Mask Book Excerpt
Sometimes people carry to such perfection the mask they have assumed that in due course they actually become the person they seem. W. Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence. (English dramatist & novelist (1874 – 1965))
Mask encapsulates captivating and enthralling Thailand where contradiction, controversy, confusion, frustration, weird language, cultural barriers and mystery will haunt you. When you eventually get over the early shocks, which may incidentally take years, and you realise that you cannot fix a ‘dysfunctional’ nation without a modicum of help from above you can begin your bumpy journey. Thailand is irresistible.
Mask presents an insightful view of Thailand the like of which you will not find elsewhere. This is definitely not a travel book in the accepted sense. Mask is a memoir based on the Author’s critical observation of a society monopolised by ancient cultural values, superstitions and old religious beliefs which don’t fit comfortably into 21st century life. In presenting the pros and cons of life in Thailand his views are objectively presented in concise and colourful narrative. Even though some of the arguments are intentionally polemic the author loves Thailand, his adopted home, and he believes there should be, and usually is, a balance to be found in every society. He clearly believes we are all ostensibly the same if we look behind the mask. If you are one-eyed when you start the book there is every chance that your other eye will be at least half open when you finish it.
In Mask true incidents are recounted, with humour, empathy and a little poetic license together with interesting information from reliable sources to help the reader. It shows that Thailand, just like anywhere else in the world, has many good and many bad features.
We are presented with an overview of Thailand’s history, culture, status and an exploration of a society struggling to hang on to old values, superstitions and an ancient culture which are a difficult fit into 21st century life. The Author intersperses this with a re-worked transcript of his 2008 diaries which record his early superficial and jovial impressions of Thailand.
He analyses some absorbing and thought-provoking perceptions, misconceptions, contradictions and controversial issues in attempting to get inside the mind of a nation trying to find its place in the modern world. He ends the book explaining some of the differences and nuances he has found in four regions of Thailand.
The great thing about this book is that if you don’t feel inclined to read everything, then you can take a dip into any Part or any Chapter that takes your fancy. If you are looking for inspiration to motivate a new life in South East Asia you may find, in this book, some ways to help you beat the odds. If, on the other hand, you just want to be entertained with some light but stimulating reading then you will almost certainly enjoy the book. The Author’s experiences and views may help those already living in, wishing to emigrate to, work or just holiday in Thailand to better understand the people, their culture and customs. If you have experienced Thailand to any degree your views may well differ from those expressed in Mask. The Author would love to hear your views which you are most welcome to air by blogging on his website www.jamoroki.wordpress.com
EXCERPTS FROM CHAPTER 25 – ALL THE C’S
When a thing ceases to be a subject of controversy, it ceases to be a subject of interest. William Hazlitt English essayist (1778 – 1830)
Thailand presents you with contradiction, confusion, compromise, challenge, controversy, conundrums, complaints and makes you so curious you don’t know where to begin! I have already made reference to some of the things that have fazed me in my time in the Country and as my good friend Martin says “Stop trying to understand Thai people because you never will.” But my inquisitive nature and curiosity won’t let me stop and, although I now have a much more relaxed attitude than I used to have, I suspect there will always be a question I need answered.
Curious – Buddhism – Origin of life – Superstition – Black Magic
Buddhists generally don't try to convert others to Buddhism. In order to really hear the teachings a person must first be ready of their own accord. Buddhists believe that all humans should be respected for their varying thoughts and beliefs and that there are many different spiritual methods, which can fulfil that wish. Indeed the Dalai Lama usually exhorts people to try and find a spiritual path within their own cultural and social context.
Change, and the concept of impermanence, is central to Buddhist philosophy, therefore Buddhists try not to fear change, because to fear it is to be attached to it and thus to suffer. It is curious then that, in my experience, the older generations of Thais are very resistant to change. Buddhism also embodies tolerance and respect for the ideas of others, and, if you classify it as a religion, which is contestable, it is very open and flexible to the needs and opinions of others. Indeed the history of Buddhism shows it continually adapting to, and absorbing, the cultures it encountered as it has spread out from its origins in India. It is perhaps for these reasons that there is, yet, no fundamentalism within the Buddhist religion and why it has adapted so well to a modernised, westernised world.
