Phil Roeland

A bit of culture part two

The concept of face and other things

This is the second instalment of my probe into the differences between Thai and Western culture. Let me remind all of you that I do like Thailand and that these articles are not intended as criticism. I am totally against the globalisation of Western culture. Every continent and country should try to preserve its own culture and not ape another culture. That’s why I also think that in the English classroom, teachers shouldn’t try to shove their own culture down students’ throats, but focus on the language.

Face is extremely important in Thailand. I’m not referring to the physical meaning of face here. There’s nothing wrong with that. Lots of girls have very pretty faces actually. It’s the concept of gaining or - more importantly – losing face. The definition of “face” would be “a state of being respected by others”. In order to avoid losing face – or making others lose it - Thais will always try to avoid confrontation.

If a waiter in a restaurant screws up your order and brings you fishballs instead of the fried pork-skin on rice you ordered, most people won’t send it back or make a fuss about it. The waiter might lose face. So what? Well, by embarrassing him this way, you too will be considered as having lost face. It’s really a lose-lose situation. You can either eat your smelly fishballs or lose face.

Other examples include a secretary not doing her job properly and forgetting to order essential office supplies, a travel agent booking you on the wrong sightseeing trip, a taxi driver taking you to a completely different part of town than the one you wanted to go to, etc. You are not supposed to complain or get angry and consequently make people – including yourself - lose face. Just accept these mishaps and grin and bear it. Not always easy for Westerners.

The face thing mainly prevents confrontation from taking place. People will hardly ever shout at each other or get angry. Even silent complaints are rare. I don’t mind people not arguing, but when it starts to affect the good running of a business – private company or government agency – I think it’s gone too far. Let’s face it: pissing off customers is economic suicide for private companies and constantly trying to avoid loss of face means avoiding responsibilities. That’s probably why pencil pushers at Thai ministries are incredibly slow when you need to get something done.

Gaining face, on the other hand, can be easily done by displaying wealth. Again, it’s something rather unheard of most Western cultures. Spending lots of money on gold, Johnnie Walker Black Label, BMWs or Mercedes all have a common purpose: gain face. Of course, you have to make sure everyone can see your newly acquired wealth. So wear a highly visible, thick, gold chain or bracelet around your neck or wrist, drink Black Label in the company of others, and cruise the streets in your highly overpriced German car (thanks to the 300% import tax).

Although I am not in the least impressed by people showing off their alleged wealth like this – after all, they might be heavily indebted to the banks – it will gain them lots of face and respect from Thais.

Thais aren’t particularly good at the noble art of queuing. Unless there is some kind of physical barrier, like a rope, to force people to queue, they are not really inclined to form queues in front of ticket counters, coupon booths, bus stops, etc. And even if there is (the beginning of) a queue, many won’t hesitate to jump the queue without flinching.

The only places where you can usually see people queuing in an orderly fashion are banks. More often than not, there are long lines of people waiting in or even outside banks to get their banking business done. As far as I know, this must be caused by the sheer number of customers banks have, the absence of electronic or automated transactions not needing the intervention of a bank teller, and the lack of employees at most branches.

Thailand is also called LOS, meaning the Land of Smiles. I have to admit, Thais do smile a lot. A lot more than their Western counterparts. True, their smiles are not always genuine, but more often than not, they are.
Most of the tourists really appreciate their friendliness, and I have to admit that as a long-term resident, even I prefer a smiling face to dull, bored, unsmiling one every day of the week.

Skin whitening
People want to be the opposite of what they are. If you’re black, you want to be white. If you’re white, you want to be black (or dark, sun-tanned at least). That’s the way of the world. No wonder most Thai girls prefer a white skin to a dark one. Most of them have a rather dark complexion and dream of having a white, pale skin. That’s why the market for skin-whitening products is booming. Personally, I don’t think these lotions and potions make a difference, but locals are all too happy to buy and use them.

Nearly every grooming product, from shower cream and talcum powder to body lotion and lip-gloss has a whitening variety. Some products are fairly cheap, normally priced even, whereas others can cost an arm and a leg. I am convinced that the cheaper ones are very good-quality products that do a fine job, but totally ineffective when it comes to whitening skin. Never mind. Maybe the skin will get paler due to a placebo effect.

Often foreigners, tourists and expats alike, criticise the use of these skin-whiteners. I don’t think they should. Just have a look on any beach where farangs are present. Most of them lie in the sun for hours, trying to get a suntan. Not really healthy, is it? Before you know it, you’ll be in the doctor’s office with a case of skin cancer.

As for the amount of flesh shown on a beach, farangs go by the motto “the less I wear, the better”. People shouldn’t think they can go topless on any beach in the world. Don’t get me wrong; I am completely in favour of scantily dressed, pretty women. On the other hand, I really prefer seeing a girl in a decent bikini or swimming costume that puts my imagination to work to a pair of wrinkled, floppy tits.

All right. That’s it for this month. Feedback or suggestions are always welcome.


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