The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same
– Part One –
Benjamin Franklin once famously stated that there are only two things in life of which one can be certain: death, and taxes. Like most of Mr. Franklin’s little witticisms I’ve always found this to be very apt and well put. Yet if we were to actually sit down and single out the one true certainty in life we would find it to be “change”.
For better or worse we do not live in a static universe and this means that everything in this universe is in a perpetual state of change. Everything has a birth, it persists for a while and changes over time, and then it dies – either suddenly and violently, or through the process of gradual decay. And in most cases the death of one thing leads to the creation of something else. This is true of stars, planets, our physical bodies, and even romantic relationships. That’s right, folks, even “true love” won’t last forever, despite what the romance novels would have us believe. Everything in this universe has a finite life span. And someday in the far-flung distant future even matter itself may decay into nothingness (a thoroughly depressing thought), after which a totally new universe may spring to life.
So, clearly change is inevitable, and this means the only real question is; do we embrace this change, or do we resist it? Certainly one does not have to look too far these days to find examples of people who fall into the latter category. In fact I know plenty of people who are still stuck in the 70’s or some other past decade. They are usually not too hard to spot because their musical tastes, their fashion sense, and even the way they think, act, and talk, often seem to be suspended in time.
Even a few of Stick's contributors are clearly in this camp and they seem to love nothing more than to wax nostalgic about the “good-old-days” (not that there is anything wrong with this, mind you). These types often speak longingly of a more innocent and romantic by-gone era and sometimes they even wonder if things might be better today if this or that had not happened in the past. For example, Ishiro once posed the question as to what Thailand might be like today if the Americans had never gotten involved in the Vietnam War, and if the Thai people wouldn’t then be more sweet and innocent and less consumeristic than they now seem to be. I can answer that one right here and now by the way. And the answer is that things would be pretty much exactly the same as they are now. Sure Pattaya might look radically different than it does today but the basic attitudes and habits of the average Thai person would be exactly the same. In fact I can’t think of any culture on the planet which has been less influenced by our western ways than that of the Thai people. Believe it or not I could go to Iran tomorrow and I would have no problem at all finding lots of young, hip, MTV watching kids who love all things American. On the other hand I’ve never met a Thai women in my life that had any particular interest in any western country or whose attitudes or interests were influenced in the least by those countries or their people. It’s probably no coincidence that Thailand is the only country in South East Asia to never have been colonized by a western nation. Whatever we were selling back then they just didn’t seem to want any of it, and still don’t to this day apparently.
Incidentally, while we’re on the subject, “consumerism” is not some American invention which then spread like a virus to “infect” other countries. It is simply a phase, which all societies go through as they mature and become more prosperous. Even if the USA had never existed, all societies would still eventually become more consumeristic.
And just as drinking alcohol does not turn everyone into alcoholics, consumerism does not always have to be bad thing either. Just look at Japan. Nobody can deny that the Japanese are a very consumer driven society. And Japanese people always seem to have to have the latest expensive electronic gadgets or fashion accessories. Yet they also somehow always manage to live within their means. I’ve never in my life met a Japanese person who was living beyond his means or struggling to pay his bills every month. They are just great at budgeting and even people who don’t make that much at all always seem to have money to travel or do other things they want to do.
In poorer countries however what happens is that once a certain percentage of the population becomes more affluent then everyone else eventually wants to appear to have that same lifestyle as well (keeping up with the Jones’), even though they cannot afford to do so. And thus we have poor Thai girls doing stupid things like buying expensive designer jeans on an installment plan (I couldn’t believe this the first time I heard of it).
Also, generally speaking, people who grow up poor tend to have lower self-esteem and more insecurities than the rest of us and they eventually come to think that they need to have nice things in order to feel good about themselves. But of course when the credit card bill comes due they just get more depressed and this in turn causes them to want to buy yet more things. It’s a viscous cycle.
Incidentally, just to avoid any confusion I should probably point out the fact that the word “consumerism” actually has several different meanings:
1. A modern movement for the protection of the consumer against useless, inferior, or dangerous products, misleading advertising, unfair pricing, etc.
2. The theory that increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable
3. A preoccupation with and inclination towards the buying of consumer goods.
It should be obvious from the context in which I was using the word that I was referring to the third definition.
Anyway, suffice it to say the prevailing attitudes of the Thai people right now and their spending habits have absolutely nothing to do with us Westerners. Although I do think it’s cute that some of us think we have that big an impact on Thai society when in truth we are hardly even relevant. At most we are a minor annoyance that the Thai people grudgingly tolerate in order to get at our tourist dollars. We are hardly rubbing off on them though and probably never will.
