“The Contagion of Liberty”: History, Politics and Dissent in Thailand


Well, long time no post. Guess it’s been about 8 months since the last one. Anyways, in the midst of our current political struggles I’ve had a lot of things on my mind. I am not an expert on Thai anything at this point, I’m still a student of most things Thai, but that being said, I feel there are some important intersections between my experience as a history teacher here and the recent political situation.


I’ve now been teaching history for two years at a well-known, and to some well-respected, university in Bangkok. The university will remain nameless at this point for a number of reasons. That being said, I was quite excited to take this position early on. History is what I had spent many years doing in the U.S. and what I wanted to do here in Thailand. I had done a year teaching English just to get settled while I tried to figure out how and where I might teach history here (in English), and no offense to professional English teachers here, but I really had no interest in spinning my wheels in that environment. Criticisms of the poorly educated, sexpat farang that make up much of the English teachers here are readily available elsewhere, so I will not spend time on that here.

The position I began in was as a history lecturer for a general education World Civilization course. Granted, this is not a university that offers any social science degrees, but I assumed that history would still be something that was taught seriously. I would be teaching as part of a team to design syllabi, readings, exams, etc. This seemed ok at the time. In U.S. universities we wouldn’t really consider it team teaching, but we would have historians with the same regional expertise working together to a certain degree (Latin Americanists, Africanists, Europeanists, etc.).

But as I quickly learned, this was a quite different situation. The core team members, Thai ajarn that had been teaching this course for many years, had next to no background in the social sciences. Most were glorified administrative staff whose English was good enough that someone thought they could be promoted to be teachers. The “team” was really not a team, but a bunch of ajarn subservient to the course coordinator who directed the course. Because this is a required course that many students have to take, foreign teachers from the English department are often brought in to teach a few sections, but once again, normally with no background in, or understanding of, history as a discipline. The readings that had been compiled for this course were outdated, Eurocentric, often racist, and sometimes just completely at odds with modern historical understandings. There was no understanding of history as a tool to teach critical thinking amongst students, or as a means to make better sense of their present. “Some Interesting, but not really Important, Shit that Happened in the Past” would have been a better title of the course.

As the problems became more and more apparent, I tried to voice some suggestions about how me might make this class more stimulating, modern, and historically sound. But I quickly discovered that the “team” had no interest in making any changes. What they expected was to repeat the same lesson, with the same materials, every semester. The idea of updating, fact checking, or having any debate about the content of the course was foreign and unwanted. This way the ajarn could stick to their same sleep-inducing power points every semester, and could, in fact, avoid even reading the course materials themselves as their lessons came directly from third party tutorials that inundate this university, and many others in Thailand.

After a year and a half of this situation, I wrote a detailed report of the problems and submitted it to my departmental administration and the other team members. This was during the most recent backlash over the Hitler mural at Chulalongkorn University, the Nazi themed Sports Days that occur every year in Thailand, and the swastika t-shirts and apparel  that can be seen quite often around Thailand. I connected this to the fact that my team members taught World War II with a reading that didn’t even discuss the anti-Semitism and racism of Nazi ideology, nor concentration camps. Well, of course the other ajarn were upset that I hitler-superhero-muralhad called out their ignorance (not a very Thai thing to do, I know), and my superiors were fed up and obtuse about my complaining. Their solution was to offer me my own course, that I would design and teach by myself, and to leave World Civ as the poorly taught course that it was. The only reason not to fire me was that I have a quality degree background and it looks good to the university to have me on the faculty. This, and the fact that my bosses seem to realize that I know what I am talking about, even if they don’t understand what that is. My initial reaction was to quit and look for a job somewhere else, as working in an actual social science department in Thailand is my eventual goal. But after talking with some of my Thai coworkers that are actually real teachers, I was convinced to try out the new course, at least for a year. Because I have seen the potential in many of the students at this university, and have developed some good relationships with past students, I decided to stay . . . for a minute.

I’ll probably write about my experience teaching this new course in the future, but for now I can say that while frustrating, it’s going ok. Frustrating in the sense that your average Thai student has little knowledge of important historical events, or any thought to problematize things like race, gender, culture, nationalism, etc., and has been given little impetus by the Thai educational system to question or think critically about anything around them. Frustrating as a black person that these students love black Hollywood actors or hip hop music, but have little understanding of the struggles that black people have faced to get to this point. As I am teaching in Thailand, even more frustrating is the fact that these students have little understanding of the struggles of Asian/Thai Americans, colonialism in Asia, or the disastrous and interconnected histories of their brothers and sisters next door in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. But, these faults are of the system, and not Thai students, and when taught in the correct way, I find that Thai students are very inquisitive, empathetic and open to new understandings of the world.

