My Complete 180 on Uber

 

I have done a complete 180 with regards to my opinion of Uber. I used to mildly dislike them. From various conversations with Uber drivers, and from a few videos and articles, I have become aware of an employment structure that essentially exploits drivers to offer competitive pricing for transportation. Uber is part of the sharing economy, a trend in business that shares everything but liability. The whole concept of the sharing economy is suspicious to me in principle. Companies profit off non-employees who are willing to use their own property, skills, or expertise to make a bit of extra cash, and refuse to pay much more than a commission for it. And if something goes awry, it’s not their problem.

Moreover, Uber is particularly nefarious in its quite obvious goal of taking giant losses in order to aggressively battle for market share amidst rapid worldwide expansion. I’ve always seen them as the Wal-Mart of transportation—not necessarily in the quality of the service, but in the strategy of undercutting all the competition until the competitors have to close shop, thereby leaving a monopoly.

In the same way Midwestern towns have lost their thriving main streets to Wal-Mart, with communities being deprived of options in both shopping and employment, Uber could very well become the only taxi business in most cities, leaving riders and drivers alike with little else to turn to. If Uber succeeds in the way Wal-Mart has in monopolizing markets, they will be able to set the conditions and pricing for transportation in those markets.

In essence, my suspicions towards Uber are motivated by a long and deeply felt need to defend the “little guy”—that is, currently existing taxi drivers who pay the licensing fees (which Uber bypasses) as well as the drivers that Uber refuses to pay benefits to. These suspicions have made me wary of Uber, and thus reluctant to use their services on principle alone.

And so, when Uber came to Chiang Mai two months ago, I was leery. Chiang Mai doesn’t need more American corporations diluting their beautiful culture and atmosphere with mediocrity and greed, I thought.

But other expats didn’t share that sentiment. They were all too eager to start using Uber to get around town. And I recently learned why.

My mother came to visit. I don’t normally need fare-based transit, as I have a motorbike that I share with my girlfriend. But with three people now needing transportation, the bike was insufficient (we weren’t about to do it the Thai way and ride three to a bike). So I started talking to tuk-tuk drivers. My mom and I wanted to go to Sunday Night Walking Street, the night market that extends from Tha Pae Gate. From her hotel, it was a 4-km trip. At 9pm.

So I asked a tuk-tuk driver how much. 180 baht. I’d taken tuk-tuks from my girlfriend’s bar to my apartment—an 8-km trip—for that price. So clearly this was negotiable. “One hundred twenty,” I said in Thai.

“One hundred eighty,” he repeated, in English.

“That’s too expensive,” I said in Thai. “One hundred fifty.”

He waved me off. “Traffic jam,” he said.

Bullshit, I thought. But it was getting late and this was the only Sunday night my mother would be in town, and I really wanted her to experience Sunday Night Walking Street. “Fine,” I said.

At nine o’clock at night, the only traffic we hit was literally right in front of our destination. I angrily paid the bullshitter his fare and we got out.

We enjoyed walking around Sunday Night Walking Street, and some time between 10 and 11pm many vendors were starting to close up. So we went back to Tha Pae Gate, where tuk-tuks were lined up. This time I wasn’t being had. I went to the furthest tuk-tuk from the gate. He quoted me 200 baht. “Too expensive,” I said in Thai.

“Traffic jam,” he said.

“No traffic,” I said. “One hundred fifty.”

“Traffic jam. One hundred eighty.”

“Fine.” I should have walked away. I knew better. There were 10 other tuk-tuks around and I probably could have worked my way into a tuk-tuk for 120. But maybe not. The problem was this was high season. With so many tourists, most tuk-tuk drivers know they’ll get the fare they’re asking for eventually.

Four kilometers and zero traffic later, and we were pulling up to my mom’s hotel. I got out and looked at the tuk-tuk driver. “So much traffic,” I said.

He laughed.

“I’ll give you one hundred fifty, and no more.”

“Up to you,” he smiled.

The next day, we needed another ride. It was a gorgeous day and I thought my mother would enjoy a walk around the moat. The northwestern corner of the moat—the corner nearest to her hotel—was only a kilometer and a half away. Surely a tuk-tuk ride wouldn’t be too much. So we talked to one in front of her hotel. “One hundred fifty,” he said.

“Huh? No! Only one kilometer!”

My girlfriend was with us this time. She started working her native tongue, negotiating him down. Here we go, this will get us a cheaper ride. We’re Thai now.