The Buddha argued that there is no apparent rational necessity for the existence of a God or Supreme Being creator of the universe because everything ultimately is created by mind. Belief in a creator is not necessarily addressed by a religion based on phenomenology, and Buddhism generally accepts modern scientific findings about evolution and the formation of the universe. How the universe came to exist or whether creationism is to be believed is not important to Buddhist teachings and, generally, Buddhism does not believe in a personal God or a divine being. Therefore it does not have worship, praying to, or praising of a divine being; it offers no form of redemption, forgiveness, no heavenly hope, or a final judgment to those who practice. Buddhism is a moral philosophy, an ethical way to live for the here and now of this world to gain the ultimate state. It actually has more in common with humanism and atheism than any religion.
I therefore find it curious and rather odd when I read that Thai people have negative attitudes toward atheists and that, in Thailand, they do not have any recognized legal status. Atheists must declare that they are, either, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or Hindu and are forced to pay respect to Buddha and participate in Buddhist ceremonies in schools, universities, and work places. If this is true then I don’t expect to find any Thai atheists ‘coming out’ shortly.
This is even more curious in a Land where you can add rife Superstition and Black Magic to the peaceful co-existence of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Hindus. There is no culture war unless you don’t believe in anything! Yet Thai people see no contradiction in benefitting from scientific development while still retaining a respect for ghosts and the supernatural. Non-belief in the existence of ghosts is met, respectfully, but with amazement in rural Thailand. This is particularly so with the older folk who are to say the least Neanderthal in this respect. However I may pay polite deference to their beliefs and would never insult a person by challenging them.
One would be ignorant of much of what it means to be Thai by dismissing this aspect of Thai culture. In Thailand Buddhism tends to be mixed with older animistic beliefs and a strong belief in powerful supernatural spirits, ghosts, and demons which are feared and respected, because they can bring both bad and good. So it is important for Thai believers to stay on the good side of the spirits. The powerful influence Black Magic has is borne out by the number of TV shows and movies that have focused on the bad evil spirits can do. One such story, that of Mae Nak Phra Khanong, combines romance with the supernatural and has been told many times in many movies and TV shows. On the banks of the Phra Khanong canal there is a shrine devoted to her close to where she is supposed to have lived. It is one of the most popular shrines in Bangkok where people leave flowers and other gifts.
Every village has a ‘Spirit Doctor’ called the ‘Mau Pii’ who has a traditionally important role to play as an intermediary between the villagers and the spirits. He will conduct ceremonies when people need to align themselves with the spirits. It might sound a little bizarre to foreigners but Thais believe it is important to have cars and motorbikes blessed by the ‘Mau Pii’ to reduce the risk of having an accident. Miniature houses or temples called ‘San phra phum’ or ‘Spirit House’ is important in Black Magic. They are found outside private dwellings and business premises and the ‘San phra phum’ gives ghosts a place to stay so they don’t come inside other dwellings and cause problems. The spirits are kept happy through offerings of food, drinks, and flowers by the villagers. Another place where they are prevalent is on the roadside at accident black spots. I am surprised they continue to place ‘Sprit Houses’ there because it clearly doesn’t work as Thailand ranks sixth-highest in the world for road fatalities. Talking to the younger generation of intelligent and modern thinking Thais it seems evident that the archaic superstitions and belief in Black Magic will gradually disappear over time. But in the present day it is still as strong as ever, just like ‘Black Magic’ chocolates which Rowntree launched as long ago as 1933. So who knows; I could be wrong.
Compromise – You don’t understand
You will hear the phrase ‘you don’t understand’ so often if you have a Thai partner. You will find that it is incumbent on you, the ‘Farang’, to understand the Thai. OK, we all know about ‘when in Rome’ and all that stuff but this is the 21st Century and the world is becoming more and more cosmopolitan. There really is no room for sectarianism anymore; we just don’t have time. Won’t we all feel a whole lot better if we make one another welcome in each other’s country, warts and all, embracing the understood and the misunderstood equally? What if I was to say; when you come to England please don’t be yourself; don’t act naturally; you must behave like an English person? How will you feel; and how will the world ever become culturally integrated; and how will I ever really know who you are if I don’t let you show me? Countries will just be cloning factories and the world will become a boring mono-culture. The more diverse and profuse our cultures are the more we will prosper if we avoid rejection and are prepared to learn from our differences. And isn’t that what we should be striving for so that we can live harmoniously in a multi-cultural world?