So, what does all of this have to do with our recent political problems? Well, I will try not to expose my own political leanings, suffice to say I am not a red or yellow shirt supporter. I want the fairest, freest, and most democratic Thailand possible. Unlike most foreign residents in Thailand whose comments on the situation are basically “I hope Thais can work all this out for themselves,” I am probably going to live the rest of my life and raise a family in Thailand, so these problems are my own. What other farang that choose to live here offer to Thailand’s future I don’t know, but my own inadequate price of admission is to help Thai youth understand their own and others histories, and as such become a better informed electorate.

And here we come back to the title of this post, “the Contagion of Liberty.” I heard this in a documentary I was showing my students on the Haitian Revolution. It was in reference to the fear that white slave societies in Europe and the Americas had of the slave revolution that occurred in Haiti. The fear that ideas of freedom, liberty, consciousness would spread and infect other enslaved peoples, or people of color that were outside of current Enlightenment ideals of justice and equality. For me, this seems to be the state of education in Thailand. The reason why history is taught in such a conservative and nationalistic fashion. To keep dissenting views, critical thinking, and free minds at bay. guarding-the-disloyalWhen people are not accustomed to thinking for themselves, or questioning those who are “superior” because of wealth or social status, they become easy sheep to be led one way or another, red or yellow, corrupt or corrupt (not a typo). How many Thai historians and social scientists have had to leave this country they love because their views went against the norm? Many. Who does that leave to teach our Thai youth? A few good ajarn against an army of ignorance. The good fight, I suppose, but difficult. But as for the impacts of all this on Thailand, my own view is that historical, cultural, social and political ignorance has been fostered by successive governments, amongst its own people, in order to keep them subservient to meaningless and mundane things, as well as forgetful of those that have fought against this in their own past, so that today there is little recognition or understanding of what a word/concept like “democracy,” in all its manifestations, really means.


The Audacity of Farang, Pt. 2


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.


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.

Food of the gods

This seems a bit of a lame topic to start a blog with. But I’m a little unsure of how to start this whole thing in the first place, and food is something I am often thinking about, so whatever.

I really love Thai food. Really. I know, I know. Every farang lists the food as one of the main reasons they love Thailand, right
after the ease of a mentally and/or physically decrepit foreigner to “get” a beautiful woman here and the low cost of living. But these are usually the same people who have to have their weekly intake of pub comfort food, eat at McDonald’s, and think Sunrise Tacos is real Mexican food (or good food, for that matter).

No, I really love Thai food, and I am a food snob. Not as far as price or presentation (“it’s expensive and hip and all the hi-so people eat here!”), I could care less, but in terms of taste and quality. And that Thailand delivers in glorious ways. (Ambience can be important too, and another wonderful aspect of the Thai dining experience, but later for that subject). I love Thai food because I lived in cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City), where people know and love the best of westernized Thai food, so our ignorance on the depths of real Thai food makes the dining experience here so striking and delicious. And the food back there, it’s not bad, for the west it tastes damn good. But since living here I’ve begun to realize how it barely scratched the surface of Thai cuisine.

Northern, northeastern, central, and southern cooking make the diversity of Thai cuisine quite incredible and delicious. I’ve been in Thailand a little over a year, and have only had a few of the standard Thai dishes I would always have back in the States. It’s mostly been dishes that I’ve never seen on menus in the west. Add to that the fact that you can pretty much eat what you want when you want. Fried chicken for breakfast, fried chicken for dinner. It’s all good, and that really suits me. Don’t get me wrong, I get the craving for a big American breakfast of eggs, bacon, hash browns, hush puppies, biscuits and gravy, pancakes, every so often, but for breakfast rice, stir fried something, a fried egg, and some heat just seems . . . right, to me. Also, you can have it so luxuriantly spicy. And to the dismay of even my Thai friends there is no such thing as too much prik nam plaa. Is there a more perfect condiment? In the west you have to know to ask for it, because Thai Americans assume it’s too strong (i.e. good) for the western palette. And for most it is. But since the first time my Thai friend introduced it to me in the States I was hooked. To the point I take note of the variety of prik nam plaa brews when I visit different restaurants/vendors. And now I go way overboard dousing my food with it, but it really is a thing of beauty.

There are a couple of things that just don’t exist in Thailand, food wise, and things I miss terribly. Good Latin/Central American food, and American Southern/Soul food. If any farang end up reading this blog they will probably give me some suggestions, and I’ll try, but I can already tell you the verdict, nah, not so good. But as much as I look forward to eating these things when I go back to visit, I’m more than content. I’m in food heaven!

I know, lacking food and restuarant specifics, but much more food talk to come . . .