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.

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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.