If you are a ‘Farang’ living in Thailand it is virtually impossible to be ‘yourself’. You have to become a non-person and make concessions which often really go against the grain. Compromise and fit in or you will get nowhere fast is the motto. Thais, generally, are not widely travelled so they have had limited exposure to other cultures and don’t have a broad enough outlook yet but it is changing slowly. That isn’t meant to be patronising in any way; it is a fact of life. And that is why they have some weird perspectives and notions, like; if you are a ‘Farang’ you must be rich. Despite all I have just said and my sincere wish to see it change, which I doubt it will in my lifetime, I realised some time ago that I had to make a greater effort now to be a non-person on the outside, go with the flow, say ‘chai’(yes) when I mean ‘mai chai’(no); accept the quirkiness and pretend, like Thais often do, to understand so that in future they may say ‘Thanks for understanding’.
Challenge – Apologies
Don’t hold your breath waiting for an apology. Thais don’t trade in them as they have great difficulty in accepting that there could possibly be another point of view other than theirs. You will have to be unbelievably patient if you want someone to even consider your take on something. Nothing is up for debate and Thais, who do not take kindly to being challenged, can be intransigent and unreasonable to the nth degree. Arrogance is a word that springs to mind although it is a bit harsh and not something most people would associate with the Thai demeanour. This inability to accept they might be wrong all stems from the attitude to ‘losing face’ which is explained in the next topic.
Oh, by the way, if you hear someone say “sorry” please check your hearing aid. It may be faulty. If by chance you do, ever, receive an apology you can rest assured that it is genuine and that person cares about you a lot.
Controversy – Losing or Saving face
I do not expect to be flavour of the month when I say this but I am not going to sugar the pill so say it, all the same, I will. ‘Thais are programmed to lie.’ They are taught at an early age that ‘losing face’ is the closest you can get to committing a crime without the fear of prosecution. And nothing is more important than saving face for the moment, resulting in living life in ‘truth denial’. The typical Thai would love nothing more than to be told that Black really is White as that would be justification for all the times they have tried to convince someone to believe it is. An individual will go to great lengths to conceal the truth if they believe it will damage their standing or reputation. If they have done something wrong they will never admit it. The truth is unimportant, it is better to lie and lying is not seen as wrong. But losing face is a disgrace. My girlfriend’s mother once told her she was stupid because she was honest. How’s that for a value system?
I am generalizing and of course there are exceptions, but beating around the bush is the golden rule. Great effort and time is wasted in trying to talk a way out of, what is believed to be, a precarious situation. You may wonder why a plumber who you have asked to give you a quote doesn’t turn up and when you call him, to find out why, his phone is constantly off. When you finally do manage to catch up with him he will make pathetic excuses which don’t make sense. What he will not tell you is that he simply thought the job was too difficult; he couldn’t possibly be honest and admit it because then he would lose face. If you ask someone for directions they will always give them to you because they want to please you; not because they know. Even if they don’t know they will tell you anything just because they can’t admit they don’t know. So beware because it may not be the right way. Lying is the Thai way of getting out of situations without losing face. Inexplicably, it doesn’t seem to cross anyone’s mind that if they are rumbled, which they often are, then they will look far more stupid than if they had been truthful in the first place. Isn’t that a loss of face?
“Face” in this context means “being respected”. To avoid losing face or doing something which may make others lose it Thais will, simply, do nothing so that any confrontation is avoided. Inevitably, then, it is virtually impossible to resolve anything. Maybe that is why Thai houses don’t have carpets. If they did have there would be so much crap underneath them you wouldn’t be able to get into the room. Take the waitress who cocks up, which regularly happens, and you don’t get what you ordered. Whatever you do, do not send it back or complain because she might lose face. So what happens? The restaurant owner doesn’t know the waitress has cocked up; the waitress never learns; you are pissed off and never go back; so everyone loses. Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it. It is one of the most non-sensical and confusing aspects of the culture.
