Stranger In A Strange Land (A Land Of Opportunists)
Robert Hienlien's 1960’s science fiction epic of a human raised on Mars then returning to Planet Earth to reintegrate himself into a world which, although he is ethnically connected to, he is culturally at odds with has some unusual parallels for many farang who choose to call Thailand their home. Although we are composed of the same genetic material, the fact that we look different, and possess divergent cultural backgrounds ensures that fitting in is something that’s not easy to achieve. The locals have their nuances and idiosyncrasies which oftentimes leave one wondering if it would be better just to jump on the shuttle and head back to our own world. It takes patience to achieve a semblance of integration but, given time and an understanding of our position in their country, one can eventually come to grips with the differences and make a life and a home for ourselves. Part of that process of understanding is learning how things work in terms of their acceptance and attitude towards foreigners.
If you look at the history of Thailand it soon becomes obvious that foreigners are nothing new to this, oftentimes, strange and exotic land. In fact it has to be said the locals have been very welcoming of foreigners for the past five hundred years or so. Compared to the rigidly anti-foreigner mentality – until relatively recent historical times – of the closed kingdoms of Japan and Korea, the Thais were quick to seize upon the idea that the foreigner represented opportunity. Opportunity in terms of knowledge, technology and, most importantly, money. And, as negative as it may sound, after residing here for the better part of eighteen years, that is my understanding of how the locals perceive me; an opportunity. Call it jaded cynicism; call it a narrow perspective; call it what you like but it is the reality of my choice to reside here successfully and, dare I say, it’s a defence mechanism which (now) serves me well.
It is a fact, whether we care to acknowledge it or not, that most farang visiting or choosing to live here mix with and associate with Thais at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum of this country. Unless you are seriously cashed up rich, or hi-so, Thais don’t usually get into a long term relationship / marriage situation with a farang. The young, handsome studs out there may argue the point but the reality is that while you may get to bed some hi-so types, chances are you won’t be marrying one any time soon. You’ll amuse, and entertain, for a while but eventually drop out of the picture when the parents need to make strategic alliances with other rich Thai families.
It is often said that the farang normally ends up with the Thai women that Thai men don’t have any need for. While this is generally true it isn’t always the case. Educated middle class or lower middle class types will often shy away from Thai men simply because they’ve experienced hurt in the past and may consider a farang a safer option for a relationship or marriage. While they may not feel as comfortable as they would with their own kind, a relationship with the farang is often seen as an opportunity in terms of improved financial and social status. It’s quite a pragmatic approach to life and one that many farang will have trouble coming to grips with. Even more so when one doesn’t necessarily understand subtle cultural nuances or have a firm grasp on the language. And I am honest enough to admit that unless I’m able to communicate at a deep level with someone, how an earth would I truly understand their innermost thoughts and fears? Without real understanding how can you really know someone? And if you don’t really know a person, how could you trust them?
For many of us the inability to communicate fluently in Thai is our biggest stumbling block to integrating ourselves more successfully into this country. Not just in terms of being able to communicate with the locals but also in terms of being able to make a judgment call on one of them. If a lady you’ve taken a fancy to has a bit of a questionable past, or she’s not being completely honest about her social history, how would you root out the truth if you’re unable to communicate properly? Not only that, there are many out there – particularly on-line – who are rather dim. The inability to communicate properly is actually an advantage to them in terms of masking their deficiencies. It also works the other way. I’ve made a list of requirements on the two on-line dating sites I’ve joined but I still get ladies contacting me who live outside Bangkok, who have children, who don’t have a real job, who don’t have a good education and who have tattoos. I don’t even bother replying to them because I know that they were either too lazy to read my profile or they have a poor proficiency level in their English language reading skills (which equals low education level).
I’m intelligent enough to understand that their predicament is not entirely their own fault but, having lived here for so long, I also know that it’s a complete waste of time trying to save them. Most of them are not interested in being saved and will not make any serious effort to use their own abilities to improve themselves; emphatically so if they are employees, or ex employees, in the “industry.” The SOP for the vast majority is to find a farang who will “take care.” Lately, I’ve really come to despise that term because what it actually means – and most of them are, again, too dim to realise this – is that they would like to find some gullible soul to give them a monthly stipend so they can continue waking up at midday, watching Thai soap dramas, eating packet noodles, and doing their late afternoon trips to the beauty shop. If a Thai lady ever mentions the dreaded term “take care” to you; run away as quick as you possibly can. Alternatively you could put a warning note on your on-line profile saying something to the effect of “I don’t pay salary or sin sod. Are you still interested?”
