Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Several Surprising Things About Thailand

Nothing scandalous here. Just a few things that can take a newcomer by surprise, in a good way. Let's face it, Americans are not famous for their familiarity with the geography, history, or cultures of other countries. Most people could hardly find Thailand on a map.

The “Winter,” or, “Cold Season,” or “Cool Season.”

I came to Thailand with the Peace Corps, and they provided us with a nice packet of books and information to prepare us for the transition to Thai culture. The weather is Thailand is generally described as having three seasons, the Rainy Season, the Cold Season, and the Hot Season. The Cold Season may be referred to as the Cool Season or the Winter. Temperatures do moderate somewhat, mostly at night. But cold? Cool? Winter? Daytime temperatures may dip into the upper 80s, but that's it. My guess is that it's some kind of an in-joke.

My Peace Corps group arrived at the old Don Muang Airport after midnight one night in the first week of January, which is reputed to be the middle of the Cold Season. At around one a.m., we walked out of the air-conditioning to board a bus that would take us to our training site. It was 88 degrees Fahrenheit. (About thirty degrees Celsius.) There's nothing cool about that, especially if you have just spent three days in the snow in Seattle around New Years.

That first year turned out to be the hottest year of my now fifteen year experience in Thailand. After the Cool Season comes the Hot Season, and that year temperatures got up to 107 degrees in April, which is famously the only month when Thailand gets way, way too hot. The rain starts in May, and after that highs are usually only in the mid-90s. Hey! That's lower than body temperature! That's my new definition for moderate temperatures, lower than 98.6.

By now I can explain with confidence that Thailand has three seasons; The Hot Season; The Way-Too-Hot Season; and the Hot with Rain Season.

The Homogeneity

America is an extremely heterogeneous culture, meaning that the American people are made up of members of all of the varieties of human beings on God's green earth. Every country, race, and culture is represented in America. If you live in New York, or Los Angeles, all of those races and cultures will be represented in your child's high school. My youngest son went to Hamilton High School in L.A. There were about 3,500 students at Hami. They keep track of the languages that the students speak at home. A total of eighty-five different languages were spoken by those very American boys and girls at home. Think about it, that's an amazing total. That's more than you can find by simply counting countries; to get to eighty-five you need to be covering the dialect bases as well. Plus, of course, every skin tone was represented in that one high school; every hair texture; every shape of the eye; everyone and everything.

That was my reality when I left for Thailand. What I found here was the polar opposite of what I was accustomed to.

We were thrown very quickly into very large classes of grammar school students. I well remember looking out over a class of forty-five sixth graders and becoming almost dizzy at the lack of diversity. They were all Thai! Every classroom! Thailand is a very homogeneous culture. There are many regional dialects, but everyone speaks standard Thai as well. Thai people do not all look the same, not exactly. There is some variety when it comes to skin tone, eye shape, and hair texture, but all of the variety takes place in a fairly narrow range. An entire classroom full of Thai students all appear totally Thai and they all speak Thai. They are all clearly Thai. I had never before witnessed such a classroom, not as an aware adult anyway. It was a shock.

Thai Names

In America there is a great deal of duplication in the names of any group of people. There are lots of Johns, and Pauls, and Stevens, and Roberts, and Thomases, etc. There's a lot of duplication in the family names as well. Think about it, how many Bill Smiths do you think there are in America? 100,000? 1,000,000? That's one reason why we have middle names. (Most of us, anyway. My great grandfather and I are exceptions to that rule.)

If you look at a list of the names of five hundred students in America, there will be a lot of duplication. If you look at a list of the names of five hundred students in Thailand, they will all be different.

And I mean ALL OF THEM will be different. There are a few given names that repeat in any large group. Thailand alphabetizes by first names. Somchai and Tannapong for the boys; Sutarat and Supaporn for the girls. But in a list of five hundred names there will only be two or three of these duplications, max. Everybody else will probably be the only occurrence of that name.

In my Peace Corps days I did a lot of English camps for students of all grade levels. I loved to look through the lists of hundreds of names, marveling at the variety. I have been teaching at a large university for the last eleven years, and one of my duties is to sit at graduation. I love to listen to the recitation of the names of the degree recipients, alphabetized again by first name. As with the English camps, there will be a couple of Somchais, but most of the thousands of names by far pass as the only example of that name.

As for family names, until about one hundred years ago Thai people did not have family names. Unless, that is, they were members of the aristocracy, and that was a very small number of families. Then, suddenly, the King at the time decided that all Thai people must have family names. The head of each household was required to choose a name for that family. Furthermore, every single family in Thailand was required to choose a family name that was unique to them. As a result of this process, virtually every single Thai citizen has a combination of name and family name that is unique to them alone.

This realization comes as a shock to any American who is half paying attention.

