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.

Pattaya Cribs (Video)

For almost a year now, people have requested that I start posting videos instead of just writing about my time here. To be honest, I don’t like making videos. Wordsmithing is much more enjoyable an art than video editing. But because I love my faithful readers, I’ll give you want. And the topic of this post couldn’t be any more appropriate for video format. Enjoy the brief tour of my humble lodgings in Pattaya. (By the way, iMovie sucks ass.)

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

Gymnasiums

Sweet Jesus, can Thailand just build a nice, normal gym where the equipment is maintained and the Thai swoll patrol don’t freak me out? In this country, you have three options for fitness. You can go to an open-air gym, where the sauna and the weight room are conveniently one in the same and traffic pollution bolsters your heavy breathing. Or you could go to an indoor gym, where half the fans and/or air conditioning are broken, the ceiling barely clears the plate weight rigs, and there lingers this musty body odor smell with a hint of mildew in the air.

In either option, you get the bonus of 50% of the equipment being permanently and stubbornly nonfunctional, free weights scattered all over in a convenient system of leave-it-where-you-dropped-it, Thai jocks screaming in testosterone-induced pain with every dead lift, and locker rooms specially smeared from floor to ceiling with hepatitis, and possibly typhoid.

And in both types of gym, the other patrons are among the most pleasant and considerate of clientele:

The bench too dry? Not a problem—the bloke before you left his back sweat all over it.

Your toes in too good of shape and need a bit of shattering? Just stand near one of the jacked Thai jocks as he rapidly thrusts the dumbbells up and down with the ever helpful grunts that sound something like, “Guh guh guh guh guh guh guh.” When he’s finished his machine gun reps he’ll kindly drop the weight like a microphone as if he’s just owned a rap battle.

And trust me, that one dude really does plan on using all three machines he’s “reserved” with his mobile, towel, and water bottle.

 

If you’re not too shy, your third option is to go to one of the many free outdoor fitness parks. They’re in the most random locations, so they can be tricky to find. I’ve seen them under highways, sandwiched between hotels, shimmering conspicuously in coastal parks, and even spread across a 1.5-km circular track beneath a hilltop temple. These fitness parks always offer the same trade-off: free workout, but a free show for all passersby, which is probably why the swoll patrol never hangs out there. I have not once seen someone utilizing the various bolted down, weather-resistant machines. The only exception is the 1.5-km track, where everyone is hustling at dusk’s coolest hour to finish their last lap before the dark brings gangs of rapists to the park.

So Thailand doesn’t exactly have a culture of fitness, but at least it isn’t an industry of fitness, either. I can’t say the same for my own country: a growing industry of fitness while still boasting the highest obesity rate in the world. ‘Merica!

 

Wanna Get Away?

As you’ve probably noticed over the last 10 posts in this series, I often find myself absolutely disgusted with living in Pattaya. It’s hard to imagine that I would actually get bored with going out to bars on the weekends, hanging out at a sub-par beach, wandering a six-story shopping center, or visiting one of the few inauthentic cultural attractions or daytime activities, it’s only a matter of time before I want to proverbially blow my brains out from boredom. Thankfully, there are plenty of cost-effective options for getting away.

Even though I just smack-talked the beach in Pattaya—because, to be honest, it’s quite far from the best that Thailand has to offer—on a quiet Saturday or Sunday, it’s a convenient escape. I enjoy lounging in the shade of the thousands of umbrellas watching tourists splash in the water. The travelling vendors can get obnoxious after a time, but it’s also nice to know that if I get hungry I can wait 10 minutes before another array of fruit or ice cream or whatever else is presented to me. Plus, I know I’m the envy of teachers every where when I say that it’s the best place to lay back and grade papers.

Besides, if I want to seek out picturesque beaches, they’re an easy day trip away. I’ve already written about Ko Samed, but it’s worth another mention here. Turquois waters, white sands, tranquility, and a mild night life (if that interests you) all make it a nice weekend getaway. Approximately $500 can pay for travel fees, cozy resort accommodation, and food and beverage for a 3-night stay.