On a recent trip to a nearby national park I was sitting out on the patio of my hotel room at a reasonably early hour, enjoying my first cup of Joe for the day when I picked up on a conversation in the room next door. What appeared to be a well educated Thai lady – her command of the English language certainly made it appear that way – was haranguing her American boyfriend. It was, by the sound of things, an argument on Thai politics; Taksin and the red shirt movement being regularly mentioned. She then said something which confirmed all my deepest suspicions about the social interplay of this country “The most important thing in the lives of the poor people in the North East is money because money is the thing which will improve their lives quickly,” she said, rather emphatically.
I would’ve liked to have chipped in with my own commentary but thought better of it. As much as she is completely convinced of the validity of her argument it should be said that money also happens to be the most important thing in the lives of the hi-so fraternity; the reason being is that greater amounts of money equal greater amounts of face. In that regard, she’s not much different to her lo-so counterparts who are also well aware that a windfall not only improves their economic situation but also their social status in the small communities they live in. What better way to get one over the neigbours than to suddenly be seen driving around in a brand new SUV or have a two-storey brick and mortar house built? The end result, in terms of the prestige gained, may be the same but the method, or means, of getting there is where the difference lies. Hi-sos, give them their due, at least have the business acumen, and the educational background, to get there through their own efforts; handouts from foreigners aren’t normally part of the game plan. At the other end of the social spectrum though things are a little different. It would be interesting to know what percentage of the palatial new dwellings being built out in the rural North-East of Thailand are funded by the foreigner? A survey done in The Nation newspaper about three years ago turned up some interesting figures. Approximately 1100 women in Isaan were asked if they would like to marry a farang. Eighty percent replied that they would but not because of any altruistic reason; it was purely and simply about the opportunity to accrue material gain. Most replied that they thought farangs were rich and that they could get a nice new house built and fill it with nice new appliances. Give them their due for setting their stalls out and being up front about it. As I learnt in a high school economics class so long ago; let the buyer beware.
It should be said though that windfalls accruing from the generosity of foreigners to the financially disadvantaged sections of the population of this country are as much about those who give, as those who get. My recent novel “Fear and loathing in Pattaya” spells this out clearly enough and the many submissions published on this site outlining the scams provide valuable lessons. However, and this is an irrefutable fact, no one twists your arm to hand over large amounts of cash to the scammers. For someone to receive, someone else must be willing to give. The stories we read about foreigners being lied to, deceived and cheated have as much to do with the scammer as the one being scammed. For those that have been in that situation – and I include myself in this group – reviewing your story is as much about self analysis as it is about the anger directed at the little demimondaine that fooled you. To completely understand how, and why, a situation unfolded (the way it did) one must be honest enough to reflect upon one's own desires and motivations. Where exactly are you at in life? What is your emotional state and (try to be completely honest about it) how much did loneliness, desperation and the need “to get your end in” have to do with your trip into a fantasy world of your own making? I say of our own making because that’s exactly what it is and despite the red flags, which we often choose to ignore, we fool ourselves into believing there’s nothing wrong. Why should that be? I believe it is simply lust over-riding common sense, and nothing more. And that, sadly, is an indictment of the fragility of our emotional state; that our need to get our ends in makes us so easy to manipulate.
One of the more recent entertaining subs was actually a series ran a few weeks ago about a chap from the UK who arrived on these shores looking for a bride; by way of an introduction agency. He’d made arrangements, prior to landing here, to review a line-up of ladies for marriage suitability. What was interesting as the story unfolded was the way in which the doubt, and uncertainty, clouding his thought processes was largely ignored due to the fact that his bride to be was providing regular helpings of sex.
In fact, one may surmise, his commentary was more about getting laid than anything else and I found it rather amusing that he was prepared to shell out quite a large amount of cash for that to happen. He was either a very generous soul or the gold, expensive dinners on the Chao Praya and shopping trips for his teerak were no object when it came to getting his end in. The point I’m making is that our tragedies, or tales of woe, are more about our own weaknesses and deficiencies than anything else. It is also about being completely clueless when it comes to understanding the characteristics of the people of this land.
To know one’s adversaries, and thereby empower one's own position, one should know the adversaries' strengths and weaknesses. Before I go on I would like to add the following is not a blanket statement about the character traits of the entire population of this country but it does go some way to explaining why, for certain segments of the population, there is the propensity to look at others as an opportunity.
Taken from THE NATION NEWSPAPER:
EVEN FOR A NATION OF THIEVES, IT'S NEVER TOO LATE
Published: 9/07/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Business
Last By: Sawai week, an Abac Poll of 1,228 households in 17 provinces across Thailand found that 84.5% of respondents regarded cheating as a normal business practice and 51.2% said corruption by government officials was acceptable as long as it improved their living conditions. Similar surveys conducted over the past few years reached essentially the same conclusions regardless of respondents' geographical regions. Such findings clearly point out that Thailand is a nation made up largely of thieves who will cheat at every opportunity.
