I realized after my post Racism in Thailand – A Day in The Life of a White Woman in Buriram went live, that a peek into Thai public and private life between the sexes, as I know it, may be in order. It will give that piece, in addition to many of the pieces here on MBSB some context.
When I speak of Thailand in the piece I’m currently writing you, it is the Thailand I know, the Thailand that is more culturally conservative from, my understanding of, the tourist areas and the culture presented by those Thai nationals who either are literate in a foreign, more specifically Western culture / language and those who have studied overseas. Perhaps when I speak of Thailand and Thai nationals in this piece, I’m speaking of Thai culture, in a more traditional sense. I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder if it’s the culture of smaller communities / cities in Thailand. Regardless, this is the current culture of Buriram and the culture I have resided in, in one shape or form for a number of years. For when I wasn’t living in Thailand’s North East, which is in many ways culturally distinct from other regions, I was living in areas and spending most of my time with people from this region. Please note, I have been witness to some distinct similarities of views coming from people of other regions.
The following isn’t only born of observation, it is a summation of that also learned through conversations with friends and people I’ve met along the way who are Thai. In my attempt to understand the world I live in, current patterns began to arise. What perhaps I once thought were biases of the individual, or simply, their personal world view, were repeated over time, be it via conversations with other people or the actions of those around me…the pieces over the years are starting to fit together. The following is my attempt to present them to you accurately.
This can be really complicated and perhaps deserves a post in itself (let me know if you’re interested please), but for the nature of the topic at hand, I will keep it very simple. Thai relationships in the most basic of terms:
The person you are in a serious relationship with, with promise of a future. For example, a future spouse or your current one. The one you bring to family functions. Your partner in the face of the community.
The person you are in a casual relationship with, with no promise of a future. There is mutual acceptance of this. This is not secluded to being a hook-up for sex, although it can be only that. Oftentimes, giks are treated much like a fen, without the expectation of a future (i.e. family) together, and no esteemed public recognition. I’ve heard people speak of their giks much like Westerners speak of a friend of the opposite sex (where no sexual contact occurs), while with others, it is definitely a romantic and/or sexual relationship. For example, I’ve heard older people say to my married past trainer when we have been in public together, “Oh, you’re with your gik. How is your wife?”. And another nak muay, who is, I believe approximately seventeen say in jest to a trainer, “Laura and I are giks. We hug every day.” (Note, we don’t. Hugging is sort of serious out here, but compared to Western notions of a hook up, his comment, in my opinion, displays what I would consider a certain innocence to the term). I fully understand (or I think I do) the nature of gik relationships when they resemble casual sexual relationships in the West. I’m still trying to figure out the nature of the other ones. Currently, I feel gik is a word used to express what I would consider a number of situations that may not be considered similar in the West. It does not simply mean friend. It does not simply mean person I’m in a casual and open relationship with.
Most pubescent and post pubescent Thais have a fen, particularly those in smaller communities. Some have a fen, some have two, generally those men who have enough money to support more than one woman and/or family financially. In my opinion, I will also extend this to those (male and female) who are cunning enough to have more than one. Oftentimes people will have more than one fen openly, oftentimes not. Men are more open about this whilst women tend to hide the fact. Giks are sort of an added bonus with no longevity. Fluid in a way. One night stands and prostitution don’t fall into any of the two categories.
Public Life / Dating / Being Alone in Any Sense
Again, in the most basic of terms:
Oftentimes Thais will not live in the same city as their fen, even after marriage. This opens up the possibility of having many fens around the country or in many countries. For example, a man from the country may work in Bangkok to support his family. He will have a fen in Bangkok and one in the country. Neither will know of one another. In addition, his wife will generally not have one where she lives (particularly if it is a small community, unfaithfulness in women is frowned upon), but may have one for example, in the city her sister resides in, and where she regularly visits (i.e. Khon Kaen). On the man’s side, he is responsible for giving both women money regularly, on the woman’s she receives money regularly and generally gives her body to her fen(s) (which is almost a direct translation as it has been expressed to me – not my words – the giving of one’s body as an exhange). If the man or woman moves to work in another city or meets a Foreigner….the possibilities are vast.
