Assimilation. How Does That Work?

Stickman (Assimilation?) wrote in his newsletter on August 12 about a couple of westerners he knew who had assimilated into Thai society. He said that they seemed to be very happy and that he envied them. He also mentioned that even after living here many years he didn’t have any close Thai friends.

I’d like to tell you about my experiences with Thais and Thai society. After living here 26 years and now well into my second marriage to a Thai woman you would think that I would be assimilated. But the truth is I remain exactly what I was when I first arrived; a farung. I always will be.

I’ve known men who came here and assimilated, and they seemed to do it very well. But I always felt uncomfortable around them. One turned out to be a super con-man. He ended up going back to Australia after bilking a bunch of high-ranking and wealthy Thais out of more than 350 million Baht. He died soon after. His Thai wife is still in Australia, and she can never return to Thailand without risking almost instant death.

That’s not exactly the kind of incentive to push you to integrate and assimilate.

Of course, the con-man caused his own problems. But what used to nauseate me was the way he put on those very Thai airs that make any red-blooded man cringe. It’s difficult for a Westerner to accept the obsequious kow-towing to anyone of perceived ‘higher status’ than himself, i.e. someone with more money. The way his wife looked down her nose at my wife and I because we didn’t hob-nob with royalty was unacceptable to me. It didn’t matter that both of them were involved in criminal activities devoted to fleecing the very people they professed to ‘respect’ so much. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, when I did find out it didn’t surprise me. They both always seemed to be so insincere.

My first wife was a lovely lady. But she too had a blind side I found difficult to deal with. She would lie with a beautiful smile on her face to anyone she felt she could fleece out of their money. What really used to annoy me was the way she would sneer about them to me after they had left. Doing business with her as my partner become intolerable. In the end it was one of the many factors that decided me to divorce her.

She was a terrible snob, always asking me when we would make enough money so that she could become a khunying. Every time she did I thought to myself that we would never have enough, as I kept whatever I could out of her grasping hands. I was not going to start doing all the bowing and scraping the hi-so Thais are expected to go through so that they can gain their tin medals and honors. That’s just not my style. Yet, I know a few Westerners who have done that and done it very successfully. To each his own.

My ex-wife looked down on anyone she thought was not of equal or higher status than her. Which was funny, because she was the daughter of a very rich Chinese Bangkok businessman’s mia noi (minor wife). I never met her mother because her daughter was ashamed of her. Her half brothers and sisters tolerated her. Perhaps they even loved her in their own way; she was family after all. But they never gave her the same status they had, and by extension the same applied to me. The only reason she was able to marry me was because her father had died a couple of years before I met her. She didn’t have to answer to anyone.

Even after we were married and I sat down to dinner with her family, I always got the feeling that we were only tolerated, but never truly accepted. Perhaps that was just my perception colored by her attitude, but even if that was true I never really felt like I was a part of her family.

Contrast that to my current wife, an Esarn girl. Her family are very poor, but they have all taken me into their hearts and made me feel welcome. They drop by our house whenever they are passing through town. They are always welcome. I am not close to any of them, but our relationship is friendly and very easy going. There are no tensions, and no demands for money or for help to boost them up the social ladder. They are simple folk and I like that about them.

My first wife would still look down on this wife if they ever met. They never will, despite some big hints from the first one whenever we talk (very rarely) on the phone. They come from very different social strata, but even worse, this wife comes from a poor family with absolutely no status. But I know who I prefer to be with these days.

I met my first wife through a Chinese Thai friend I had met when I started dining at his small restaurant on Suriwong Road soon after I arrived in Thailand. He took a liking to me. I don’t really know why. We had nothing in common, but he took me under his wing and started taking me out to restaurants, and going to night clubs. One night he set up a blind date for me with my future wife, and that is how we met. However, after I married her and we moved out to Lard Prao I lost touch with my friend. He was busy building up his business, and I was too.

He was one of the few Thai men I ever made friends with. Even though his English was good, we never got past being just casual friends. We never confided in each other, and to us westerners that is the mark of a true friend, isn’t it?

Through the years I have befriended a few other Thai men. I could never call any of them close friends. They all befriended me because they thought they could gain something from the relationship; a business advantage, the opportunity to practice their English, or perhaps a boost up the social ladder. We would eat out at restaurants where they could see and be seen. Through me they would meet people that could be helpful to their careers or social lives. But not one of them ever made the effort to become a true friend.

Not all of them were like that of course. I did meet a couple of Thai businessmen who took a liking to me and helped me along in my business. But that was always where our relationship stayed. We were never close friends. Of course, they always gained something out of helping me as well. It seems there is always a quid pro quo in a friendship with a Thai man. Or am I just being cynical?