Back to the subject at hand though, as some of you may have guessed, I am one of those people who actually embrace change and I have always been able to change with the times. Sure on rare occasions I’ll talk about some great times I had in the past, particularly if it makes a good story, but generally speaking I’m always looking forward and never behind me. And with every decade that passes I find new music to like and new fashions to like (although I still listen to the old stuff as well). I am also constantly growing and changing and I would not want to live in any other time than the present. In other words, I never long for a by-gone era.
Of course we all sometimes lament the passing of what we consider to be a truly great time in our lives (or in history). One of these times for me was the early 70’s and in particular the 68 to 74 music scene. You see, by the time I was 13 years old (1972) my best friend and I were already serious audiophiles and rock music aficionados. In fact, I remember that when all our classmates were still listening to AM radio we had already figured out that by hooking the stereo receiver up to the television cable we could pull in all the really cool FM stereo rock stations from Los Angeles (back then when you paid for cable TV that cable was apparently just hooked to some big antenna overlooking Los Angeles). It was just a really great time for music and saw the birth of such greats as Led Zeppelin, The Who, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, etc., etc. It was also a time when music was probably a more important part of my life then it ever has been before or since.
But of course all good things must come to an end and around 1974 the dreaded disco era began. After that everything seemed to revolve around the disco craze, even the latest clothing fashions. Speaking of which, I remember one particular day during this time period I went to visit my friend only to find him in a deep depression. He was just sitting there on the edge of his bed shaking his head and lamenting the fact that everyone was turning into “Disco Droids” as he put it. It was as if his entire world had come crumbling down around him and things would never again be the same. I hated disco myself of course but I somehow managed to stay a little more positive and upbeat about the future than my friend, and I certainly didn’t feel like the world was coming to an end. My friend was a good example of one of those people who desperately clings to an era that’s coming to an end and just can’t seem to let go and move forward.
Fortunately for all us true rockers though by 1978 disco was finally dead and like a breath of fresh air the whole New Wave / Punk music scene came into being (78 – 83). And although I never got into the Punk scene as much as some of my friends did I really took to many of the New Wave era bands such as Midnight Oil, Talking Heads, The Smiths, The B-52’s, The Ramones (they may have only known 3 chords but they were really great chords), The Romantics, Devo, The Cars, etc., etc. This was also the time period when I became old enough to get into nightclubs and got into dancing for the fist time in my life and I think everyone has fond memories of their early clubbing days and the music that was playing in those clubs at the time. In fact I’m sure that for the people who frequented Studio 54 in its heyday during the mid to late 70’s, the disco era probably represented the best time of their lives.
Later in that decade things started to go downhill again though (at least in my opinion) with the arrival of the whole Glam-Metal thing. I absolutely hated the Glam Metal bands like Motley Crue, Poison, Quiet Riot, Ratt, etc.. This might seem odd to some considering the fact that I LOVE many of the bands that supposedly inspired their music – bands like Aerosmith, Boston, Cheap Trick, AC/DC, etc. I also liked the Grunge movement, which came right after the Glam Metal period. I think it was probably their appearance, demeanor, and general attitude toward life that turned me off as much as anything else to Glam-Metal bands like Motley Crue.
For my younger half brother however this time represented his glory days. In his teen years he spent most of his weekends hanging out on Sunset Blvd. along with hundreds of other people who dressed and acted just like him and who worshiped these Glam-Metal bands. And this is exactly the era in which my brother became stuck in time. He is in his 40’s today but he still talks, acts, and dresses like he could be a member of Motely Crue. Well actually that is probably an unfair comparison (unfair to the band) because next to my brother Tommy Lee would probably sound like a highly educated proper English gentlemen in comparison. Of course my brother could never be in a band himself because he is WAY too lazy and undisciplined to actually learn to play an instrument with any degree of proficiency. It’s funny because he thinks he “deserves” to have all the finer things in life but he is not willing to work to attain them. He just has this weird sense of entitlement.