Moreover, if I’m tired of the beach, the Thai countryside is stunning. There’s an unparalleled calm and simplicity, where elevated huts lay claim to acres of rice, rubber, and banana farmland. The stifling pollution of a typical Southeast-Asian city has dissipated by the time I reach these remote areas. The poverty is overt in such a rustic environment, but the people are the most hospitable. And while the temples of Bangkok boast the glamour of royal patronage with astonishing architecture and detailed aesthetic, the rural temples must be the inspiration for the many images we Westerners see of the solitary repose of a meditative mysticism.

So just like in San Francisco, where urbanites and gentrifiers can escape to the many redwood forests and lush vineyards, Thailand has its share of easy escapes, which is a big reason why I’m able to tolerate its many annoyances.

 

Summary

So now that I’ve reached the end of my 10-post rant and rave, what’s the take-away or the verdict? Honestly, all the annoying stuff that irritates the crap out of me is also at times good for a laugh. My colleagues and I are always bitching in the staff room about these and other grievances, but it’s often with levity and laughter. On top of that, the positives are just too good to pass up. I won’t be here forever, but while I’m here I plan to soak up as much as I can and relish the experience. And you’ll be at my side, vicariously speaking…

The Best of Thai and the Worst of Thai (Part 9)

Alcohol

My move to Thailand involved many changes, to say the least. One of those changes, though trivial, has been mildly difficult to cope with. I went from living in the land of IPA and microbrews, a state renown for its wines, and a city that quaffs itself with a certain elitist gusto, to a place where the best brews give Budweiser its imagined crown, wine selections award Yellow Tail an envied notoriety, and whiskeys elevate Jack Daniels to the top shelf.

Thailand has some tight restrictions on alcohol imports. The domestic beers are all terrible and terribly similar. To me, Leo, Tiger, Chang, and Singha could have come from the same vat, with Singha being only marginally better than the rest. San Miguel and Heineken stand out as the higher-end, imported prizes. With an alcohol content of around 5%, my IPA palette took some time to be convinced I wasn’t drinking sparkling water. And yet, despite the low alcohol levels, I manage to get a sober headache within two 40-ouncers, indicating to me that there are some additives that are quite undesirable.

The wine selection is no better. Given that Thailand has a very low production of domestic wines (hello, tropical climate), all wines are imported and taxed heavily, yielding some staggering prices for sub-par wines. I’m usually excited to pay the equivalent of $10 for a bottle of Australian Shiraz that would go for $5 in the United States, and could hardly compete with a Napa production.

Then there’s whiskey. Thai whiskey is hardly whiskey. I think it’s actually technically rum, as it’s made not with barley but sugar cane. The best American whiskey I can find is Jack Daniels or Wild Turkey. The best Scotch I can find is 100 Pipers. My whiskey consumption has reached devastatingly low levels.

It’s not that the finer alcoholic products are unavailable. I’ve purchased English ales, Irish stouts, and even IPA. I’ve also seen Glenfiddich and Glenlevit behind cages in the farang supermarkets. French, Italian, Californian, and Chilean wines decorate the shelves of many grocery stores. But the price for these large production gems is often too high for my humble teacher’s salary to accommodate. I guess I know what I’ll be lining my suitcase with during my next visit stateside.

 

Tropical Rains

Living in a tropical part of the world comes with a double-edged sword: warm weather year-round and a lengthy monsoon season. Many people, Thais and foreigners alike, find the rainy season to be a drawn-out nuisance. The constant flooding is enough to keep one from carrying out daily routines. And if your only mode of transportation is a motorbike, it can be tricky—and even dangerous—getting anywhere in the heavy rains. However, these inconveniences have yet to diminish my complete awe at nature’s power.