Body language wasn’t looking promising, though. “He says there’s heavy traffic,” my girlfriend finally told me.

“It’s always heavy traffic with these guys,” my mom retorted.

“It’s ok,” I said. “We’ll take Uber.”

I had hoped hearing the name of the newest competitor in town would manipulate him into acquiescing to our will. I was wrong. “Up to you,” he said, and went back to sleep.

My mother was flabbergasted. “He’s gonna let us walk?”

“He’ll get one-fifty from some sucker. Not us, but someone will pay it eventually,” I said.

This is the way of the tuk-tuk driver. They sit on their ass all day nodding off lazily into profitless slothfulness, and then try to make up for it by overcharging naïve tourists for easy trips around the city. They seem to be quite aware at how novel a tuk-tuk ride is for most tourists. The unwary tourist sometimes even squeals with delight at such a nifty way to get around town. And so they pay anything. They don’t know the city, so they believe the line about traffic. And honestly, where else are they going to turn for transportation? Songthaews which charge more? Taxis which are hard to come by? Buses that were all but driven out of Chiang Mai years ago by the tuk-tuk and songthaew mafias…uh…I mean “cooperatives”?

So we got into our first Uber car in Chiang Mai. American corporations are good for at least one thing: consistency. The only difference between Uber Chiang Mai and Uber San Francisco was that this driver was a little shy about speaking English. Otherwise, we rode a clean, semi-luxurious, air-conditioned sedan, driven by a polite and friendly driver who, like her American counterparts, seemed all too pleased with the chance to earn an extra buck or two driving around her own city.

And the fare? A measly 25 baht. I more than doubled the fare with my tip, giving her 60 baht in cash, and giving myself the peace of mind that she was adequately compensated for her efforts.

So let’s do a quick comparison. In Chiang Mai, you can either ride in a welded, uncomfortable motor-trike in the open air, driven by a lazy alcoholic/drug addict, for 150 baht. Or you can ride in a commercially produced vehicle that passed international safety standards in the air-conditioned comfort of the backseat of a sedan, driven by a self-respecting individual who is proud to earn extra money, for 60 baht (if you’re a generous tipper). For a rider, it’s a no-brainer. For an Uber driver, if enough people pay it forward like I do, it’s also a win.

Since that pivotal day, I’ve taken five Uber trips. Every single one was a positive experience that cost me a fraction of what tuk-tuks would charge, despite paying 50-100% tips. The drivers all spoke enough English to chat with me at least a little bit.

The last driver spoke enough to discuss global politics. We also talked about the Uber experience, his and mine. He’s putting three daughters through university on a combination of his salary as a bureaucrat and his earnings with Uber. He enjoys Uber so much that he calls it his hobby. I asked him how he could possibly enjoy driving around the city picking up passengers. He replied that he wants to learn to speak English better, and the 10 to 20 tourists a night that he drives around give him ample opportunities to practice. “Instead pay money for tutor, I learn and earn,” he laughed.

We also talked about Uber’s grab at the international scene. I mentioned the taxi strikes in Jakarta, Indonesia. He said the same thing happened in Phuket, and that the tuk-tuk mafia is just as strong in Chiang Mai. “We’ll see how long Uber stays in Chiang Mai,” he said.

Expathy

If you’ve been one of my faithful readers, then you’ll know I’ve spent many words dissing the senior expats here in Pattaya. If you were my age, and you had lived in this scummy city for even a few months, you’d quickly understand why. However, I’ve always tried to be empathetic. Behind every face is a brain, and under every chest is a heart, and I value the task of trying to understand the invisible mechanisms that influence the way people behave. Although my capacity for empathy is notably limited, I think I can now stretch it towards the previous targets of my ridicule. However, to do so I’ll need a special kind of empathy; the expat empathy is a different brand, so I’ll brand it “expathy.” (It’s ok, I know it’s not as clever I want it to be.)

I decided to practice expathy recently entering one of their usual haunts—the beer bar. I started watching this one senior expat drinking with a young, lovely, little “hostess,” and I caught myself thinking, “You go, grandpa!” As condescending as that sounds, I meant it earnestly. Even though I was trying to keep my stomach contents while I watch him flirt, dance, or make out with his skinny, half-life junior, I started to imagine the road that may have led him here.

