Years ago I met a Thai who thought that a stereotype was a kind of sound system.
Even when the concept was explained and understood they found it quite hard to comprehend. Surely people of all kinds fell into certain groups and who could possibly complain at being referred to or even labelled in this way. It was true, wasn’t it?
I mean Thais smile a lot and are always respectful, Westerners don’t take enough showers even though they can all afford to, maids are all uneducated and come from Isan and speak Lao, doctors are all brilliant in white coats who know everything and, naturally, the pretty girl in the soap gets the handsome guy in the end and the loveless fat one is happy for them both.
That’s just the way it is, seemed to be the idea.
Years of living in Thailand have taught me that many attitudes have changed for the better but some are so deeply engrained as to defy change.
Perhaps the perennial debate of stereotypical names for racial groups is just the outer edge of the issue. Whatever your view on a word like ‘farang’ it is really just the tip of the iceberg. Terms far more racially belittling are still bandied about like confetti with those uttering them oblivious to offence that might be caused. Never mind the rampant sexism, ageism and views connected to body shape and skin colour. More likely many are not a laughing matter, more racist and harmful than merely stereotypical.
Those soaps are top of the list for perpetuating the stereotypes of course. Their formulaic approach to storytelling is said to be based on Thai stories since time immemorial. It is a winning formula repeated time and again and crosses over to much of Thai cinema. The pretty heroine, often downtrodden or mistreated, a victim of the evil girl who gets the guy for a while, before a combination of maids, ugly girlfriends and ladyboys help her overcome against all odds.
Buck the trend and your movie will fail at the box office or your series be panned in the TV ratings.
But at the start of a TV soap series if I dared to tell the missus what is going to happen I would, in no uncertain terms, be told to shut it!
The news is no different. The headlines that scream from the nation’s press profile visitors to the nation as ‘people from the land of beer’ (Germans), ‘from the land of perfume’ (French), Kangaroo land (Aussies) and for some reason ‘those from the land of respectable people (yes, the British!).
While these terms may be rather harmless those that refer unashamedly to skin colour and other attributes, are decidedly not. Yet all are spouted with the same kind of indifference by many and when offence is taken it is seen as a somewhat strange, quirky, “why are you being so touchy?” kind of attitude. We Thais are not like that, you know.
But those who have been in Thailand for a while will remember when the boot was well and truly on the other foot. The national uproar in the 1990s when Longman’s dictionary had an entry for Thailand describing the kingdom as ‘a nation of prostitution’ had to be seen to be believed. Wasn’t the perception of the lexicographers, true or otherwise, just more stereotyping; but one that certainly rattled the Thais proverbial cages.
Now it could be argued that a foreigner living in Thailand writing like this, a la Longman’s, is doing a fair bit of Thai stereotyping of his own for which I apologise. Of course, there are many Thais well educated and otherwise who know much better than to pigeon hole people. I have even met Thais who disliked their parents…
But there are still many members of the population who have never really confronted stereotyping or see it as anything that could be construed as remotely wrong.
But yes, classing all Thais as people who stereotype is a type of stereotyping all of its own. And who could deny that many residents of the Kingdom and commentators on forums like Thaivisa do not thoroughly engage in the activity.
With so many who see nothing but corruption in the police, dishonesty in business practice, malevolence in girls working at night, laziness and drunkenness in the male population not to mention the idea that Pattaya is only home to barstool ‘sexpats’, it sometimes seems an exercise in futility to state the opposite opinion. Oftentimes people need to look at their own behaviour before criticising others for stereotyping.
Maybe it is really an inherent flaw in human nature that we all need to address.
But experience certainly helps. When you have had a Thai wife who never eats chilli,a Thai lady friend who rails against the banality of soaps, a close Thai male co.league who is an English language world Scrabble champion and a thoroughly honest local policemen who went out of his way to help you in a difficult situation, it helps to balance the playing field.
However, I am yet to meet a Thai who doesn’t believe in ghosts!