I have scant knowledge of the judicial system in Thailand but I wonder, based on the loss of face issue, how many witnesses commit perjury without batting an eyelid?
Conundrum – Gaining Face
Given the option, many a Thai will choose material wealth over meaningful relationships every time because Thais have a fixation about material things and displaying theirs to the world. Gold is the standard show off and some people will sell farm land they earn a living off to buy a Toyota Fortuner and so gain face.
‘Gaining face’ can be easily done by showing wealth, perceived or real. You may cripple yourself financially but moving up the status ladder is far more important so no-one can look down on you; until the ladder is whipped away. Spending lots of money on Gold, expensive whiskey, cars and so on all have a common purpose; to gain face. You must ensure everyone who matters, and those who don’t, can see your newly acquired wealth. The classic sign is the heavy gauge gold chain or bracelet which must be highly visible when stepping out of your brand spanking new, ostentatious, 4×4. Hardly surprising, it is then, that there is such a proliferation of Chinese owned gold shops all over Thailand with owners laughing all the way to the bank. I have to question the mentality of the people themselves and those who are impressed by them when they go to such extremes to create the illusion of wealth and in such an ostentatious way. Particularly so when only last month they were just ordinary folk and now they are, probably, heavily indebted to the banks, which naturally, they will deny. How can this pretentious façade gain them face and respect from their peers? It’s embarrassing to watch them walk around and see how other Thais bow and scrape and weave for them in deference. And when they get short of money again, which they soon do, they go back to the shop where they paid 25,000 baht for a fat chain and sell it for 19,000 baht which, amazingly, the shop owner pays without quibble, restores it back to new and resells for another 25,000 baht. No surprise then, that the shop owners have big houses, new cars and FAT wallets.
Complaints – Moaning or Mesmerised ‘Farangs’
Some ‘Farangs’ seem to be mesmerised by the culture and other aspects of their adopted home, even to the extent that they have become, or always were, misguided in defending Thailand unquestioningly against any complaints. These opinionated, self-appointed protectors’ main adversaries are a part of the ‘Farang’ community in Thailand that has a penchant for complaining or moaning about the way things are in the Country. And I’m not talking about the ones who moan about the weather. Yes there are those who constantly complain about things like the heat, which has obviously had an effect on their GPS! ‘You are in the tropics old darling; do you expect a crisp frost at daybreak with a light dusting of snow on the treetops?’
Are the moaners; that’s not a good word is it; critics is better, justified in expressing their opinions and do they have the right to do so? Of course the answer to that is a resounding, yes. We all have the right to our opinions in a ‘free world’ and, despite certain reservations; I would describe Thailand as a ‘free country’. Is it not human nature to emphasise negative rather than positive aspects? I suspect the complainers will be the same wherever they live but it all depends on how you complain, moan or criticise. A good old moan now and again is cathartic and good for the soul; get it off your chest I say. But what about your motive? That, for me, is the key question. And do the self-appointed protectors also have the right to tell the critics, ‘If you don’t like it bugger off back to where you came from’. Well, again, of course they do but doesn’t it just smack, a teensy weensy bit, of hypocrisy; the pot calling the kettle black? ‘I can criticise you all I want but how dare you complain.’ That sort of attitude indicates to me that, maybe, the so-called ‘protectors’ care less about Thailand than the moaners. For some reason or other perhaps they don’t wish to see improvement or, the inevitable; change. Maybe they are content the way things are and they don’t want interfering ‘Farang’ criticism to rock their boat. I have been spoken to in a dismissive way by these types, once or twice, without being afforded the opportunity to put my point of view in constructive debate and it is still bemuses me as to where these people are coming from. My detractors had no idea of my motives or whether, quite by chance, I am actually more critical of where I came from than I am of Thailand. Why the hell do they think I am here for more than a short stay? And maybe I am genuinely concerned that the process of change, that is inevitable in any society, may prove to be a rather painful one for a nation whose majority is aesthetically blind, stuck in the past and thus has difficulty seeing beyond its nose. The mesmerised ‘protectors’ of the ancient culture, they probably understand little of themselves, should open the other eye and consider what they can do in a constructive way rather than knocking those with genuine concerns. Maybe they could work with the young Thais who are already starting to drive change by challenging the old outdated and irrational aspects of their own culture.