During the rainy season, nearly every day brings the most tumultuous tempest. Rain comes down in sheets, sometimes nearly horizontal from the blasting winds. Lightning rips through the black clouds overhead—clouds so dark that afternoons resemble dusk. Thunder cracks so loudly you can feel it shake the building and rattle your ribs. But despite the routineness of the rain, I always feel the urge to stand at the window or in the doorway and gaze with wonder at the spectacle.

I love watching the gargantuan drops of rain bomb the earth so rapidly that water seems to seep up from beneath the pavement. I love the symphony of cackling pitter-patter on the tin roofs all around. And as much as I loathe the inconvenience of ankle-deep floodwaters gathering around clogged drains, I am amazed by how efficiently nature’s meteorological messages hiss at us, saying, “You think you’ve conquered this planet? You think your combustion engines, perfectly perpendicular construction, and lightyears of electrical lines have me subdued? Think again! I’ll devolve your existence to the primitive stupor of your forebears. Leave you in the dark, soaking wet and treading water.”

This awesome display all at the price of a poncho, browned out electricity, and a delay of plans. It’s amazing to me that we’ve harnessed the powers of lightening, wind, and water, and yet these same elements render our innovations obsolete, even for an hour. It’s poetry in the making, if only I were a poet.

Happy Birthday to ME!

November 2015.

Despite my beard and stubborn little gut, there’s still an 8-year-old boy inside me that once a year wants to jump on the nearest table, put on a paper-coned hat, and shout, “It’s my birthday! What’d you get me?”

But my learned social composure and 32-year-old crow’s feet always keep me from making a scene. Luckily for the little despondent birthday boy inside, however, Thai people have cultivated a more subtle way to get attention.

“Anyone want pizza for lunch?” I blurted in the teacher’s lounge moments before morning assembly. A ripple of excitement flittered across the faces of a few of my fellows. B-r-r-r-r-ring! There was the bell that regulated the lives of student and teacher alike.

As the students lined up outside sucking in the moistening morning air, I gazed around in wonderment at how unremarkable the day would be. The sun wasn’t any brighter or dimmer. The students weren’t any more or less chipper. The sky was the same shade of pale blue with the same brownish overlays of pollution wafting here and there.

Thump! Thump! Thump! The bass drum counted in the national anthem. The flag-pulley’s irregular squeaks struck a dissonant harmony with the patriotic chimes of the xylophone no differently than any other morning. The tatters of the flag sighed apathetically in the light morning breeze.

On my last birthday, I had only been living in Thailand for a couple months, so it was the usual celebration—out to a bar for the night with any old acquaintance who could make it. The difference was that my acquaintances were new, not old, and there was actually cake. The Thais aren’t shy about carrying a cake into a bar and asking the service staff to help with cutting and plating. In a way, last year’s birthday was an official welcome to the Land of Smiles—a welcome to a foreigner using universal elements of birthday partying.

This year, my birthday landed in the middle of the workweek. That meant that I had to teach classes and get on with life as if nothing special was going on. It also meant I wasn’t going out partying that night or doing anything extravagant.

It’s only fitting, I told myself. Thirty-two is an unremarkable age. Tuesday is an unremarkable day of the week. Why should anyone make a fuss? I certainly wasn’t going to. Propriety had long taught me not to make a fuss, even on my birthday. However, honesty reminded me that I craved the attention.

So I went about it the Thai way. I ordered two large pizzas from my favorite pizza place. As the lunch hour neared its closing, my treat had finally arrived.

I carried the two giant boxes proudly through the canteen, feeling the heat of the students’ glares almost as viscerally as from the bottom of the pizza. As I crossed paths with students stumbling about as they’re wont to do during free periods, I had to stifle my laughter at how stunned and confused they were when they eyed my lunch. I became aware of a slowly rising mob of zombies salivating for the spoils of ambush. Don’t look back, I told myself.

I entered the teacher’s room, the beam of my smile lighting my way. “Oh, Lord,” uttered one British teacher.

