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The Pride and the Prejudice

Last call for Thailand. All aboard.

Where some see simple, traditional values, others find bigotry and political incorrectness. What to one person may be charming innocence, is immature naïveté to another. There’s a fine line between pride and prejudice. Thailand truly is a paradox to many farangs for the simple reason that the Old Worldly charm we find so enchanting, also reminds us of our own darker past. Einstein was wrong; time travel is possible. Allow me to explain.

A letter to the Bangkok Post on October 20, 2008 from an Indian national lambasted the blatant prejudice against his race in Thailand. In the window of a Bangkok shop, he had spotted a sign indicating that the premises were for rent and which included the phrase, “no Indians”. Although there is a sizeable population of Indians in Bangkok, they are often openly discriminated against. I know, for example, that most Thais don’t like Indian food even though they have never tried it because it “smells funny”. This seems a little hypocritical from a nation that uses industrial strength fermented fish sauce to flavour its food, yet such prejudice is the rule rather than an exception.

And it’s not only Indians who are targeted. A deeply-instilled sense of jingoism ensures that the discrimination certainly isn’t blind, but it is, at least, perversely indiscriminate. Thais are racist against most nationalities in some form or other it seems.

Take, for example, the 90-day immigration rule which dictates that all legally-residing and tax paying aliens are forced to troop down to immigration every  90 days to sign in – something that only convicted sex offenders are required to do in the UK, and even then only if they change their address. Then there is the blatantly racist dual pricing system at national parks, temples and other tourist attractions, which regularly has disgruntled expats sending ranting letters to the Bangkok Post or Nation.

While all farangs are seen as cash cows to be relentlessly milked, far worse is the shameless exploitation of neighbouring countries’ economic and political refugees. Cambodians, Laotians and Burmese are nothing more to Thais than slave labour to be mercilessly abused.

Then there is the colour issue. White is beautiful in a Thai’s eyes and brown skin, so cool and exotic to many westerners, is looked upon as an ugly symptom of the peasantry by Thais. For this reason, female Thai labourers, farmers and vendors will often be covered from head to toe with thick, long-sleeved shirts; corduroy trousers; and even balaclavas, despite the searing heat. What’s more, it explains why the same cosmetics company that manufactures artificial tanning creams in England also successfully markets whitening lotions in Thailand. What colour would you like to be today, madam?

An American friend of mixed race (African-American and Asian) told how she was given the hard sell in Bangkok cosmetics stores by misguidedly well-meaning sales assistants who assured her that she would appear more honest if she whitened her skin. Ignorant of their insults, the shop assistants’ logic that the appearance of honesty would be more important than putting the trait into practice is a worrying yet all too common premise in a country where high-profile politicians sport whiter than white skin but blacker than black hearts.

However, race is not the only form of overt prejudice in the Land of Smiles. Job ads will often specify not only the nationality but also the age and gender of the required applicants. While Thais see nothing wrong in such institutionalised discrimination, it’s nothing more than a throwback to darker times for many farangs.

So why do I stay if I am aware of such behaviour. And what’s more why do I love the place and the people so much despite these shortcomings? Maybe I see more innocent charm than immature naïveté; perhaps I find more simple traditional values than bigoted political incorrectness.  Or maybe it’s simply the Old Worldly charm.

Yes, let’s start with the charm. Have you ever wondered why farang men love Thai women so much? It’s not just the slender, nubile bodies wrapped in smooth, hairless skin (now available in brown or white), or the full, silky hair cascading around a playfully innocent face and warm, inviting smile. No, it’s not JUST that. Although Thai women certainly have a collective sex appeal that is much rarer in the West, the reason so many farang men fall hopelessly in love is not just the looks – it’s the charm. While a century of women’s liberation has brought obvious benefits to Western societies, I can’t help feeling that something fundamental has been sacrificed in return.

Thai women are feminine in a way that too many western women have long forgotten. They are more motherly to children, more daughterly to their parents and more wifely to their husbands.  In short, they still behave instinctively like women, and this is something that many farang men find refreshing. In contrast, most farangs, unlike Thai men, have become accustomed to treating women as equals, and this is something that also appeals to the Thai women who are used to institutionalised male chauvinism. It’s a beautiful balance that exists only temporarily in this time and place. 
Balancing discrimination and equality, however, is a more difficult task. Just look at what political correctness gone wild has done to the West. While offensive golliwogs have been removed from jam jars in England and it’s no longer socially, morally or even legally acceptable to discriminate or stereotype against minorities in any form, common sense is the baby that seems to have been thrown out with the bathwater of bigotry.

In Holland, you can’t join the police force unless you are a disabled, Moroccan lesbian with a lisp, and in the US, calling a black man “nigga” is cool if it comes from a black man but a criminal offence if uttered by a white man. I am all for equal rights, but I am confused. Surely reversing the status quo to discriminate against the erstwhile discriminators equals two wrongs – not a right.

Thailand may be a few decades behind the West when it comes to political correctness and equal opportunities for all, but that in itself is not necessarily all bad, and there are certainly plenty of countries with far worse records on human rights. In my humble view, the many qualities of this country and her people more than make up for the quirks that could just as easily be innocence or ignorance, pride or prejudice, depending on your viewpoint.

Behind Thailand’s twenty-first century face there lies a nineteenth century mind. Nobody has to stay here if they don’t want to. If you are as in love with Thailand as I am, then jump aboard the time machine. Let’s do the time warp again. It’s just a jump to the left…

Paul Snowdon – October 30, 2008

Related article – Lessons in Life: single, black female in Bangkok

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