Category Archives: Thailand
We slept in Luna’s farmshed last night—a little wood and metal platform by the rice fields. Luna was very nervous about the ghosts. She slept on the farm all the time as a girl with no problem. But as she has grown older and more urbanized, the empty, nighttime spaces are increasingly a home for her accumulated anxieties, conflicts and other hauntings. A shamaness once told her she has to spend the night on her farm alone to figure out what the ghosts want so that she can resolve some of her physical illnesses. She hasn’t had the nerve yet.
I was hoping to meet one of the ghosts, but no luck. That could just be my problem. Luna insists that when one of the dogs dashed off to chase something, she heard a squealing pig. She stared into the night for several minutes looking for the pig, and even smelled her dogs’ mouths for blood. I told her that I had not heard a pig. “Maybe a ghost,” she said nonchalantly.
Luna did dream a lottery number—her first in a several months. I bought the ticket (it never works if she buys it herself). I won about $36.
Farmers can be good entrepreneurs. Farmers are used to investing a large amount of time, money and labor now for an uncertain payoff in the future. In contrast, kids who grow up in school want structure, predictable rewards and guaranteed income. They don’t want to take chances, and resent the idea of working for free. And learning to think in terms of paper- and screen-bound concepts and abstractions can kill the kind of concrete, creative intelligence that they can learn on the farm, and which can be so useful in setting up a small business.
Yeah, I’m overgeneralizing. But I look at the kids now in rural Thailand who have at least 7 or 8 years of schooling (as compared to their parents, who mostly have 0-4 years of school). and it is hard to get them to open a market stall, plant a vegetable garden, or even take a chance on a bus ticket into Bangkok without a job waiting. They’ll only invest in a machine like a chain saw or electric sander if they are sure it will get them a job with daily pay. After several years of required schooling, they are really good for nothing. They have been taken off the farm, so they no longer like farm work or can even do it very well. They are wary of risks. But after several years of lousy rural schooling, they haven’t learned enough to get a good job in town or a government job. They are just good for construction or working in the chicken factory.
A couple of times Luna has tried to hire people with high school or even some college to help her with her marketing job (ordering and designing clothes and bags in Thailand to send to her contacts in Italy). It never worked out very well. She complains they are lazy, “They know computer, know math, know English. But they not want to do nothing, not want to learn about job. Just want somebody to give money to them, not want to work.”
Every now and then, a rural family puts some money into educating a child enough to get a low level professional job in the city—secretary or nurse or bookkeeper or something like that. The results are often not satisfactory. The professional kids become obsessed with their city live and careers. They are embarrassed by their rural family, and rarely visit home or send money (except when they need their parents to take care of their kids). To be fair, entry-level professional jobs are often very low-paid, and the kids have to use what little money they earn to maintain appearances with a certain standard of living. But the family back on the farm can still wonder; why is this any better than opening a market stall–or even working construction?
But a government job, or the police is a different story. Nobody will ever second-guess a job like that. Sure the police are corrupt, womanizing bastards, and government workers are arrogant jerks who have to sit in an office all day long. But that kind of guaranteed income, while still being able to live near family and country, and maybe even own land and work the harvest . . . . But these are mostly open to men. Women still have to rely on their own resources.
And in the U.S.? Our system is so geared to preparing us for paper- and screen-bound office hierarchies and salary-work that it is hard to imagine alternatives, other than free-lancing office work that is symbiotic to the corporate hierarchies. It is no coincidence that many of the great tech entrepreneurs and creative entertainers are people who dropped out of school (although, to be fair, only after receiving a decent elementary and high school education). And immigrants are disproportionately represented in small business.
Luna is from rural Thailand, near the Lao and Cambodian borders. She grew up in the 1970s without electricity, without shoes, without motorized vehicles. Money was rare. It was largely a subsistence life, eating what they grew on the farm and what they could forage (such as mushrooms, frogs, land crabs, lizards, snakes, insects and algae) and building shelters out of whatever materials were on hand. Luna spent her days taking care of ducks and buffalos, carrying water and cooking, planting and harvesting rice and vegetables, and hacking down the forests to create new fields. She never attended school (until her early 30s, when she went to hairdressing school, driving school and four weeks of English classes). Buddhist nuns and her grandmother taught her the basics of writing before she was 12. But she didn’t really learn to read and write until her 20s, when she worked security in Bangkok and had nothing else to do during the long nights in building lobbies and parking lots than to practice her handwriting and hope it would get her a pay raise. She learned basic math when she worked as a bus conductor in her teens.
