The Best of Thai and the Worst of Thai (Part 6)


On Independence Day, I wrote a fairly detailed and impassioned opinion piece comparing American Patriotism to Thai Patriotism. But I didn’t talk about two facets of Thai patriotism that I find particularly annoying, if not infuriating.

One symptom of patriotism in this country yields such a scripted prostration to the national motto “nation, religion, king” that few Thais ever dare to ask questions. And who can blame them, with lèse-majesté laws so harsh that even foreigners living outside the country can be prosecuted if they break them? Liking or sharing quotes on social media deemed inappropriate by the government can be considered breaking the law. And the sentencing is nothing to take lightly: Thai nationals often see 20 years in prison. Already, I’m edging dangerously close to breaking the law myself, so I’ll stop there, so as not to incriminate any of my readers who wish to visit the Land of Smiles.

My point is that Thais seem to have bought the official story of Thailand with all its add-ons. They truly believe Thailand is the best country in the region—some may think it’s the best country in the world. They defend the exportation of Uighurs and the neglect of the Rohingya. It doesn’t seem to bother them that the Bangkok bomb investigation was “completed” with many lingering questions. It’s one thing to publicly worship your government for fear of lengthy imprisonment. It’s another thing entirely to espouse wholeheartedly the cockiness of Thai superiority.

Thai superiority doesn’t simply lead Thais to kowtow to authority. And to be fair, that isn’t really my main criticism; it’s a pragmatic choice to toe the line in such a rigid society where free thinking is discouraged. Instead, what frustrates me is their xenophobia. It makes the nickname “Land of Smiles” seem like a copout, as if the smiles are plastic. “Welcome to Thailand,” they say, while thinking, “Spend your farang money and get out.” Foreigners often pay twice to thrice the prices of Thai people for things like entry into tourist attractions and transportation fare, and there’s usually a farang markup for things like gym membership and buying a condo.

The Thai xenophobia is codified into law as well. I could live here for 30 years and never become a citizen. There are perhaps three industries in which a foreigner can live here without the protective umbrella of a multinational corporation: education, tourism, and real estate. Businesses have to staff 4 Thai nationals for every foreign employee, and all businesses must be at least 51% Thai-owned (same goes for the ownership of property and the quotas for condo building ownership).

On some level, I can appreciate the protectionism behind some of these laws (certainly the U.S. could take a page from the Thai books in light of the recent spike of land values thanks to Chinese foreign “investment”). However, if you tighten the restrictions as much as Thailand has, you make foreign investiture less savory. Moreover, you send a message to immigrants that they’re not welcome here. While I despise the American insistence that immigrants assimilate to American culture, I also detest the fact that I’ll never belong to Thai society. No matter how well I learn the language, copy the customs, and mimic the mores, I’ll always be an outsider.

In some ways, I have to check my complaint there, because the next statement would be, “All because I look different!” Hmmm….what does that remind me of in America? And unlike the American equivalent, my ancestors were never enslaved here, nor ever systematically expunged from our homeland. I’m here of my own volition, not dragged here on overcrowded ships in chains surrounded by death. So in order to avoid sounding like a whiny white man, I’ll stop here.

But seriously, Thailand, can’t you be a little more open-minded to foreign people and ideas?

Stronger Together

If outsiders are suspect, at least the Thais are good at circling the wagons to protect their own. One key aspect of Thai culture that can be a bit of a double-edged sword is this Buddhism-influenced concept of leaving no one behind. Buddhism seeks to comfort all people, to make sure no one is left out, to give everyone an equal opportunity to find spiritual serenity and enlightenment. Kindness is a currency in the religion, expressed commonly as charitable giving, quantifiable by the amount of money one spends, but also more discretely in the good deeds of selflessness. In fact, the whole religion revolves around emptying yourself of, well, yourself. So this often plays out in Thai society as an all-inclusive, equal treatment. If this sounds beautiful, it often is. If it sounds too good to be true, it also is.

But there are subtle and marvelous ways this concept plays out in every day life, such as in the classroom. That one kid who struggles, the others swoop in to help him without even being asked to. The class is quick to tell me if a student is shy or nervous about an assignment or activity. “Mr. Brandon, she doesn’t understand what we’re doing.” And it’s not remotely in a mean way, as if some effort to embarrass their peer. They truly don’t want to see their classmate left in the dark.

The motto of Thailand for 2015 is “Stronger Together.” Anyone with a skeptical brain knows the irony of the slogan, given its originators. But I’d say it truly reflects the spirit of the Thai plebeians. What’s marvelous about the Thai mentality is a common eagerness to help where possible. For all their lack of English or education, they are some of the most obliging people when you need a hand or need information, and instinctively laugh off uncomfortable or awkward situations. If you ever watch Thais interact with each other in customer service situations, you rarely ever see them lose their cool.

This isn’t to say that Thais gather over the top of rainbows and hold hands. There’s Thai-on-Thai crime here. Thais cheat each other, cheat on each other, rob each other, kill each other, rape each other—all the stuff you’d expect in any society.

Plus, this mentality can play out negatively, such as in education when it hides behind the mask of social promotion. Instead of pushing the struggling students a little harder, or taking extra time to help them keep up with the class, the usual protocol for most schools in Thailand is to simply give them an automatic pass. Fudge the numbers. This extends to the general society. Thailand is anything but a meritocracy (as if any place truly is!). These negative consequences aside, though, it’s a sweet mentality that makes one feel warm and fluffy in certain situations.


Legal for Another Year

As of Tuesday, November 3, 2015, I’m officially legal in Thailand for another year. Sounds like no big deal, right? I mean, I jumped through all the hoops last year—don’t I just jump through the same ones this time, too? Not exactly. Not in Thailand, anyway.

