Goodbye Thailand, Hello USA
I’m leaving Thailand and returning to the States. Now, having not lived here as long as some of the old-timers, perhaps some people would find both my praises and criticisms of Thailand premature. I’ll just say I’ve lived here long enough to notice some of the inner workings of the politicians and “police.” But, having even noticed some of the dealings of people in the highest echelons of the pecking order, will say nothing specific because of certain laws. We don’t have such laws in the USA. Ninety years before we secured our rights, British soldier Richard Rumbold uttered his last words from the scaffold:
This is a deluded generation, veiled in ignorance, that though popery and slavery be riding upon them, do not perceive it; though I am sure that there was no man born marked by God above another; for none comes into this world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him …
That’s a bit heavy-handed as a quote to post in reference to modern Thailand, but it takes a good stab at a hierarchy steeped in religion, and the denial of equal human rights. Say what one will about the corruption and crime of the Western World, but equality of human rights secured by law, and the general understanding on the streets that we must continuously strive to avoid such a hierarchy is good. On balance, I believe most religious people are good and decent, peaceful and non-violent, but a separation of their mysticism and superstition from equal protection by the law for all is paramount.
On the decency—the politeness—of Thais versus the vulgarity of my fellow Americans, I can only sing their praise. One time, in America, I went to lunch with a co-worker. The check came due and I pushed two twenty-dollar bills forward, telling him lunch is on me. He slid one of the twenties back at me “You think I can’t pay my own way, boy? I don’t need anyone taking care of me.” I was a young man and his words had a chilling effect on me. I thought he was being vulgar and impolite. But I put the twenty back in my pocket. Now contrast this with Thais. A girl and I went to meet some of her friends, and some of those friends brought friends along, so we were meeting a few of them for the first time. Two tables were put together. BBQ shabu was served all around. Towards the end of the meal I excused myself to the restroom, asking the girl to watch my bag, like I had previously done for her. When I came back the girl had pulled my wallet, paid the check, and replaced my wallet in the bag. Of course, I didn’t know this until I asked the girl when the check would arrive. Everyone, including the people whom I didn’t even speak to, were all smiles and politeness the whole time. It is then I thought of the “cultural” difference of not expecting a visitor to the USA from Europe or Africa or China to pay the bill if he goes to dinner with me and some of my friends, even if he doesn’t know some of the people, much less pull his wallet from his bag without asking. I sing the praise of the crude and arrogant American.
If I would have tried to hand a few hundred dollars to the father of a girl I dated in the USA, he may have asked me “What the hell is this?” He may have thought I was trying to buy his daughter. When I did do this to a Thai girl’s mom, after the girl prodded me to, she was very polite and all smiles. Later, the girl told me her mother was insulted by the pittance offered, asking her daughter in private if she, the mom, was supposed to buy snacks with the money. That was a significant amount of money for me. Nowadays I’m on the way to realizing what the public school history teacher meant when she implied that white men don’t understand cultural differences.
You won’t hear too many stories like those above from me. I’m just an average guy but I learned quick enough. When her papa was sick (It’s true! She sent me the hospital photos) and the bill was hundreds of thousands of baht, even though I didn’t know her that long I was expected to pay. But when the family realized they could not shame me in to paying, they covered his medical bills. And no, the family was not from the Esarn region. Neither was the girl poor or considered by other Thais as low-class, since she was a university graduate, worked for the government, and was very light-skinned.
The overarching theme so far is independent individuals contrasted with group-think or “community.” The group versus the outsider. Most of the time, group-think is petty and harmless. And in all fairness, sometimes outsiders can be dangerous. Thais are not more xenophobic than any other group. Tribalism is a human trait. And when Thais complain of some farangs arriving in Thailand, expecting more Thai people to speak English, and sometimes treating the country as if it were almost an open-air brothel, being rude, arrogant, and pushy, I can lend a sympathetic ear. Some of the things I’ve seen farangs do in Thailand … I wouldn’t want to see foreigners doing those things in my country.