I think it’s fair to say that he’s probably had a pretty unlucky love live. It occurred to me that he might still be married, and I could judge him and feel pretty good about myself, while ignoring the fact that I’ve admittedly fantasized at least once about infidelity. Then I remembered (from my own failed experience) that marriage can be pretty rotten, a prison in which a certain vague but vital part of us gets chained to the wall and whispers for water and a sympathetic ear. I’ve also never had children, never had decades to add weight to the marriage, and never had a life that would easily confine me to the expectations of others. (In fact, I’ve tried to live outside anyone else’s prescribed narrative for me, and it’s led to successes and failures alike.)

My point is, as despicable as international infidelity is, unfaithfulness is a common problem, with a host of causes ranging from pure unchecked libidos to immense, soul-crushing dissatisfaction. And since I’ve experienced my fair share of both, I can relate on some level to the possibility that this guy is cheating on his wife. It was an alarming realization.

But then I thought that perhaps a more sympathetic backstory might be that this guy’s had his share of bad luck. Even if he was more successful—even if he probably had a lot of action in his prime—he’s only now in his autumn years begun to take life seriously.

Maybe he was once an eligible bachelor, and perhaps he wholeheartedly embraced the ideal of a mutual, heartfelt love, and pursued it in his past relationships. And perhaps he was let down enough times to reject it.

Now he lives by a pragmatic love—a love that would rather feel needed than feel adored. He dispenses with the glitter and glamor of Hollywood’s scripted romance, and turns to the economic realities of cross-cultural relationships. He accepts that there is a mutuality, even if it isn’t the ideal of mutual respect and love. He relishes taking financial care of his little brown beauty, and he’s ok with the fact that the care he receives in return isn’t one motivated by affection, but by a myriad of necessity, obligation, and gratitude.

Or maybe this expat spent so much of his younger years not taking life seriously—having a lot of fun and planning very little for the future—that now he’s realized he’s run out of luck. So he came here, where he can find an endearing Thai girl ten to twenty years younger. She’ll dote on him, care for him, give him the sex life he’s never been able to wean himself off of, and make him feel like he’s finally found someone who cares about him. Who cares if it’s a lie? Who cares if it’s a game? He’s paid the lip service and played the game plenty himself.

Or could it be that he was just a loser back in Farangland? He wasn’t very sociable—maybe he was a bit abrasive, a little off, a bit awkward, or a little bit timid. He couldn’t land a date, let alone get laid. He was never remarkably good-looking or wealthy. He’s lived his 60 some-odd years lonely, rarely sexed, scarcely loved, and hardly accepted. Here, he’s still lonely, but he can go out and pay a pittance to get attention, feigned affection, and some action. For once, women will talk to him, and it doesn’t really matter to him that he had to show his bill roll first.

Or maybe he had little success with women back home simply because he couldn’t progress ideologically. The young, submissive, subservient Thai girl represents his ideal woman. He could never delicately dance his man dance in a feminist world. When your life begins with a load of privileges that slowly get stripped away in an equalizing world, suddenly it’s more difficult to find a woman who can respect you, let alone love you.

Unable to cope with the fairness that feminism seeks to usher in to society, he relocated. He found a place where women are far from equal to men in the eyes of society, a place where a woman’s only hope for an easy life is to acquiesce to the chauvinism of a rich older man, a place where a good woman is defined as one who takes on all domestic tasks and serves her man at every turn. Such a place is Thailand, and its epitome is Pattaya.

When I arrived at this final scenario, and thought about how well that describes so many of the men (young and old) I’ve met here, my expathy came to a grinding hault. I couldn’t bring myself to pity a man who exploits the limited economic options of women in a developing country that epitomizes gender inequality.

I’ve seen too often that men come here viewing women as a commodity, as a trophy that they’re duty-bound to keep “polishing.” For example, I know one young girl who was weary of the life working in a short-time bar (basically a brothel that fronts as a small bar, where women have some autonomy about who their clients are). So she took up the offer of one of her older, richer customers when he offered to “rescue” her from the bar and give her a good life. But along with the security, house, and Mercedes came mandatory breast implants, a nose job, and a membership at the gym. He tells her she’s too fat, or getting too pale, and she must improve her appearance to his liking. And that isn’t the half of their so-called “relationship.”

I keep trying to give these guys the benefit of the doubt. I keep trying to show expathy whenever I can. But then I remember examples like the one above, and I’m deflated. But at least I keep trying.