With such a mindset, no further explanation should be needed as to why Thailand has not been able to attain the level of development achieved by other Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea despite having relatively more natural resources. If we raise this issue with fellow Thais, a lot of them would quickly point out that corruption also exists in those countries. They are right. Corruption does indeed exist in those countries and, for that matter, in all countries. But the difference lies in the degree; in more advanced countries corruption is not so high as to stifle development.
A few weeks ago, a former president of South Korea was driven by shame to commit suicide after rumours circulated that he was involved in corruption while in office. In the case of Thailand, a former prime minister apparently feels no shame even after being convicted of corruption. Moreover, a large number of Thais have joined a political movement to clear him, including the current drive to prepare a petition with at least one million signatures to obtain a royal pardon.
Bad as the readiness to cheat may be, it is but one of four Thai characteristics that have been labelled detrimental to development, according to a former prime minister who echoed opinions expressed by some foreigners who know Thais well. The others are laziness, ostentatiousness and jealousy. Many Thais who hear this for the first time may be offended. But they should not be, as evidence can be found everywhere. Government lottery tickets are sold out regularly at premium prices because a lot of Thais wish to attain a high income level without working for it. Young Thai women marry retired foreigners whose pensions provide a road to an easy life. These phenomena may not be laziness as commonly understood but are laziness nonetheless.
Expensive German cars, Swiss watches, and French handbags all sell well in Thailand. Thais buy more luxury German cars than the Japanese, even though the latter have far more upper-income professionals. Personal debt has become a critical problem mainly because most Thais feel a strong need to keep up with their peers. Large debt may be incurred to finance ostentatious ceremonies to marry off daughters or send sons into the monkhood for two weeks.
Jealousy may not be as apparent, yet the co-operative movement in Thailand has never been successful since it was introduced during the reign of Rama VI because Thais cannot work co-operatively for any length of time. Tens of thousands of Buddhist temples have been built, many practically next to each other, because the solution for disagreement among members of the congregation is to build another one. These phenomena indicate a lack of social capital, which is vital for development.
The survey findings and foreigners' opinions are mirrors reflecting the true picture of our society that we have ignored or denied for so long. Our mindset must be changed for Thailand to develop further and grim as the picture may be, it is never too late to do that. While responsibility lies with all of us, the ruling class should take the lead for it has had better opportunities. As for the government, a lot of suggestions can be made but I will make only three, beginning with the easiest: do not approve the current online lottery proposal or make gambling in whatever form more convenient in the future; start revamping the tax base with the ultimate aim of making a progressive consumption tax the main source of revenues; and make sure that its own ranks are not populated by corrupt politicians.
Sawai Boonma served for more than two decades as an economist with the World Bank in Washington DC.
If this was simply a commentary by another disgruntled foreigner it probably wouldn’t rate a mention but the fact that it’s a damning indictment by one of their own is worth noting. My own take on it is more along the lines of given the right conditions, and situation, certain sections of the local population have the potential to exhibit the worst character traits one may encounter in this country; they will come to see everything and everyone they encounter as an opportunity. As many of us know, and have experienced first hand, ladies working in the “industry” are prime examples of locals exhibiting the character traits of laziness, jealousy, ostentatiosness and the readiness to cheat. I would also add that the abovementioned negative aspects are not strictly confined to those who work as bargirls. I’ve met plenty of ladies with normal jobs, at night clubs and on-line, who are even more voracious when it comes to seeing a foreigner as an opportunity. A very good friend recently told me an interesting tale about an ex girlfriend who was well educated, had never worked in a bar, and is an absolute stunner. He’d been seeing her for a number of years and over that time of being exposed to the farang world, along Sukhumvit, had changed from being a nice, decent type to a complete opportunist. The story goes that one day he was given an ultimatum: “I’ve met a farang who is going to buy me a five million baht condo; a new car, and he will give me salary of 100k Baht a month. If you want to stay with me I want the condo and car but only 80k Baht a month and a Louis Vuitton handbag.” His reply was a very short, two-word message; the first beginning with the letter F, the second the letter O.
The unfortunate thing about ladies who go down the road of the opportunist is that the further they go, the worse they become until, ultimately, the only thing they’re actually good for is an hour back at your hotel room or apartment and nothing more. The trademarks of the opportunist are greed, lies and deceit. If you have the misfortune to get involved with one there is only ever one absolute certainty and that is enough is never enough; the more you give them the worse they become. It’s my observation, due to the cultural deficiencies mentioned by Boonma, that it doesn’t take too long before they are completely beyond redemption. They get used to the hot, easy money which more often than not gets frittered away on ostentatious lifestyles.
