Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Of Beavers and Butterflies

Thai girls - the truth is out

A number of friends have told me that they find it difficult posting comments to my blogs and so they send me emails instead. The one that follows is by far the longest and the most striking I have received.

In an earlier blog I told you that two of my recent visitors at our house in the village were Australian Bill and Canadian Bill. Shortly after writing it, to my considerable pleasure I had a call from American Bill to say he was only two hours away in Buriram and that he was coming to see us.

American Bill is a compulsive writer but it was Australian Bill who was to surprise me by sending me a gem of an email about ‘beavers and butterflies’.

Bill has had a long love affair with South East Asia over many decades. He lived here for many years many decades ago and he still visits Laos and Thailand regularly. An economist such as he, incarcerated in academia, should be a dry old stick, but recently Bill has, like me, taken early retirement. The pupa is hatched, the butterfly spreads its wings and flies away.

Bill's musings that now follow are insightful and full of colour… once you get past the inevitable economic stuff. He’s always entertaining if you can stomach the economics!

“Andrew, I’ve looked at your blog site a number of times but have just revisited it as a form of light relief from my rather humourless studies in exchange rate economics in Laos. The break didn’t help much as it only made me more aware of the fun I’m foregoing by soldiering on here.

To use economists’ jargon, the opportunity cost of working here in Sydney, measured in terms of the best forgone alternative, is very, very high. I also believe that I suffer from a high and rising marginal rate of time preference. In simple terms, as I age, I place greater weight on current pleasures compared to promised and postponed future rewards. In short, the present is reality and reality is all.

So I tell myself, ‘fuck prudence!’

Now there’s a sentiment the Thais readily understand and put into practice with astonishing virtuosity. It goes a long way to explaining why your Thai neighbours in the village so casually take out a loan to finance a purchase that gratifies a want (such as a brand new pickup) without considering the prospect of repaying the loan and all that entails.

I now feel bold enough to take this observation into the realms of sociology. My theory is that this is one of the great differences between Thai and farang attitudes. Ours, if you will permit, is a ‘beaver’ society and theirs, a ‘butterfly’ society. Each such society cultivates the values consistent and appropriate to its structure, contending with the changing currents of the moment, floating, if you will.

We beavers build for the future in our dour, somewhat cranky and humourless way. Futurity is our gift to civilization, while the butterflies have no sense of time at all. You have of course noted how infuriating is the Thai attitude to measured time.

This is righteous beaver anger! After all, we beavers perfected the clock and set it ticking, but it is the seasons that the butterfly understands.

Now, and this is the key point, beavers have begun to travel into butterfly cultures and butterflies are playing host(ess) to beavers. It is an exhilarating experience for both beavers and butterflies but bound to cause all sorts of misconceptions, confusions and frustrations. We beavers are dazzled by their colour and movement, while they are dazzled by our wallets, filled by our constant beavering.

I think this analysis can be taken onto a higher plane of generality. There are two great contending principles in the minds and bodies of human kind… logos and Eros. Beavers are strongly orientated towards logos and recent trends in beaver society have strengthened this tendency. Butterflies live in Eros. Beavers love butterflies because it provides them with the needed counterpoint to their otherwise fatally one-sided nature. It is a largely unconscious search for completeness which draws them to Thailand, though they have no knowledge at all of what lies in store for them.

Have you ever noticed how beavers start to do the silliest things when they fall amongst butterflies? This phenomenon is now easily explained. Beavers must not simply only learn new tricks to survive but must adapt their minds as well to the demands of Eros. It is bound to cause trouble because beavers will always remain… well, beavers.

On the other hand butterflies don’t have to change much at all. This is just as well for beavers because many beavers are in full flight from other beavers at home. The last thing they want (or need) is for their butterflies to turn into beavers. At the very worst, some minor aspects of butterfly behaviour becomes beaverish, although the attempt is reassuringly laughable to real beavers. That is why beavers are largely insincere in their criticisms of butterfly culture. The enlightened beaver wants simply to ‘understand’ butterflies.

Butterflies are the floaters so they can easily accommodate and adapt to the new, but they don’t want their beavers to change too much as there are already far too many butterflies in Thailand. On this final point, we beavers will never agree.
Long live these mutual misconceptions because they are the rock on which these relationships will continue to thrive across the cultures.”

So there you have it… Bill’s amusing insight into the cultural differences between Thailand and the West.

Nonetheless, as I ponder awhile, I try to apply what he has said to my Thai wife, Cat and to her mother and aunts. The butterfly in Cat is a joy to share my life with, but it is not the whole story. On the other hand, she is constantly planning our futures, definitely a worrier who thinks of all eventualities, including beaverish things such as medical insurance. She is always restless to achieve and to improve herself.

When first I met Cat, she was flogging her way through an external degree which she started while earning almost nothing working in a shopping mall in Bangkok. Now she’s married to me, all her immediate needs are supplied, but she’s still active from dawn to dusk, planning, organizing people and building things and the rest of her life. My next blog will tell you a bit more about the recent frenetic activity of this small and beaverish dynamo.

I also think of Cat’s mother whose life has been one of hard work and achievement raising seven children into responsible adulthood from the poverty of subsistence rice farming. Likewise her two sisters are a fine example of people who have led good and productive lives and who do not drift like butterflies in the breeze. Nonetheless, they have kept their ability to relax and to enjoy. Life can be ‘sanuk’, irrepressible fun, despite all the pressures. At the three day party to dedicate our new house, Cat’s auntie whose life has been founded on selling noodles, walking miles carrying them to nearby villages, danced non-stop for hours on end, despite being the oldest of the three.

We beavers in the west have somehow lost that necessary balance in life as we pursue our careers in the claustrophobia of our nuclear families. A crippling mortgage, penal taxation, two jobs, two kids and mother-in-law three hours away makes for beaverish burnout.

Thai society sometimes looks slow and indolent to the critical expat, but perhaps our gracious hosts are more capable of finding the beaver/butterfly balance that we westerners most definitely have lost in our fast and materialistic society.

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