An International Look at Patriotism

My first Independence Day living abroad has led me to do some thinking about patriotism. But I’m not contemplating only American patriotism. Instead, I’ve been pondering patriotism in general.

I come from a country where patriotism is not only highly valued and honored, but also where the word itself is a buzz word–both a shield and a weapon in American political rhetoric. And now I live in a country where patriotism is almost universal; love of country is basically a given among the Thais. In fact, I’d say that the Thais exceed Americans when it comes to national pride. They demonstrate a pride in their country that is so widespread, so resolute, and so dedicated that it almost makes a joke of the word “patriotism” as used in American conversations. If Americans imitated or emulated the Thais in patriotism, we’d have a more united, cohesive, or even homogenous society. And that is what scares me about patriotism.

Now this is where American “patriots” would quip that the Thai sentiment I describe isn’t patriotism, but nationalism. They’d insist that there’s a difference. But I beg to differ, at least among their kind. The Americans that would defend red-white-and-blue “patriotism” are usually the same that would deny, not denounce, America’s transgressions. They would insist that Nazis, Communists, and obedient citizens of other tyrannical regimes are nationalists, not patriots. I say “bullshit.” Patriotism and nationalism are two sides of the same coin–the unwavering love of one’s country seeded and nourished by propaganda, whether by the state or by the culture.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing inherently wrong with being proud of one’s country. There’s especially nothing wrong with cherishing our background, heritage, and culture, and embracing the fact that we are who we are largely because of where we come from. Moreover, I admire at least the gratitude that comes with appreciating the benefits of one’s nationality. But national pride should not overlook the accidental nature of nationality, nor the global circumstances that often contribute to a nation’s power, wealth, or resilience. Upholding the values of our forebears can be a good thing, if thoughtfully and sensibly done. But patriotism often discourages such thoughtfulness and sensibility. For example, American patriotism celebrates the American Revolution, but often ignores or deemphasizes the French role in the victory of our forefathers. Thai patriotism celebrates Thai culture, but remains mostly ignorant of the influences of Chinese and Indian culture, while ironically belittling the Chinese and Indians.

I should also pause to acknowledge that patriotism doesn’t come in one flavor. For example, American and Thai patriotism have keen differences. Some of that stems from distinct variations in culture, forms of government, and social structures. Whereas Thailand fosters a pious adoration of the crown, America was founded upon a rejection of absolute authority. This distinction plays a large role in the way each country’s citizens view criticism as either a value or a liability to national worth. Similarly, American patriotism celebrates the strength of the individual as a testament to national supremacy; Thai patriotism emphasizes the need to “toe the line”–every citizen has a role to play towards the greater good of society. But the irony of American patriotism is that, for all its individualistic sentiments, a “true” American conforms to American Exceptionalism. To suggest that America is not the greatest nation on earth is to be “un-American.” And therein lies the key similarity between Thai and American patriotism–the fundamental characteristic of national pride: your country can do no wrong, and is an invaluable gem among the world’s nations.

It’s also important to acknowledge what’s at stake for Thais and Americans when it comes to patriotism. Unlike Thais, Americans enjoy the rare privilege of being free to criticize their own government. In truth, this is something for Americans to be proud of (even if not uniquely American). But while ideological disputes about governance, especially those that fall along party divides, are the focus of criticism, hardly is the presumed moral standing of America among other nations brought into question. To suggest that America has unapologetically wronged any part of the world is to be “un-American,” or even “anti-American.” It’s such a sanction that makes the don’t-tread-on-me breed of patriotism virtually identical to any other.

Patriotism is more than a philosophically flawed form of arrogance. It has practical implications, with harmful results. Few things have impeded world peace and international cohesiveness than patriotism. Even where other evils are to blame–such as greed or corruption–patriotism has aided and abetted. Patriotism protects multinational corporations who profit from human rights violations. Patriotism absolves nations of the responsibility to deal with the human suffering that persists within their borders. It’s almost banal to point out how many wars have either started or escalated thanks to deep national pride. It encourages the repression of minorities–in the same way an American patriot might warn against the “browning” of America, Thai patriots refuse to offer asylum to the Rohingya. In the same way the Thais have a long history of expanding their territories by warring with the Burmese, Lao, Khmer, and Lanna peoples in the name of Siam, America systematically wiped Native Americans off the continent in the name of Manifest Destiny. Thailand insulates itself from foreign labor, thereby concealing its educational deficiencies, deteriorating the skill of its labor force, and crippling the Thai standard of living; America provides inadequate support to its ultimate “heroes” of patriotism–the veterans–who return with a myriad of mental and physical health issues. And if the human condition isn’t enough of a reason to worry about the ill effects of patriotism, look at how the environment suffers. Neither America nor China will prioritize curbing carbon emissions because they prefer volleying blame and responsibility. Patriotism fosters this finger-pointing and scapegoating. Nothing could be more counterproductive to the amelioration of our planet than the adherence to a stubborn tribal mentality–the insistence that our interests surpass the interests of others.

