Enforced Conformity


Thailand has no artistic avant garde. The longer I stay here, the more I realize it is impossible even to imagine one. Respect and outright reverence for authority make it impossible to react against cultural icons and institutions. There’s only one kind of getting goofy or zany that Thais can tolerate, and that’s when the fat guy with big glasses in movies and TV shows farts or falls down. Everything else has to be either cute, pretty or dignified.

I taught at the biggest state university in Bangkok. One day, on my way to class, I saw what appeared to be a student demonstration on the front lawn. Thai students, all in uniform, were holding cardboard posters on which they had written something in Thai. Standing at attention in the hot sun, they held their posters in front of them, while a faculty member spoke through a megaphone, giving them instruction. This, I realized, was the Thai version of a student demonstration!

Education here prepares students for what is essentially a feudal state. You take your place in a system that supports and celebrates a strict hierarchy. If you know and keep your place, you are guaranteed security. Buddhism teaches you to accept your lot in life because it is your karma.  Thai education teaches you to follow orders and not talk back.

Nobody ever gets fired here. Those on the outs are simply transferred to an inactive posting. That means they still get paid and enjoy all the perks of their job, but no longer have to make any pretense of doing anything.

Thais are big into uniforms. Nurses, policemen,monks, students, boy and girl scouts, all wear uniforms with great attention to detail. A boy scout doesn’t wear just part of his uniform, he has every pin and ribbon in the right place. In a way, it reminds me of 1950’s America, when nurses still looked like nurses and nuns like nuns.

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