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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

To understand Thailand you must go "Beyond the Fringe"

How far would you go to become Thai? Should we dare to stop being ourselves? Author Tim Rackett, a resident lecturer at Khon Kaen University, reviews Robert Cooper’s “Thailand Beyond the Fringe,” a book written for the long haul expat by an Englishman who has lived most of his life in Asia and speaks Thai, Lao, French, Malay and Indonesian.

Thai bells at the Golden Mount in Bangkok, Tha...Image via Wikipedia

Fantasy aside, what will people encounter in their relations with Thais? And should they unthinkingly embrace Thai ways, culture - both products of power and politics - as if the nonsense about not telling the truth promoted by guide books should be followed. This author is distressed to see people abroad willingly leave common sense and reason behind and foolishly believe Thai lies and illusions when they do not believe their equivalents at home.

Here we go:
Many from the West are fleeing the discontents of failed personal relationships and neo-liberal dreams to pursue happiness and new freedoms, but what awaits such life style “refugees” when they abode in Thailand? A place pictured in the global imaginary as an exotic comfort zone offering consumable delights of: ancient civilization, cuisine, abundant beautiful pliant bodies, planet saving Buddhist wisdom, love peace and harmony.

Review by Tim Rackett, a Sociologist in Thailand

A Perfect Day at A Perfect PlaceImage by Kassel via Flickr

Thailand Beyond the Fringe (hereinafter “TBF”) explores everyday scenarios and predicaments of cross-cultural encounters in Thailand. Robert Cooper adroitly explicates enigmas and taboos whilst looking awry at ex-pat reactions to Thai ways; especially those who risk losing their hearts and minds to the allure of new possibilities and as the ground of the familiar crumbles away beneath their feet. ”TBF” is a guide to a presentational society whose main priority seems to be keeping up appearances, saving face at any cost, and the ambivalences of a culture and people imagined by others, and itself, through the tropes of fantasy and utopia.

With great verve, and wicked wit Cooper raises the question of whether relationships and friendships with Thais can, or should, live up to ex-pat expectations and fantasies in their economic, erotic and ethical quests for a better life? Cooper challenges all too common cynical, sexist and racist ex-pat views of male and female Thais as: “ultimate sexotic pleasure machines devoid of common sense and

Sukhumvit roadImage via Wikipedia

logic and are the nicest people you can buy” and shows that Thai people are far from being amoral, inscrutable or irrational, if the effort is made to learn their styles of reasoning. In other words, ex-pats have to re-calibrate their emotional, moral and intellectual frames of reference to survive and thrive when they negotiate different Thai notions of love, intimacy, emotional communication, other cultural values priorities and loyalties.

Cooper addresses incurable cultural romantics terminally intoxicated with all things Thai and those infuriated by the gaps between saying and doing, officially sanctioned appearances and reality. Pictures of Thais, on the one hand, calm, shy, polite, smiling and proud and, on the other, oscillating between being: spiritual and materialist, mindful and mindless, care free and careless, compassionate and callous, selfless and selfish, caring and indifferent; equally accepting and capable of contemplation and coups, meditation and massacres. No wonder global voyagers might be dazed and confused living on planet Siam! Globalized Thai “tourist culture” seems to say to strangers: Yes, you may! Be free and live your fantasies! And at the same time “No, you cannot.”

A paradox in which there seems to be both too much control and too little regulation in Thai relations. Thai

Thai iced tea magicImage by otherthings via Flickr

power tend to seduce others into the undeniable enchanting beauty of its myths, illusions and Thais incurable incredulity at wondrous signs they are made to believe: only affirming the positive and believing that everything is for the karmic best in the best of all possible worlds. In the Thai culture of disavowal farang and Thai cannot say that the Emperor has no clothes! Undoubtedly, face, fakes and fun are the aesthetic currency of the “realm.”

Thais tend to be guided by magic, superstition and supernatural forces. Such a “community of fatalism” mitigates accepting personal and moral responsibility - you are only guilty, and wrong when, and if, caught! Aesthetics take precedence over ethics, manners over morals: politeness and the illusion of harmony rule and are imposed by might if necessary.