My words may sound a bit harsh to some of you but the fact of the matter is my brother actually is a worthless little sleazebag who has done nothing but sponge off of other people his entire life. In fact right now he is living with our retired mother and is doing a pretty good job of exhausting her life’s savings. Just to give you an idea of how lazy this guy is, a few months back I was in my mothers kitchen with him and he was trying to take the shell off of a hard boiled egg. Well, apparently the shell was sticking to the egg and was proving difficult to get off so within a few seconds he became frustrated with it and just threw it in the trash before getting another one out of the fridge. Then, when I expressed my annoyance with the fact that he was wasting food, he tried to make it seem like I was making a big deal out of nothing and he said “its only food”. That just about made my head explode and I thought “Seriously! Only food! Only something we all need to stay alive and which many of us don’t have enough of! Its also only food that somebody else had to buy for you with their hard earned money because apparently you are too lazy to support yourself”.
But I’m getting way off topic here. The point is that some people resist change to the point that a big part of them actually becomes stuck in the past forever. And in this same vein it seems that many expats in Thailand are clinging desperately to a quickly vanishing era – a time of abundant and very attractive hookers who could offer one “the girlfriend experience” for a mere pittance. What these people seem to forget though – and what Stick has mentioned many times himself – is that most of the things that are making Thailand less desirable to these people are the same things that are making life much better for the average Thai. Or maybe they realize it and just don’t care.
Sometimes a lot of these expats in Thailand remind me of high school kids at a big house party. They run wild with reckless abandon and tear the place up because they know they won’t have to stick around and clean up the mess the next day. And of course once the keg is dry its time to move on to the next party – and I think the keg is beginning to run dry in Thailand and now people are looking for a new party. (You know, that keg analogy suddenly sounds strangely familiar to me so if someone else came up with it first I apologize for unwittingly plagiarizing it.)
The other thing I noticed is that many of the things the more disgruntled expats are complaining about – like crime, police corruption, political unrest, poor customer service, inability to vote or own land, etc. – are things that haven’t really changed since the day they first arrived in the country. I mean, I’ve been in love with Thailand from day one but I also always knew from day one that I would not want to live there permanently, and for many of the reasons that people are now complaining about.
Of course its perfectly natural for a person who has invested so many years of his life into a place, and feels he has contributed to its society, to want to have more rights and have more of a say so in how that that society is run. Realistically speaking thought that’s never going to happen. When you grow up in a place like the United States where anyone born there is automatically granted full citizenship its easy to forget that its not like that everywhere. In homogenous societies, such as in Asia, race ALWAYS trumps all other considerations though (and social class is a close second). For example I have a friend in Japan who is half Korean and half Japanese. And even though she was born in Japan and it’s the only home she has ever known she is not considered to be a full citizen of Japan. In fact she cannot even get a Japanese passport. She has to have a Korean Passport even though she has never been to that country. If her father had been Japanese and the mother Korean it might be a different story but because her father was Korean she will never be considered to be a full Japanese citizen.
So, if a half Japanese girl born in Japan doesn’t even have the rights of a full Japanese citizen then what chance do you think a foreign born white guy is going to have becoming a full fledged member of Thai society. It’s just not going to happen – at least not in any of our lifetimes. And any westerner who chooses to live in an Asian country needs to come to terms with this from day one, not ten years down the road.
But again, why do people only seem to be noticing these things now – or at least they are only really complaining about them now.
I think it’s probably something similar to what I experienced with this girl I had a serious crush on back in 1980. I was head over heels for her but I could never get out of the friend zone. And to make matters worse she started dating a guy who everyone thought looked exactly like me, only he was much more confident. Anyway we eventually lost track of each other. Then, nearly ten years later she happened to come into where I worked and after catching up for a while I could tell she wanted me to ask her out (I was a very confident guy by this time). Unfortunately, even though she still looked pretty much the same as when she was 17, I just wasn’t that attracted to her anymore for some reason. And now that the physical attraction was gone I realized for the first time just what an annoying spoiled little princess type she was, and still is. After hanging around for 20 minutes or more she finally left, visibly ticked off at the fact that I had the gall to not ask her majesty for her phone number. I guess when the initial attraction wears off, be it to a person or a place, that’s when we start to notice all the things that really annoy us about that person or place. And with the bargirl heyday coming to an end the attraction is definitely wearing off for some and they are finally waking up to the realities of living in Thailand.
So we have established that things change and that some people resist those changes. But just how much has Thailand and its people REALLY changed over the years? And are those changes a good thing or a bad thing?
I guess to find out we really need to go back a few decades and see for ourselves. So lets take a ride back in time to the first time I stepped foot in Thailand nearly 25 years ago.
To be continued in part 2 which will cover my impression of Thailand 25 years ago vs. Thailand today.