I live in a very nice condo building that is way too expensive for almost any Thais outside of BKK. There’s key-card entry and key-card elevators, 24 hour security everywhere, a huge cleaning staff, a beautiful pool, and nice spa facilities. My condo has a great shower, a big refrigerator, smoke alarms and a sprinkler system. I have a good job, the rent would represent two decent salaries out in the countryside. It’s not typical.
A young Thai family is depicted on my key-card. Mom and dad are about thirty-five; there’s one daughter about thirteen; and a son about nine or ten. They all have perfect black hair and perfect white clothes, they are all staggeringly beautiful, and they all have skin that is as white as a sheet of loose-leaf.
They are the new look of prosperity in Thailand. Skin color is very important here. It is possible to be too thin, but you cannot be too white.
Most Thais by far fall into a pleasant range of copper colored, high-yellow skin, but there is some kind of unarticulated bag-test at work. Beyond a certain point of color density, a Thai is considered to be “see dam.” (“Black”) A woman who is considered black can never be thought of as pretty, no matter how fabulous her face and figure may be. The opposite is also true, a woman with very white skin is thought beautiful, quite independently of her actual qualifications for the accolade.
This is an age old prejudice, but it is now constantly reinforced by the modern media propaganda machine. Virtually all movie stars and popular singers are white skinned, and lots of magazine space and TV time are devoted to these stars. All of the ads accompanying this media feature white skinned young people too, prosperous looking white skinned young people.
Thai TV shows a lot of local soap operas, family dramas. The families depicted live in mansions and drive Mercedes and BMW automobiles, and they all have fabulous clothes and white skin. You could be forgiven if you were led to believe that Thais were all rich, and that they all had white skin.
(Back in the real world, the illusion breaks down pretty quickly, even in BKK, which is generally much more prosperous than the rest of the country. For Thailand in general, beautiful copper skin predominates, and most people lead simple, happy lives, untroubled by luxury. Lots of Thais, though, are bothered by their insufficiently pale skin. The shelves everywhere are filed with “whitening” products, a large percentage of any type of product that is used on the skin is so designated. I’ve done some reading up on the phenomenon and, although there may be some short term lightening of the skin, long term use can result in dramatic darkening. A perfect storm of chemistry and marketing.)
This can’t be good for Thai society. Thailand is still full of villages where most of the population works in the fields and has virtually no money. They seem pretty happy though, I’ve been out there and sometimes I wonder if they realize that they’re poor. They work with their families and friends, get finished pretty early, go home and take a nice, cool bucket-shower, and then cook up some great food. The cooking and eating are usually done in some kind of extended family groups, and I can tell you that it can be a laugh riot and the food is delicious. By nine o’clock or so it’s time to wash down the fighting-cocks and turn in.
Students who grow up constantly bombarded by images of prosperous, white skinned young Thai families with exquisite clothes and driving Volvos and having servants may develop unreasonable expectations for their own lives. I wonder if they’ll be as happy with the country life as their parents still are. Given the state of education out in the sticks, the country life is where they’ll end up. They'll be stuck down on the farm, even after they've seen Paree.