Readers' Submissions

Lessons Learned #3: Prisoners of Culture


Tesco Lotus food court, middle of the afternoon on a weekday. Very few people, many empty tables.

Sitting at a table off to the side, a typical, older farang expat and a typical, local woman. Their body language shows they have known each other for quite some time; months certainly, perhaps a year or even more. Chances are they are living together, but if “married” or not, don’t know.

They’ve finished eating, pushed their plates to one side, and are talking in tense, tight voices.

He with chin up, leaning forward, saying between clenched teeth, “I just want the truth. I’ve told you again and again, don’t lie to me.”

She, with tears starting, shoulders slumped, hands in her lap, “What do you want me to say?”

Clearly not the first time they have had a conversation on this topic.

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Perfectly normal for a Western man, aged above 60 or so, to look for the facts, to want the truth about any situation. With his close-cropped hair cut he is likely retired military, but could just as easily be former airline pilot or industrial engineer or something like that. In every aspect of his thinking he operates from the premise, “What’s really going on here? What are the facts?”

She is easy to peg. Southern Isaan: Buriram, Sisaket, Surin, or maybe Korat. Certainly with one or two children back in the village, teenagers already, being looked after by grandmother. Her appearance pleasant enough but nowhere near being a “stunner”.

With her age middle 30s, her “expire date” is approaching quickly and she knows it. She doesn’t have the thinking tools or even the words to explain it, but she knows that, at her age, she won’t have many more chances ahead to “land a farang” … a Western man to “take care” of her, her parents, and, especially, those two growing teenagers back in the village. She’s desperate to hang on to her one best chance, the crew-cut farang she’s with now.

And to do that, she’s using the only social tool she knows, to say what he wants to hear. Not just today in the food court, but every day, in every way, she operates from the premise of “What does he want to hear???”

And so the problem begins …

– – – – –

He’s confined to the only mental structure he knows: the order and structure of Western culture based on a technical, scientific, and logical approach to reality. He’s been immersed in it all his life. He knows no other way.

She’s following the only path she knows: find a man, please him in various ways, and, hopefully, he will provide for her and her family. The man may not be pleasant, he may drink a lot and play around with other women, but if he provides the money she needs then he is acceptable. To say whatever he wants to hear is all she knows to do.

Is there a solution to this problem? Any middle ground that will satisfy both sides?

After 10+ years living in Thailand, my conclusion is, no. They are in different cultural prisons. Even if one “escaped” and was able to come over to understand the other’s point of view, chances are very small that both could escape their respective prisons and begin to understand the each other. The methods of thinking are just too far apart.

Our Western methods of thinking were developed during the Scientific Revolution that began in the early 17th century and continued through the Enlightment of the 18th century. It includes the rational philosophy of René Descarte, such technology as James Watt’s steam engine, and the first experiments in manned flight by the Montgolfier Brothers in 1783. Countless others during that time sought methods of rational thinking in order to advance in philosophy, science, technology and in social organization. They were always looking for “What is?” and “How does it work?” and “Why does it work that way?” The ideas that arose during that era are the basis for Western thinking today.

Thailand, and indeed all of Oriental culture, never had a Scientific Revolution or an anything like The Enlightenment. They don’t ask those questions. They don’t think like that. They can’t think like that. Whatever science and technology they have today originated in the West.

But not their thinking methods.

Thai thinking methods follow the dictates typical of agrarian and feudal cultures. Everybody has a level of status. Each person listens to and obeys (or pretends to obey) those above them. And each expects all those below to listen and obey them. It doesn’t always happen, of course, but that is the thinking framework. The culture does not ask, “What is?”, but instead asks, “What is expected by those above?”

Our Isaan woman sitting with her expat is following the dictates of her culture. In her entire life nobody ever talked about truth and facts; not her parents, not her teachers, not even the monks. She has no idea what truth and facts look like. She has no awareness of the methods of rational thinking that help to determine truth and facts. And so she answers in the only way she knows, by trying to guess what will satisfy the man who is senior to her. Senior in age, in wealth, in education, and even in body size.

It isn’t working.

Both are prisoners of their cultures. Mentally, conceptually, she can’t escape. No matter how often or how strongly he demands “the facts”, she is equally incapable of recognizing the facts.

Now, there is some chance that he could see the other side. But, at his age, with his life experience, that chance, while it does exist, is very, very, small.

– – – –

So, as expats here, or as want-to-be expats, what can we do? The other side can’t even conceive of the problem described above, while we can see it, albeit as if in a fog. We can’t expect them to meet us half-way, because they are simply not capable of escaping from their cultural prison.

To make matters worse, they don’t even realize they are in a cultural prison. To their way of thinking, if they thought about it at all, they would say, “That’s just the way things are.”

Many times I have been confused about some behavior I observed here and asked Thai close friends to explain to me. After a few attempts to give evasive answers, when I gently pressed the question, their final response has always been, softly and hesitantly, “I don’t know. That’s just the way things are.”

So, middle ground? Compromise? Understanding the other side? Not a chance. Those are all Western concepts, concepts that stem from seeking facts and truth. They simply can’t do it.

Prisoners of their culture.

(And thinking about it, no Thai person would ever write an article like this, eh?)

– – – –

So, as expats here, if we want to have comfortable lives here, with all the benefits that Western thinking methods provide, what can we do? It is entirely up to each of us individually, because we won’t be getting any help from them. As individual expats, what can we do?

I hope that question will encourage some thoughtful submissions here on the Stickman web site. And I welcome thoughtful conversation in email, too.

As for myself, in a future submission, I’ll offer for comment and critique how I have decided to respond in a way that has enabled a pleasant, comfortable, and “jai yen” life here.

The author of this article can be contacted at : [email protected]