Why do I love Thailand?

Hmmm. This is a question I have been asking myself lately. When I came here a year and a half ago, I had no idea what I would be getting myself into. One of my best friends in California is Thai-American and he always told me I would enjoy it here, but other than liking Thai food and having this admittedly “orientalist” idea that I liked “Asian cultures,” I didn’t really know what to expect. Sure, I had been to Japan, and there is something to be said of a pan-Asian approach to life that places high value on at least a surface level of showing respect and manners, and this was definitely something that was comfortable to me. And something I found lacking in the U.S. But really, Thailand is as far from being Japan as Spain is from being Germany.

But as much as I thought I was really enjoying my life here, after my recent breakup with my girlfriend I had to reevaluate. My girl was Thai, and we had been together most of my first year and a half here. She was my best friend, lover, translator, tour guide, and anchor in my transition to life here. So after we split, I had to ask myself “how much did you love Thailand with her vs. how much do you love Thailand.” Added to this was the fact that, because I don’t like 99% of the farang here, and it can be difficult, or at least slow, to make friendships with normal Thai folks that are not the farang-chasing sort, after the breakup I was really on my own. On top of this I had some of my dearest friends asking me to come back to San Francisco, a place which offered so much love, friendship, and comfort. What to do?

The question of why I love Thailand became even more difficult for me to answer because there are so many things here that I don’t like, and that I have struggled to live with since early on. Errr. Put your brakes on. This will not be another of the million sites by foreigners that bash dealing with Thai bureaucracy, educational system, perceived xenophobia or lack of critical thought. You can find that on any other expat site by the other farang that continually complain about this and that aspect of Thai culture while living in this country like the worst of any 20th century colonialist. No, my problems with Thailand aren’t about Thais, they’re about the garbage foreigners that infest this country.

After the early exuberance of being in a new and exciting place, some of the shit I saw on the day-to-day started to really get to me. It’s hard, at least for a person such as myself, to see the rudeness, disrespect, exploitation, and just sheer lameness of the foreigners here. But a move away from central Bangkok to a predominantly Thai neighborhood, a concentration on my relationship with my Thai students and coworkers, and learning Thai, (as well as praying to Buddha every morning!) helped ease my anger. Or at least try to channel it in constructive ways. Actually one thing that has really helped is starting to do volunteer work with an NGO here helping disadvantaged Thai women. This is a Thai run organization, led by some great socially conscious folks, and the farang that volunteer here are of a better and more interesting sort than you usually find here.

Ok, ok. So why do I love it here. Well, the first thing that comes to mind is just a feeling like it suits me. I also felt this way about Cuba and Japan, but not to the overall degree that I do in Thailand. Generally speaking, Thai folks are kind, respectful, jokey, slow to anger. All things that fit my own personality very well. Particularly since I have had my own struggles with stress and letting things that upset me get to me, being amidst Thai people has helped me to take the edge off of that. Since day one people have made me feel at home, or at least comfortable fitting into such an exciting, but also sometimes lonely and confusing, new life. Especially if you try to speak Thai, are a mannered person, and try to avoid the most obvious of cultural blunders, Thai people are quite quick to show you warmth and laughter.

Also, Thai culture is a very spiritual one. As hypocritical as any other society that claims religion is important, sure, but that being said, there is a pervading sense of the importance of spirituality and/or the connection with the present and past life of the people and nature around us. As someone who has never been a religious person, but always interested in spirituality, I have found a new calmness and positivity through my own developing practice of Buddhism. I think that it is the particulars of Thai culture that brought me to this, not just the fact that Thailand is a Buddhist country. There is a way that spirituality weaves itself through mundane everyday life here that I appreciate.

Also, I love the possibilities of Thailand. I definitely don’t mean monetary! No doubt there are some major problems with the educational system in Thailand and the level to which students are taught to think critically about Thai society and the world, but if you get to know some of the young people here, you will see that they have both a deep connection to Thai culture and the past, but also a keen interest in the future. As an educator that actually cares about the future of these students and the country, I look at helping them develop the tools to move this country/society in the right direction as part of my responsibility for being afforded, in comparison to the majority of Thai, a quite decent life.

I also love the richness of Thai culture. Thailand and its history are an amazing mix of ethnicities, languages, regions, Buddhism/Hinduism/Animism, cuisines, arts and landscapes. And you can find the right environment that suits you, whether you want the modern metropolis of Bangkok or prefer life in a secluded village somewhere. It’s so easy to live a life where you can enjoy all the different types of environments that Thailand has to offer.

And of course I love the food. But anyone in their right mind that has been here knows Thai food is the greatest cuisine in the world.

I think this is still a partial answer to why I love Thailand, but oh well, it’s a start . . .

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Learn to speak Thai . . . or maybe not

So, I’ve been here for a year and a half, almost, and my Thai is, well, ok. I can do basic things like ask questions, directions, order food, take taxis, and have the most minimal of conversations. I really should be better at this point, but my old age (well, 38), combined with having a Thai girlfriend up till a couple of months ago put me a bit behind. I really did try to practice, but for the past year I always ended up deferring to my girl and let her do most of the talking. Plus she was a fluent English speaker as well, so our conversations in Thai quickly fell into the ease of English.

Now that I am single again, I have to in some ways start over again in Thailand, and I have started my lessons again and really need to be serious so that I can take care of myself here. But it has felt good to start to do some of the things I used to rely on her for, and I just made my first solo trip for a wonderful vacation on Koh Sichang. And I probably made a fool of myself at times, but the majority of the time I have been able to get my point across, get what I want to eat, get where I need to go, even if my Thai sounds like shit!

But what I wanted to talk about was the general state of Thai language acquisition amongst farang here. For first time tourists you can expect no Thai. This really makes no sense to me. Whenever I have travelled to another country, whether it was France, Cuba, or Japan, I at least learned the basics like, “hello,” “goodbye,” “thank you,” excuse me,” “I’m sorry.” It’s not that hard and it’s the most basic of being culturally considerate. But the knuckleheads that show up here. No. Most of the tourists here have the classic western idea that if you yell it loudly enough in English eventually a non-English speaker will understand you.

And as far as longer term residents, you can meet foreigners that have lived here for 5, 10, 20 years, and couldn’t be bothered to learn Thai. Well, maybe they know a few jokey phrases to use on their bargirls/girlfriends when not secluded in British or Irish pubs on Sukhumvit.

But what I have noticed lately amongst some acquaintances is the even more disturbing trend of farang learning Thai speaking and/or writing with no other point other than to pick up women. People that have no clue about Thai history or culture, but will post witty phrases in Thai on Facebook about how hung over they are after the full moon party or even better, the age-old farang favorite of asking their friends whether they woke up with a girl or a ladyboy. Hilarious . . . But don’t get it twisted. Farang loving Thai girls eat this up. So, more power to them, I guess.

All that being said, if you plan to visit Thailand, please learn the basics and don’t make yourself look like a culturally insensitive idiot. And if you plan on staying in Thailand for some time, do learn Thai. When it comes to speaking a new language with people, Thais are some of the nicest people and will forgive you of your mistakes. Thais are so used to foreigners not speaking Thai that they really enjoy it when you do try, even if your tones and pronunciation are all wrong. Unlike, say, when I was in Brussels, and was scolded for my bad French pronunciation when I was trying to buy some cigarettes. Assholes. But if you are learning Thai for the wrong reasons, and don’t add shit to this country that needs all the help it can get, I say to you what I say to most of the farang here: go home.