I’m sorry for the negativity, but I feel that my blog needs a little balance. A couple months back I wrote a post highlighting five of my favorite things about living in Bangkok. (You can refresh your memory here!) I had just arrived back in Thailand after a glorious month in North America. Thinking that I’d be sad to leave California and British Columbia, I actually found myself appreciating Bangkok and embracing it as my temporary home.
Living abroad is appealing to many, and while I am thankful for this amazing opportunity to be immersed in a culture that is not my own, learn a new language (or at least bits of one!), and travel around a new part of the globe, there are some serious drawbacks. Homesickness is very real, and for me, impossible to shake. I’ve gotten used to living more than 8,000 miles away from friends and family, but that absolutely does not mean that I’ve become OK with it. I’m lucky to have met some really great new people with whom I know I will maintain friendships even when our stints in Thailand are over. But, as I learned in Brownies, “Make new friends and keep the old/ One is silver and the other gold.” (Wow, that was cheesy…but true!)
Anyway, on days when I’m particularly homesick, the frustrating side of living in Thailand really takes its toll. My list is below.
1. General squalor: Sure, Siam Paragon is immaculate, our apartment building is spotless, the BTS trains look like new, and there’s always someone mopping my school’s hallways, but the city itself is simply disgusting. Low taxes, a lot of government corruption, and list item #5 (inefficiency) all add up to litter everywhere, overflowing garbage cans, piles of weeks-old rubbish, the remains of street food meals like fish heads, bones, rotting vegetables, etc., and raw sewage smells that easily make one lose consciousness. In addition, the river and streams are polluted, the air quality is low, and the sidewalks are in such bad repair that tripping is a daily occurrence. Speaking of cracking sidewalks, in the rainy season it is not uncommon to step upon a seemingly sturdy cement tile only to discover that it is loose and hiding a puddle of nasty rainwater.
2. Racism/Discrimination. I am not Thai, I don’t look Thai, and therefore, I don’t get treated like a Thai national. To Thai people, I am a farang, a word that comes from “Frank” or someone of French descent. Though it was actually first used to mean “European”, now farang just means a white foreigner. Though not derogatory, the term is also not particularly nice. There is a more respectful term that means “Western person”, though it is not used regularly. I don’t mind being a farang, but I do mind when I hear it being used to brush me off, to distinguish me from a group, or to insult me. From what I have gathered over these last 15 months, Thais view themselves as the best nationality/ethnicity/group of humans on the planet. Now, I come from America, a land of some pretty serious patriotism, so I can understand pride in one’s home country. But Thais go a few more nationalist steps further. My grade 6 students laugh at black people, giggle at the sound of “Pakistan”, scoff at India, call Chinese people ugly, and see nothing wrong with any of this. Clearly, no one is teaching them to be accepting of people from outside their ethnic group (and I’m doing what I can!). In a country as homogenous as Thailand, this isn’t shocking, but it really gets to me as a person raised in the melting pot of the San Francisco Bay Area. As a farang, I am excluded from discounts, deals, and opportunities, which I find to be outright racist, since this would be completely illegal in the U.S. For instance, at the aquarium beneath Siam Paragon mall (Ocean World), the posted price is 900 baht (about $28), but upon telling the cashier that Sean and I live in Bangkok, and showing our work IDs, the price went down to the “Thai price” of 400 baht ($12). This discounted rate is not posted anywhere, so cashiers judge people by their physical features and Thai language abilities before giving them the Thai price. Ocean World was fair compared to the Grand Palace, temples around Bangkok, and the temples in Ayutthaya. These big Thailand attractions charge foreigners, but Thais go for free, and this system is not based on residency, but on ethnicity. My school ID, my home address in Bangkok, my ability to argue in Thai (a little) do absolutely nothing. I’m not Thai, so therefore I pay the foreigner price.
3. Traffic and subsequent motorbikes on sidewalks. It’s really bad, and this is coming from someone who spent two years in LA and 3 years in Silicon Valley. California has nothing on Bangkok (thank goodness). Again because of low taxes, corruption, and inefficiency, the roads here are outrageously unorganized. Need to turn right out of the school gate? Sure, just turn left, drive a couple miles on the highway, then make a U-turn. U-turns and flyovers are the solution for everything here. Rather than re-do anything (or plan well in the first place), U-turn bridges and overpasses are just added on. The traffic here is horrendous, often because even the cars wanting to go south need to go north until they find the next U-turn bridge. My commute to and from school every day totals a little less than two hours, and my school is only about 10 miles from my apartment (the train takes about 25 minutes, and then my taxi ride can be 15-45 minutes. One time the taxi ride from school to the BTS station in the afternoon took 2.5 hours alone! And you might say that walking would have been faster, but please refer back to #1). Thank goodness for what public transit Bangkok does possess; being on the roads for my whole commute would kill me. (Actually, and sorry to be morbid, but that could be taken literally, since Thailand has more traffic accidents than any other place on Earth.) Now when the traffic is awful, many motorbike riders feel that a simple solution is to ride on the sidewalk, bypassing the gridlock. This is certainly illegal, but police officers politely look away (or do it themselves). It’s really annoying to be honked at while walking on a part of the city landscape that is specifically for walkers.
4. Materialism/Misogyny/Consumerism. Well, there’s not much to say here except that I get tired of the worship of Coach and Louis Vuitton, the objectification of women in commercials and on billboards, and the desire to keep up with the Joneses (or should I say the Chatjaroenchaikuls?). These same criticisms could be made of Americans, but it bothers me here just as much!
5. Inefficiency. Oh my gosh, the inefficiency. It’s kind of ridiculous how long it takes to do anything here, simply because with labor costs so low, there can be two or three people for every position that really only requires one competent person. The phrase “two many cooks in the kitchen” comes to mind — at the bank, at clothing stores, and at grocery stores (just walking down an aisle without getting hit with a mop is a true miracle).
Sean gave this post a stamp of approval, saying that it is “vent-ilicious”. I feel better. 🙂