The aromas of freshly baked dough and tomato sauce comingled and filled the room, betraying to all within nose-shot what repast we teachers were enjoying. I opened the box and felt a burst of steam flow through my face. My colleagues stood nearby, perplexed at what to do next. “Help yourselves,” I said.

They reached in and tried to manage the greasy cheesiness without the aid of plate, napkin, or fork. Eventually I brought A4 paper in from my classroom to serve as impromptu plates. And we all ate in satisfied silence. Compliments were given to the pizza restaurant, inspiring recommendations and a rough description of its location.

But in ten short minutes the tyrannical bell rang, and I left two largely uneaten pizzas on my desk in the staff room and proceeded to my next class. On my brief shuffle from staff room to classroom, rumors of “pizza” were being whispered among the students. They gazed at me with curiosity and supplication. A change was gradually infecting the students—some primal parasite prodding their mouths to water and their gait to limp. Pizzaaaa.

I finished my class without episode and reentered the staffroom. My pizza still sat there cooling. I grabbed another piece and chewed while contemplating the acute angles that marked it’s missing pieces. How in the hell was I going to finish this thing? No way was I bringing it home! I’ve become my mother—overzealous in preparation. It didn’t help that the other teachers had already eaten during the lunch hour, before the pizza arrived.

Then it occurred to me—I was in a building full of teenagers, whose appetites miraculously never wane even in spite of gluttonous gorging. I went back to my classroom and announced to the four girls milling about, “If you want a piece of pizza you may help yourselves.”

Beams of light shot from their eyes. “Really?”

“Yes, but keep it amongst yourselves. It’s a secret. I don’t have enough to go around.”

They each grabbed a slice and began chomping down on it. Immediately I realized I had made several mistakes. First, they were already late to class, and I was rewarding their tardiness with pizza. Second, there were teachers on other floors who should have had first dibs. Third, there has never been a time in human history when a teenager has been able to keep pizza a secret. Within minutes, other students were creeping out of their classrooms asking for pizza. I had to tell each student that other teachers needed to have a slice, but when the teachers have finished they could have the leftovers. That promise, however empty, was enough to keep the zombies at bay for another hour.

At afternoon break, I began visiting all the other classrooms. “I have pizza in the staffroom for all teachers, if you want a slice.” The Filipino teachers knew immediately what was up: “Oh, it’s your birthday today?”

One by one, teachers stepped into the staff room to claim their slice. Being walled with windows on all sides, the staffroom was fully visible from outside. Thus, students gathered around the windows peering in, drooling over promised pizza, groaning whenever another teacher entered the staffroom.

I entered the staffroom after making my rounds, passing a panting, murmuring mob of hungry students on my way inside. “Teacher, now?” they inquired.

“Let me make sure every teacher’s had some.”

“OOOOOOHHHH!”

I examined the pizza when I entered. There were 4 slices left, and I had taken a request to bring one up to the head teacher. I grabbed a slice and looked up. Fog waxed and waned on the windows of the staffroom as students smeared themselves against the glass. I couldn’t possibly pass the famished throng unscathed. I darted left where there were fewer of them, and dashed to the nearest staircase. I glanced over my shoulder—they had begun limping my way. I had only speed and wits as my advantage over them.

After delivering the pizza to my boss, I cautiously crept downstairs. They students were still smudged against the windows salivating. I ducked quickly into the staffroom–the only safe haven from the ravenous teenage mob. The pizza had been wholly consumed, with only a mound of cheese and toppings in the middle of each box. I brought the boxes into my classroom, with the undead in tow. “Eat your hearts out,” I said.

Their eyes narrowed. They licked their lips. They stared gluttonously at the boxes. After a momentary pause, they attacked the boxes. Seeing its contents, they slowly looked up from their scavenged scraps as if to say, “That’s it?” But they simultaneously shrugged and tore up chunks of cheese and toppings and devoured them. And like a gust of wind, they were gone.

