Archive for March 12, 2012

Every once in a while as you travel through another country you will experience xenophobia or  racism. It can come from the old guard, the young, from a crowd or an individual. Thailand is such a country that despite having hundreds of thousands of foreigner visitors a day and millions a year pass through the international airport Thai’s have still not completely come to grips with having ‘farang’ among them.

There are still section’s of Bangkok that rarely see any foreign visitors so that farang are an anomaly to the youngsters. There are a great many area’s of Thailand where individual villagers have never seen a foreigner. In this respect Thailand is still a young and primarily rural  country, isolated from the rest of the world  except for the financial elite who attend foreign universities and can afford frequent international travel.

Like  every country Thai’s are also told that they are the greatest people of all time. I was on a cross town bus recently where an inebriated soldier insisted that I know this with his limited but acceptable English. He also showed me a few of his Ranger moves for dispatching an enemy with an imaginary  knife, which was weird cool. Nationalist propaganda and jingoism is nothing new in nations large and small. Local boosterism is apparent in many European communities as well as in North America. Italians do it with colourful banners and rippling flags during inter city horse races around the town square, Americans do it with football games and cheer-leading.

The last time I was ‘befriended’ by any Thai military types was in the north where a group of young soldiers in a cafe directed me at gunpoint to drink with them. They then  proceeded to tell me jokes in Thai, none of which I understood of course. I waited them out, drunks are predictable, but i digress.  By the way, the stern conductress on the bus was more than a match for my soldier friend and put him into a seat with a word and a look that would have certainly put me in my place had she directed her ire towards me.

Community leaders of all countries sell these attitudes to the people for a variety of reasons, commercial, political  and patriotic. I would suppose it has been found that people who think they are living in the best place on Earth are less likely to revolt would be one reason. I come from such a place, Vancouver Canada which is bombastic about it’s ‘feel good’ campaign  about it’s being the ‘most livable city on the planet’. Of course it’s not true, but enough people believe it to support the political dogma long enough for a sitting government to complete it’s mandate and retire fat on a civic pension.

‘Farang’ by the way is a bastardization of the French word for ‘French people, ‘francais’. The French were the first westerners to introduce themselves to the Thai and as a consequence all foreigners became ”falangset’.  Due to the differance in vowels and consonants between the pronunciation of these two languages , ‘fa-lang.sey’, now shortened to farang stuck. It can be a general description of anyone foreign, or it can be used, and often is, as a derogatory inference to someone’s unwelcome strangeness as being  non Thai. It has also become a swear word as in ‘ f’u*king farang’, which is an odd adaptation to the Thai language as it is a mash of both English and French, two things the Thai user would be trying to defame.

Can we describe Thai as a tribal society? I think this is an apt description of Thai society generally as it is definatley an ‘us and them’ environment for those of us on the ground. We foreigners are paying guests  never welcomed to stay. Every long term resident will tell you how difficult it is to stay in the country and the rigorous procedure necessary to do so, even with the proper visa’s.

You are made to know that the government eyes you with suspicion and demands that you present yourself at the police station every ninety days regardless of how low you’ve been in the country. As a foreigner your legal rights are indistinct and right to own property non existent. There is a perception that farang are the equivalent of second class citizens in Thailand. Actions by the government lead common people to perceive a government policy as one of public disrespect.

Thai culture is all about respecting others so when they see that a certain group  treated without respect by the elite there is a feeling that everyone can do so. When farang are overcharged for services normally free or double and triple charged for entrance into public venues it is sometimes misinterpreted by Thai’s that it’s OK to double and triple charge their guests. I do not intend to make a statement on government policy. I simply state that it does not set a good example if a host disrespects his guest. When I don’t like something I am free to vote with my wallet and leave. There are plenty of nice places in the world to live comfortably for the winter.