No nation is great simply because it’s “good.” The strength of a nation should be measured by its efforts to improve humanity as an international whole. No history, no propaganda, no anthem, no pledge of allegiance can conceal the evils of arrogance, no matter how much we pretend they can.

On Thailand & the Abuse of Elephants

I recently posted a (hopefully) delightful, if not inspirational, synopsis of my recent return to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. I have some additional, more controversial thoughts that I thought I’d save for a separate post. So here goes.

I talked about how visiting the Elephant Nature Park is uplifting because of the contact and connection with beautiful, graceful, and gigantic creatures, yet sobering because of the stories of abuse those animals carry with them. When one has such an experience—both inspirational and heartbreaking—it’s tempting to become judgmental. During both my visits, I had heard other tourists ask, “What’s wrong with these people? How can the elephant be so sacred to Thai culture but so misused?”

I’ve contemplated this question quite a bit. And I think I have a possible explanation. It’s rather simple: poverty. It’s a matter of hierarchy of needs. It’s not as easy to take an idealistic perspective about the treatment of all living things when your own life hangs so dangerously in the balance. And desperation often leads to desperate action.

A good way to illustrate this is by examining the mahouts themselves. On the one hand, you have the logging mahouts, who resort to violence and abuse to punish the undesired behavior of elephants. On the other hand, you have the Elephant Nature Park mahouts, who reward desired behavior with food. When they want an elephant to go somewhere, they lead them with food. When they need to calm a distressed elephant, they placate them with food.

In my estimation, a stick or a hook is much cheaper than several tons a day of watermelon and bananas. There are two concepts in practice here: for-profit businesses will often seek the lowest bottom line even at the expense of living things, and people will almost always prioritize themselves over others. Moreover, it seems to me that the fight for the humane treatment of animals needs to happen alongside the fight to end human suffering.

It’s easy for Westerners to point the finger, while ignoring the fact that much of the prosperity that fosters their “enlightened” attitude towards animals stems from a history of exploitation of other people, particularly nonwhite people. This is not to excuse the actions of elephant abusers. Far from it. Many of them are probably cognizant of the degree of suffering they cause to these wonderful creatures. But perhaps they continue to do it because life must go on and quotas need to be filled. Who knows? Maybe they even regret it. Maybe it even keeps them up at night. All I’m arguing is that compassion should be universal to all species, including our own.

It’s important to fight for the lives and dignity of the innocent and defensive, no matter what species they are. So the efforts of the Elephant Nature Park are nothing but admirable and inspirational. But for me the inspiration doesn’t end with the story of the animals. I find it inspirational that a woman whose father was a healer in her humble village could have acquired the means to purchase over 60 acres of land, as well as the elephants themselves from their abusers.

Can you see the parallels here? In the same way fighting for the rights and dignity of animals involves a fight for the rights and dignity of people, the stories of rescuing those animals from abuse don’t start or end with the animals themselves. I reject the divide we place between nature and humanity. We’re linked. It’s a denial of that link that has led to such atrocities to begin with. Once we embrace that link, we can begin to solve the problems that face animals and humans alike.

Return of the Expat

Wow! How sneaky time is! You think you’ve got it locked up in the barn, but then it makes its slip in the middle of the night. If time weren’t so astucious I might have written this post much sooner, when its sentiments were in their infancy. Now, I’m afraid the sentiments are geriatric, and thus dulled by old age. Try not to yawn as they sit in their rocker begrudging their faded youth.

Inside Pudong International Airport, whose terminal looks like a permanent circus tent with high arching supports extending downward from a sloped metal canopy, I tried to soak in as much Chinese culture I could. Or at least I tried to soak up the overpriced gilded version of Chinese culture. I sat in a teashop, a small cubic structure that, like all of its neighbors, didn’t seem to fit the aesthetic of the vast cavern that houses it. I had ordered a pot of lemon tea, and was now sipping it as I sat hunched over my laptop beginning preliminary preparation for my new literature elective in the coming school year. It’s not a fun way to spend one’s holiday, but it beats losing hair while frantically scrambling in the days before the students return.

