The Audacity of Farang, Pt. 2

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Yawn . . . I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but honestly, didn’t really have the energy to do it. I guess I don’t really have it in me to be one of those everyday bloggers. Probably my day-to-day is not that interesting to anyone other than myself. Not even myself, sometimes. But, as the tourist season has descended on Thailand, I’ve become increasingly annoyed to the point I needed to say a few things.

A few people seem to have read some of this blog, and I’ve been happy to know that I’ve been of assistance to a couple of people making the transition to life in Bangkok. But some months back I also received some critiques/comments that were predictable and uninspiring to respond to, but illuminating of some of the larger problems of the expat and tourist mentality here. And even more broadly, problems of our humanity.

I will not post those comments, because I have no interest in using this blog as a place to argue over the “normality” of prostitution or other wrongs in Thailand. There are plenty of blogs and websites where farang can, and do, blather on convincing themselves of the acceptability of the life they live here and their treatment of Thai women and Thai culture. I will give no forum to that. Call me a Stalinist, call me unfair, or ignore this blog. Wait. PLEASE IGNORE THIS BLOG. I know that my views are not those of the majority of expats in Thailand. If this blog makes you uncomfortable or feeling like you need to justify your life here and your treatment of Thai women, than move along. I have a hard enough time avoiding the scumbags in my real life, and I have no interest in debating them here.

That being said, this type of foreign trash makes an all too common argument that goes something like, “Thais had prostitution long before any farang came, most prostitution is conducted by Thai men, poor families push their daughters into becoming prostitutes, poor Thais don’t care what their daughters (or sons) are doing as long as it’s bringing in money, prostitution is just part of ‘Thai culture,’ “etc. Can’t change it, so might as well get your kicks. If you came to the United States in 1800, I suppose you would say, “I’m against slavery, but it’s part of the culture here, so . . . I guess I could use a few niggers to help me out.” The normalization of the exploitation of Thai women is disgusting, but unfortunately all too common amongst the foreigners here. You may be blind to what you are doing, but many Thai are not. Did foreigners bring prostitution to Thailand? No. Do foreigners enable and feed off of prostitution? Do they help to support  a system that perpetuates prostitution? Yes, yes, yes. Are there some strong, sensible, financed, well educated, intelligent women that choose sex-work as a profession in our world? Sure. Is that the case with 99.9% of the sex workers in Thailand? No. No Thai family wants their daughter working in a strip club or coyote bar. No Thai woman with a decent education and/or job possibilities would choose to be a hooker. And those are two problems put on the Thai government, not you farang. A decent education and jobs. Many farang complain about how corrupt, inefficient, and undemocratic the Thai government is, true no doubt, but would you really want to see a government that provided for its people? That created an education system where real teachers assured Thai students were made aware of the exploitative history of the West and particularly of Western white supremacist regimes in SEA? Where young Thai students were taught about global movements for social justice and gender equality? Nah, I don’t think you want that. Might stop girls from working in bars to be used by Western AND Thai trash. Might cause girls from Isaan and throughout Thailand to say I’m black and proud. Might cause more young Thai males to direct their violence at you rather than each other. Fighting over liberation, not libations. You sure you farang do-gooders really support an independent and strong Thailand? I think not.

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I will not go into the details of my own life here, but I didn’t come to Thailand for girls, to party, or for a life-changing makeover. Sure, my experience in Thailand has, and does have an impact on how I see things, and living in a new culture away from the States has of course opened me up in new ways. But at the same time I am much the same person. I was not a fat, ugly, ignorant, or morally void person back in the States. I was not a failure in relationships with Western women that needed to find a place where women in desperate need might overlook my physical and/or mental deficiencies. I am still a person that dedicates much of their life and work to understanding and fighting oppression based on race, ethnicity, gender, or class. And despite black presidents and female prime ministers, people of color, from Boston to Benghazi, from Beirut to Bangkok, are still inordinately struggling with the legacies of white supremacy, colonialism, gender inequality, and the exploitation of the working classes.