And so , in my round-a-bout way I come to the true meaning of my story. I consider myself  an ‘old Asia hand’ and treat every circumstance as an opportunity to learn new things about my host country. While I was sitting in a McDonald’s today I noticed that I was being ‘eye-balled’ by a group of older men. Each had a studied look of disdain on his faces while looking at me and I heard the word ‘farang’ passing around the table.  I reacted to the situation as if it were a bit of surreal social kabuki theater playing out for my entertainment. As one had begun,  others joined in. I knew that these were men who had been indoctrinated by social and military forces from an early and would possess very few thoughts of their own on the subject of foreigners .

I was a stranger in their midst and out of a tribal reaction towards instinctual solidarity I fit the bill as ‘the odd man out’. Individually each wanted to let their friends know that they were  proud  ‘Thai’ by hoisting the flag of xenophobia and racism over the golden arches. My few semesters of university psych and my years of ‘on the road’ experience told me I should engage these men from an angle where I knew their greatest vulnerability lay. I know I shouldn’t play these ‘ghost in the mind’ games on people that are sometimes mere puppies in a basket. I am after all a professional observer, but sometimes I think I am also teaching the people around me with a life lesson about the greater world which surrounds them.

I met the stares knowing what was behind the affront and performed a perfect ‘wai’, the traditional hand-pressing denoting Buddhist culture and mutual respect. Over the years I have learned to mimic the gestures of my hosts perfectly. I knew these  older men are so conditioned to respond that they fell like domino’s,    unable to disrespect their own supreme cultural gesture, even though performed by a ‘farang’.

The  looks on the faces of these gentlemen told me they knew they had been bested by an expert routard and cultural ambassador at large. When I left smiling I noted that my smile was being grudgingly returned. After the flags are pulled own, we’re all just people. In this case we were all old men with little to argue over and less time to do it. Try a little tenderness next time you are confronted with a strange cultural dichotomy. You may be surprised at the outcome.

As I stitched up another of the mysterious holes that keep appearing in my tattered mosquito net I was struck by the idea of how  strange and foreign this simple task was. Here I am , a Canadian , being forced out of bed at 6 am by the burgeoning heat at daybreak, to sew up holes in the mosquito net that hangs over my bed like a billowing tent. The presence of the net is  exotic and just a tad romantic. It’s childish of me to relate to it like I was camping out but I adhere to the sentimental things in life. I used to get up before dawn to enjoy a hot cup of coffee , it just can’t be done after sunup due to the heat, I don’t do that anymore. The most Canadian of customs is no longer part of my day.

My habit is to leave the window blinds open so as not to interrupt any flow of air that may pass by in the night  into my stifling bedroom. By doing so I invite in the first rays of the sun  at the crack of dawn to start suntanning me for the few minutes it takes before I wake up sweating profusely . Leaving off the mozzie net or untended would be inviting such things as malaria, dengue fever or encephalitis. These are the little concerns in every Canadians life. ..right?

It’s occurred to me that I’ve spent more of my life living away from Canada than within her borders. I know more about living out of a suitcase in some antipodal tropic than I do about what my fellow Canadians are doing day to day. Where does that leave me in the multicultural quilt? My only contact with my homeland is electronic. I bank , maintain business relations and friendships over the net.

I read the local Canadian newspapers from time to time and relate to nothing that happens there. The reportage seems to be fixated on contention, murder, covetousness, labour strife   and apology. When I look at the weather I wonder if I’d survive the frigid temperatures. What would I wear out,  shorts and thongs? If I showed up on the doorstep of Canada today I would be as alien as , well….an alien. The hockey stats….fugetaboutit!

I was always one of ‘those kids’ who found everything in my white bread world to be unbearably boring. I grew up bored, I went to school bored, I snored through a promising career and one day I left, determined never to return. Why I found Canada to be the least interesting place in the world has it’s roots deep in my upbringing. I grew up in a place where absolutely nothing happened, I couldn’t stand it.

