Saving Face by Not Losing It


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Recently the New York Times could not be printed in Bangkok, for the printer was afraid to leave himself open to prosecution under the country’s Lese Majeste statues, which are frequently invoked to protect the reputation of the Crown. This particular edition of the Times contained an article that mentioned the King was in ill-health, and there were concerns about which of his children might assume the throne. So rather than risk it, he declined to print the paper.

I hadn’t had much contact with Asia before moving to Thailand, though I had certainly tried to read the instruction manuals that came with appliances made in China, and was always amazed by the fact that they had not bothered to consult a native English speaker before printing them. Why not just run it by someone who speaks English and ask “Does this make sense?  Is the meaning clear?”

Here in Thailand, they are very worried about foreigners taking jobs away from Thais, and so the Ministry of Labour issues guidelines concerning the rules. A document issued by that Ministry reads:

Career aliens do not. Not alien to the professional set of career. Professional and not an alien to do. Set in professional video and tea alien life that do not.”

Now this is an edict from a government Ministry, housed in a huge building, with a staff of hundreds, maybe thousands of clerical workers.  Out of all those, why couldn’t they find someone who spoke English, or knew someone who did?

The answer lies in the cult of saving face. Thailand is all about hierarchies. Being quick-witted or original isn’t thought of as a virtue, but knowing your place is. The big boss cannot look bad, and heaven help help the person who puts him in a position to do so.  So if Mr. Important said that his daughter studied English at the University, and when he showed her the document she said it looked fine, it’s fine.

A few years ago, a person in the Thai Defense Ministry  approved the purchase of a million dollars worth of hand-held bomb detectors, to help the Army screen people at the strife-ridden southern border with Malaysia. They were manufactured and sold by a British company. Trouble was, they didn’t work. There was nothing inside the handle but a battery that made an LED light glow intermittently. This British company made a killing selling these to hot spots around the globe, but then the truth came out and people started complaining.

The British government became aware of the problem and legal action ensued.  The British courts started refunding money when possible. But the Thais never asked for their money back. In order to make a claim, they would have had to admit that a high-ranking person had made a mistake.  So they just let it go. The bomb-detectors work fine. No need for a refund.

By the way, people with good government jobs here are never fired. They are “transferred to an inactive post.” That way they still keep their salary and benefits, including a chauffeur, membership in private golf courses and a personal attendant/dresser while there. The big loss of face comes from loss of power and status, for they are now no longer able to accept bribes, which was where the real income came from.

From what I’ve seen and heard, Thailand is a typical Asian country. Young Chinese people love coming to Thailand, for it’s so wide open here, so nutty and exotic. There’s a popular Chinese comedy film, Lost in Thailand, which is sort of like our Hangover series of movies, and Chiang Mai is prominently featured in that film. Every day you can see Chinese tourists taking selfies in front of the locations used.

I once met a Chinese woman in her twenties who was on vacation in Chiang Mai and I asked if she and her friends (they travel in big groups) had gone out to listen to music at a nightclub or gone dancing. “Oh no,” she responded, “I haven’t taken a class in that yet at University.”

I don’t think the next revolutionary change based on risk-taking or entrepreneurship will come from Asia. Nobody here will invent the next home computer in their garage.

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HERE THEY COME!


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Chinese tourists on the beach at Phi Phi island, Thailand, the setting for the Leonardo de Caprio movie The Beach, about an isolated, virtually unknown tropical paradise.

HERE COME THE CHINESE

The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman has been saying this for years, but it took me moving to Indo-china to witness it firsthand. Tucked as I am between India and China, which contain most of the world’s population, I shouldn’t be surprised to eventually notice my gargantuan neighbors. But something big has happened in just the time I have been here. The Chinese middle class has become affluent enough to travel. And now they are everywhere.

The Chinese especially love Thailand, because here anything goes. It is to them a wide-open, highly affordable,and exotic place. It’s their Mexico. The low-budget Chinese comedy “Lost in Thailand”, sort of an Asian “Hangover”’ prompts hoards of young people to revisit the locations shown in the movie. Many of them are in Chiang Mai, where I live, in the North. In the last two weeks, during Chinese New Year, when we had 200,000 Chinese tourists visit our city of half that size, young couples with two-thousand-dollar cameras wandered in a daze, taking pictures of each other, of anything and nothing at all. They’re simulating the act of taking pictures the way five-year olds pretend to drive a toy car. They do everything in clumps. They are not used to being alone or unsupervised, and they don’t know what to do with that freedom.

Currently, I am in Southern Thailand, on the beach, two hours south of Hua Hin, and the Chinese are here, too. These are not the young hipsters, but rather the middle class who have just gotten rich enough to join tour groups. They travel in clumps of three and four giant busses, partying on the beach, singing karaoke, and taking selfies with their cellphones. As a rule, this class doesn’t have SLR cameras yet. They are an older crowd. The probably remember how to ride bicycles. You young hipsters who come to Chiang Mai don’t know, because China forsook the bicycle twenty years ago.

They certainly don’t seem to chafe under the restrictions on individual freedoms, in fact they seem happy to have their activities programmed. Last night I came across a beach party for a large group of Thal young people, maybe office workers. They were probably on a team-building business excursion. They too were lined up sitting in the sand in neat rows, with supervisors speaking to them over megaphones. They seemed to be having a good time. Who am I to criticize?

This is the part of the world that revels in copyright infringement, that apes every western trend, where the movie theaters are full of our most infantile cinematic product. Fast and Furious 7 is coming to theaters soon, and you can be it will be quite a hit. But when will Asia come into its own? When will a few rebellious Thai or Burmese boys start a band that changes world music, or invent a computer in their garage that sets the word on fire?

One thing we have to remember is that English is the dominant language for tourism and business, and that the Chinese are rapidly learning to speak it. Thais have so far done a marvelous job of refusing to do so. Aided by a feudal government school system, they are quickly being sidelines. And then there is the question of the military dictatorship, martial law, lese majeste laws that prohibit any free dialogue about the current state of affairs. So don’t look to Thailand as the sparkplug for Asian progress.

Thais are no enraptured by the Chinese visitors. In general, Chinese speak loudly, crudely, spit on the ground, don’t flush toilets, and put less value on politeness than do Thais. But Thailand is grateful for the income Chinese tourism brings. Without it, the drop in Western tourism brought about by the coupe and subsequent crackdowns on free speech would have been far more painful.

Yes, the Chinese are coming and there are a lot more of them on the way. Their migration around the world as tourists and then investors will change every country that welcomes them. When I lived in San Francisco, North Beach went from being an Italian neighborhood to an extension of Chinatown, thanks to the first wave of those fleeing Hong Kong before it was turned over the mainland China. Housing prices spiked all up and down the West Coast. When I was in Argentina most of the all-you-can eat restaurants, grocery stores, and variety stores were owned by the Chinese.

Here in Thailand, I pay a $35 tourist visa fee to enter the country. The Chinese pay nothing. I once visited a super luxury resort near Chiang Mai. The staff took one look at my clothing and decided they would tolerate my presence but not encourage it. I was surrounded by rich Chinese hipsters playing with their I-pads as they nursed expensive drinks. I asked for a brochure. The staff informed me they were all out.