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Monday, March 05, 2012

Up to you

Spirit Guard at the local Wat
I’ve been in Thailand going on four days, and already I’ve learned some important lessons about the culture here.

First, it’s the adjustment to being called “Sir”.  Men and women call me “Sir”. I’m learning that it is a sign of respect since I am Western and a ‘guest” in this country.

Remember “The King and I”? Deborah Kerr’s (and then Jody Foster’s) character, Anna, was called “Sir”.

Suddenly, I understand how that feels.

It’s a constant reminder that I am a guest and this is not my home. It is their home. I’m really clear about that every time I’m called “Madam” or “Sir”.

Which is enough to make me uncomfortable.

But, wait! There’s more.

I am called “Sir” because I am a Westerner, but also because Thai people – well, the ones I’ve met here, and I’m real clear that this is my experience and that of the Westerners I’ve met – consider  Westerners “superior”.

Well, more to the point, they really consider themselves “inferior”. Period.

And, and, AND…since “male” is clearly superior to “female”, the way to show that respect is to call me “Sir”.

I’m fighting my feminist outrage here and trying to adapt. It isn’t working too well.

But wait! There’s more.

I’ve also learned that it is considered “rude” to initiate a bow to a Thai person when greeting them or saying “Thank you.” They smile and I see them being gracious, but they are clearly uncomfortable when I do it.

This has to do with the whole Western superiority thing. They get to bow first because they consider themselves inferior, so they get to show respect to you first. And then, if – and only if – you are of a mind, you can return the respect with a bow.

The doorman downstairs explained it this way:

“You are from first world. I am from third world. First is first. See?”

“Ah,” I said, “but you are person. First, second, third. No matter. Person first. Country second. Or, Third. See?”

He smiled at me – the way an intelligent person smiles at a well-intentioned idiot – and said, “You nice lady, Sir.”

I was going to argue that by insisting on going first there was an automatic inversion of the “inferiority factor”, but I don’t think my best efforts and good intentions are going to work here.

Cultural conditioning wins. Hands down. Every time.

Besides, I’m on the other side of the world as I know it. Of course dominant social / cultural patterns are inverted. What’s “normal” for me is not “normal” for them.

And, remember, I’m a guest here. This is not my home. It’s their home.

It doesn’t stop with this.

Gender and sex really don’t matter much here. Except, of course, when they do. There is an invisible but bottom line when you are poor: money. I suppose it’s the bottom line when you are rich, as well. Except, it’s not always so obvious when you are rich – unless, of course, you want or need it to be.

Sex here does not have the same puritanical values imposed on it as it does in the West. Sex is for procreation, yes, but its primary purpose is recreation.  I mean, I suppose that when you don’t have much of anything else for pleasure in your sparse lives of poverty, and Buddha teaches that everything is suffering, at least there’s sex. It’s a mercy and a blessing and part of The Great Compassion.

Rob at the entrance to the neighborhood Wat
No values. No judgment. It is what it is. This is not a Christian nation (whatever that means anymore). This is a Buddhist nation. There are as many Buddhist “Wat” (temples) and "Spirit Houses" here as there are bars – with about the same level of attendance - which is really saying something in this neck of the woods.

I mean, My guide book on Pattaya puts it rather delicately:
"It's hard to ignore this large, loud, international resort which welcomes visitors from every corner of the globe. Although many are here for the brash nightlife, you'll also see families and couples on package deals. Pattaya is Thailand's notorious centre for selling sex, a hangover from its days an an R&R destination for American troops during the Vietnam War. It has the largest gay scene in Thailand." 
So, imagine lots of churches on every street corner in Provincetown or The Village in lower Manhattan. Got it? Right.

Outdoor shrine at the local Wat
A Wat is a House of Prayer as well as a community center for  service and community. You know. The way Christian churches are supposed  to be but more often than not, aren’t.

I watch literally hundreds of people going in and out of the Wat around the corner from my apartment complex. There are, perhaps, hundreds of monks in their glorious saffron robes and shaved heads. But, the people go in and out all day – to pray, to chant, to give offerings to the Buddha, to get some assistance.

You know. Just the way Church is the center of life for Christians. I suspect, if Churches were for Christians what Temples are for Buddhists here, we wouldn’t be saying things like, “Churches are more than buildings.”

While that is, of course, true, it means something else when you live in poverty and the Temple is where you go to be closer to God and feel the love of God in real and tangible forms of assistance.

The few Christians who are here are of the rabid Evangelical persuasion. Not very nice people. At. All. Becoming Christian means to become more Westernized. Which is, of course, what some want, but it is not exactly a walking advertisement for the Incarnate, unconditional, inclusive of Love of Jesus. 

Prostitution is illegal here in Thailand, but they don’t consider what they do as prostitution. It’s just sex they get paid for.

Understand, Sir?

What’s the difference, I ask. They look at me like I’m from another planet. Indeed, sometimes I think I am. No one seems to be able to give me an answer. I suppose it’s like the infamous definition of pornography – you know it when you see it.

So, the cops only seem to raid bars where there are drugs and underage children. Which is a good thing. I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that they only do that because of imposed Western values. Money is, after all, money and there seems to be no satisfying the voracious sexual appetites of some men from around the world.