Note, the above is not uncommon and I’ve heard from a number of people, they would be angry if their fen had another fen, but they wouldn’t be angry should they have a gik. They would only be angry if they found out about them.
Men have repeatedly expressed to me that Thai women are only interested in a man’s money. Women have repeatedly expressed to me that Thai men are only interested in sex.
Being alone, in any sense is uncommon in Thai culture. Many Thais grow up living and sleeping in the same room as their family (i.e. throw a mat on the floor and a mosquito net overhead and everyone get in). When people leave for college or work, you may easily find four people of the same sex living in a small studio room that many people in the West barely see fit for one person. You will see three people sleep in a double bed. You rarely see Thais doing anything social alone, be it shopping, eating, anything really. To be seen alone often elicits suspect or sympathy. A great deal of Thais of every age and sex have expressed to me a deep fear of sleeping alone – they’ve never done it.
What is considered co-dependent in modern Western culture is often the norm of relationships here. It is very normal for a fen to call their fen multiple times a day (i.e. five to ten times). I personally think this is in part due to missing the person and in part ensuring they’re not doing anything on the side.
Men and women typically do not socialize publicly alone (meaning two people) unless they’re together in some sense. If they aren’t, they will be assumed to be. For example, a girl seen on the back of a man’s motorbike is naturally assumed to be in some sort of relationship with him. In addition, for a woman to go out with two men, unless one is her partner of some sense, is considered by many, ‘bad’.
The Stereotype of The White Woman
For a number of reasons, white women are exalted and feared. White skin is the ideal here and white women have the reputation of being as easy as they come, as easy as I can’t even imagine fathomable. I’ve probably said it before here on MBSB and if not, prepare to hear it again, but the best way I know how to put it is that the stereotype of white women is akin to a prostitute you don’t have to pay for. Note, in Thai culture, it is customary for a man to pay a woman he isn’t married to for sex after the fact (this is not prostitution. It actually shows he is a good man and didn’t take anything from the woman. It is a form of respect. An exchange, if you will). White girls don’t even think of this, we give it up for free. This aside from being considered loose means poor men can have sex with us. Sometimes, from what I’ve seen, monogamy seems to be an issue of a man’s finances, not an issue of preference. For example, oftentimes when I joke and ask a man how many fens he already has, or joke that a man is a player, he will exclaim he only has one woman or isn’t a player because he doesn’t have enough money to live life any other way. This isn’t simply a, I don’t have enough money for dinner and a movie claim, there’s much more to it than that.
I have and suspect will continue to speak to Thai women who are married to Western men, who have lived in tourist areas, who have been prostitutes even, who look down on Western women, most notably white women and have no idea about us. The misrepresentation of our cultures, if I can try to bridge them in any sense (as we’re all lumped together out here) continues to leave me in dismay. We may be exalted in our beauty, but far too often for my liking, we are viewed as objects at best, vile excuses of humanity at worst.
So, if you marry little to no understanding of Western cultures, little to no understanding of any cultures not Thai, poor literacy of any language, stories of girls ‘gone off the hook’ in tourist areas, no cultural context of our mass media, poorly translated examples of Western media, with the high amount of Western porn floating around, in the context of which I have already stated in this piece – Western women are fetishised by those that want to have sex with us and deeply feared and hated by those that see us as competition.
And that, really, is just the beginning / the basics. There is so much more lending to all of this.
White, Single and Thai Sized
My physical characteristics:
I’m Caucasian. I’m light-skinned. I have eyes that are sometimes hazel, sometimes green. I have a straight, fine-boned, classically Italian nose. My face is small. My lips are neither thin nor large. They are pink. My hair is a caramel brown with blonde highlights. I’m Asian sized, except possibly my backside.
All of these characteristics are listed because they are considered beautiful in modern Thai culture, less my backside. They are characteristics that have been commented on by both men and women. They are also a reflection of what I see in Thai media (there are no dark skinned models here).
