Getting Married in Thailand Part I

Have you ever found yourself wondering why those “Yankees” put ketchup on their hamburgers? I mean, everyone knows that you put Mayo on your burger. Or if your a “Yankee”, why does that check out lady want to keep talking to me long after I paid her for my groceries? I don’t have time for this. The fact of the matter is that while we are all Americans, we have grown up on opposite sides of the “Mason Dixon Line”. Our cultures developed separately for as long as we have been a country. Right know I am sitting in a country just about 6 hours ahead of you according to the clock; a short 25 hours in Transit from San Antonio, Texas. In all reality we are on exact opposite sides of the Earth. Even more are our cultures. For thousands of years they have been developing on their own, and for most of that time, we had no idea that the other even existed…So enters Saam and myself; separated by those thousand years of cultural growth. Our languages are different; there is a language barrier the size of the Pacific. I come from a country far richer than hers; a country where 90% of the population is poor. Each day I am bombarded with rampant prostitution; men buying women for sex and for love. I watch married Thai women continue to work the sex industry when the husbands are abroud. I hear countless stories of “gold digging”, deceit, lying; women taking their husbands for everything and then moving on to the next guy. Shallow and loveless relationships. Saam ,on the other hand, must endure the daily propositions from Western men looking for quick sex. She must watch these very men go home with a different woman each night, whether married or not. These men lie; most of them have wives back home. These men act like pigs, are disrespectful, and could not care less about their Thai girlfriend. Is Scott any different? I know that she hears horror stories about western men, and some of those stories may even top the horror stories that I hear about Thai women. All of these combine to make things very complicated for the two of us. I know for myself, that everyday questions of trust, honesty, sincerity run through my head. Am I being taken for fool like all the other fools? I am sure it must be the same for Saam. To be honest, not too many western-Thai relationships actually succeed. The relationships that do last seem to be more of a boss-employee type of arrangement than an actual friendship.
We do have one special thing going for us, we met each other. We are both open and committed to overcome these small obstacles. We are willing to do what is perhaps the most difficult part of any relationship – compromise, learn to understand each others views, and make small adjustments in our lives. We want to talk about these issues, something not usually done in Thai culture. So what’s so different?
One of the most important aspects of western life is our Independence. It is at the heart of everything we do in our lives. From the time we are born we are trained to be self sufficient, independent people who will eventualy move out of the house and start our own lives. We desire complete control over our lives; every aspect of our lives. Infact, we are judged by just how independent we are. Unfortunatly, the closest word in the Thai language to Independence is “Freedom”. Freedom being free from captivity. Naturally Thais have a hard time understanding why anyone would would need to be “free” of anything. Unless of course your in prison or have been kidnapped.
While in the west we are judged by the degree of our Independence, Thais are judged by the amount of generosity they show throughout their lives. This is the number one, most important aspect of Thai social culture; the core of their lives. From birth, Thais are taught to give everything they have to others,to their family, to those in need. Independence never really comes into the picture. Their lives are spent preparing to take care of their elders when they reach adulthood. This is considered the most important thing a Thai can accomplish in their life and highly respected. We spend our lives wanting to get out of our parents lives, and Thais spend their lives desiring to remain at home in order to take care of their parents. Parents who endured giving birth, years of raising them into adults, and taking care of them all the way. “Naam Jai” or “A heart that flows like water”, is what makes a person who they are. While in the West we may desire to take our new girlfriend out in order to show off her beauty, a Thai woman would take you to meet her family and friends in order to show your generousity; looks have much less value in Thailand than they do in the west. This can be a source of tension and a serious problem if mis-understood. When your girlfriend invites you to go out to eat with her friends only to find out that it’s assumed to be your treat. Her friends will order up the lot, with little consideration as to the price. When the bill comes , no words will be spoken, it will be assumed that your generoustiy will cover the tab. This is a rude assumption in our culture, but perfectly normal and understood in Thai culture. It would be the same whether you are a western man or a Thai man. Infact, this would be a source of great pride for a Thai man; even greater for your girlfriend. Me? I just get angry inside. Does she think I am gullible? Is she using me to help her friends get a free meal? What isthe deal here? I’m thinking that everyone at the table thinks I’m a fool. In all actualty they are thinking what a generous person I must be . In return they extend to me a great deal of respect( one of the highest forms of repayment). To them I have just demonstrated my “Naam Jai” and Saam should be proud. This does little to quelch the fire burning just between my ears. Seriously though, this shows just how different our cultures really are, and just how difficult it can make a relationship if we don’t ope our eyes a bit and see below the surface a bit.
Perhaps the second most important aspect of western life is privacy. As westerners, we value our time alone. We need to have things that belong only to us. We desire time to be alone, to relax, and burn of steam. Thais cannot understand why anyone would ever want, much less need to be alone. When the family goes out, everyone will pile into the truck together. 20 people can sit comfortably in a VW Bug without ever uttering a complaint. If your traveling together, you will stay together for most of the time. As westerners, we tend to split of into small groups; see our own sites, shop where we choose, eat when we are ready and usually will meet up later. These thoughts would rarely ever cross the mind of the typical Thai person. When I am with Saam’s family, I lose most of my privacy, and lose all of my independence. I have control over not one aspect of my life. Decisions are made for me; what we will eat, where we will go, when we will leave and on and on. I will never be asked, and for the most part, never informed as to what the plans are. As you can imagine, this is very difficult for me. I know my mom knows just how wonderfully well I can handle these situations. To make matters worse, Thai culture does not really afford me the freedom to express my opinion or desire. To do so would surely cause someone in the group to lose face( another very important part of Thai culture). I must simply smile and go along with what has been planned. For an independence loving westerner this causes some serious self-confidence issues. Am I weak? Am I a push-over? Do they see me as someone they can push around? Of course these are only things a westerner would think about. Thais are thinking no such things. Infact, they are 100% sure that we are very pleased with what they are doing. What Thai would not be?
***Please remember that these are generalities.*** It’s impossible to shrink any group of people into any one cultural can. Some people from Texas actually enjoy a squirt of Ketchup on their hamburger. The Idea is that Thai people for the most part get their self-esteem by their ability to be generous, while westerners(like myself) generally get our self-esteem from our ability to live an independent life. We see life from opposite perspectives. While being totaly different, one perspective is no better than the other. They both have worked and sustained both our ways of life.
For Saam and I, this takes some work. She views me through the eyes of a Thai person raised with Thai values, and I view her through the eyes of an American boy raised with American values. No matter how long we may be together, I doubt we will ever be able to look at one another through each others eyes; not sure that it’s even important. Thankfully though, we are learning about each others cultures together. Having a good time doing so if I might add. Saam is realizing that no matter how well I may speak her langauge, I will never be a Thai man. She needs to make some adjustments in the way she does things and perhaps even make some of our differences known to her family and friends. For me, it’s a question of being willing to give up some of my independence, and my privacy. I am of course learning, but its more easily said than done. It certainly does not happen overnight. Right now I am soaking my head in water on a nightly basis in hopes that my hard head will soften slightly:)
Next time I’ll get into some more detail of Thai and Western cultural conflicts. I am sure that I hardly did this justice. Nonetheless, I hope that you were able get some sort of understanding out of the last three hours of writing.


~ by Scott on Friday, July 8, 2005.

2 Responses to “Getting Married in Thailand Part I”

  1. Thanks for sharing this information. Really is pack with new knowledge. Keep them coming.

  2. I had a couple of questions, does an american have to be married to live in Thailand? Where would be a good place in Thailand for an retired american to live? (keeping in mind that retired folks are not rich!)

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