The fact that many were once walking around in rice fields is often lost on them, and the parasites back in the villages feeding off them all become accustomed to and addicted to the hot, easy money. There is never any understanding regarding the earned value of money for the opportunist and their hangers on. You may want to consider that as you’re handing over that monthly stipend, or sin sod, or gold, or new SUV purchase; is there any real appreciation of the sweat you’ve lost to earn that wad your handing over, or ITing to your teerak? There never usually is; you are, after all, their opportunity and, sorry to say, not much more. Oh, you do get to hear someone tell you that they love you and you also get your end in – when you’re around – but what is the likelihood that your opportunist is going to take a million baht of your hard earned cash and double it for you in a couple of years? Probably never as they’re not concerned with your real long-term welfare. Opportunists always have their own agendas, first and foremost, before you.
Once you’ve lived here long enough – or visited often enough – you come to understand that the opportunist, regardless of where you meet them (bar, disco, on-line) is a rather myopic, and disgusting creature. Everything is calculated in terms of money and by extension what’s in it for them. Eventually they become rotten to the core and it won’t matter how much is given; it will never be enough. A prime example would be my ex; a hardcore opportunist and black widow if there ever was one. She now lives the kind of life that most lower level opportunists could only dream about. Ensconced in her sponsor's new 20 million baht Bangkok high-rise condo, she idles away her days with pointless shopping trips and afternoons at the beautician's. And even though she’s driving an imported vehicle, and receives a six figure stipend each month, that still isn’t enough; the sponsor was consigned to the ranks of keeneow for not covering the cost of 370k baht of cosmetic surgery she recently had done. A recent lunch appointment with her had me thinking only one thing – that she was one of the most vile creatures I’ve ever come across. With all the cosmetic enhancements she’s had the body looks like a million dollars but eventually, even that won’t mask the ugliness within. An hour before a planned dinner appointment that same evening I turned the phone off (the one reserved for the female fraternity of this country) and went somewhere else. The expletive deletives SMSd to me the following morning were deleted along with her numbers and the few remaining photos I had.
As with most of them her justification for her approach to life is that she needs to take care of her family. This mindset is something I call the Isaan infection and, unfortunately, there’s no cure for it except never ending amounts of money.
My refusal to enter into a relationship with a local lass for the foreseeable future at least, does, in some ways, make me a bit of social misfit. But that’s okay because I have no interest in providing a welfare package for the children of a local father who won’t take care of his own flesh and blood. Many opportunists that I’ve taken to my apartment get quite excited when they know that I’m available. Their enthusiasm is soon dampened when they’re informed that I would never enter into a relationship with a lady that does it for money. Reason being; they can never be trusted. Still some are persistent and within a couple of days of the first liaison I’ll receive an SMS which is normally along the lines of:
Opportunist : “Can I see you tonight?” (meaning they want money)
Me: “Do you need money?” (no point beating around the bush)
Opportunist: “Yes, I need pay for room” (or some other BS story)
Me: “How much are you expecting?” (establishing dominant position)
Opportunist: “See pun baht ka, I stay till 4 am” (can’t blame her for trying)
Me: “I’ll give you Song pun Baht. If that’s not enough, find another farang.” (always reduce the asking price by 50%)
Opportunist: “Song pun Baht okay. What time you want me come your condo?”
Me: “Be at the lobby at 9 PM.”
The great thing about understanding that one is, first and foremost, seen as an opportunity is that you have no issues with turning things in one's own favour; simply because you are not trying to impress anyone. The opportunist arrived at the appointed time and was soon entering my apartment.
Me: “Are you hungry?”
Opportunist: “Yes, little bit?” (friendly, hopeful smile – something else for free)
Me: “Good, so am I. Get yourself into the kitchen there and cook that fish on the table.” (still smiling and pointing to the kitchen)
Opportunist “Hmmm.” (not willing to move and pouting because she doesn’t want to do extra work)
Me: “You can have dinner and song pun Baht or nothing. Up to you.” (me with smarmy grin)
Opportunist: “Okay ka.” (smiling after moving into kitchen to find rice already cooked)
Knowing that I am predominantly seen as an opportunity empowers me to be in control of my own situation at all times. In a land where poor option taking can have disastrous consequences it is in imperative to keep your wits about you, always. Emotional fragility does not forgive. Never compromise your own standards and integrity for any opportunist, regardless of how seductive they may appear. Even though time-worn experience has provided valuable lessons in fitting in here I will no doubt continue to be a stranger in a strange land.
Absolutely fantastic! What you say here reinforces what I have long felt – that only when you're brutally honest with yourself can you be truly happy – and in Thailand where things can be rather different from the West, sometimes you need to ask some serious questions….of yourself.