As I was slurping and clacking away, I detected a familiar sound—English. And not the broken English I’ve become so accustomed to in Thailand, nor even the Mandarin-induced broken English of Shanghai. It was native-speaking English. American English. Excited, I sat up and listened. For once I could eavesdrop. Lucky for me, it was coming from the table next to mine. But then I noticed it. Ugh, Californian English!

 As I listened to four UC Irvine students talk about professors and classes, I started to form an image in my mind of the speakers. They were all white girls, probably sorority chicks. “Like” and “you know” nestled themselves between every independent clause and prepositional phrase. Inflections rose at the end of statements like the voice of a karaoke singer who can’t find the final note. “S” sounds sharp enough to cut my tealeaves.

Why must I be so judgmental? My irritation—especially with a dialect of English that I was all too happy to indefinitely leave behind—led me to measure myself some self-loathing. I turned to force myself into the conversation, hoping that making a human connection would alleviate my cynicism. I was shocked to see not a single white girl in their company.

I took my self-loathing onto my connecting flight to San Francisco. Carry-on item number three—a burden none of the airline staff made any fuss about. As I sat waiting for takeoff, reading over materials for my literature class, I heard it again, this time from across the aisle and slightly behind.

But it wasn’t the UC Irvine students. It was a girl from Kansas and a guy from Vancouver Island. Two non-Californians. The Kardashian effect in demonstration. I eavesdropped again.

During my visit back to the homeland, what annoyed me most about my fellow countrymen (and women) was not simply a problem of inflection or dialectic infusions. It’s not that I’ve suddenly become British and loath anything that isn’t “proper” English. It’s the content. Americans—especially young Americans—have very short-lived experiences, and gain residual amounts of information about something, and suddenly they’re experts.

Miss Kansas and Mr. Vancouver are classic examples. They talked about healthcare in Thailand. Mr. Vancouver had been in a motorbike accident and became acquainted with Thailand’s healthcare system—or at least the upscale, private end of it. Miss Kansas and Mr. Vancouver talked about how wonderful Thailand’s healthcare system is, how unbelievably cheap it is, and how good the doctors are. Now, there’s nothing wrong with Thailand’s healthcare system, per se. And Miss Kansas was right to point out that if you’re seriously ill or injured in Cambodia, Laos, or Myanmar, you’re better off paying to get flown to Bangkok. But where her lack of knowledge betrayed her was in the claim that Thailand “has the best healthcare system in Southeast Asia.” She meant other than Singapore, right?

And for Mr. Vancouver to claim that Thailand’s healthcare is “so quality yet so cheap” is to ignore the fact that the average monthly income in Thailand is less than 14,000 baht. Thailand’s high-end healthcare is wonderful—I’ve experienced it firsthand. But it’s only wonderful if you make more than 30,000 baht a month, and have group health insurance and emergency savings. Otherwise is simply unaffordable, and you go to the overcrowded, under-qualified government hospitals.

Don’t get me wrong—I ended up having a pleasant conversation with Miss Kansas and Mr. Vancouver. These are two people who are well travelled, and more knowledgeable of the goings-on of our globe than most Americans. But I talk about them to give an example of why my return to the homeland proved to offer me more culture shock than I anticipated after only 6 months’ absence.

I walked down University Avenue in Palo Alto, California feeling more accosted by pretension and privilege than I ever had before (and when I lived there I was already well aware of the ills of affluence). And yet, I entered bars where I didn’t feel sick to my stomach. I watched men and women chatting and sipping craft brew and felt a level of innocence—maybe even naiveté—to it all that Pattaya’s bars greatly lack. I wondered if affluence is good for something when it’s not tiptoeing off the backs of the planet’s poor. Then I wondered how many of the silver-haired executives patronized the seedy go-go bars when they visit Pattaya.

And in San Francisco there exists a sort of dumb camaraderie, as if we’re all going to hold hands and peace will just descend upon us as we sing “Kumbaya” from our frothed, hopped up lips. And in Concord, New Hampshire, there’s this shrunken sense of existence. The world ends at the Massachusetts border. One’s domain is everything up until the dirty ice drifts demarking the edge of the road.

