Wednesday, 18 July 2007
"Why Are Thai Women So Explosive?"
An arsenal of unexploded 'Thai girls'.
Somebody has asked me why ‘Thai girls’ are so explosive. Are they really?
The archetypal 'Thai girl' is sweet-natured, even-tempered, passive and gentle, a petite, purring pussy cat whose only pleasure is in pleasing her man. True or false?
So who's kidding who? Like hell she is! All the most powerful and fiery qualities are focused in Thai womanhood. It’s they who’ll fight most furiously for their families and for this strength of character as well as for their feminine qualities I salute them.
It sometimes happens that when I say "Thai girl”, people think I've said “tiger”. How apposite that is! Man eaters every one!
Thus, if William Blake had made it to Nana Plaza in Bangkok before London zoo, his famous couplets might possibly have run something like this.
"Thai girl, Thai girl, feisty, fit,
In the sois of Sukhumvit.
What immoral hand or eye
Can frame thy fearless symmetry."
Tigers of course are dangerous and it’s often asserted, fairly or otherwise, that Thai women are not merely fiery, they can sometimes be positively explosive. If so, a farang thinking of taking one as his sweet little wife had better think twice. Foreign men who think they are escaping the rigours of feminism for a much softer version may find an assertive woman of a very different kind.
My expertise on whether Thai women are explosive is extremely limited, but that’s never stopped me speculating about something, so here goes, a brief and superficial dissertation on the nature and qualities of Thai womanhood.
A thesis like this one always raises a host of subsidiary questions. Isn’t it the case that in all cultures and creatures, the female of the species is deadlier than the male? Who’s to say that Thai women are any more dangerous than the rest of them. In the animal kingdom, after mating the female praying mantis is said to kill and eat the male as he’s now of no further use to her, so things could be far, far worse than an exploding Thai lady as one’s mate.
It’s a nice coincidence that the Latin for wife is uxor, while in NGO-speak, UXO means unexploded ordnance, a landmine that blows your foot off when you tread on her toes!
Another question is whether the volatility of the puying Thai is regional… for example is it more extreme in the case of women from Isaan who make up a good proportion of farang wives. Then are Chinese Thai women the same as other Thais? What are the differences between rural and urban women, the educated and the poor farmer’s daughter? And how about women from neighbouring countries? Is not a Burmese, a Malay or a Lao likely to be similar to a Thai?
Is this alleged explosivity a general characteristic of all Thai women or is it a special quality of farang wives who are a self-selecting group. These particular women are not shrinking violets but powerful personalities with get-up-and-go and the potential for self-assertion and fireworks.
If explosions are about conflict, is conflict the particular way in which Thai women handle difficulties in their relationships? Or could conflict with farang husbands be a consequence of the particular pressures of these cross-cultural relationships? The questions are endless.
Thailand draws some of it’s cultural influences from India and one thus thinks of a philosophy that accepts the hardships of life as they come and which cultivates an ascetic stoicism in the face of all adversity. Perhaps there’s an acceptance of hardship in Thailand too, until such time as it becomes intolerable. Then when there’s no place left to turn, the only option, like a Malay villager, is to run amok and to sink a parang, either of sharpened steel or hard words into the thick skull of an unfeeling husband.
The status of women in this very hierarchical society is undoubtedly low. Money is paid to a girl’s parents when she marries and her duty to her husband is to produce and raise children, to keep house, to produce and prepare food and to wait upon and pamper her man, while he most probably philanders with other women and drinks himself insensible.
A Thai wife may be expected to tolerate this situation in silence. She cannot negotiate or remonstrate with her man if she’s dissatisfied as there’s nothing for her to negotiate about. There’s no culture of husband and wife talking things through as equals. Her only option therefore, other than chopping off his chopper, a crime with a high incidence in Thailand, is to fly off the handle and make a big fuss from time to time.
At its extreme, this is a desperate step to take as it’s an admission of failure, a breach of the culture of compromise that so values harmony in personal relations. However, handled well, open conflict can be a useful tactic, a strategy that can produce results. If it proves particularly effective, it becomes habit-forming and patterns of volatile behaviour are established and taught down the generations of women.
While Thai men can be weak, much is expected of Thai women who have to learn to be strong and who, when needs be, sometimes express that strength through aggression. Modesty, passivity and subservience are a female ideal but especially in gritty rural societies, women probably learn the value of assertiveness from watching how their fathers behave. And if they’ve been beaten by Papa and they’ve seen it happen to Mama too, how can they learn more sensitive ways? Nobody has taught them to mediate a way through a potential conflict, so it seems a useful tactic to get their retaliation in first… to throw some verbal punches, just when farang Dave’s least expecting them.
