Monday, February 5, 2018

Ten years in Thailand; on Thai culture and Quora answers

I've actually been in Thailand four months over ten years now so it's not exactly an anniversary.  More than that milestone other things have triggered me thinking about Thai culture versus US culture.  And of course also "what am I doing with my life?,"  which goes without saying.

One thing stands out as a prompt for introspection, perhaps not what you'd expect:  answering questions on Quora.  Quora is the social media site version of Yahoo answers.  They add functions and tracking to make it more personal, or rather to help people keep score for answering well (I guess, or at least for being popular).  Where Facebook has post and picture likes and a friends count Quora has answer upvotes, views and follower counts.  It's a little odd that knowledge sharing can be a form of entertaining interaction (like reading Wikipedia for fun), or that it would be possible to turn it into a popularity contest, but it all works together.

a recent school fun-day here; kind of a universal experience

About Quora and other forum participation

Initially I was just answering questions about tea, a continuation of this blog writing, and also forum and FB group discussion.  Then I answered a few questions about Thailand, travel, and Buddhism, even parenting.  More recently about Russia (where we vacationed), and even one about snowboarding, reaching back to expertise from a past life stage.

This does circle back to Thai culture, a central theme related to participating there.  I'll stick to meta-level discussion of Quora first, and say a bit about general format and discussion of those ideas, before getting back to that.  That won't include how Quora works, about using direct messages there, or how making comments, following, and giving "upvotes" seems to fold together with view stats.  There are already Quora answers and comments discussions there about all that, and I've not really got it all figured out.

I posted one link to Thai culture themed answer in an online expat group, to see how it would go over.  Expat groups--which are not really an example of native Thai culture at all, but still sort of a variation on that theme--cover a range of contexts.  Some forums are populated by bitter, older, barstool-crowd expats.  Many of those don't really care for Thai culture much, and spend hours a day complaining about local culture in discussion forums, some logging thousands of comments in doing so.  Somehow insulting other expats goes along with that, blaming people for assimilating with local culture, or just calling others names for no reason, trolling.  Good times.

I'll have to keep a description short but I think Jordan Peterson nailed the cause behind that in a Joe Rogan podcast interview.  His point:  you can't make it a practical goal to retire to drink margaritas on the beach, because even if successful after a few weeks of that you'd get bored, sunburned, and be in poor health from all the sugar and alcohol.  I suspect some expats set up low expense, comfortable lives out in the country and set to drinking beer for a pass-time.  Only later does it come up that maintaining limited ties to a local culture and lacking more to do is a real problem, along with the focus on alcohol consumption.  Of course there are well-integrated, personally balanced expats of different ages too, and different lifestyles can work out. 

Q & A or picture posting themes make up most of the rest of expat forum discussion scope, talking about travel or mundane subjects like where to get some type of Western food.  Introspective analysis of subtle culture variations isn't really well received where most of those other subjects are playing out.  Overthinking things goes over badly in general, which is one reason why Quora works:  no matter what obscure theme someone is on others are either right there with them or not seeing those posts.

One comment about that forum-posted answer about standard cultural differences was interesting, if a bit harshly framed.  The point was that it only repeated cliches, eg. Thais smile a lot, Americans are loud.  That was accurate, to an extent.  The funny thing about those cliches is that they're based on something; they're partly true.  It works to use those as a starting point, to describe in what senses they really are accurate, and the limitations of those generalities, or why a specific rough interpretation of them may be completely false. 

Most expats in Thailand aren't alcoholics, per my experience (which goes without saying, really, but it can't hurt to be clear).  About limitations of those two prior generalizations (about loudness and smiling), I'm American and I'm on the quiet and calm side, and there's no reason why any given Thai couldn't be quite somber. 

Let's examine another standard one:  Americans tend to be nationalistic, and to extend that to narrower group loyalties like following sports teams.  To some extent I've just described human nature, across lots of cultures.  It would be more rare for few citizens to associate with nationality, and hard to completely get away from sports enthusiasm, in most countries and cultures.  Not everyone in the US thinks America is number one (or that such a thing could really mean much), or is into sports, although on Superbowl Sunday it probably would seem that a majority are.

More on Quora and answer specifics

This might be a good place to swing back to more specifics, to dig a little deeper.  I'll see what I can turn up from a Quora question answer on something, but first a few of my Quora stats will serve as more background on what goes on there (from when I started this post draft, over a week ago now):

different ways to "keep score"

Answers338 / Questions0
Followers 56 / Following 19
Topics 28
241.7k answer views
29.7k this month

Pretty much what you'd expect, I guess.  It's hard to know what to make of those counts and easier to relate to how they seem to change.

I'll go further on that question about Thais smiling related to citing from an answer there, since it is a starting point on a main difference:

Why do people say that Thai people smile in different occasions than us Westerners?

...a smile can mean someone is happy, that they are trying to be polite when they actually feel neutral, or even to express disapproval or disagreement. That’s it; there are slightly different smiles that mean different things. Or maybe instead it’s that smiling comes across slightly differently when it’s supposed to be the same expression, that the expression seems more genuine when it reflects happiness...  I could swear that I can spot a distinct version of a smile that means “I disagree” though.