Like many mendicants who hit the road in a search for deeper meaning I took my first tentative steps, only to return home and regroup until I had the wherewithal to depart again on another journey. Cats act the same way when scoping out new territory, two steps forward, one step back. I felt like one of those explorers of old who vanished on a tall ship for years , to be presumed  dead by his society, only to return , a revenant with a  twinkle in his eye and plenty of outlandish stories to tell.

After a while I realized that most people don’t want to hear  stories of life in an exotic land as experienced by someone else, it brings out a self loathing and feelings of personal inadequacy,  they project that jealous negativity back to you and ultimately things turn nasty. I didn’t find it fun to be envied. I was horrified that someone should covet my lifestyle when it was in fact designed to be heavenly. The ‘keeping up with the Jones’ syndrome’ is not just a suburban myth. ‘Sometimes’, as it is said, ‘You can’t go back’.

It takes a particular frame of mind to want to live in this novel way. I have nothing to call my own except the clothes on my back. I have never decorated a house or had to fix a broken down appliance. I don’t cut grass or negotiate with the neighbors for baby sitting so that my spouse and I can sneak away once a month for a ‘date night’. I have no religious or social ties to any community aside from the temporary. When I consider moving it is not to a new condo, it may be halfway around the world. I’m not sure this butterfly lifestyle would keep the average Canadian sane, there is no grounding. Car payments and mortgages are concepts so incredibly abhorrent that I felt my stomach flip just writing the words.

Instead of having the solid foundation of a material life, you must satisfy yourself with personal freedom if  choosing the life of a ruin-bagger. So, choose carefully, the rabbit hole is deep. Once you’ve changed your life anew, it doesn’t mean that your old life will change along with it. Prepare for isolation and alienation. People run in herds, they don’t welcome outsiders. In  modern terminology it’s called ‘networking’. If you’re ‘off the grid’, you’re also ‘out of the loop’. I know people that have taken this philosophy to the ultimate conclusion. An old friend of mine is a die hard routard who hasn’t spent a winter in Canada for thirty plus years. Instead he is an itinerant actor, never married, no children, no ties, who sub lets his co-op apartment between October and April of every year so he can travel.

His level of commitment to the calling is admirable. I consider his dedication to his calling an evolution in character. Most people get sucked in by the temporal advertising of materialism and social norms. It is extremely rare that a person will live on his own terms. One of his many endearing colloquialisms has been ‘You don’t have to earn if you don’t spend it,” brilliant. Life can be lived without an ocean of ‘stuff’, who would have known?

How is this accomplished? Of course it takes a certain amount of money to live anywhere. many people opt for foreign assignments if they have the professional credentials behind them. Teaching is a popular route, it’s temporary by nature and there are plenty of opportunities in the world where increasing numbers of people want to learn English and the skills of western culture. There are stumbling travel writers and novelists like myself whose pay is only adequate for a third world economy.

The cost of living here in Thailand, for example is generally one sixth of what it would cost me to live in Canada with the same lifestyle. In fact I would be living far below the poverty line and have a very miserable life if I were to live in Canada on my income. Here in the tropics where the sun shines every day, we live quite a bit better even without money to exchange. I never found Canadians to be an intrinsically happy people, the cost of living is far too egregious. Instead they borrow huge sums of money to buy ‘things’ that television and print ads tell them will be good replacements for the emotions they’ve suppressed. I was never able to justify the idea that a new car would make my manhood more pronounced. Give me a trade wind and the sweep of a curving wave across a pristine beach any day.

Am I too far gone to call myself Canadian anymore? Have I been away to long? I can’t imagine living the life I see written about in the newspapers. Are they trying to keep people depressed for some nefarious reasons? If what I read is reality in Canada then a team of wild horses could drag me back there to reside permanently. I’m not going to fall for the siren song of the banks who insist I should be saving millions of dollars for a comfortable retirement. I’m pretty good with math and realize that propaganda is only going to benefit the banks and the tax man. Thanks, but I’ll live until I die in a manner and lifestyle of my choosing. I’ve made my bed and now I’ll sleep in it. If I could only figure out how those damned holes get into the walls of my mosquito net.