Only an hour later, when the final bell had rung, did some of the students appear to me, looking human again, and wished me a happy birthday.

The Best of Thai and the Worst of Thai (Part 8)

Trash

Until I moved to Thailand, I didn’t fully appreciate how well ingrained into my values and habits environmental conscientiousness has become. Even those in the U.S. who scoff at environmentalism have a built-in sense of good stewardship when it comes to their personal trash. In the West, we’ve trained ourselves to keep our homes, neighborhoods, and parks beautiful by keeping them green. “Don’t litter! Put that trash in the refuse bin!”

Not so much in Thailand. So many times I’ve passed by an empty lot of land overgrown with brush, only to gaze in disgust at the tainted overlay of scattered plastic bags, straws, wrappers, bottles, cans, and papers. You cannot walk anywhere in the populated regions of this country without running across bits of litter sprinkled alongside the road or sidewalk.

You know that Texas-sized island of trash in the ocean? Thailand his it’s own county, to be sure. I often go to the seafood market to enjoy fresh barbecued shrimp and sit on the pier watching the sunset. But I have to will myself never to look down into the water for fear of being angered by the sullying scraps of Styrofoam and floating plastic.

I can think of two reasons for this. First, Thai businesses are obsessed with excess waste in packaging. The dauntingly proliferate 7-Elevens alone could lay claim to Thailand County, Trash Island. Every time I buy a bottled beverage—Coke, iced tea, water, even beer—they stick a few straws in the plastic bag. I always have to gesture and use rudimentary Thai to kindly reject both the straws and the bag. I want to have that recent video of marine biologists yanking a straw out of a turtle’s nostril on standby whenever I go into a 7-Eleven, just to shame them into ceasing the superfluity of straws.

But another reason for all the litter is a lack of waste management. Unlike in most American cities, there are no refuse bins dotted on every street corner. My best guess is that sizable portions of waste management budgets go into the pockets of key stakeholders and ministers overseeing the cleanliness of their country. It’s tempting to blame the litter on laziness. But I think it’s only fair to acknowledge that much of our awareness in the West is only activated by the hundreds of public trashcans regularly emptied by city personnel.

So while this can certainly be a beautiful country, its trash is a sad and disgusting, if not also embarrassing, problem.

 

Hygiene

On the other hand, it would be entirely unfair to accuse the Thais of being dirty people. Quite contrary. One of the things I really admire about the Thais is their hygiene. In part, it goes along with this general prioritization of appearances over everything else, but who can complain that no one smells bad?

I remember when I worked at Trader Joe’s how many times I would get choked by the stench of some weirdo who’s apparently never heard of soap…or deodorant. That foul, musty body odor—we all know it. I was tempted to cower behind the register or hurl insults at the person who had defiled my personal space with their toxic smell.

Here in Thailand, that odor is so rare. And when you do come across it, it’s always a foreigner, such as British dudes who haven’t figured out they’re no longer living in a cold climate. And climate is a big reason for this obsession with cleanliness; it’s hot as balls in Thailand. By the evening, even the lightest activity leaves you feeling all swarmy and sticky, so if you’re a decent person you shower for the second time that day.

The bathrooms seem particularly equipped for the twice-a-day cleansing ritual. Most Thai bathrooms are tiled from the floor to the tops of the walls. The floors are slightly sloped downwards towards a drain in the corner. There is rarely a partition between the toilet and the shower “stall.” In fact, there’s rarely ever a stall. The only time I see this segregation of bathroom functions is in hotels that cater to Westerners. The lack of partition makes cleaning the bathroom delightfully easily.

Rarely do I come across a toilet in Thailand that doesn’t have a sanitary hose—or “bum gun,” as one of my colleagues calls it. These are necessary because the sewage systems in Thailand are usually incapable of handling too much paper waste. Anyone who’s been to a developing country knows the system of tossing used toilet paper in a small waste can next to the toilet. So the sanitary hose adds a bit of cleanliness to the process, and cuts down on the amount of feces-smeared waste sitting in the trash stinking up the bathroom. Plus, in keeping with the general principle of easy cleaning, the sanitary hose provides a good rinse when sterilizing the toilet.