It just seems like part of the culture. It’s the same as some Americans being very open and genuine, and others more reserved, and in some other US sub-cultures in some regions a bit less genuine. To put locations to that I’m from PA, the mid-West side, and people are friendly and relatively on the surface, which switches to being more reserved on the East Coast (NYC and such). I visited LA quite a bit at one point and what is displayed on the surface there isn’t necessarily what someone is thinking or feeling. I was just in Russia and people there are more reserved and serious...

So that's it, self-expression norms vary by culture, the context for how open people should be, or how pleasant.  People in Japan are really reserved, to the extent that two people (Thai friends) who lived in Japan mentioned it taking a long time to break into as a social-group there, months just to talk to people normally.  I don't think Thais are actually any more open than Americans (or that much less), and maybe the form only changes related to the emphasis on public persona and appropriate reactions.  I covered more along that line in a post (answer) about Are Russians really as cold-hearted as they are portrayed in the west? 

The short version:  no.  Slightly longer:  again it's just a matter of public persona and how people present themselves in crowds or among people they don't know (per my limited exposure; we did only vacation there, which only goes so far).  Russians seemed to warm up quickly once you actually talk to them, and seemed the most somber when occupied by a commuting routine, which doesn't exactly bring out the best in everyone.  Thais looked like zombies while commuting when I started that here ten years ago, seemingly barely awake for the task, or even nodding off, and now they're all just staring at phones instead.  I could swear I noticed some of those same superficial patterns that one might pick up in comparing NYC and LA when we visited Sydney and Melbourne too.

a friendly Russian woman who helped with instructions in the Moscow metro

It really takes years to feel comfortable with a local culture though, to be able to "get it."  After two or three it felt a lot more familiar here, and after five or six I seemed to turn another corner in regards to relating to it more.

Onto deeper subjects (maybe, sort of).

On Thai beauty ideals (not the deeper subject theme yet)

What are the differences between living in Thailand and the US?

This is the post that was criticized, although I think part of that related to citing a short partial version of it as an intro, which didn't capture much of the detail (as this second partial citation won't).

...there are people living out a broad range of lifestyles in Thailand, which changes an answer more to a range of answers. Even rural people, living on a much lower income, are living modern lives in a sense (eg. entertainment and electronics use is similar...

Culture is something else...  For one person an emphasis on arts or literature is at the core of culture, the higher forms, or for another differences in everyday perspective, eg. how open people tend to be, in general. I’ll speak more to the latter here, how people tend to come across, extending into minor differences in worldview and outlook that shape everyday experience... To me minor variations are usually not significant...

...people share more attributes in common than they don’t share that separates them, across different countries and cultures...  Social roles are quite similar, and shared stuff to own and communication forms bring people together more now...  All other things being equal—which is never how things work—I’d probably be more comfortable in my own country, back in the US. Language issues drop out there and there’s less to deal with related to differences, for example observing Loy Krathong versus Halloween (not held at the exact same time but not far off).

my kids, one a bit put off by something, the other "as pikachu"

...It would be nice to describe the difference in Thai everyday perspective versus in the US. Lots of little, subtle differences add up to a worldview that’s not identical, even among IT professionals, even if both share lots in terms of broad strokes...  Humor isn’t the same; there’s one. My son—who is bilingual—says that he can’t make jokes in English.  I think it’s more because Thai humor is slightly different instead of that he can’t shift the same patterns from one language he is fluent in to another he also is. 

The water cooler talk in my office, which looks exactly like an office back in the US, is slightly different, in ways that would be hard to pin down...  Here I would always be a foreigner, always a little off the norm, approaching “getting” their worldview but never completely there.

That's a bit over half the answer but it catches the broad strokes; I mention a few specifics but mainly talk around differences and a bit more there.  I think beyond not designing an active life for their retirement that issue of integration is the other problem some expats are having.  If a foreigner can become completely fluent in the local language, eat the foods, work with Thais, share hobbies, etc. then they can relatively completely integrate, and the more of those things that remain separate the harder it is.

I really do like Thailand, of course.  My two favorite people are Thai, and I think it makes it easier raising kids, since shared experiences of changing diapers transitioning to going to piano and swim lessons are similar in lots of places.

a better look at that pikachu look

That's probably almost enough rambling on about Thai and US culture, isn't it?  I'll let this diverge a bit more with one more answer anecdote, not as directly related to culture.

What is your “only in Thailand” moment?

...[while ordained as a Thai monk] I once went out with an older monk to visit his father in the hospital outside of Bangkok, in the country, and realized in the taxi that was my first time in Thailand not being around anyone who spoke any English. I felt a bit of panic, but there was nothing to do.

with our cat, who I met there, a kitten then and now a ten year old

We stopped somewhere and looked over fruit at a stand (monks don’t buy fruit, or anything, by the way; they live off alms-round offerings), so maybe the driver was interested. I knew very few words but I wanted to try to use a couple I did know, so I asked a young girl selling the fruit if it was sweet (wan, mai). She looked a little uncomfortable and simply walked away. 