When I go to Luna’s farm, all I see are nice green fields, pretty trees and some animals. When she looks at that same countryside, she sees all the places where things to eat can be found, endless resources to build and repair things, and a landscape that can be endlessly modified to better suit new crops, animals or human needs. With little more than a machete, she can enter (what to me looks like) an empty field and finish the day with a chicken coop. With the help of a couple of family members, they will finish the day with a small farmhouse. She can start with a cotton plant and a few leaves for dye; and after a few days show me a multi-colored textile with elephant patterns. When she tries to explain the loom to me, and the multiple knotted strings used to produce the pattern, I can only shake my head in despair at ever being able to understand the complexity of it all.
I feel like a child when I am in the country with Luna. I am totally dependent, totally ignorant, totally incompetent. I am in awe of her talent and intelligence. She can take home a single example of a handbag that she wants to copy—often a complex bag shaped like an owl or a dolphin—replicate it at home and then design a mass-producing system for her and a friend to create hundreds of them with multiple color patterns. She can watch somebody cook something once or twice—whether in India, China or Italy—and then go home and successfully recreate the dish. She can watch somebody paint a new flower design on to her fingernails, and then next time go home and paint it herself. She built most of her concrete and iron home by herself, just by watching how other people worked. Sometimes she hired people to help her, but as often or not ended up doing it herself because they were so incompetent.
When she comes to New York, however, I learn the limits of her skills. She is eternally lost in the city. She can barely make heads or tails of a map. She is more likely than not to take the subway in the wrong direction, even on routes she has already travelled several times. She can’t make sense of computers and their various parts: the system, the applications, the internet, the browsers, the websites. Indeed, she is flummoxed by most electrical appliances (except cell phones). Every time I teach her, it just slips right out of her memory the next minute and her fingers are fumbling again—much like everything she tries to teach me about plants and crafts.
After a few months in New York together, I catch myself thinking that Luna is a bit stupid, a bit uneducated. I teach her things so many times, things that seem obvious to me, but she just can’t remember or figure it out. She can hold great English conversations in Thailand—indeed she can tell stories better than many native English speakers. But in conversations with my friends in New York she is perplexed and awkward—not only in her language skills, but in her complete misjudgment of the proper flow and tone of a conversation.
Fortunately, I can remember the skills and intelligence that I saw in Thailand and quickly repent of my critical judgments. But I am startled by how different a personality can look in a different context. It makes me realize how different intelligences can be; how much they are dependent on situations.
I’ve read somewhere that learning to read at an early age changes the wiring of our brains. We are trained to relate readily to small objects the size of a word, and can understand their intricate relationships. A childhood of reading also trains us to think in terms of abstractions and generalizations. But it leaves us incompetent to read a natural landscape; to anticipate the activities of plants and animals; or to think in holistic terms of a world made up of complexly interwoven particularities. I can believe it.
I often read scientists claiming that IQ tests are effective measures of intelligence and can predict success in life. They argue that high IQ scores correlate with high incomes and job success. Based on this correlation, some of them pooh-pooh the idea of different kinds of intelligences and insist that IQ=ability. But this correlation between IQ scores and job success is completely tautological. The kinds of abstract, paper & screen-based reasoning that can make one succeed on an IQ test (or the SAT or GRE or LSAT) is precisely the kind of skill that makes one successful in school and in modern white-collar jobs. Being good at these kinds of tests helps you get into better schools, and graduating from a better school often gets you a better job and starting salary. So, of course IQ tests can predict success in American and European society; because American society rewards precisely the kinds of abstract, paper-bound skills that are measured by tests. Skills and intelligence in practical construction, in utilizing landscapes, in material creativity are skills that don’t pay (except for a handful of successful artists and decorators). And people with this kind of intelligence are routinely treated with condescension–both in America and in urban Thailand.
I can’t imagine Luna doing well on one of those standardized tests. She’s never seen one in her life, and wouldn’t know where to start (I’ve filled out visa and customs forms with her–even the basic organization of the sheet seems to perplex her). But I will still defer to her intelligence and wisdom on so many things, both practical and emotional. Every now and then, when she is frustrated about some stupidity on my part, she says “You have school. Why you not understand anything?” The answer is easy. “Because nobody learns anything useful in school.”
To be sure, Luna is a bit exceptional. None of her eight siblings (with the possible exception of a sister who lives in Germany) are as smart and talented as she. Part of the reason is that she was the only one to be raised by her grandmother, who taught her a lot. But maybe it is also because she is the only sibling who did not go to school. All of the others had 3-5 years of school. Even though some of them still can’t sign their names, perhaps those few young years of paper-bound abstraction were still enough to eat away at their native, environmental intelligence.
I met Luna, my girlfriend of five years, on the streets of Bangkok. I was walking to a phone booth, looking at all the lights and not really paying attention to where I was going. Luna was sitting with a friend on a small sidewalk restaurant, and I nearly walked into them. I apologized, and her friend asked me to sit down with them. I declined and walked on. I looked back, and saw Luna smiling at me.