While Thailand may feature a sordidly prolific littering of trash, while street vendors pour cooking fat down the street into the drainage systems, while flooding may bring up mud, sand, and all the ickies seeping into the pavement, at least the people smell nice, at least my bathroom is sterilized, and at least my ass is perfectly clean.

The Best of Thai and the Worst of Thai (Part 7)

Saving Face

When I planned my first trip to Thailand, I came across Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet articles explaining an aspect of Thai culture that I found both intriguing and seemingly nonexistent once I came here. They talked about how Thais are often embarrassed to admit they don’t know something. So when you ask for directions, they’ll give you wrong directions instead of telling you they don’t know. And if you ask for mustard at a restaurant, they’ll say, “Yes, but ketchup.”

What these anecdotes are demonstrating is what we foreigners have termed “Saving Face.” It’s the idea that Thai people don’t want to “Lose Face” by demonstrating ignorance or incompetence (oh, the irony!). While I’ve rarely run into saving face in the minor, inconvenient ways described in tourist guides, I’ve seen it take most egregious turns.

Example 1. I had this student last year who, despite painstaking efforts on his part, just could not learn English. He wasn’t one of the slackers in class that just goofed off. For every task, activity, or assignment, he applied himself to the point of breaking a proverbial sweat. But he just couldn’t seem to advance. Since we were an English-programme school, and are now an international school, I began to realize that his inability to learn English could really hinder his academic progress; all his classes were in English, so he was failing all of them. What was worse, the school provided us teachers few resources to address students like him. I concluded that he’d be better off in a Thai school, where he could stick to mastering subjects in his own language and have a better shot at scoring well on the O-Net (Thailand’s SAT, if you will).

So I called his parents. This initial attempt to reach out was unsuccessful, as his parents were hopelessly incapable of understanding English—they couldn’t even understand the name of the school. So I involved the school principal, a well-educated Thai woman who is nearly fluent in English. She called the parents and explained the problem I had raised.

Concerned, they had their older son who was studying at a university in America call me directly. I explained to him the problem. He asked what I advised them to do about it. I told him that unless they could foot the bill for him to get an English tutor, they might want to consider transferring him to a Thai school. He scoffed, and that was the end of the conversation. As it turned out, the boy’s parents were completely satisfied with their son’s lack of progress. What mattered more to them was that the neighbors saw him coming home in the British-style uniform—plaid shorts and a necktie. For the neighbors to see him suddenly wearing the standard Thai uniform would be losing face. Outsiders’ opinion of their boy was more important than his actual academic success.

Example 2. A young girl moved away from her mother living abroad to live with her grandmother in rural Thailand. We’ll call her Dina. She’s 17 years old. Recently Dina has been skiving off from school and coming home well into the evenings. She claimed it was because her teachers were keeping her at school late.

But upon investigation, her grandmother learned that she was actually hanging out with some 22-year-old guy. And by hanging out, I mean sleeping with him.

Dina’s grandmother chastised her to no avail. Then she decided to have a sit-down with the young man’s family, and plead that they either talk some sense into their son or financially provide for her granddaughter, since she was skipping out on a basic high school education for this “love affair.” They essentially told her off and said their son was a grown man and was responsible for his own actions, and anyway her granddaughter was the one coming to him.

Others in the family urged Dina’s grandmother to call the police, as statutory rape laws are about the same in Thailand as they are in the U.S. But Dina’s grandmother refused. Why? Because then the whole village would know her granddaughter was sleeping around. The family would lose face. So in interest of saving face, she has kept quiet about it.