Thailand is a wonderful country.Thai history and culture are fascinating. Thais can be some of the kindest, most open, and generous people. But there are also bad Thais that are ultra-materialistic, could care less about their brothers and sisters living in poverty, and care nothing about the exploitation and sexualization of their young women. But too many farang that come here have the idea that these things are just part of “Thai culture.” They were like that before “we” came and it will be like that forever. Well, it may be like that forever. But not because it is a part of Thai culture, per se, but because it is a problem of our human experience. An experience that is still being shaped by the continuing struggle for racial and gender equality, for political democratization.

Oh, and by the way, Thais are people of color. Yes, they have their own history of whitening, but not in the same way western white folks mean. White farang have benefitted from this for sure, but don’t get it twisted, in the color scheme you invented, even the most-palest skinned Thai girl is an “other “in your world. Good for a sex holiday or a wife-prop to make you think you have any use remaining in this country. But we know. From American slum to Thai slum, we know.

Whether you are blind to the fact or not, farang in Thailand, you are choosing a side. One day you will be judged by god, karma, the universe, a firing squad, or whatever it is you believe in.

Until then, keep your idiocy away from me and fuck off.

With that off my chest, I will eat yam plaa dook fuu, listen to the new MBV, and try to remember there are good people in the world.

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 . . .

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.

The Audacity of Farang, pt.1

Forget culture shock. Forget homesickness. Forget language barrier. The most difficult thing I’ve had to deal with in Thailand is seeing the daily display of vulgar exploitation by foreign men.

This is not a discussion of prostitution, per se, in Thailand. That is another debate, and one which, like the profession, is likely to go on forever. What is disturbing in Thailand is the ability of the farang mind to normalize the john-hooker relationship into something that is presentable to the rest of society. It’s bad enough the extent to which prostitution exists in places like Nana Plaza, Soi Cowboy, and Patpong, but foreigners, young and old alike, feel no shame in bringing their obviously paid for partners to any and every corner of the country. Malls, restaurants, resorts, beaches, condos, parks, normal Thai neighborhoods, wats! Would you take a prostitute you picked up in Los Angeles, London, Sydney, or wherever you came from, and parade her around town? I think not. You would be worried about the social ramifications, glares, and perhaps even a beating if, say, a white man picked up an 18 yr old prostitute in Harlem and went around the neighborhood hand-in-hand. But this is the “Land of Smiles” you say. “Thais have that Buddhist ‘live and let live’ philosophy, so they don’t care. Thai people look at us and say, ‘oh, nice farang are helping our downtrodden women out of poverty.'” No, no, no. They see what you are doing and they do care.

Listen. No one wants to see that shit! Thai people do not like you. Thai people do not like your audacity in throwing prostitution in their face. They do not like that a poverty exists that causes their women to think they need to choose the most disgusting, ignorant, uncultured farang in order to survive. Trust me. Go beyond the areas where people live off of sex tourist money and cater to the “white man’s playground” view of Thailand. Go beyond that. Go beyond the hi-so Thai and bourgeois expat areas like Thonglor and Ekamai, where sexpats are criticized by the “better class” but the same status markers of money and whiteness apply. Go past all that, and you will find that the majority of Thai people, and a small number of decent expats and tourists, don’t like you, and don’t want to see you and your mockery of the country.

And this is perhaps the saddest part of this whole situation. Thais present you with a country and a culture that is so beautiful, where if you are kind and gentle you will get that returned ten-fold. A culture where people will not call you out on your vulgar displays of farang ignorance like not learning any Thai even after living here for years, being incredibly rude and talking to people like shit, failing to learn the basic principles of respect in the foreign culture you’re visiting, and lax immigration laws that allow worthless farang to stay in the country for decades with nothing to offer but further exploitation. But what do you return to the Thais? You flaunt prostitution and barely veiled pedophilia because you know no one will call you out. This is the double-edged sword of Thai hospitality. It’s a wonderful thing, but also creates the opening for foreigners to take advantage without fear of retaliation. If you ask me, more cold stares, harsh words, and maybe even a handful of beatdowns might put a little fear into the sexpats and encourage them to keep their activities in the red light districts and out of the rest of Thai society. But that’s just me . . .

The scenes depicted here are so common in Bangkok and throughout the country, that I seriously considered leaving after a few months, despite the fact that I was really falling in love with the rest of Thailand. Fortunately a move out of the expat/tourist ghetto of Sukhumvit and into an outlying area of the city not infested with foreigners limited my exposure to all this. At least to a somewhat bearable level.

The struggle continues.