One of the interesting things about living in Thailand is that average Americans know next to nothing at all about the country. They know about Thai food, but beyond that they would be hard pressed to find Thailand on a map. I’d bet that most of them couldn’t find Thailand on a map of Southeast Asia! Regarding Thai people, Americans have a vague belief that Thai people are friendly, and they have the completely erroneous belief that Thai women are easy. They have the first part right, but they are way off on the second part. A certain very narrow element of the Thai economy notwithstanding, Thai women are actually very modest, more modest than a lot of women in America or Europe, not to mention the many places in the world where modesty really is completely optional.
Americans don’t know much about geography in general. That includes American geography. What state is directly north of Iowa? Good for you if you said, “Minnesota,” but you’d stump a lot of people with that question. It’s even worse with the world at large. Not only the geography, but also the cultures of the world are mysterious to Americans. This obviously includes our current president, of whom people say that he might be the greatest president of all time, because he gets more accomplished in one average weekday than any other president in history ever accomplished in the best week of his presidency, which they know is true because he told them himself. He probably thinks that he knows a lot about geography and world cultures, too, but if you listen to what he says, that’s not the case. The other day he suggested that Nigerians live in huts.
That would probably put him in the fat part of the bell curve of Americans’ knowledge of the world. Regarding Thailand, I think that the first image that comes to mind for most Americans is one of Vietnamese farming villages during that unpleasantness back in the 1960s and ‘70s. You know, the thatched roofs, the black pajamas, and the conical hats. That’s South East Asia, right? And the cities still look like old Saigon, right? Well no, no they don’t. Ho Chi Min City these days looks more like Pittsburgh than it looks like old Saigon.
Thailand is not some Third World backwater. (Nor is Vietnam, for that matter.) Those do still exist in the world, but their numbers are fewer now. People know that Third World means undeveloped, as in no roads, no indoor plumbing, no electricity in the countryside, etc. They also know that First World means the United States, the developed world. Thailand is a DEVELOPING country, and it’s a very advanced developing country at that. (More advanced than Vietnam, another developing country, for instance.) That’s Second World. Even the poorest citizens out in the countryside of Thailand have indoor plumbing, with potable municipal water, and electricity. Almost all of them. It’s not perfect yet, that’s what developing means! Not perfect, but the electricity stays on for all twenty-four hours of almost every day, all year. And I’ll tell you what, Thailand has wall to wall cell phone coverage, border to boarder, north, south, east, and west, clear as a bell. That is still on America’s wish list, a goal that we hope will be achieved in our lifetimes, unless we’re over forty-five or so, then forget it. The mall in my neighborhood is as nice as anything I’ve been to in Los Angeles, and the mall’s movie theater is nicer than American theaters. (With tickets priced at four or five bucks.)
Large parts of America these days look like parts of a developing country, so Americans are not really in a position to look down on other countries. The crumbling infrastructure, obvious decay, and barely habitable housing of huge swaths of the “Rust Belt” really suffer in comparison to South Korea, Japan, Canada, and much of Europe. That “Shining City on the Hill” stuff is a lost dream by now. Beyond appearances, many of those aforementioned countries have higher standards of living than America, too.
In Thailand, add in some very good doctors and hospitals, a good nationwide transportation system, fiber-optic wi-fi, etc., and the general reasonableness of prices, and it’s a great deal. Then there’s the great weather, and the best food in the world, and friendly, hospitable people. It’s a total-package that’s hard to beat.
Believe me, it’s no hardship living in Thailand. Here, I’m living in a very nice condo, eating delicious food, and traveling by taxi without worrying about the cost. If I were to move back to the States, I’d have to live in a trailer in the Mojave Desert, and I’d be eating bargain tuna fish out of the can, with crackers, and wishing that I could afford the Bumble Bee tuna. If I tried to duplicate my current standard of living, I’d run out of money in less than a year. Add a minor medical emergency and I’d run out of cash immediately.
The Best Part
The real selling point for Thailand is that everything that happens, every day, happens in the Thai style. I had a perfect example of this today up at school.
I teach in the law department at a big Thai university. “Huge” would be more descriptive, because we’re one of the biggest universities in the world by the number of students. We have two campuses in Bangkok, and remote campuses in forty-four provinces (law is taught at twenty-six of these). The law faculty and staff had their combined Christmas-New Year’s party today at the main campus, and the whole thing was uproarious fun, which is the core value of the Thai style.
The picture at the head of this post was a photo-op upon getting off the elevator. The Santa’s helpers in the photo are office staff who provide this kind of duty for all of our parties and “seminars.” (Essentially another word for parties.) Next came signing in, where friends of mine who were working the desk jumped up to take photographs with us and several minutes were devoted to socializing. (All Thai work stations are overmanned to allow for this kind of thing.)
I could describe the show part of the proceedings, but we’re running a bit long here. I should say that everybody’s name went into a box at sign-in and there were almost enough door prizes to give one to everyone present. In between the acts the MCs would take over and give out some door prizes. (Many fairly expensive items, too. I won an item that costs about $60.) The final song and dance number summed it all up. There were about fifteen people on the stage, still in costume from the show. There were young women dressed as women from different countries, a young man dressed as an Indian dancing girl, the Santa’s helpers were there, as was a Thai James Bond with an enormous fake pistol, a couple of MCs dressed for cold weather for unknown reasons, and they were all dancing to some music and singing a song from the lyrics displayed on a Karaoke video monitor, the lyrics to a song that half of them had obviously never heard before. The dancing was awful, as was the singing. The players were talking and laughing amongst themselves. Half of the audience was not paying any attention; they were sitting at their tables talking together, eating this Korean ice-cream like dessert, and laughing. It was all so casual and comfortably enjoyable* that I sat and smiled at the spectacle of it.
If we were in South Korea, I thought to myself, the show would be over-rehearsed and professional, and everybody in the audience would be watching intently, and nobody at all would be having fun. But this was Thailand, so everyone was just coasting along on the fun program. It was, indeed, lots of fun.
As far as living in Thailand goes, I’ll simply say for the umpteenth time, “what’s not to love?” And yes, it’s safe. That’s a question that I get a lot, “is it safe there?” It’s a lot safer than either of my American home cities, New York and Los Angeles. Then there’s, “don’t you want to come home for medical care?” Why would I? So that I could pay five times as much for the same quality of work? And as my father never tired of asking me, “how can you live in a country where you can’t talk to anybody?” I repeatedly explained it to him, but he could never fathom that I could actually speak enough Thai to talk to anybody about most things that are likely to come up in day to day life. My reading is very limited, but I can read menus just fine.
So I’m not going anywhere. I’ve settled down. When I die, just take me to the temple for cremation. Do what you want with the ashes and the bone fragments. Those decisions are for the living. In the meantime, I’m happy to be here, happy to be a guest in this wonderful country. Thanks, everybody! And thanks for inviting me to these parties. It’s always a great time.
*English has no word for this. In Thai, it is “sabai;” in German it is “gemuetlich.”