(The following article was published yesterday in The Nation newspaper. The following however, is the originally un-edited submission)
Unless you’ve been vacationing in the middle of the Amazon Forest it’s very unlikely that your ears are not by now, full to bursting point of relentless reports on Thailand’s delirious censorship campaign. Even though I disagree with most of this rampant government enforced censorship, this huge story has assisted in turning my attention once again to the way countless Westerners misunderstand Thailand and her people.
For the past couple of weeks the Internet has been flooded top to bottom with Westerners (a lot of whom have never been to Thailand) dictating to Thais how they ought to live their lives, stand up, fight for rights and follow the grand example of the Western world. Though a lot of their intentions may be grand, they haven’t actually realized that their notion of a perfect society is engrained within their own Western conditioning. It has to be said, that before you begin to just blatantly criticize something, it is wise to gain a little insight knowledge about your target first.
The Internet is the largest source of information available, but unfortunately it is also home to some of the most misleading information imaginable. Let’s start with the most classic Western misunderstanding of Thailand and that is in regards to the country’s female population. As the Internet is full of completely quack-wack one-sided reports about Thai women by Westerners who haven’t the foggiest, anyone who cares to search for some info before he comes is gonna be in for one nauseating surprise!
Let’s start with this myth “All Thai women would love to immigrate to the West”. Sure, that may be true for a lot of folks, and good luck to them, but to put all Thai women in the same boat is absolute baloney. Beyond a doubt the majority of Thai women are as happy to live here as they are anywhere else, and do not feel the sudden urge to be whisked off their feet by some hunky Western hero. Of course, it doesn’t need a degree in Thai Studies to contemplate the source and origins of such misunderstanding. Next, “All Thai women are after a Western husband as the local guys are useless”. Now, what kind of crackpot generalization is that? After living in Thailand for over a decade, I can confirm that a whole lot of single male Westerners coming here for a while are not exactly some star-studded Romeo.
Then, we have another popular myth about Thai women such as “All Thai women are after your money”. Again, that is absurd generalization started by some wonderful folk who have been ripped-off at some time in the past, whether it was partly their own fault is a story for another day. I hate to say it, but a lot of this gross negative misunderstanding about Thailand actually comes from some Western expats, who even though they have been living here for donkeys years, are completely uninterested in their environs. Besides barstools, Internet forums are another really great source of Mickey-Mouse presumptions about Thai women. Start a thread along the lines of “How come all the Thai women love Western men so much?” and you are sure to be bombarded with comments from men with huge egos, boasting about the myths as written above.
One of my favorite hobbies when I have the time is to visit some popular drinking gaff and play myself off as a newbie who has just arrived and doesn’t speak a word of Thai. Of course, I am sure to meet loadsa fair-minded farangs who are somewhat knowledge about all things Thai, but it’s also certain again, that I’ll meet guys who sit there supping away on the drinks all day, every day, spreading myths about Thailand to every freshie tourist off the boat. This is really devastating in a way, as most newly-arrived to any strange-land on the planet are gonna suck-up and believe anything they are told by some other foreigner who has been in that country for some relative period of time. Sure, some of what is told may be true, but a lot of it is also complete generalization. A while back, while having a drink with a retirement-aged teacher acquaintance whom I had the pleasure of knowing, told me this one after he spotted one of his pretty Grade 12 girls “Steve, I’m gonna tell you something you never knew about Thai girls before. When she looks at me, she sees hope, she sees a future”. Of course, I wanted to reply “Excuse for breathing, but I think she sees just sweat”
Sadly, a lot of Westerners coming to Thailand fail to search-out any decent information on the Thai mind-set, system and culture, yet constantly criticize everything around them. Like me, perhaps you have grown tired of some Westerners who come here and relentlessly compare everything to the Great Western Civilization. How about this other myth “The Thais love everything Western and particularly American” again pardon me, but if you look carefully you will find that the new generation prefers everything Japanese and Korean these days. Now, some bickering and complaining about the likes of the law, over-pricing and visas etc….is understandable, but when someone does it day in, day out, non-stop about absolutely everything around him – it makes one wonder why he doesn’t just back his bags and go back to the glories of his heavenly hometown. And that in fact, can be said about any immigrant in the world.
Moving on to other cultural misunderstandings, there is for instance Thailand’s respect for elders. In much of the modern-day Western world paying respect to ones elders is a fuddy-duddy old-fashioned fiasco and so they feel that Thais ought to change their mentality too. They fail to realize however, that most Thais don’t feel embarrassed about completing such a daunting task and instead actually enjoy it. Take Songkran Day for example when the young sprinkle water over their elders and ask for a blessing in return, half the new generation of Westerners would be in hysterics at such subservience, but here however, the kiddies are queued-up pushing in the line to claim their place. A similar thing happens in regards to temple visits, most local kids think that a day at the temple making merit is a fun day out: feeding the fish, eating fish-ball sticks and sucking on ice-pops. As for Western Female Groups, they too are often wrapped-up in their conditioning and fail to get a grip with the hopes and aspirations of the land’s female population. I have written recently on sex discrimination in Thailand, but I can also promise you that the average Thai woman on the street doesn’t want to change into a ‘free’ Western woman overnight and that walking around without wearing a bra isn’t exactly her idea of female liberation.
With the age of the Internet and a new generation of Thais manageable in the English language a backlash is happening. Unlike in the past, besides the Thais living or studying abroad the whole of the young generation of locals are beginning to fully realize what a lot of the Westerners here and abroad are saying about them behind their back. As a Western blogger in Thailand, I know that due to a lot of built-up anger because of these myths flooding the Internet, that I am gonna be verbally attacked by some kids every time I dare to criticize their country in just the slightest.
Finally, all of us, on hearing or reading negative reports, have to sit back and ponder them without just simply jumping on the band-wagon wearing blinkers and believing every darned thing we read. Let us all hope that through time, insight and analysis, a better bridge of understanding between peoples and not just Westerners and Thais will evolve. I also ask that the Western world become more sensitive to foreign cultures before suddenly dictating their supposed values to the rest of the world.