a shouter.) Alas prudence dictates that I keep my big fat Farang mouth shut and take my buggering…if I don’t want things to potentially escalate into something much worse.

When dealing with Thai bureaucracy, either in the government or private sectors, it’s clear you have two choices when being treated unfairly: stay silent and after being raped, slink off with your tail between your legs, or get the hell out of Thailand. Kind of sucks doesn’t it to be playing the part of Oliver Twist? “Please sir, may I have some more”…abuse!? Well, I never have subscribed to the school of “cutting off my nose to spite my face”, so if I want to continue to live here, it’s better to sit down twice daily for a round of meditation.

Occasionally a third possibility presents itself when dealing with a really idiotic Thai, and that is to walk the walk of a Thai. I recently wrote a submission, Making a Deal With the Devil, in which I discussed solving a long standing dispute with a neighbor in the prescribed Siamese manner. That is to say stuffing a crisp 500 baht note into an equally crisp white envelope, and discretely giving it to our Poo-ya-bahn. Am I proud to do things this way? Well, if it’s a choice between coming out on top, or bending over once again with cheeks spread, I choose to swallow my pride and “get with the program”.

Last year when on a trip to Pai, I found it equally helpful to “act Thai” in order to settle a dispute. My family and I were parked in a lot next to a temple with limited room. There was a single narrow way in and out. When the lot became full, a parking attendant set out a sign saying that there were no available spaces left. So, here I am attempting to exit, when Somchai, ignoring the sign, pulls in and starts beeping his horn and motioning for me to back up. I am happy to say that instead I sat there with a big goofy smile on my face, and refused to budge. Instead I motioned for him to back-up, since he had no business attempting to enter in the first place. Despite the fact that Somchai was getting increasingly pissed I held my ground. At the risk of using a mixed metaphor, after a ten minute “Mexican Standoff”, it was Somchai who blinked and backed out…and with poor grace I might add. Sawadee is one hell of a nice guy, but he refuses to be anyone’s doormat!

This is the way things work here. There are potentially many annoying things which could upset your equilibrium. I choose to tune out most of them, because in the grand scheme of things, they don’t add up to anything worth getting upset about. If a restaurant screws up my order, or serves me gristle instead of a steak, I don’t start ranting or go off the deep end. I simply don’t give them my business again…ever! It’s not that I care about losing face, hell I don’t need no stinkin’ face! It’s simply that my complaints will fall of deaf ears. Often Thais simply are unable to comprehend even a politely expressed complaint, let alone a screaming at the top of your lungs complaint. It may very well be that that they do understand, but don’t really give a rat’s ass about it. Whether it’s because you are a Farang or not doesn’t seem to matter.

In another submission, I talked in great about the crap shoot that service here in Thailand it is. One time it may be brilliant. Another time it may be abysmal. Hey take it or leave it, because you will never change any Thai’s attitude. So, someone charges you for a repair that was never made, or done so poorly as to be useless. Pointing that out will neither win you points for forthrightness, nor result in a proper repair being done. Once again you’ve been shafted and you now have the “privilege” of paying for it. What of it? By the way, don’t think your Thai spouse will in some magical Thai way be able to correct the problem. My wife, who is one of the dearest people you will ever meet, has gotten the BOHICA treatment herself. Perhaps though because she is Thai she simply smiles and wais those who just took advantage of her. She knows better to complain.

By this time undoubtedly someone out there is asking, “Well Sawadee, if things are as bad as you describe, why the hell do you continue to live there?” The short answer is that although I have highlighted some of the more outrageous situations I have encountered in Thailand, by and large, my daily life is fairly placid. The vast majority of Thais I interact with are decent people; many of them in fact are dear friends. Generally when small problems arise, I’m able to find a peaceful solution. Thank the deity of your choice that major problems, the kind that make you want to bang your head against the wall (or occasionally someone else’s head) are relatively few and far between.

Still this is not to say that there aren’t a whole lot of Thais who, given the opportunity will take advantage of you. You either learn to ignore it, or find a way to fight back, even if your chosen form of martial arts is pretty damned subtle. Belligerence, even though sometimes justified, will get you absolutely nowhere. So, either plaster a big Thai style smile on your face, or retreat to Farangland. It all depends on your disposition and how low your boiling point is. Fortunately I have recalibrated my emotional thermostat and thereby found a measure of tranquility. Face, at least as Thais define it means nothing to me. As long as I remain honorable in my own eyes I will continue to see more good things around me than bad ones. Am I hopelessly naïve? Maybe, but this approach gets me through the day.


Stickman's thoughts:

For sure, there are a lot of things here that can really give you a headache. Service is all over the show, sometimes good, oftentimes bad, from time to time appalling and occasionally quite brilliant! I find myself frequenting those places where the service is decent and just avoiding those places where it is poor.

And when it comes to some government departments, don't get me started! Most of them are to be avoided at all costs!