If a farang’s perception of his Thai wife is that she’s moody, hot headed and unpredictable, perhaps it’s true, though maybe there are pressure points in the marriage that partially explain it. There are many tensions in Lek’s relationship with Dave, a relationship that’s rewarding but also is high risk. She has a long way to fall, and having flaunted her gold to the village, the loss of face will be traumatic when he walks out on her.
First, she has no control of the purse strings and so money can be a constant source of friction. She has an abiding fear of poverty, of slipping back to the time when she had to eat rice with salt, when Papa was always drunk and Mama always pregnant, when they were still in debt even though Papa had sold almost all his rice land, when her older brothers were not sending money home and when they then looked to her to leave home to sell herself however she could.
Her recent alliance with big, cuddly Dave is substantially an economic exchange. From the time he handed over the sinsot on their wedding day, the question of how they spend his money is an unavoidable and ever present issue. As there’s no common ground and nothing’s ever hammered out, the problem of money is a ripe source for conflict. One day somebody’s going to call him mean as sticky shit, and having built her a palatial house on her family’s land, Dave’s not going to be a happy bunny.
Then there’s the problem of language. Dave and Lek can’t understand each other properly, so things are always tense, tense, tense. There are twelve tenses in English. Present tense, but maybe future perfect… if Lek can learn enough English to communicate properly with Dave who’s never going to get beyond saying sawaddicup and cowpat ghai. Misunderstandings are endemic and so the tensions slowly accumulate.
There are many cultural differences that lead to friction as well. Dave walks into the house with his shoes on because he says the floor’s dirty. He tells her not to wash his clothes every five minutes and she calls him dirty. He can’t eat chili like the rest of the family, so she has to cook special dishes for him. And instead of politely picking his nose or spitting on the ground, he blows it with a tissue… shock horror! Farang nagliat!
Perhaps most difficult of all is that, because of the language problem, Lek is the exclusive interface between Dave and the rest of the Thai world. She has to mediate between her husband and her family’s expectations of him and inevitably she’ll offend one side or the other. No ambassador could have the diplomatic powers to deal with this intractable situation.
Thus, as Dave’s interpreter and negotiator, she has to act as intermediary in all his petty disputes with traders and workmen and with the rest of the province. The painter’s smeared paint all over the woodwork of the doors, his satellite internet’s a disaster, the top of the table he bought has dried up and split, the noise from the neighbours’ sound system is deafening and somebody in the soi has eaten the cat and he’s very upset. Lek now has to deal with all these issues while Dave stands threateningly behind her, egging her on, pushing her, willing her to get the result he’s demanding.
But no, says Lek, mai pen rai. It’s not that important. The work’s acceptable and you can’t be that fussy. You’ve just got to swallow your anger and pay up. And the noisy neighbours. Graeng jai! You’ve got to be considerate to them and shut up even when they’re being inconsiderate to you. And you can always get another cat.
But Dave’s out for blood and he’s going to make her push, push, push until he gets full satisfaction from all of them. He’s a nice guy but this time it’s a matter of principle.
‘Cannot, Dave. You farang, you talk too much!’ she says loudly. Dave dares to answer back and then she explodes, a fearful sight to behold.
‘Dave, you farang… jai rorn, jing jing. You buffalo, no good, no good!’
And let’s face it, to be fair, sometimes Dave explodes too. Lek doesn’t have a monopoly on being explosive in this particular family.
Thus, stress and provocation can cause explosions, but sometimes they are primarily a tactic, a conscious form of manipulation. The more histrionic the explosion, the more effective it’ll be for getting Lek what she wants. Keeping Dave in fear of the next display of fireworks is a handy way of making him more compliant.
When a wife keeps changing her mind about small things all the time, flies into jealous rages, is petulant and moody and is a pain in the proverbial, it can be a bigger issue. Perhaps she has serious problems and is damaged goods. In so many poor families anywhere in the world, a child has to compete with her siblings, looking after the younger ones while Mama is pregnant or out in the rice fields and gets no parental attention herself. Papa is drunk and violent or has fled the scene, so there has been no role model to show her how to behave in a marriage. Nobody has taught her what behaviour's reasonable and what is unacceptable. She just copies the way her Mama used to scream at Papa.
And one last thing, if Lek once worked in the bars, her life defined by her monthly tally of lady drinks and bar fines, who knows what experiences she might have had and what resentments she harbours against those responsible for them. Dave will never know as she’ll never tell him, nor can he ever discover how it now affects her behaviour towards him.
Marriage has never been easy and as between farang and Thai there are certainly some massive cultural incompatibilities. Nonetheless, learning about each other and coping with the difficulties is all part of the fun.
Though as I said earlier, I’ve little insight into such marital conflicts as my own Thai wife is always, always sweet and wonderful. You see, Cat never ever explodes!