Becoming Thai Aware
You see them all over Arizona, little enclaves of low-cost housing and run-down shopping plazas catering to the needs of newly arrived immigrants from south of the border. You’ll notice that most of the signs are in Spanish as is most of talk if
you were to walk through the restaurants and small shops. Most gringos don’t as the strange people and smells repulse many and induce fear in many others. Most of the inhabitants, though, are hard-working legal migrants to the States who
just want a good life, like every other American. Some are here illegally, some are involved in illegal activity, but they are in the minority. Those who can speak excellent English do pretty well while those who can’t have limited job
opportunities and can be victimized by crooks who prey on their ignorance. Still, white Americans look down on the people who live and work here with scorn and publicly scold that they should learn to speak “their” language and adapt
to “their” values. Sometimes, this scolding becomes more intense and these communities are blamed for any number of societal ailments. Racism towards anyone with brown skin or an accent in their speech is rampant, but subdued, such
that a tense truce exists between the two communities. One big spark, though, could change that in a second.
These were the thoughts I had after reading Skyywalker’s excellent submission, 10 Minutes In Jail, regarding his traffic incident in Thailand (10 Minutes in Jail). For those who didn’t read it, the author told his tale of a traffic accident caused by a wayward Thai driver, his bad decision to try to run from justice, and then allowing his Thai family and insurance agent to take over the situation to a good end. Certainly, it was another cautionary tale about driving in Thailand but I believe there was a more important message about living a good life in Thailand.
I know many will stop reading at this point expecting the usual lecture on the virtues of “going native” in Thailand. For many western ex-pats this means disdaining other foreigners in favor of devoting your waking hours to trying to be Thai as much as possible, including turning in misbehaving ex-pats in to Thai authorities. But anyone who attempts to live in this “native” fantasy world will not only be seen as silly to Thai people but are doomed to never realizing their dream. My own country, like many others, is proud to have a diverse population made up of many ethnicities. This is not the case in Thailand. Westerners, and all other foreign residents, will always be visitors and will never be full members of Thai society, no matter how hard we try or how many of our fellow ex-pats we shun. Acceptance of this fact is crucial to anyone trying to make Thailand their home.
So, if going native and living apart in western enclaves don’t work, are westerners forever doomed to be unhappy in Thailand? Why not try a “middle” path? My own feeble attempts to understand the Thai way of living have been documented on this web site more than a few times. On my yearly trips to Thailand, my wife and her friends take charge of my itinerary, planning all my travel and events. By the end of the trip, I am usually seething with frustration as what is planned is almost never what we end up doing. With my American upbringing and Germanic genes, I naturally rebel at the random and haphazard Thai way of wandering the planet. I always forget this is the way Thai friends in groups do things and to expect anything different is just so much whimsical thinking. If I really want to get along in a Thai group, I know I need to go with the flow and to keep my mouth shut (I find liberal ingestions of Singha beer helps). I know western men with Thai wives who completely avoid these kinds of trips, but one day I hope to make Thailand my home, so I consider these trips as training exercises.
But I have not learned this lesson just in Thailand. I have seen the value of cultural integration by watching my Thai wife and her children struggle to adapt to life in America. Even after years in America and constantly improving their English, some situations can still be very difficult for them, like doctor visits, school conferences, or talking to government officials. I sense their frustrations in adapting to western life but being Thai, of course, they are too polite to express it outwardly. I’m sure they will get the knack of maneuvering in American society after a few more years. But after my many frustrations, I often wonder how long it will take me to feel comfortable in Thai society. I suspect, just as long as it is taking them in America.
My Thai family, though, have some strong incentives for this effort. Assimilation into American society has advantages that can only be dreamed of by westerners in Thailand. My wife and her children can become American citizens (without giving up their Thai citizenship), vote, own property, and have their own businesses. Foreigners trying to assimilate in Thailand will, at best, be considered minor nuisances to be tolerated by pious locals. That is, until things start to go wrong, like an economic downturn or an increase in crime; then your newly acquired ability to read Thai newspapers will reveal that “foreigners” are behind all their problems. Why are we surprised the same also goes for traffic accidents or other disagreements, in which the foreigner is always assumed to be at fault? So why should westerners make any effort to assimilate to Thai society?
The question really should be how much control of your life do you want to have while you live in Thailand? We certainly cannot have full rights but we can learn enough of the language and culture such that we are not always taken advantage of by unscrupulous local businesses and officials. Even in western enclaves, we interact with Thai people for our daily needs or work. How much easier would our lives be if we had the respect of Thai people we regularly meet? Would they become our friends and help us in times of need, like auto accidents or personal disputes? Or do we want to live our lives in isolation and suffer the scorn of the local populace, who take our money and suffer our poor Thai language, all the while making fun of us by repeating popular slurs over and over again. We become the new immigrants of our home countries who refuse to learn the ways of their new land. Is the Thai scorn any different?
I know as well as anyone I have a long way to go in realizing my own advice of becoming “Thai aware”. When it is time for me to retire and I re-locate to Thailand permanently, I know it will be a hard slough at first; language lessons and many stupid mistakes will only be the beginning. But it’s certainly preferable to “going native” or spending my days in an immigrant enclave where my only friends have white skin, speak my language, and only frequent the western venues of Thailand. My goal is to become part of the greater Thai society, as much as it will allow, as I know it is the only way to truly feel comfortable in my new homeland. I also know that as much as my Thai wife would be willing to act as my guide, I cannot count on her always being there. What happens if we divorce or she dies unexpectedly? Or if I am away from her on a long trip and something happens? Or even a short trip to the store and I don’t have my phone? In all these scenarios, if I am not prepared, I could quickly get myself in deep trouble and find my visa revoked. If all my investments and family are in Thailand, now what would I do?
You see, I want to live comfortably in my new home, not just physical comfort but knowing I have a strong support system in place when (not if) things go wrong. Isn’t it the same for Mexican immigrants in America as it is for Americans in Thailand?
Perhaps only a small percentage of foreigners really do integrate successfully into Thai society and genuinely have a strong support system in place. I am firmly of the belief (and please, don't call me a cynic here for I have observed this for a very long time) that many believe that they are in exactly that position but they find out they are not when things go wrong – and they most need that support. But for sure, you can reach it. It seems to take a unique mix of the right people on each side as well as good amount of luck!