Having lived in Bangkok for more than three years, it’s fair to say that my love affair with this magical, dirty, fabulous, stinky heaven of a city is going strong. But the same cannot be said of everyone. The place is full of deeply jaded expats and while I’m sure lots of things will affect my relationship with Bangkok as it changes and develops and gentrifies and so on, I desperately want to avoid losing my enthusiasm for it. Especially because it seems to me these grumps share a particular and common gripe that alarms me. And that is Thainess.
Yes, the very things that make Thai people Thai – in Thailand – are what get the goats of those who have voluntarily chosen to live in their country. “This would never happen in[…..]!” is something you hear of Thai bureaucracy or health and safety all the time, despite the fact that we are decidedly not in whatever country we must infer is superior and therefore its practices are rendered irrelevant. Whenever talk of local business culture or the tendency towards ‘saving face’ arises here, there’s lots of condescending eye-rolling accompanied by this insidious little comment: “It’s sooooo Thai”. And everyone knows what that means.
This label, while objectively accurate, is loaded with subtext, and it’s liberally applied to humans too. When, for example, I ask a male friend about the new girl he’s seeing, it routinely goes something like this:
How did you meet? “Tinder”. What does she do? “Marketing”. Where does she live? “Thonglor”. Where is she from? “…”
At this point, if the answer is “She’s Thai”, it will ALWAYS be followed by some kind of caveat: “BUT she speaks amazing English”, or “BUT she went to international school”, or “BUT she studied in America.” It MUST be qualified. As if it’s in some way unseemly thing to live in a country and date a girl from that country unless she’s not, like, “really western”.
Then, we have the term “Thai-time”. And listen, I agree, a “relaxed attitude towards arrival or starting times” can be annoying. But if it’s a cultural norm where you are, rather than bitching about it, you just have to readjust to it like anything else. If you’re a naturally punctual person, just stay at home 30 minutes longer and hey presto, you’ll be right on time. And if on the odd occasion you are held up, you can relax in the knowledge that it won’t matter to anyone.
“Uh Nicky, that’s so Thai!”
Yeah, you know what else is soooo Thai? Delicious food available at any hour of the night, slippers in the office and – my favourite – wearing a t-shirt in the gym! This is just one etiquette lesson the sweaty white men in my condo would do well to observe from our hospitable hosts.