As I walked America’s cities, I was reminded that, unlike Thailand, here was a place where an entire race of people was enslaved for centuries, only to be “freed” into a system of inequality. It’s a history that confounds my Thai friends. As I watched America’s news, I was reminded of the shallow politics and the egocentrism of the American perspective. When I was in the Castro, I thought of how open-minded Thailand is to LGBTQ people.

When I think of my country of birth and country of residence in comparison, I see many differences, but I also see some similarities. Both countries exhibit hyperbolic sensationalism. Both countries fear outsiders and blame their problems on them. Both countries have a self-inflated sense of cultural worthiness, and cite their national ideals as self-evident premises on which to base political and social discussion. Both countries see the world through their own eyes, shake their heads at the atrocities of other nations, and ignore their own sins.

America sits in its own vibrating easy chair spilling crumbs between the cushions while binge-streaming high-budget TV shows on Netflix. Images of my new home rarely enter the living rooms of the bearded metrosexual, the fully vested executive, or the cackling valley girl. And so during my visit I endlessly told stories of a place completely foreign—so foreign and unknown it may as well be another planet. I told my stories until my voice went hoarse. I described my experiences best I could without making anyone feel more privileged or less grateful than they should. And then I sipped my craft brew and scratched my beard.

On Fatherhood in Thailand

With my nice progressive Berkeley education, it’s often hard for me to accept that stereotypes exist for a reason. That is, they’re based loosely on truth. Stereotypes come from something true—from a trend among a group of people. Where they’re dangerous is in their practical usage; they’re dangerous because people use them to make judgments about people they don’t know. So having meditated on the nature of stereotypes for a moment, and pondered their validity in creation but injury in application, I hope my fellow progressives will forgive me for leaning on the following stereotype to explore a social problem in Thailand:

Thai men are stereotypically infamous for infidelity.

In other words, Thai men are widely known for being cheating bastards. It’s probably not true of every Thai man, but it’s true of most the ones I’ve bothered to get to know. It also seems to be true enough to make Thai women wary of settling down with a Thai man. According to popular belief, 60% of Thais are born women, and of the 40% remaining Thais that are men, many become ladyboys and a sizable percentage are gay. Since gay men and ladyboys seem much more prevalent than lesbians or transsexual men in this country, there’s a large imbalance between heterosexual men and women. Are you getting the picture yet? It means that, at least according to popular belief, men are statistically enabled to be polygamous.

I don’t know if these statistics are true. Again, they’re only the cultural perception. What I do know is that I’ve heard too many stories and seen too many situations where Thai men live up to the stereotypes and cultural expectations. They’re notoriously lazy, seldom helping raise their children, keeping their homes in order, or even working. I’ve heard stories of Thai couples in which the woman raises the children, cleans the home, cooks, and holds a steady job to pay the bills, while the man goes out to hunt for more “strange.” If these stories are even half as true and half as prevalent as the cultural perception suggests, then it is quite shameful.

But before we point our “righteous” Western fingers at Thai men, let’s look at the three bent fingers pointing back at us (namely farang men). Whenever I sit at an airport gate waiting for a plane headed to Bangkok, or whenever I go to immigration here in Thailand, I see a host of silver-haired, fattening, balding, wrinkling, middle- to upper-class old white men travelling alone. And we all think the same thing: “Hmm, I bet I know what they’re after…”

Is it hasty to assume that old, pasty white dudes are scandalizing young, tanned Thai beauties? Fuck no! I’ll grant that not all of them come here for this purpose. But as I’ve written in several posts about Pattaya now, I’m inescapably surrounded by this trend. And while many of these men are faithful and just need a young, beautiful woman to coddle them in their autumn years, many others ditch their tanned trophies for younger ones. Even worse, many of these men are married and have families back home.

If you think I’m being judgmental—if you think I’m making hasty assumptions about the men around Pattaya—you’re probably right. I don’t know their story or their capacity for love or fidelity. But I must admit that even I’m not immune to the temptation that is omnipresent in this city, or even this country overall. It takes a lot of willpower to avoid tripping and soiling myself in the gutters here.

Plus, I’ve seen Western infidelity take its toll on my students. Most of their mothers are Thai, usually between mid-30s and late 40s; most of their fathers are Western, often hovering around 70.