Some people take issue with the term “farang.” But. Intention is everything. If a waiter is trying to find the person who ordered the fried duck beaks, and the server helps him by saying “give for the farang”, that ain’t no slur. And I hope it doesn’t become a slur, since witnessing some people in the USA go all wide-eyed and screechy over PC buzz words. Could you imagine one Thai chastising another over the use of the word “farang?” Well, that happened. On a late morning some time ago, I sat down in a nice little ice cream shop in the Rama II shopping mall to wait for dessert. A father and his daughter were sitting next to me, and the daughter pointed at me and called me a farang. I smiled in return, thinking she was cute. The girl looked to be all of four years old. The father grabbed her by the chin, turning her to face him, and wagged his finger in her face telling her not to say that word. Then he got her up to leave. By the looks of it, they may have taken two or three bites out of the ice cream they were sharing. The rest of the people in the shop went back to texting and eating. Maybe for him it was about saving face, but the moment had shifted from what should have been a light-hearted funny moment to being what the younger millennials call cringeworthy.
Considering visas, and and the ever-present quicksand of Thai immigration policy, staying here was, for myself, remarkably easy compared to other accounts. Even when four Thai immigration officers (or enforcement agents, or whatever), were waiting for me one afternoon in the lobby of my condo. Luck would have it that paperwork I submitted was correct; and, along with keeping all the rent receipts in good order, the officials couldn’t find any violations after an hour of searching. They took photos of all my receipts, passport, etc. The end result? They fined the landlord instead. Because something was wrong with the landlord’s paperwork. When giving notice to the landlord that I’m vacating the apartment, she voiced concerns that the deposit will probably not quite cover the wear-and-tear damage that I “likely” caused while living here. That I might have to come out of pocket. Well, she hasn’t stepped foot in the apartment since renting it to me, so there’s still hope, right? I’m keeping a positive mindset.
Only ever had one run-in with the police. And it was a run-in. I was taking in the view on one of Bangkok’s skywalk platforms, and didn’t notice the man doing the same next to me. We were both eagle-eyeing the throngs of tourists bustling about below. Then we both turned to leave at the same time, in opposite directions. We slammed into each other, and me being a lot bigger than him sent him reeling back a few paces while I remained firmly in place. And then I noticed his uniform. I apologized. The air started to get heavy with negative vibes, and his face started to crumple. So I apologized a second time, profusely, and in Thai. He grunted and walked away. With face-saving culture and a man’s pride at stake in public, politeness can be a soft currency.
Staying here for a long time allows one to glimpse many of the nooks and crannies that vacationers miss out on. And we learn about the best times to visit certain areas. I’ll never forget the two times visiting the Ancient City, once with a girl, and once after alone. That one time with the girl was like visiting Selfie-City. When I returned alone, on a cool December evening, it felt like huge swathes of the 200-acre park were empty. The distant rumble of traffic could barely be heard, the insects were humming, turtles paddled lazily in the creeks, and when dusk arrived the glow of the lanterns along the bike paths brought me back, way back to the early ’80s, a surreal moment as if I was a kid riding my bicycle through a quiet Western suburb all over again.
The best smoothie I ever had was in a northern province, in a little restaurant. I never would have found this place if I was alone. Instead of using a blender, they mortar-and-pestled whole strawberries and ice cubes, letting the melting ice chips further chill the berries, and melting into the crushed fruit in what tasted like a perfect ratio. I ordered a second and ignored the rest of my food.
That’s what is nice about having a Thai girlfriend. Sure, sometimes they cost a lot more than having a Western girlfriend, but they really know the spots to visit. And if they don’t know about a place, they can use their massive networks on Facebook to find out.
Speaking about Facebook groups, there’s that one hilarious group that girls use to screen and filter out the naughty boys. I lost count of how many times we were laying in bed and the girlfriend is showing me her phone and reading some of the comments out loud, giggling over the pics that Westerners so freely send to girls they meet on ThaiFriendly or social media. I wonder if guys know that Thai girls have such a network in place, at least if those guys aren’t reading Stickman on the regular. That being said, the girls also bash each other sometimes, calling each other stupid because some are out prospectin’ and gold-diggin’.