This happened in Sukhumvit, a part of town with many sex workers and where inviting smiles are common. At least one or two other women had smiled at me that night. But after my phone call, I was still thinking about Luna’s smile. Both she and her friend looked a bit different than most of the women around Sukhumvit: different fashion sense, a bit darker, a bit heavier, an less bored and mechanical. And Luna’s smile–it was stuck in my mind. I decided to walk back, and take them up on their invitation.
Her friend Minnie invited me to sit down again as soon as she saw me. Minnie was a flirt–and as I learned later also an alcoholic and a freestyle sex worker (i.e. frequent sex with foreigners for free, for drinks, for money, and for long term relationships–whatever seemed appropriate at the moment). She lied to me about being from the Philippines and about having a job. But she was good natured and fun about it, and I am thankful to her for keeping the conversation going. Both Luna and I were a bit shy, and the encounter may have amounted to nothing without Minnie’s lubrication.
Luna shared some fried cakes she had cooked at her home in the country with us. She said that she had just arrived in Bangkok that morning for her job. When I told them I was a professor at CU, Minnie’s eyes opened wide but Luna only looked at me blankly. Minnie tried to explain what a professor was and that CU was a famous school. Luna only smiled at me. I started to focus my attention on Luna.
They were just finishing their meal, and talked about going to a bar that Minnie knew. Luna started to pay, but Minnie told her to put away her money and let me pay. I started to reach for my wallet, but Luna insisted that I hadn’t eaten anything and that she would pay.
They stood up abruptly and walked away quickly. I wasn’t sure if I was invited to come. Then Luna turned around, looked in my eyes, held out her hand and gave me that smile. I took her hand and we walked across the street together. . . .
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.
Many people in Thailand assume that my girlfriend, Luna, is a sex worker—because she has money to build a house and buy a car, and because of her falang boyfriend. When I stayed in her home, women ranging in age from their late teens to their forties sometimes came for advice on how to find a falang husband, on whether it was better to work in a go-go bar or massage parlor or just freelance, or just hoping she could hook them un with a good sex-related job in Bangkok or Pattaya. Luna usually told them she didn’t know anything about it, and that they should just go to Bangkok or Pattaya to find out for themselves.
One time, however, during a period when Luna and I were not getting along very well, she started telling a girl who wanted a falang husband that it was a bad idea. The communication barrier with falang was just too large, and even when you did understand each other you would only learn that your desires and expectations are too different. There were problems about everything: what to eat, how to spend money, how to clean the house, what kind of decorations, how to treat people, treat family, even how to go to the bathroom. When one person is trying to be polite, the other will think he is lying. When the other person is trying to be honest, the other will think she is being cruel. Even when you do agree with each other, you sometimes don’t understand because of the language barrier and get angry anyways. Luna told the girl she would be better off with a Thai man. He would be easier to understand, with much fewer problems. If she needed the money, she could just work in a bar and sleep with falang. It would be much less difficult in the long run.
But the girl persisted, saying how she saw all the big houses and nice cars that falangs had bought for their wives in the country. Whatever their problems, the falangs still took care of their wives. She could learn to understand her husband, and to make him love her.
Finally Luna told her, “Even if he loves you, he will love only you. He won’t care about your family. He won’t want to help them. He’ll get angry when you want to give money to them and buy things for them.”
“What do you mean?” asked the girl.
“It’s true,” Luna went on. “All falang are the same. They love their children, but don’t care about their parents and brothers and sisters. They care about yours even less. They only treat family like friends. They get angry when you say that you have to take care of them. If your family asks you for something or you want to buy something for them, the falang always yell, ‘Why do you have to give them so much?! They can take care of themselves. It’s not your job to take care of them. They’ll just want more, more all the time. You just want them to be lazy.'”
The girl’s eyes went wide open. I was sitting nearby, and she looked me up and down with a snarl in her lips. “You can’t be serious?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Luna, “They don’t care about family in Europe. They only care about themselves and their own happiness.”
“But . . . how can somebody like that get married? How can he have a wife if he doesn’t care about family?”
“You have to believe what I’m saying,” said Luna. “It’s not easy to marry a falang. They don’t care about anything.”
I don’t know if the girl was persuaded. But she stopped asking questions, scowled at me again and walked off.
Luna reported the conversation to me. I thought it was true and hilarious. We both laughed. It was the best moment we’d had together in several days.