If you want proof of how little many of these Western fathers take a role in their children’s lives, look no further than their children’s language abilities: even though many of their fathers are native speakers of English, some of my students can’t understand a question as basic as “What is your name?” They know nothing of the land of their father’s citizenship—some don’t even know how to find it on a map. Some of my students mourn the death of their fathers during a school year—from natural fucking causes. They write essays about fathers that never go out, never spend time with them, and never take interest in them, not necessarily because they don’t care, but because they’re too fucking old to care. And that’s the long straw! The short straw is that some of their fathers have another family back home and never bother to see their illegitimate Thai children. They just keep writing the tuition checks from afar.

Some might say it’s the fault of some of the Thai women, who play the game of how-many-international-sponsors-can-I-accrue, and end up getting knocked up when one of said sponsors comes to visit them on holiday. But Thailand is no egalitarian country. If you’re a woman without a university education, you have very few options for income. You either open some kind of shop or restaurant, you work 60 hours a week for a corporate retailer, or you work the sex-capitalized night life and make easily double what you’d make on the other options, but at the sacrifice of your dignity and sexual health. The only other viable option is to find a well-to-do foreigner and marry him.

And I can’t entirely blame Thai men, either. Legally, men have no parental rights in Thailand. When your legal code invalidates the role of fatherhood, how can anyone expect men to step up? If you have no parental rights, you have no child support, so there’s nothing keeping you from cutting and running. If you have no parental rights, you legally don’t have a child, and you therefore don’t have any legal responsibility to take care of your children. It doesn’t justify being a dirt bag, but it certainly reinforces the dirt-bag mentality.

So what is fatherhood in Thailand? Often, it’s a fucking joke—a joke with no punch line at the end, only poverty. It’s the delinquency of fathers that bolsters my respect for women in this country. So rare have I met women so dedicated to their families, so hard working, so nurturing, and so resilient. Here, the weakness of men amplifies the strength of women. And that’s the only good I can find in it all.

People Who Ain’t Got Time for #TheDress

Yesterday I posted a Facebook comment criticizing this whole what-color-is-the-dress obsession with a bit of dark humor. Now I’d like to expound on the main conceit of that criticism, with a bit of a spotlight on issues facing Thailand. Please understand, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with frivolous twitter debates per se. But since CNN has dedicated 5 news articles to this “phenomenon,” I’m now going to use it and all the attention it’s grabbing to re-shift our focus to things that matter. So here’s a quick list of some people who ain’t got time for #TheDress.

Fishing Slaves

Burmese migrant workers leave the port

My guess is they’re more interested in how to get out the exploitive situation they’ve been thrust into so they can once again see their family. I’m also guessing they don’t have smart phones.

African Miners

africanminers

The closest they probably get to the debate about the color of the dress is the rare earth metals that provide the electronic capacity for the debate to even occur on your phone. Don’t thank them—they do this for free because they love it.

Sweatshop Workers

sweatshop11

Yeah, they already know the color of the dress, because they’re the ones that made it. (Oh yeah, I went there)

Guantanamo Bay Detainees

gitmo

Ok, this is a technicality. They actually do contemplate the dress, but only because they fear it might be used in their next waterboarding session.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi visit to Berlin, Germany - 10 Apr 2014

I bet she likes dresses as much as the next gal, but shit’s a bit volatile in Myanmar right now, and she’s gotta think about an upcoming presidential election in which she’s constitutionally disqualified.

Mark Twain

MarkTwain

Ok, that’s not fair—he’s dead. But if he were alive and in the twittersphere he’d be eye-rolling the fuck out of this mass stupidity.

Yingluck Shinawatra

9153ri-Yingluck_Shinawatra

I think she’s too busy contemplating her fate as Thailand’s ousted and indicted late prime minister. If she is contemplating the dress, she’s probably hoping it isn’t remotely yellow.

Political Prisoners*

A prisoner

While we’re on the topic, plenty of people have been arrested and held without trial due to nasty interpretations of lèse-majesté laws in Thailand. They, along with every other political prisoner on the planet, probably don’t give a flying fuck about the dress.

*Unfortunately, if I provide links to articles explaining this issue in detail, I could get my blog taken down and possibly even join their number. If you’re reading from an IP address outside Thailand, do a little google search on Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws.

Syrian Refugees

Syrian refugees

Seriously, why as a nation aren’t we still talking about these people now that we’re barrel bombing their country?

Of course this list isn’t exhaustive. If you have any suggestions of people to add to this list, please post them below.