In the early years I led a very isolated and lonely existence here. I was just starting out and most of the western businessmen I knew were already well established and wealthy. I was a newcomer with very little money and a small business. Even so, I preferred their company whenever I could afford it to the Thai men I met. We shared the same culture, the same values, and the same tastes.

I never really knew what my so-called Thai friends were thinking. With my western acquaintances there was none of that worry. Provided we paid the bar tab and kept the conversation genial we all got along well. Some of those early acquaintances became friends over the years. These friendships took time to nurture and develop.

Whereas a Thai will meet you once and from then on claim to be your best friend. I always found this off-putting. I found their loud protestations of friendship difficult to accept. Friends don’t act that way. But Thai men seem to think that saying something will make it so. That doesn’t work for me, I’m afraid. I never let them get too close, because I could not see any way to be close to them. We had almost nothing in common. And this has always been one of the most difficult things to endure about living here.

However, even choosing western friends has always been fraught with difficulty in Thailand. Over the years I’ve met lots of men from different countries all over the world. Some of them I wouldn’t give the time of day to back home, so I certainly wouldn’t here. Others were con-men. Yet others were druggies and other undesirables. A few have become friends, and a very few have become very good friends. You have to choose your friends carefully in Thailand. It doesn’t matter whether they are Westerners or Asians.

Since getting married and having children with my current wife I find myself staying home most of the time and enjoying my family. But now and again I have to get out of the house and go for a drink with a few good friends. I am lucky that I have them. It’s been a long road finding them. But not one of them is a Thai.

7 thoughts on “Assimilation. How Does That Work?”

  1. I have to agree with you Marc. After being here for more than a year now, I too cannot call any Thai guys my friends. Some Thai girls I can call true friends.

  2. Astonishing, you jangled so many bells my ears are still ringing; my own exeriences mirror yours to an uncanny degree though you have been here longer than me so I am still in the discomforted stage.

    Thanks for the extremely valuable post.


  3. It sounds like you yourself come from a more modest/lower middle class background and naturally feel more comfortable in that environment, which is perfectly normal. Most farang men in Thailand seem to come from the lower classes, so that isn’t unusual. The problem seems to me to be twofold. Theoretically, you would fit in best amongst the lower classes in Thailand, which is where most farang seem to naturally gravitate here. The problem is that in a less developed country like Thailand, the lower classes are the least Westernized and most tradition bound, i.e least likely to fully accept a foreigner or feel comfortable around him (although I note you say your Issarn wife’s family DID accept you). The upper Thai classes are the more Westernised, English speaking, and used to foreigners, and probably share many Western tastes and attitudes, but are probably a class and type of person you whose company you would neither enjoy nor be accepted by, just as you probably wouldn’t enjoy their counterparts in the West. That is the sad and tragic catch-22 of lower middle class farang in Thailand (the vast majority) – they are least likely to be accepted by their class counterparts in Thailand, yet cannot fit in to any of the other classes.

  4. John, what a condescending, ignorant attitude you display in your response. While I agree that quite a number of foreigners coming here do come from the working classes, I don’t see that as a problem. I come from a comfortable middle class family, so your assessment is already wrong there. And even though I did write that I have no close Thai men friends, I actually have a few good friends, but I wouldn’t call them ‘close’. As for not fitting in, once again you are so wrong. I live in the Bangkok suburbs in a small moo baan. Everyone in our soi knows me and my family and we are liked and respected. They love my daughters. They give us kanom and small gifts, as does my wife to others. In other words, we are very comfortably integrated. But would I call any of them close friends? No. I am, and always will be, a farung. I will never be Thai. Yet my wife is very close friends with a few people in our soi. That is the way it is in Thailand. If you think you are different, I would beg to differ.

    I was first married to a Thai-Chinese woman for 10 years. Her family are very wealthy. They also accepted me, and included us in the family activities. I have never felt like I have been rejected by my Thai families. I have just never been able to develop a really close friendship with a Thai male. If you have I would also be very surprised. Everyone I have spoken to tells me they have the same experience as me.

    I am not interested in fitting into any ‘class’, as you imply. I have been invited to join the Hi-So set and I rejected the offer because I am too busy running my business to waste time on frivolous socializing. Consider this. I have lived here 30 years. Could I have done that if I were not flexible and able to adapt to a completely alien environment? I have built a very comfortable life for my family, and built 3 very successful businesses, one of which I recently sold for a nice profit. So please take your patronizing attitude…you know where to put it.

