How Bigots Learn
I’ve often said that Thailand is where bigots learn to be tolerant and the tolerant go to be bigoted.
Thousands of young men and women who think of themselves as open, tolerant and supportive of social justice in the West travel to Thailand every year, where they express disgust and condemnation of Western men with Thai women. And many of those men, who may well have started out as bitter, misogynist pigs have have shown far greater social adaptability and even had their lives transformed by their Thai partners.
Many of the young, tolerant tourists with activist ambitions appreciate the fluid gender identities in Thailand—the transvestites, transsexuals, and enormous range of gender-crossing personas. But they are shocked and contemptuous of the sex tourism. They stereotype it all as trafficking and exploitation, and the men as disgusting, misogynist creeps. Some even become social workers and activists, creating videos and blogs to criticize and try to stop it.
To be sure, many of the male sex tourists are bitter about Western women, or just plain misogynistic. Some treat Thai women with contempt, and believe stereotypes of submissive, horny, materialistic, or manipulative Asian women. But many of them also fall in love. Some deeply in love. Many send money regularly to the women they have met (sometimes one of many men sending money to the same woman). Some maintain long-distance relationships for many years. Others marry their girlfriends and bring them to Europe, Australia or North America. Others quit their jobs and move to Thailand, often building a house, buying a farm and supporting an extended family in a far rural area (read a bit more about sex work in Thailand here).. And once they do that, their stereotypes of Asian women (if they had any) can no longer survive. They’ve gone much farther in challenging their preconceptions than any young tourist or NGO worker coming to ‘help’ the Thais.
The men who relocate to Thailand, both full- and part-time, are impossible to stereotype. Some are jerks. Some are clueless, and some are charming. Some are pale, nerdy losers—men who are just far too socially awkward to find a girlfriend in the West. Others are recently divorced or retired, looking for a new life. Many are overweight. Some think of themselves as outlaws, driving their big Harleys and wearing leaher. Some like to show off by giving money and building big houses. Some are social misfits–both right-wing gun nuts and anarchist hippies–who are a lot more comfortable in some isolated farm with minimal social interaction where everybody expects them to be just another out-of-touch foreigner. I don’t necessarily like many of these men. But I can identify with them. We all share a fundamental sense of alienation, and have done something about it beyond merely getting bitter.
Their choice to have a Thai family is hardly an easy choice. Living in rural Thailand is difficult. It takes enormous cultural adaptation and tolerance. Food, language, religion, dirt, insects, families and infrastructure are all huge challenges. They also have to adapt to a world with fluid sexual identities, where ladyboys, men with make-up and dykes are common. They have to deal with families that have very different attitudes towards money, property and privacy than Western families. Some anthropologists say that families in Northeastern Thailand “a tendency towards matriarchy” in which women often have the most powerful personalities, and men are just expected to contribute resources. I like to think of myself as somebody who is culturally flexible and tolerant. I have lived in several countries, and had a Chinese wife for nearly twenty years. But I still find it very hard to adapt to rural Thailand (humidity, food and extended family are my biggest challenges). I am impressed by the men who have been there for years.
The marriages are difficult. Men often suspect their wives of only wanting their money, and women often suspect the men of sleeping around all the time. Both suspicions are often quite justified, and many marriages have collapsed even on unjustified suspicions. But many marriages also succeed against all odds. This takes enormous tolerance and adaptation from both sides (read about some of my problems here).
Many of these men go on internet discussion boards where some of the most popular threads are those asking for advice about how best to deal with extended family, especially their expectations about money. But the threads with the most responses are on topics such as “Describe a typical day” or “What do you like best about living in rural Thailand?” Men wax rhapsodic about their farms, their families, their easy-going wives, the food, about having found the good life. When somebody calls the women in the bars of Bangkok or Pattaya ‘prostitutes,’ or writes “you can take the girl out of the bar but you can’t take the bar out of the girl” they are sure to receive a barrage of responses that their wives can not be defined by jobs they once worked or income levels into which they had been born. Many participants also indulge in criticisms of Western capitalism and society that are not far from the criticisms that NGO activists and academics also indulge in—with the significant exception that most expats would usually include NGO activists as examples of what makes the West so undesirable, sanctimonious and unwelcome around the world.
Social activists and NGO workers interact with Thais not as equals, but as objects of generosity and assistance. They see Thais, and especially Thai women, through theories about inequality, exploitation and trafficking. Little can be done to dislodge those theories. Some activists and academics have written reports and books that show some awareness of the complexities of sex work, of the many ways Thai women learn to manipulate men just as men use the women, and the relatively good incomes earned by sex workers. Some admit that there is no evidence of trafficking to the tourist-oriented sex industry. A few even mention the successful long-term relationships that can emerge out of the sex industry, and note the extensive resources that are channeled to the countryside through these marriages.
Regardless of what they uncover, these investigations almost always end with a righteous condemnation of the global inequalities that have made sex tourism possible (with little mention of the marriages and long term relationships), and a call to do something to empower these poor exploited women. They investigate and report but they don’t listen, preferring instead their own stereotypes and self-images as people who bring justice to the world. They want to set up sustainable rural industries and give loans and advice about how to be clean and manage money. Are Thai women really more empowered if they have the chance to work 40+ hours a week in some rural workshop for wages about the same as construction work in Bangkok, making ‘local crafts’ to be sold to Western consumers, much of the profits of which will only be used to pay the growing bureaucracies of social workers, nuns and activists back in Bangkok, Europe and America? Or is it the self-esteem of the activists that is most empowered?
Before we start talking about other people and how they should be helped, we should make friends with them, live with them, fuck them, make love to them, and even marry them. We should not only treat them as equals, but also get into situations where we are dependent on them. Then we can develop some understanding what they need. As far as I can tell, academics—and I suspect NGO workers—have very low rates of outmarriage. Although they may marry outside of their ethnicity and nationality, they almost always marry within their class, occupation and educational status. But marriage and friendships outside of our social circles is where a true transfer of understanding and redistribution of resources will begin.
One of my favorite memories from Thailand is from a beach where I saw three English men in their thirties. They had the strong hands of manual laborers, were a bit overweight, somewhat crude in their language, and would have looked more at home watching football in a lower-class pub in England. One was with a young, sexy Thai woman who was likely straight from a Bangkok go-go bar. One was with an plain-looking middle-aged Thai woman. They had the dynamics of a long-married couple. And the third was with a somewhat flamboyant young man. All six of them were getting along great: laughing, eating and swimming. We should be supportive of the social context that makes encounters like this possible.