I only later found out that “sweet” can also be used to describe a person, maybe in a similar way as in English to describe pleasant character, and she probably thought I was asking about her, or even hitting on her, even though I was a monk, standing there in orange robes. It loses a little because there was no “shock-value” moment of me understanding it, but that did sum up my experience in a different way; I just didn’t catch everything.

I guess that I still don't completely catch everything.  My own kids can switch to Thai and know that I'll understand less than half of what they say, and they have to explain Thai culture to me.  At least the older one can; I'm at least even with a four year old's perspective on local culture, just not for long.

On that last trip to Russia (a subject I wrote about here in this blog, and in Quora answers) my son explained that in Thai culture if you lose something small it's a foreshadowing of losing something important, which drove my wife to great extremes to find a missing mitten.  That mitten was stuck between the seats in a tour van, but we kept being picked up for outings in other vehicles by the same guides after, and their staff weren't turning it up.  No one was ever going to explain that losing-things generality to me (superstition?), except for some reason he decided to, even though just answering direct questions is usually outside the scope of his interests.

somehow that image does describe him

Family relationships are seen differently here, emphasized more.  Public image is more important.  Formal speech plays a larger role, or rather changing communication form according to social level, and to some extent adjusting content too.  Small-scale prohibitions like not touching someone's head stick around, but that sort of thing and the superstitions they still adhere to don't amount to all that much (like you can't point at a rainbow, or my family members can't sleep in a room without either a window open or an air conditioner or heater moving the air around).

Loy Krathong; meant here to represent Thai culture

Meanwhile on the larger scale ethics are similar enough.  Marital infidelity is just as common, if not more so (although it's not my thing, obviously).  There is a word for "someone you only sleep with," gik, while in the American expression you have to spell that out as a string of concepts: "friends with benefits."  People really are more the same than different though, there are just lots of small differences that make "culture" a real thing, and foreign cultures something interesting to experience.

I should add that Thais are nice, and to some extent that pleasantness isn't just form.  But then I've liked the people in pretty much all the countries we've visited, a count that's starting to add up.  Either I'm just not choosy or maybe there are positive aspects in different cultures, or people in general are just ok in some sense.

Race and culture issues here and in the US

I just had lunch with friends visiting from the US, initially online contacts, now two meetings in friends "IRL," and a lot of these themes came up.  They have visited a number of times before, and were just here for something like six weeks, so they sort of have one foot in each culture, or at the least are familiar with here.  It's always interesting considering culture shifts back in the US, but that's something we'd talked through a lot more before online.

We talked about problems my son faces being bi-racial and multi-national, and compared those to theirs (they're not white, but that are completely American).  My son's mixed race / culture status is nothing overwhelming but it's not positive for him, not even neutral; he has problems to deal with.  He's moving into figuring out who he'll become, which I already covered in a few rounds of life-crises. 

my wife in an older form of transportation we took there

It's funny how for me beyond those kinds of broad strokes, making peace with specific Thai culture issues, a different level of comfort with experiencing things here emerges.  My wife and I just went on a short outing to Buriram, Isaan, to the Northeast of Thailand, and it felt oddly familiar to be in a small town again there.  I wrote more on that trip in this relatively neutral expat discussion forum post).

It's not familiar to me there in Buriram, at least not in the sense that it ties back to anything in my background from prior to a decade ago.  I'm originally from a rural area but it's much different, and I'm definitely still a foreigner.  At least in Russia I could pass for a Russian, at a glance, but not so much in Isaan.  It was an odd feeling, for once trying to pin down why I felt in-place versus out of place.

About that picture of the rickshaw / samloh, two funny things came up related to using that transportation.  That guy was a bit drunk, and it seemed like he didn't catch that we were asking about going several kilometers away, which really took it out of him.  Two street dogs went with us--his friends, it seemed--who he kept yelling instructions at to help them not screw up running along in traffic (very light traffic, by Bangkok standards).  It almost seemed like they went along to keep an eye on him instead, to help with things if something went wrong.

slightly more standard transport, a pick-up truck version of a local bus

So much for funneling to a central theme conclusion.  I'm not sure which parts of Thai culture became more familiar, or if it's just that spending a few days alone with my wife reminded me of that earlier time in our lives when we had the freedom to investigate Oahu together once in awhile.  I also think the small town vibe worked for me.

When we were in that pick-up truck shuttle (in the picture above) one part of it occurred to me:  I really didn't care how those people in the truck with us felt about me being a foreigner.  It probably helped that they didn't seem to care, although looking at that picture one woman might not have been keen on having her picture taken.

For a long time that had given me pause, how I might come across, and what I should do as an input to that.  It seems like letting it completely drop might be one key to other people also not really being concerned about it.  I've always thought there was a built-in flaw in the idea "it's not my business what other people think of me."  One part of that is about dropping obligations to appear a certain way, or even to fulfill a standard role, possibly ignoring societal norms, and another is about letting the internal friction go instead.  Taken in that second sense it completely works, and in the first it's more about bowing out of shared social obligations, and then maybe it doesn't.

It's been interesting offering perspectives on making those types of adjustments here in Quora, and also answering trivial questions, like Why does Bangkok smell?

monthly stats at time of posting; my score is improving

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