When my Thai girlfriend Luna was working in Italy, she was annoyed by people constantly asking her why so many Thai women worked as prostitutes and sold their bodies to foreigners. Her usual answer was, “Up to them, they can do what they want.” But later, when she reported these conversations to me, she added, “But lady in Europe get laid with many man for FREE! Have many, many boyfriend. Not even boyfriend, only for get laid. Don’t care nothing. Man don’t give money, don’t give nothing. And lady don’t take care of her family. Only take care her own happy. And then she like to speak bad about Thai lady. I want to know who bad, Thai lady or Europe lady?”
I’ve always refrained from answering Luna’s question. But I do know that for many Thais, promiscuity is more of a problem than taking money for sex. In fact, the exchange of money and resources is an indispensable part of romance and marriage. Big dowries are an indispensable part of all weddings. When a man gives money, it is proof of love and commitment. Affection is the appropriate response from the lady. She would be foolish to marry a man who is stingy with his money. This principle extends to casual sex as well. Promiscuity only for the sake of sex just causes emotional and social problems. It is more acceptable if the man gives the woman some money so she can help out her family.
I’ve also seen some of the implications of Luna’s logic in the bar she has recently opened in the small city near her village. It started as a hair and nail salon that Luna set up about two months ago. She was renting two shopfronts for the salon, and her cousin who owns a wholesale liquor shop suggested that she sell some beer, whiskey and simple food in the shop next door. Many of her hair and nail customers were also women who worked at the karaoke bar a few shops down. They persuaded her that the real money was in a more formal bar where women could meet men for sex. They told her the various ways that bars operated, and Luna also talked to local police about what kind of operations would and would not get negative attention from them.
So Luna renovated the second room, putting in some red fluorescent lights, a stereo and a few couches. She did not want a go-go or a karaoke bar, but someplace quieter and more low-key. She did not want to hire women or charge them a bar fine each time they left with a man. In part because the police would also start expecting a monthly fee from her, but mostly because she wanted to provide a space for independent women. Instead, she just charges a small ‘tip’ each time a man buys a drink for a lady, and splits the tip 60-40 with the woman. Some of the women who come frequently also do a bit of work in the bar like cleaning tables or serving drinks when Luna has to step out. These work arrangements are still informal so far as I can tell.
It is not turning out quite the way she expected. The bar is frequented almost entirely by the local falang (foreigners), with a few Thai soldiers on the weekends. The falang like it because the music is not loud and the women not so pushy as in the karaoke bars—although I suspect Luna’s charisma is also part of the attraction. It also turns out that the falang prefer to drink beer and talk with each other than to spend much time with the women. Only two to four women hang out there each evening, and they don’t always leave with a customer. Falang like to drink beer more than whiskey and cocktails, which have a better profit margin. The bar is still doing fine, but not quite so profitable as she had hoped (although more profitable than the salon). A woman who goes out with a single customer can still earn more than Luna does all night selling drinks.
She has also found (returning finally to the question that opened this post) that a couple of the women are having sex with the men for very little money and sometimes for free. They are both in their 40s, although still quite attractive. They tell Luna that they like to have sex, and that they are looking for a husband. But their behavior is having the opposite effect. Some of the falang have complained that these women are too pushy, drunken and a little bit crude–always grabbing at their dicks. One even gave a blow job right in the bar. And some falang insist that they would not consider either woman as a girlfriend, unlike the women who still keep their prices high. By all reports, these two women also frequently have sex without condoms. Luna even suspects that one of them has AIDS. Overall, she thinks their behavior gives a bad reputation to her bar. But she also finds it hard to say anything because these women are more like customers than employees.
I don’t want to make any generalization from this. But I think it is an example that extends the significance of Luna’s comment at the beginning of this post. Taking money does not necessarily make a sex act less appropriate or moral. In fact, it can be quite the opposite (although the cultural context of understanding ‘appropriate’ and ‘moral’ will make a big difference). Women who are thoughtfully using their sexuality to earn money and attract husbands might also be more likely to maintain certain standards of selectivity and hygiene than those who are mostly looking to have sex. And–as the many foreign men married to Thai sex workers attests–commercial sex can certainly be a path to marriage and even romance. It takes discipline to deploy sexuality effectively and profitably. And a formal context of regulated payment and work might make that discipline more likely than the less regulated world of freelance hustling that is pervasive everywhere from the world of streetwalking to dating and marriage.
The strong line we draw in the West between legitimate sex and commerce, and the rather formal, clock-watching nature of sex work here, makes it hard for us to imagine sex work as a way to meet husbands. But even for Western women, the Honest Courtesan has also made the argument that the professional standards of sex workers are more honest and ethical than those of the many other women who use sex in a variety of ways to attract wealthy men, luxuries and resources—what she calls ‘halfway whores.’ At least sex workers fulfill our Western ideal of working according to an agreement for exchange; whereas the more informal sex freelancers often hide and deny the fact that money and resources are expected in exchange for sex.