When someone says the past is a foreign land, they describe a lot of old movies and TV shows. Minorities were cut out figures in films and TV that played to our collective prejudices. The black kid named Buckwheat in Our Gang, the North American Indian Tonto in the Lone Ranger, Chinese women in the World According to Suzie Wong, and Chinese men in Charlie Chan.
Today it is slightly embarrassing to admit we occupy that world where people didn’t think to question the characterizations in any of these films or TV shows. A little shudder of regret is natural about how our parents and grandparents thought about other people, and as kids we didn’t know any better. We simply watched what we were shown. Jewish, Italian, Irish, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, they’ve all had their goofy, dangerous, devious, and violent sides used as a source entertainment. But we’ve moved beyond such crude caricatures, right? Yes and no. We might agree, compared with the characterizations of the past, we’ve come a long way.
Buckwheat ‘Our Gang’
Segue to Bangkok, Thailand. It’s 2011. You check into a 5-star hotel, and you have beautiful women smiling and gracefully extending a wai. Wherever you look, the staff are friendly, welcoming and hospitable. Paradise, right? If you stick to the hotel grounds and other 5-star places, which feed from the rich tourist trade, you’d think I could live here. You tell yourself, that, yeah I like this level of respect and treatment. Of course you overlook that this is the product 5-star hotels sell. It’s not real. It’s a product. You’ve flown all the way because you read somewhere or a knowing friend told you to pamper yourself, and get to know that inner youth just waiting for a second chance. But before you hand your boss your resignation and moved to Thailand, there are a couple things to bear in mind as you slip into the gulf stream of everyday non-5-star hotel life. You can buy a week or two-week package where power flashes blind you lobby to the corridor to the restaurants; and you feel like a movie star.
Visualize that you are going to be in the sequel to that movie. Only the sequel is different in some major ways. Your role, call it status or position in the film, changes. The good news is, it will be one of those reality dramas that everyone loves to watch. You are ‘in’ the movie, but you get treated like an “extra” with no lines. You are suddenly not the lead. Not even the lead’s best friend. You’ve must learn to get over 5-star hotel inspired thinking. You aren’t entitled to a perpetual wall smiles directed at you. You were the star of that movie. That 5-star hotel movie was short, sweet and you paid for it. This movie is your real life. You won’t have enough money to finance the movie that comes next.So how will you know this is happen? That’s a natural question to ask.
You want a test. Say you have to get across town fast. You take one of the new city trains. They are clean, modern, fast, and cheap. I love these trains and use them all the time. They will deliver you to most places that foreigners have any reason or desire to venture to.
Most foreigners who have used Bangkok’s Sky Train (the BTS) or the underground train (the MRT) notice how many times the Thais who are passengers avoid sitting next to them. Or near them. It works like this: a farang finds an empty seat in a row of empty seats. The train stops at the next and so on with new passengers piling in looking for an empty seat. They spot the farang look at the empty seat, but continue to stand. They might have packages but they ain’t gonna risk sitting next to the foreigner.
Why would Thais rather stand than sit next to a foreigner on public transport system? Well, I guess it depends. When the train is truly overcrowded the braver Thais will take those seats. Out of a sense of desperation, they overcome the gag reaction.
This avoidance of close proximity to farangs extends beyond public transportation to stools at food counters at places like Foodland’s restaurant ‘Good And Cheap’ or in office elevators (where Thais take a step back when a farang gets on) – I’ve been thinking about the farang avoidance issue. Most years I attend the annual Oxford-Cambridge dinner normally held at a 5-star hotel in Bangkok. The men wear black tie, and the women show up in evening dress. The crowd contains both Thais and farangs. Guess where they sit? Hint, think of the BTS or MRT. This isn’t the way you remember a 5-star hotel when you were a privileged guest. You live here. That guest thing is over. An informal segregation is the default. You are playing the Buckwheat or Tonto role on a 2011 train. Perhaps the sins of our forebears are being paid by all farangs. But you have to live here a long time before you start putting karma on the list of possible explanations.
Why do the Thais look around the car and find a seat next to another Thai (or Asian—as nationality is difficult to detect) or stand rather than occupy the seat adjacent to a farang? Or why do they clump together at different tables at the Oxford-Cambridge Dinner, or just about any other public gathering. This behavior is based on little more than racial profiling. You also see it on Thai TV daytime shows such as broadcast on Channel 3 where the farang gets to play the Buckwheat role. Only unlike that actor, this 2011 young actor grins as he’s made the butt of farang jokes. It’s a toss of the coin as to whether such stereotypes on TV reflect the general consensus of Thais or creates and reinforces such a consensus: that farangs play a role not unlike blacks in the American cinema from the 1940s. Or like Tonto who separated from the Lone Ranger has a teeny bit of an identity crisis. Or like Buckwheat and that hair thing. In Thailand it is the physical appearance of things, how they look on the surface that matters. Farangs look different, and that is what matters.