Example 3. Some students at my school wanted to put on a Christmas fair. They petitioned the school owner for funds and were flatly denied. So they got creative. They sought sponsorship from local business on the stipulation that they would allow these businesses to advertise at their fair. When they approached the finance office to ask permission to put up banners around school property with the logos of their sponsors, they were expressly prohibited from doing so. The school manager stated that doing so would belie the owner’s lack of support. In essence, she’d lose face.

Luckily, the students eventually won this game of financial chicken. Since contracts were involved, the school is obligated by law to fulfill its end of the bargain and allow sponsor advertising. But this certainly isn’t the first time resources have been denied to enhance the education of tuition-paying students at a for-profit school. Much like this most recent event, those that have sought to solve such deficiencies using their own funds have been accused of theft and/or undermining the owner.

If these examples seem like isolated anecdotes, they’re not. Saving face is a destructive obsession that courses its way even into governance and administration. People refuse to admit errors, take advice, or learn something new. Anyone that would have the audacity to “defy” authority by suggesting a different course of action is castigated from that circle. It’s one of the many reasons for the inefficacy of government in this country.

To sum it up, it’s fucking stupid, and it perpetuates the ignorance and arrogance that wracks this country and keeps it from progressing out of the developing world.

 

Buddhism

One the other hand, Thai culture upholds some essential charms inspired by religious belief. It isn’t wholly consistent, but where it shows it shines.

For most of my adult life, I haven’t been much of a respecter of religion. But I find something completely charming and uplifting about Buddhism. In part, I think my fascination with the religion stems from an intellectual curiosity. However, I think there are aspects of the dogma that I find totally resonate with my worldview.

At its core, Buddhism provides a model for explaining and overcoming suffering. It emphasizes an upright lifestyle that seeks to transcend the trappings and foils of human experience. Buddhism holds that suffering is a part of life, and often comes from clinging to that which changes. Life is impermanent, so attaching oneself to anything is a guaranteed way to cause oneself, and others, mental and physical anguish. Craving and clinging to what is temporarily pleasurable and aversion to that which isn’t pleasurable leads to ugly results. By ceasing the craving and the clinging, one can free oneself from the ugliness—that is, the suffering.

In a way this explains why restaurants open and close freely, leaving foreigners accustomed to consistency and predictability frustrated. Buddhism would point out that I shouldn’t focus on the craving, that the inability to satisfy that craving allows me to transcend the craving altogether. It’s a nice thought, philosophically speaking.

So how does one put an end to the craving and the clinging? There’s an eightfold path, which includes developing wisdom through the right view and right intention, adjusting behavior in speech, action, and livelihood, and meditating to improve mental effort, mindfulness, and concentration.

There are other fascinating elements, too, such as karmic law and making merit. Merit making is inseparable from Buddhist society—especially Thai society. It’s literally the economy of the religion. Temples are built, alms given, monks’ bellies filled, royal projects funded, and more, thanks to the system of making merit. It has hypocritical expressions, such as wealthy elites trampling the lower class, only to “make up” for it by buying a large golden image of the Buddha or funding a temple upgrade. But overall, Thais are a generous people, often focusing more on altruism than selfishness.

Thai Buddhism in particular has other interesting elements. For one, Hinduism is inextricably part of the Thai cosmic model. Hindu and Buddhist symbolism take a particularly unique shape and role in the art, architecture, culture, and social hierarchy. For example, the king is both the devaraja and dhamaraja to his people. He’s a second Buddha, and a Hindu god. Merely being in his presence elevates one’s dharmic status, and he’s buried in a structure that symbolizes Mount Meru.

I am constantly exploring Thai Buddhism, trying to understand its idiosyncrasies and apparent contradictions. My discoveries continue as I read translated texts, visit temples, and partake in rituals, all with the sweet aroma of incense entering my nostrils. I don’t buy it 100%—there are certain eschatological elements that I find completely unfounded, even if they sound nice. But even where it’s wrong it’s still pleasant and nonjudgmental. Better than I can say of the religion I was raised in.