Thus, if you think that anything goes in Thailand you would be right, up to a certain point. That is, depending on who is doing it, when, where, to whom, in public or private, and in whose beholding eyes! As Thais know, only too well, the powerful and wealthy, can transgress with impunity, in spite of the myriad prohibitions of law and Buddhism, resulting in a kind of anarchy in slow motion seen in the pursuit of wealth and status by any means necessary; thrill seeking rather than enlightenment; high risk taking and living with reckless

Ancient RomeImage via Wikipedia

joyful abandon.

Given the multiple ambiguities of Thai ways Cooper suggests that as a coping strategy to ex-pats in for the long haul in Thailand should abandon some of their “Western” “excess baggage”: thoughts, goals, interpretations all of which “serve no useful function and encumber a smooth path to integration (cover blurb).” This seems sage advice, as the ability to compromise and conciliate are essential in cross-cultural encounters, however it raises an important issue, for some a dilemma, of when in Rome do as the Romans?

If, it means embracing cultural and ethical relativism it is highly problematic: integrate qua assimilate into or adjust to what? It does not allow questioning of Thai cultures and traditions and which aspects are ethical assets or, liabilities. When in Thailand ex-pats from all nations can be placed under, or, above Thai’s not typically alongside as equal global citizens! When Cooper elaborates forms of Thai placing and movement on status hierarchies: “arse licking” he is really describing the “soft power” of Thai control through culture which zeros in all to secure their obedience and acquiescence to local forms of submission and domination.

BANGKOK, THAILAND - SEPTEMBER 25: Tourists rea...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Cooper’s relativism, albeit argued for on pragmatic grounds, “when in Thailand do as the Thais” can support tolerating the intolerable and relinquishing any expectation of cosmopolitan norms of hospitality and planetary humanism: mutual dialogue, fairness, respect and honesty. Why should long term “guests” integrate in a conformist way. Foreigners are very well disposed to learn Thai ways and arts of living to the point of “going native” attempting to become Thai. At the other extreme are those who have a mediated contact and cash nexus relations with Thai people and culture by living an encapsulated Western elite life style.

However, as we know, from Anthropology 101 all gifts, including warm Thai hospitality to visitors, are demands - for reciprocity. But what exactly do Thais want from long term “guests”? Their: recognition, love and/or money, to do it the Thai way, or, the highway? Ex-pats often are given the stark choice, but not surprising for a “soft authoritarian” society, love our ways, or leave!

Obey, submit and conform. Politics, power and history are the stuff cultures are made from as effects a

Thai novice monksImage via Wikipedia

nd are not really very funny, especially the selective, and occasional, application of the rule of law, inequalities, corruption as a way of life and multiple human wrongs in multi-racist Thailand. It is the latter, having lived and worked over a decade in Thailand, which has sadly created in me an unexpected sympathy with Dr. Joseph Goebbels’ infamous remark: “When I hear culture I reach for my gun!”

As the great French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, astutely observed: radicals in their own society are often conservatives in other cultures. “TBF” presents an official ruling conservative version of Thai Culture and Tradition invented by Bangkok elite and imposed through the modern nation-state upon the multitude of diverse local identities, forms of life, cultures and peoples. What is the ultimate conclusion of Cooper’s book? Foreigners should become Thai in order to play the survival game and to be themselves! In spite of the fact they are excluded by nationalist racism?

However this begs the question of exactly how open are Thais and ex-pats to each others strange ways? Is there a kind of mutual fantasy of the comfort of strangers operating between Thais and Westerners? For far too long Westerners have succumbed to a form of relativist blackmail - it’s their country; I have no right to judge, criticize, or change, their ways- to embrace and collude with the oppression and prejudice of Thai ways and traditions without demanding equal dignity and respect, empathy.

Would we join in with Nazi’s Female Genital Mutilation infanticide!! Farangs who support right wing politics in

BANGKOK, THAILAND - SEPTEMBER 27: An adult ele...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

the name of culture and tradition - we love our Father who know best - have serious problems with being compassionate humans who care . We should dare to cease being ourselves, step outside stereotypes and our skins. As Buddhists say no I me, mine so lets share and mingle …

Thailand Beyond the Fringe by Robert Cooper, Publisher Marshall Cavendish. The second edition is about to be published.

Reviewer Tim Rackett is a inter-cultural-zone explorer. He has been living and working in Thailand for 13 years teaching philosophy and researching Thai Buddhism, power politics and globalization. At present he teaches International Affairs at KKUIC

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