  5. Marc, I apologize if I sounded condescending, that was not my intention. The problem of assimilation is a very real one – at the end of the day it is difficult to assimilate into ANY society, even supposedly accepting and open ones like the West. You should read some of Joseph Conrads letters about settling in England – he was a perpetual outsider, till his death. Sadly, this seems to be human nature for the most part, and it seems strange and unrealistic to expect to simply uproot yourself, go to some far flung place with a distinctive culture, set of traditions, and most importantly (sadly so) ethnicity, and expect that assimilation is possible. I don’t blame you for the dream, but we ex-pats must realize that WE are the exceptions in our disregard for primitive human emotions like ethnic and cultural solidarity and our willingness to simply see people as human beings.

    Also try reading Donald Richie, Japans most famous ex-pat. Confronted with the issue of rejection by his chosen country, he responded by embracing his status as outsider and ultimately reveling in it’s freedom from the complex, stifling web of social obligation that enmeshes every Japanese. He chose to define his position in a positive light after grasping early on the sad reality of human nature; that for most people, cultural and ethnic identity DO matter. Richie speculated that the only way to be happy as a perpetual outsider is to once and for all give up the impossible dream of assimilation, and realize that it wasn’t a dream worth having anyways! At the end of the day if we wanted “acceptance” we wouldn’t have left our own societies, would we? Richie wrote very eloquently on this whole topic and developed it at some length. His perspective is original and sane and should be published in small handbook format and given free to every prospective ex-pat. But anywyas.

    The point I was trying to make above was this; since the advent of globalization, most societies, even poorer, more traditional ones, have a Westernized upper class that really is similar in tastes and at least partly in attitude, to the West. Some level of genuine acceptance is possible here, although even here total acceptance isn’t really an option.

    Anywyas my sincere apologies for sounding like an arse and I hope some of what I said sounds a little better. Best regards and good luck.

  6. Thank you for clearing that up John and for the apology. As you have pointed out, there is no point in trying to assimilate…especially in Thailand. I observe the basic amenities like Waiing back, and being polite and keeping cool rather than jumping up and down to get what I want. I feel that living in Thailand has actually helped make me a better person.

    Like many, when I first arrived I was all starry-eyed and thought I wanted to become a Thai. But no sooner than I learned some of the language and customs I realized it just didn’t fit. Ever since then I have remained ‘me’. It’s a comfortable fit. And that’s why I have never had a close Thai male friend. Our outlook and cultures are too different for us to ever feel really comfortable with each other; Even with my longest Thai friend of almost 30 years

    Coming from Australia I have never felt that class mattered. I take people as I find them; rich, poor, or even royals. I am guessing you are British from your references to class?

  7. Hello Marc,

    Informative and relatable blogg. I think the questions and debate you had with John was excellent and cudo’s to both of you for the manner and class to which you both handle yourselves.
    Now, as I mentioned your view on Assimilation and what I take from it is important to me. You see to both Marc and John I have been traveling to Asia (Japan, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand) for the past four years since my initial discovery of this wonderful eye opening region. My heart is for Thailand and Japan and I dream of starting a new life here one day. I would prefer to start in Thailand since my savings will go further into a business investment and having a few trustworthy Thai’s that I could partner up with should I decide upon taking the next step.
    I have spent a lot of time in Thailand out of the last four years since my time in Asia almost a total of 9 months and the rest in the other above regions. I have done pretty much all of the initiating and growing pains of a farang in paradise. I have done the partying, love and lost, and searched for a new direction in my life. The answer that I’m coming up with time and time again is to get the hell out the western world, out of a dead end job that has no meaning except the pay. I have saved my money and have not been married and glad that I never did for I would never have been able to do and discover what I have to date.
    John with my time in Thailand I do agree it is hard to meet loyal male thai friends there are few but they are not what you and I would consider “close friends” on the other hand I have made two female thai friends (platonic) and genuine. I want to do business with them and they have the same goals as I do in business and if my next trip in May to Thailand goes well and we come to understanding I want to take this step. I want out of my boring life I want to live awaken. I want to take a shot at it.
    Now having said that can any of you if you have the time point me in the right direction on getting to know the legalities and the need to knows of starting a business in Thailand. I have been looking at Thai embassy business website occasionally and find it hard to decipher. I follow as many bloggs about Thailand and have found Stick man to be someone I find relatable as he is someone and much like yourselves: march to the beat of our own drum.
    Stick man says its a tuff go and a big risk. This worries me but I want to do it, I’m not someone who likes to drink everyday or get drunk when I do as part of what I am considering is a restaurant/ cafe or small hotel.
    I want the bigger picture which is to be happy, busy, and living somewhere I feel I can have balance.
    Do you know where, what, how and I can start this information and research process if you have the time or patience to answer thank you very much.
    Is email a better way to correspond?

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