Thailand is just weird about foreigners. Just this past weekend, the “prime minister” of Thailand said that if there’s no peace and order, he must stay on as prime minister and “close the country”. Despite his deputy’s insistence that it doesn’t mean what it sounds like (and in good Thai order insists we shouldn’t “think too much”), the PM’s gaffe is hard to dismiss as anything less than a Freudian slip—a momentary lapse of the façade that conceals the strident xenophobia of the Thais.

Add to this the recent distrust of foreigners fueled by the Bangkok bomb and all of its allegations, and there’s mass paranoia at the heart of Thailand’s immigration. And unlike the United States’s fear of Arabs shortly after 9/11, Thailand’s paranoia is universal.

Then there are the actual foreign scabs. Some guys actually do come to this country escaping a troubled past in their homeland, and forge university diplomas and transcripts to gain legal working status. So Thailand’s paranoia often gets affirmed.

What’s that all got to do with me?

In the weeks leading up to my own visa expiration date, colleagues of mine were getting cockblocked at immigration. They were being told that their diplomas needed to be certified at their embassies. For British citizens, this involves nothing more than the nuisance of making an appointment and getting a stamp from the embassy verifying that the degree is valid. For the Philippines, same. For Europeans, same.

For U.S. citizens…hold on. It turns out the U.S. Embassy very explicitly does not verify degrees obtained from American universities—probably the result of some lawsuit 30 years ago.

So how does it work? When I first looked into it, I found this long annoying process detailed in a post I wrote at the time. In order to facilitate the annoying game of pinball my diploma needed to undergo in order for it to be usable in Thailand, I had to involve my gracious mother, who was at the ready with USPS express mail envelopes and money orders in the exact amounts required by each office the document had to bounce off.

Step one: mail a photocopy of my diploma to my mother, along with a notary request form for my university. (As it happens, Berkeley only processes requests for original diplomas at the end of each term, after which there’s a 5 – 6 week turnaround.) My first mistake was trusting the Thailand Post’s EMS service. I tracked the document to the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, and then static. My document disappeared into the ether. Upon notifying my mother of this mishap, she coolly replied, “Why don’t you scan the documents and email them to me?” FACEPALM. Why didn’t I think of that?

So she received digital copies of the documents, printed them, and mailed them with return envelopes and money to Berkeley.

Then one of my colleagues points me to an online forum where an American expat in Thailand describes the process of using an affidavit as a stand-in for legalizing his diploma. Essentially, you can just write a sworn testimony that your diploma is true and valid, sign it in front of an employee at the U.S. Embassy, and they’ll put the official State Department seal on it.

So off I ran to Bangkok. I planned an entire day of cover lessons to make up for my absence at school. I took a bus to the airport, then took the Skytrain to the Embassy. Then I waited. And waited. One thing America is good at shipping abroad is DMV-style bureaucracy. I found out the wording on my affidavit wasn’t quite right. Luckily, they had little slips of paper prepared “For obtaining a Thai visa” to help me out.

Next day, I went to Thai Immigration. I had the giant stack of papers that my employer furbished for me, and slipped inside was my newly minted affidavit, along with a photocopy and original of my university diploma. I took a number, then grabbed a seat.

I sat there waiting through an entire extended family of Vietnamese immigrants processing visas at the sole immigration officer who checks them. My feet shivered in anticipation. My palms were sweaty. I chewed the inside of my lip. Inside, I churned over my plan B: if the affidavit isn’t sufficient, it’s ok, I told myself. Mom’s still processing the legalization of my diploma. I’ll just ask for an extension to buy more time.

Time crawled as I watched one Vietnamese immigrant after another bow politely at the immigration officer’s irritated instructions to get photocopies of this or that. All the while, the red digital number above her desk read 644. My ticket was 645. Was I ever going to test my affidavit?

Ding! “Now serving number 6-4-5 at window number…6.”

I calmly approached the officer with my novel manuscript in hand, bound together with a paperclip bent completely out of shape from the packet’s unruly thickness. I shyly handed her my number and stood in front of her awkwardly. “Sit!” she shouted.

I placed the visa paperwork, along with my passport and work permit, onto the desk. She thumbed through the packet, verifying all my documents. She pointed to a copy of my diploma: “Original?”

I’d forgotten to hand her my new savior—the affidavit! I handed it to her.

She waved her hand frantically and pointed more emphatically at the diploma: “Original! Original!”

Ah, original!

I pulled out the original copy of my Berkeley degree. It’s quite a work of art, I must say. On crème-coloured, off-white card stock, there are etched in sweeping, majestic calligraphy the details of my academic achievement: my name, degree earned, major area of study, graduation date, and even a note of my honors status. Then, larger calligraphy letters proudly boasting “University of California, Berkeley.” And below that in the center, an embroidered golden stamp bearing the official Berkeley seal, accompanied by official signatures from various chiefs of bureaucracy.

I handed my shining relic to the officer, feeling proud of all the prowess and prestige it represented. But despite the magical feelings my diploma evoked within me, I also realistically expected that surely she’d now need my affidavit. After all, she can’t possibly read the hieroglyphics of calligraphy, can she?

She glanced at it, and handed it back to me. I tried to hand her the affidavit. Again with the hand waving. “Not need,” she said.

That was it? I didn’t need to go to Bangkok? I didn’t need to play document pinball stateside? All I needed was the original?

My theory: she was looking for an official U.S. State Department seal. It would have been embroidered with a golden stamp as well. It would have looked very much like an apostille; if Thailand was a Hague Convention nation, it would have needed to be an apostille. But alas, ignorance is bliss in this country. She saw the goldenness of the stamp, the dimples of the embroidery, and the austere authority of the seal, and thought to herself, “Damned if that don’t look like a State Department blessing.”

A flick of the pen and a pounding of stamp, and I’m good for another 365.