Hey, a poor person’s gotta do what a poor person’s gotta do. The Buddha teaches them that all life is suffering. And so, it is. We create our own reality. If that's what you believe, that's what it is.

Except, what they do here is decidedly “less” suffering than they know in the North. Here, they have electricity and running water and only four or five to a one-bedroom apartment.

Much better, see, Sir?

So, there are lots of ‘girly-men” in the streets. Tight jeans or very short dresses. Perfectly coiffed hair which one can get styled in one of the many beauty shops here which helps them to look more female as well as Western. They wear open toed shoes with high spiked heels. Very Western understanding of what it means to be “sexy”.

Please note: many of them are not gay. There really is no “gay” here - except for the Westerners who self-identify in that way. There is sex between men and sex between woman. “Same-same, Sir.”

They come here to Pattaya (and to Bangkok and just about everyplace else in Thailand or the Orient where there are Westerners) from the poor northern coffee or rice farms to make money. Because there are no jobs and even less money in the North.

They make about 2,000 baht a week (about $70) and live on 1,000 baht and then send the rest home to the family up North.

They come to the cities and their “cousins” teach them how to dress and walk and talk like a girl and the Dutch and the Irish and the Russian (nobody here likes the Russians) and English and American and French men – straight and gay - get to live out their own, individual fantasies of gay sex while being with someone who looks like a woman, except he has a penis.

And, even though he’s probably in his thirties he looks like he’s twelve, and so it’s an adolescent fantasy as well.

These Thai boys know that. They go into it with their eyes wide open. It’s about the money. It’s just business. They get wined and dined and – from what I understand – most of it does not involve genital penetration. Of course, some of it does, but that’s not the main thing. “Whatever gets you through the night, is alright.”

It’s “all all right, Sir”.

Some Thai girly-men are very clear that they don't do...."that"....because, they say, it makes them feel like a woman. And, God help us, no one wants that!

It’s a slightly different slant on human trafficking than anything I’ve ever considered before. These boys are NOT humiliated. It’s just sex. It’s just money. It’s business.

The female equivalent is also here – girls walking the streets looking like hookers – but honestly? – they look just like some young girls who walk the streets in cities and suburban towns all over America. I can’t tell the difference between a rebellious adolescent and a hooker. There or here.

Truth be told, I often can’t tell the difference between a girl-girl and a girly-man. It’s all about the hyper-sexualization of the feminine to feed the sexual fantasy and appetite of the Western male which is both quite active and voracious.

My feminist sensibilities are assaulted every time I walk down the street. The image of beauty one sees on every billboard everywhere are of hyper-sexualized Western women. Blonde. Blue eyes. Thin. Perfectly coiffed. Reeking sex.

It makes me feel sad. I'm trying hard not to get angry.

Although, I must say that our waiter tonight at one of the local bars saw me looking at one of the “girly men” who was, even for a girly-man, a bit over the top – hair piled high, spiked heels, hips swinging as he sashayed down the street. I though I was being discrete, but perhaps I was more obviously gawking than I intended.

The waiter giggled. Apparently, he agreed with me.

I rolled my eyes and said, “Oh, dahling!”

He giggled and said, “Dahling too much, Sir.”

And then, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Up to you.”

I’m hearing this a great deal. “Up to you.”

Rob tells me that those three words really encapsulate the Thai philosophy on life.

“Up to you,” means that (1) each individual person gets to decide what it is you will do and (2) – and, here’s the important part – you take responsibility for your own decisions and actions because they take responsibility for theirs.

It’s the Thai version of Ed Freidman’s “Self-differentiated self”.

No guilt. No enabling. No judgment. Everyone who’s an adult takes responsibility for their own life and their own destiny.

Up to you, see, Sir?

Except, of course, that one of my working definitions of poverty is not having many – if any – options.  Except, to make a choice to lessen your suffering – which is, they understand, an inevitable and unavoidable fact of life – by trying to earn more money for yourself and your family.

Suddenly, I understand the aphorism, “Money is the root of all evil.” Money is only a tool of having power over someone else’s life, which can certainly be accomplished without a baht or a yen, a buck or a pound. Money only makes that task easier.

“Up to you.” It’s the one thing I ‘get’. It’s the one thing I’ll be certain to take from here when I take my leave three weeks from now.

That, and a deep appreciation for the summer humidity of Delaware, about which I will never again complain.

I have been to Thailand. I know better. Now.

You may choose to come here one day, and you’ll take away your own impressions and form your own opinions.

Up to you.


JCF said...

I'm reminded of S1 of "Downton Abbey": Matthew Crawley's middle-class morality/social consciousness won't let him let a servant wait on him. Molesley, the butler, just wants to do his job!

Totally get how we WANT there to be equality between "absolutely everybody" (as Louie Crew would say). Problem is, there just isn't. Your the guest, he's the doorman. Your bill pays his wages, he bows first. Your bowing first isn't going to make him NOT the wage-sla..., employee.

I've had bosses who made a big point of "wanting to be my friend" . . . except then reserved the right to humiliate me, as my boss. Because of the Power-Over thang.

It isn't easy, is it? Well, that's what's "up to me."

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Perfect observation, JCF. That scene from Downton Abbey is exactly what it's like. It's decidedly not good for the soul.