Lone Ranger & Tonto
One theory is the communitarian tribal decision-making, for the most part, creates that ‘us and them’ radar detection system. A farang appears on the screen as an ‘incoming’ round. Someone outside the tribe might pose a danger. Strangers—meaning people who appear or who are ethnically different from us—create a sense of fear. That fear isn’t necessarily equal to facing a charging lion, but a low-grade uncertainty that this person is safe to be next to. Our built-in radar makes us play safe. Often we don’t know why we do things; such fears come from a long biological history where predators and strangers were one and the same threat.
While Thais are able with confidence to decode the signals and status of their fellow Thais, this same confidence often fails them when confronted with outsiders, in particular farang. When the decision to avoid the farang is made, it is likely the result of a category classification error. Hence, it’s easier to lump all the farangs together in one category. So, what’s left is “All farangs are the same,”—we (farangs) look alike, think alike, eat farang food, speak farang language, use farang money and, well, we all emit that farang radioactive smell. We are seen as part of a strange collective hive. Stay away or get stung, the Thai processing template teaches. That teaching carries into the commercial world. When a Thai is issued an M Card for discounts at the Emporium or Siam Paragon, in the upper left hand corner appears the word: Prestige. The farang M Card uses the word “Expatriate” in that space. Prestige, like many jobs, is reserved for Thais. You want to feel prestige, check back into that 5-star hotel. Privilege and prestige are part of the hotel’s package. Be really careful if you think that gets you through a normal Bangkok day.
Like most rules, there are the rare exception. Thais do recognize that some farangs are more special than others. Ask the boys who play for Manchester United when they come to town. For instance, if you were to tell the Thais in the carriage that the farang seated in a crowded car with an empty seat on either side was Mark Zuckerberg or Wayne Rooney, then the category of celebrity/wealth/power/coolness kicks in and overwhelms the category of farang and they’d likely scramble to take that vacant seat next to him. God only knows if he’d be entitled to an M Card with Prestige on it. I’ll stick with Mark. I saw his movie and Mark is a nice name. What I propose is an interesting test case. Though as a billionaire, Zuckerberg may be less interested in a membership discount card.
The local press has been trailing after Mark Zuckerberg the week before New Year. He was in Bangkok (apparently) to attend a friend’s wedding. Members of the Thai press in both professional and personal capacity stalked the man to various venues in the city. In other words, they couldn’t get close enough to him. They posted their pictures with him on Facebook. He was, after all, TIME’s Man of the Year. In a couple of those pictures Mr. Zuckerber’s arm was wrapped around a Thai’s shoulder. Unspeakable. What was he thinking? Doesn’t he know that he’s a farang?
The thing is, Thais, like just about everyone else, are obsessed by celebrities. They can’t get enough of them: local or foreign. Indeed no local celebrity short of shooting someone would have gained the media attention showered on Mark Zuckerberg.
In the globalized world, it is the celebrity who transcends the built-in tribal negative reaction. Overcomes the fear. Why does the farang Mark Zuckerberg acquire his magic in Bangkok? He’s not a movie star, though the film The Social Network may have blurred that distinction, and he’s not known to have any connection to Thailand, Thai culture, language. Though he probably likes Thai food (in fact, his primary stalker, The Nation has reported that he likes Thai food and Thai culture). The local journalists who wouldn’t give a second look at an ordinary category 1 farang (99.9% of farang fall into category 1) on the BTS were falling over themselves to interview Zuckerberg, keenly interested in what he thought about Thailand, i.e., what he thought about them.
I doubt that any famous Mark would be caught dead riding BTS or MRT so we can’t put this to a genuine test. I suspect, though, dressing Zuckerberg in sandals, a t-shirt, baggy shorts and a backpack and load him on the BTS and he wouldn’t be recognized. No one would sit next to him or ask if what he thought about Thailand and whether he liked spicy food. They certainly would not find any prestige attached to knowing, talking to, or photographing such a person. These snap judgments are done on the fly. It is about observing who is an insider or an outsider, who has power, who has fame, and in a public place such as a train carriage, with no other visible clues, the fall back position is race, followed by clothes, jewelry, and smell. The last element is important to the Thais. They were forever sniffing each other with those nose kisses, and the conventional wisdom is that farangs have a bad smell.
Unless you are a celebrity you will likely not smell very good. And a bad smell might just stick, and before you know it, you pick up the thread of a conversation between two Thais who were on the BTS.
“You didn’t sit next to a farang on the train, did you?”
She nods and whispers that it was Mark Zuckerberg, a category 2 farang. That explains it, Thai friend might reply,
“Did he smell nice?”
“He smelled like gold.”
“Did you offer to lend him your Prestige Card?”
“I offered to take him shopping.”
If you are famous and rich enough, you go from being Tonto to the Lone Ranger at the speed of a Bangkok taxi. Trading one stereotype for another is not seen as ironic. Irony isn’t something that works all that well here. So move here if you have Mark’s kind of money or Rooney’s kicking foot, which means you don’t need to quit your job because your don’t need a job. You can buy your dreams, mansions, friends, and know that your hero status, just like the Lone Ranger is secure. For the rest of us, our reality is Tonto dropped into a place where people don’t quite like his look or smell.