More Proof that J.M. Cadet is Right
When I first started to visit Thailand as the husband of a lovely Thai woman, I met a wave of new Thai faces that I could barely keep track of. Sisters, brothers, aunties, nieces, nephews. Then there were her many friends. Before each visit, I would pepper my wife with questions about them, names, ages, relationships, just so I wouldn’t be the dumb farang in the room. Eventually, it started to sink in and later I became very familiar with my wife’s two friends whom she valued over above all others – G and An. I have written about G many times – her unique ways to test my patience through her frivolous but fun approach to life. But An was more quiet and pleasant. As I got to know her better, I found she had a very interesting story to tell. And with every story in Thailand, especially those as sensitive as this, it was not to be told all at once and certainly not by her.
An is a Thai woman you would pass on the streets of Bangkok with barely a notice. She is of medium height, slim, and not real shapely, with an average face but a very sweet smile. When I first met her, she was with her young daughter. We had lunch together and when they left, I said to my wife I did not know An was married. Oh yes, she said, I thought I told you before. I soon forgot about it. The next trip to Thailand, we were invited to An’s house near Don Meuang for dinner. It is a small, two-storey house, but very nice. I asked An why her husband could not join us. With my wife translating, she said he was away on business. I forgot about it and had a good night with friends.
During the next trip, the door to her life opened a little further. My wife announced that An and her husband had invited us to lunch. The restaurant was in an old style Thai furnished building near the Chao Phraya river and owned by a young Frenchman. We met An and her husband, a rotund Chinese-Thai man in his late 50’s. He spoke pretty good English yet he was quiet, so I did most of the talking. Later he displayed a dry sense of humor, something that made me like him very much. It was a good time and he insisted on paying the check. We left in a taxi, while they left in his Mercedes. In the taxi, I asked my wife how long they have been married. She answered vaguely that it had been a while. She gave me that look and I knew that was all I was going to get out her. A happy marriage to a Thai woman rests on knowing when to stop asking questions.
My wife is not a liar, but as a solid member of Thai polite society she has certain protocols she must use in dealing with the truth, especially when it involves someone’s personal life. In Thailand, there are times to deny the truth, ignore it, or even accept it. But the rules aren’t written anywhere. As a Thai, you learn them from childhood, from gestures, facial expressions, scowls, and smiles. By adulthood, they are part of you just like any other your body part. You can’t explain it, no matter how hard you try, even to your husband.
On the next trip, we would be staying at An’s house and meeting her husband for dinner. But this time, on the flight over, my wife finally told me the truth, Yes, An was a mia noi to her husband. They had met years ago at a business convention. They went to lunch together and he asked her to dinner. She said no, but then he explained that at the age of 45, his wife decided to free herself of her “marital duties”, so he was now free to seek solace elsewhere. Now he needed a new wife, one who cared and caressed and fussed and was there when he needed her. He was a vice president of a major Thai corporation and she knew what he was proposing, They dated, she started to love him, and the deal was made. A year later she gave birth to their daughter and she brought her home to her new house in her new car. All paid for by her new “husband”.
The restaurant we would be going to was “organic”, my wife said. C’mon I said, there’s no organic in Thailand. Yet, we arrived at an acre of mostly open land, with several small buildings surrounded by gardens. The owner said all the vegetables came from his garden and the meat was from a specialty butcher north of Bangkok. An and her daughter, now a beautiful 18, had driven us there. Later, An’s husband arrived. He ordered a feast of food and wine for us, and there we all sat. Two best friends from college, my wife and An, a farang husband, an unwedded husband, and their lovely daughter, soon to enter college thanks to her doting father. And we had a grand time, as only Thais can have with trusted family and friends, smiling and laughing and taking hundreds of photos. None of which would ever be posted on Facebook.
Since then, I have had several talks with my wife about mia nois in Thailand. She says mia nois have semi-official status, and when children are involved with issues of property, there are considerations of a sort in Thai courts. Socially, a mia noi‘s status is just below that of a real wife, but much higher than girlfriends or giks. Which means An is able to have good public relations with friends and neighbors who won’t mind being seen with her.
The origin of mia nois in Thailand is a bit fuzzy. My wife believes the practice migrated from China and I agree with her. Prior to the civil war, rich Chinese men had multiple wives as a sign of status and a means to create loyal family members for their businesses. I suspect that when this practice migrated south to Thailand long ago, it may have been adopted by some of the Thai royal families. My only evidence being that we once visited a resort-museum north of Bangkok owned by a mia noi of a Thai prince who allowed her to live at the estate. After he died, she was the legal owner and used the revenue to survive on until she died. I know this only because it was on a sign outside her house! Since then, the now somewhat acceptable practice of mia nois has been adopted by other powerful men in Thailand, for what seems to be for more personal rather than status reasons.
I also know that Stick’s depiction of forced relationships is also true, be it mia nois or otherwise. My own dear wife has been approached by Thai men both here in America and in Thailand, as have many of her friends. Some of whom have had to leave jobs to get away. It’s really a scourge for Thai women, who have little recourse over these powerful Thai leeches. In America, all it took for this nonsense to stop with my wife was a quick introduction, where I gave them a long, firm handshake and expressed how glad I was to meet them. And for Thai women to survive this rite of passage, reinforces my belief that Thai women are generally smarter than their male counterparts. To swim in these shark-infested waters and survive, they have to be. No wonder sappy farang men hand money over to them for little more than a sweet smile. Little do they know their new-found loves have tamed far more dangerous sharks.
The good news is that as the Thai economy improves and as more Thai women enter the executive ranks, a lot of this nonsense may become history sooner rather than later. I know my wife’s friends in Thailand are doing well in business, with or without husbands. Even An is now at a director level. Maybe her husband even helped her somehow, even though he has never worked at the same company as her. Knowing his dry sense of humor, I wouldn’t put it past him. I can see him now with that slight smile and a twinkle in his eye. What good husband wouldn’t do that for his loving wife?
This is but one of the many enigmas in Thai culture and their “hiding in plain sight” as J.M. Cadet wrote. This strong cultural bond underneath a polite and tolerant exterior, is sometimes mistaken for simpleness or even stupidity. They are hardly that. When foreign people do get a glimpse behind the curtain, it amazes them as to how they have kept this hidden so well. So who are the Thais really? Even long time foreign residents just shrug their shoulders. But isn’t that one of the wonderful mysteries that makes this country so very interesting to be in?
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