The High Level of Development

I did not come to Thailand expecting it to be primitive in any way, but I will say that as I have stacked the years here I have become more and more impressed by just how far the country has come in its effort to join the fully developed world. They are a lot closer than most Americans would guess in achieving that goal.

My American friends and family often ask me if I feel safe in Thailand. They seem to lack any idea of the reality of the place. Sometimes I think that they are remembering South East Asia as it was represented in the news coverage of the Vietnam War, long ago. Villages, surrounded by rice fields, people running around wearing conical hats and sandals, no electricity. They have no concept of the progress that has been made over here. And Thailand did not suffer through a terrible war like Vietnam did. Thailand has been developing at a good clip since the mid- to late-19th Century.

Thailand is not some Third World backwater. Thailand is a SECOND WORLD country, a developing country. And it is a very advanced developing country at that. I live in Bangkok, and we have good municipal water and electricity twenty-four hours every day. (Well, once in a while lightning will smash a transformer and we'll have an outage that lasts from ten minutes to almost an hour. That might happen one time per month during the rainy season. These are tropical storms we're talking about. They'd blow out the power in Los Angeles just as easily.)

My mall is just as nice as your mall. Maybe nicer. The movie theaters here are much nicer than the ones you are likely to find in America, seriously. The hospitals that I go to provide a standard of care that is very much the same as I would encounter in America. Many of my doctors were, in fact, trained in America. Don't believe me? I'll prove it. Several of the hospitals just in my neighborhood receive patients who have been sent here for treatment by American insurance companies! These referrals for joint replacement and heart procedures of all kinds are common. They offer their clients a choice: get the work done in America and give us a co-pay of $25,000, or get the work done in Thailand with no co-pay at all. Plus, the insurance company will put you up in a hotel near your hospital with a per diem for food. The insurance companies still save money on that deal. Do you think that the insurance companies would take a chance on that if they thought that you would be injured in some way by receiving treatment over here? Of course they wouldn't. The law suits would screw those companies into the ground. There are many countries in the world where you would not want to even eat the food in their hospitals, and you would correctly refuse and injection for fear of contaminated needles. Thailand is not like that. I trust them completely.

The Basic Decency of Average Thai People

I'm not saying that I was shocked at the honesty and decency of regular Thai people, let's just say that I came with an open mind and that I have always been gratified and very favorably impressed with the cooperative and ethical spirit of Thai people.

I am American, that was my frame of reference. If I left a phone somewhere in America, and then returned to look for it, let's face it, it would be gone when I returned. Gone, never so be seen again. Walk away from your suitcase at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York, poof! Like Sigfried and Roy, it's gone. In either New York, or Los Angeles, I always needed to be aware that I was under constant observation by an army of hungry junkies who were desperate to steal my stuff. No one has to worry about that in Thailand.

I regularly meet my friends in the Dunkin Donuts at the local mall, and we can sit for a couple of hours comparing notes about the newest horrors in our home countries. Often we observe some individual Thai, sitting alone working on a lap-top, who will simply get up and walk out of the place for ten minutes or so. That was a bathroom break, and they just left all of their stuff sitting there on the table. Phones, tablet computers, purse, everything. They know that it will be there when they come back. That's the kind of place Thailand is. That's the kind of people that Thais are.

Last year I wrote a big piece for this blog about an instance where my wife left her phone in the taxi when we came to the mall. Nice phone, too, a mid-range Huawei, price new about 7,000 baht, a bit over $200. Used phones are a big business here, and anyone could easily trade that phone in and get about $60 or $70 dollars in their hand. That's good money here, it's more than a day's pay for a taxi driver, for instance. My wife ended up calling the phone, the taxi driver answered, and, long story short, he drove about a half and hour to return to the mall to give her the phone. She had told him to put the meter on so she could pay him for the extra trip, but he didn't do that. He laughed at the idea. He didn't expect anything. I had given her 300 baht to give the guy for his trouble, about $10, and he laughed at that idea too, although he did take the money. In today's dog-eat-dog world, Thais seem absurdly honest.

So yes, I feel safe over here, and I feel welcomed, and after fifteen years everything is still fascinating. When people ask me now if I can speak Thai, I answer either, “better than most Farang,” or, “better than last year.” Both things are true; I get by very nicely. I tolerate the heat very well. The traffic is murder, but I usually have nowhere to go. I'm always home safely before the mosquitoes come out. The giant monitor lizards are surprisingly shy, and if I see one he's just trying to find his way back into the canal anyway. I have a few friends and a few has always been enough for me.

I worry about my friends in America, truth to tell. It's such a rat-race over there, and all of the prices are like from outer space. Social Security is a joke, and Medicare is a scam. Young people with families? I don't know how they do it anymore. So don't worry about me.

I'm the lucky one.

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