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

Xenophobia/Nationalism

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.

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