What does Thailand have over the USA? Middle-class women who are more feminine in demeanor and dress. A better ratio of slim to thick people. Going shopping (we have Amazon and eBay, but … ) the malls in Bangkok shame anything we have in New York, LA, or San Francisco, just consider the near-triple Siam mall Paragon / Center / Discovery, which is connected via walkway to Siam Square One, and a short walk to CentralWorld. IT Malls are better too. Open air markets like Chatuchak. Street food. Street hawkers. Convenience of 7 Eleven, Lawsons, Family Mart, where the clerks cook your sandwiches. Less sales taxes if you stick to markets and street vendors. LineMan and FoodPanda deliveries from a wider array of restaurants. USA has fake bland Asian food. Nightlife and clubbing given Bangkok versus any one of our cities. Out-and-out naughty boy areas. Dirt-cheap taxis and motorbike fares. Even cheaper buses and minivan services—I took a ten hour comfy bus ride for the head-shaking cheapo price of $15. Electric rail system future looks brighter. Small domestic airports are more charming with easy-going staff. Lobbies, parking garages, and security actually staffed, even at medium-sized apartment buildings. Ease of finding small studio apartments. More gritty out-and-about hustling and capitalist opportunities for poor or working-class people. Better health care for the poor. Street-level violence is lower than many of our larger cities. The media industry is less saturated with infotainment. And last but not least Thailand has better cinema popcorn. Yes, popcorn. This shouldn’t be true, and yet here we are. In the USA usually we have butter flavor, more butter flavor, and more fake yellow-oil “butter” flavor, along with salt. Thailand has strawberry, caramel, paprika, corn, cheese, hot chili, black truffle oil, Spiderman blue-and-red colored berry-flavored popcorn, and others I can no longer remember.
What does the USA have over Thailand? Besides access to vape products? Car prices. Our used car market is fantastic. Used Mercedes in good condition at affordable prices, not to mention all the other brands. New cars are much cheaper as well. Used markets on Craigslist are very good if you’ve a careful eye. Online shopping through Amazon and eBay is better than Lazada and Ali. Naturally, we have much better burgers and pizza. I pity people who think the Mexican food—any Mexican food in Bangkok—is anything other than disappointing. Those who haven’t been to California (especially southern California) have no idea how good Mexican food can be. Supermarket selection is superb. Brand name clothing and accessories are more widespread at much lower prices. More diverse climates and geography. Far less corruption. Near infinite social mobility and economic opportunities. Better education, especially at the university level. Great private healthcare for those with the money. Yes, I know healthcare is a heated topic for the middle class and below, but USA has fantastic hospitals. An even more heated topic may be access to firearms. But here the USA shines above all other nations. States like Arizona and a few others have “constitutional carry.” This means that citizens who are grown adults and not prohibited from owning firearms or not felons can walk into a gun shop, do an instant federal background check, pick out a handgun and some ammo and walk out the door with a gun in your pants pocket for concealed carry. You can carry in your car as well. We have the 2nd Amendment, which people erroneously point to as a “right,” but it’s really a check on the government so that the federal government cannot seek to hobble our birthright of owning firearms for self-defense. But, very few in the USA actually make use of this right.
I’ll miss Thailand, and it’s probably not goodbye forever, but what we gain during the long-term in Thailand is a perspective. We are able to judge our own home counties with more wisdom. I believe many of us love living in Thailand because we have no stake in the politics, in the cultural burdens anyone’s home country seems to imbue its citizens with. When we first come to Thailand, and for a long while after, a weight is lifted off our shoulders. We feel free to let loose and have more fun. But. Clean air, quality goods, strong legal representation and rule of law, more overall opportunity, and not being an outsider weigh heavily against Thailand in the long-run. I still love Thailand and the Thai people, and not coming away jaded, but my time here allowed me to realize what I took for granted in the USA.