For some time now a diaspora of disaffected ‘emotional migrants’ from the overdeveloped affluent West has been taking place. They are fleeing the discontents of an uncertain existence to pursue happiness, but what awaits such life style ‘refugees’ when they abide in ‘Amazing Thailand’? A place pictured in the global imaginary as an exotic comfort and shopping zone offering: ancient civilization, cuisine, abundant beautiful pliant bodies, planet saving Buddhist wisdom and desire-free way of life. So how livable is Thailand inside and outside stereotypes and what problems will people encounter in their face to face relations with Thais?
With great verve, and wicked wit Cooper in Thailand Beyond the Fringe (hereinafter ‘TBF’) explores everyday scenarios and predicaments of cross-cultural encounters in Thailand. 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 freedoms and as the ground of the familiar crumbles away beneath their feet. ‘TBF’ is a guide to a presentational society whose main priority is 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.
‘TBF’ offers useful cross-cultural tips about how to live, which behaviours, values and attitudes to adopt, as ‘foreign bodies’ in Thai society. Thus raising 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 logic and who are the nicest people you can buy.’ TBF’ shows that Thai people are not amoral, inscrutable or irrational, if the effort is made to learn their styles of reasoning. In other words, ex-pats need to re-calibrate their emotional, moral and intellectual frames of reference to survive when they negotiate different Thai notions of love, intimacy, emotional communication, other cultural values priorities and loyalties.
Cooper’s book seems to equally address incurable cultural romantics terminally intoxicated Thais- as calm, shy, polite, smiling and proud -and those infuriated by the gaps between Thai saying and doing, officially sanctioned appearances and reality- oscillating between being: spiritual and materialist, mindful and mindless, inferiority and superiority, selfless and selfish; equally accepting and capable of contemplation and coups, meditation and massacres. Thai ‘tourist culture’ seem to say to strangers: Yes, you may! And at the same time No, you cannot’. Thai society is a paradoxical’ permissive-prohibitive’ society with a puritanical- hedonistic culture whereby it is a both a duty to enjoy and obey. No wonder global voyagers might be perplexed living on planet Siam!
Thais seduce others with the enchanting beauty of their myths and incredulity at wondrous signs- they are made to believe: only affirming the positive; conflict avoidance and truth denial; expressing unconditional deference and reverential awe for idols, figures and spirits, alive or dead, deemed to be sacred and believing that everything is for the karmic best in the best of all possible worlds. Thais tend to switch onto ‘auto pilot’ and 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! One cannot tell the truth, in the Thai culture of disavowal, that the Emperor has no clothes! Undoubtedly, face and fakes are the aesthetic currency of the ‘realm’. Aesthetics take precedence over ethics, 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 and living with reckless 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- 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 into 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 to secure obedience and acquiescence to local forms of submission and domination.. Cooper’s relativism,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 and 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!
Whilst Cooper hits a lot of nails on the head, to read him one could get wrong picture of dissent and critical thinking in Thailand. 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 the Bangkok elite and imposed through the modern nation-state upon the multitude of diverse local identities, forms of life, cultures and peoples. The tone of ‘TBF’ often seems to embrace relativism, world weary existentialism: ‘that how it is, deal with it! Or, commit suicide!’ and betray a post-modern quietist attitude of irony and parody, for instance, fascination with gender bending and ‘sex-pats’ quest for illusive female inverted nipples, rather than truth-telling about socio-political injustice and violence in Thailand. What is the ultimate conclusion of Cooper’s book? Foreigners should become Thai in order to play the survival game and to be themselves! 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’ in which people voluntarily renounce their critical faculties to embrace and collude with the oppression and prejudice of local cultures and traditions without demanding a global transformative ethic of ‘egalitarian-liberty’.
Dr. Tim Rackett is a sociologist living in Thailand.