I know men that can’t look at me directly. I know women who smile when they speak to me, but host malice in their eyes. Living in Thailand has helped me identify jealousy in women and shyness to the point of fear in men.
I have been single for most of my stay in Thailand. I’m on almost three years here this trip and I was in a relationship for two to three months (it having ended after I found out he had a wife in the countryside).
Let me put it to you another way. I’m white. I’m considered attractive. I’m more often than not, alone. I eat alone. I go to the market alone. I train in the mornings alone. I get my hair done alone. I do errands alone. I’m on my motorbike alone. I go to festivals alone. I sleep alone….. I know a ton of people here in Buriram, and many are welcoming and will come and talk to me, I have people I can rely on, but for some reason, I don’t have a tight friend base that I always hang out with. Guys I know seem to avoid being alone in public with me. Many of them are really shy. Girls generally don’t seem to want to know me more than casually. Some I suspect are also really shy. Some people of course, are just busy and have their own lives and limited time. There are also language and perceived language barriers. There is also the fact I have a demanding training schedule, I rarely drink and have a hard time eating out because of my allergies. I’m sure I can think of a ton of other possibilities…However, in terms of me being a threat, let me explain, let me put it all together for you….
If I go out in public with a Thai guy, specifically alone, it is assumed we are having sex together. Remember, most men are in relationships and the stereotype of white women is that we love to give it up to most takers. In addition, people seem to love to gossip out here. This doesn’t mean I haven’t made friendships with Thai men in Buriram, but those friendships are definitely strained and have their limitations. Let me give you a classic example of a night out for me…
Sometimes one of my Thai male friends will call from a popular club and ask if I want to come hang out. He could be at the bar with a mix of men and women or just men, never with his fen. She lives in another city and she is not from this one. Normally I say yes. He’s a ton of fun to hang out with. Usually he will send another mutual male friend, to come pick me up on his motorbike. This second friend, on each occasion hasn’t gone directly to the club, which is a short drive through the city centre. Rather, he drives outside the city, then comes back in near the club and drives in the back entrance. Once we’re in the club, it’s fine. There is freedom. Outside of it, I seem to have to be hidden. I can ask specifically why he does this, but it doesn’t mean I’ll get the truth. I’ve often thought, no maybe he just likes taking three times as long to get to the club, but there’s that nagging suspicion in my head somewhere that’s just saying, don’t be stupid. His girlfriend lives in another city, but he may have something on the side here. I don’t know. Although my hypothesis may be incorrect, I’m living in a culture that supports it. Should this happen in the U.S. or Canada, I wouldn’t come to the same conclusion.
I have seen a Thai woman bitchslap the man she was with in public for looking at me. I’ve heard women bark at their men for noticing me. There are a lot of instances I suspect to have forgotten. I’m kind of getting used to this.
I have been warned by a kind older couple that should a Thai woman come in my direction looking angry and carrying a glass that looks filled with water, to run. Perhaps she will throw acid on my face.
To some, I’m a threat in a few ways I suppose. They don’t want me sleeping with their men, or worse stealing one from them. Should I steal one, they will potentially lose their financial security, depending on the nature of their relationshp – fen or gik (this can get complicated. So I’ll skip explaining this). They will also have lost a great deal of face in the community (and consequentially so will their man). It seems to be one thing to leave a Thai woman for another Thai woman, but for a Thai man to leave, thus abandon a Thai woman for a Foreigner…I’ve gathered it’s incredibly shameful. Despicable to many. (And on the flipside, fantasized by many. White women are also status symbols for Thai men to sleep with. They tend to provide incredible bragging rights).
In addition, there is also a bit of a culture difference between me and most Thai women I’ve met, this definitely lends to the situation, on my side. We don’t have a lot in common and I find it difficult to relate to most of them. I feel much more comfortable with the men and women old enough to be my mother and seem to be able to make conversation easily with them. Nonetheless, I’m also a threat to some women because I have a fairly good understanding of the culture and am bilingual. Allow me to illustrate…
Thai women who are in relationships with Western men know I can potentially understand what they’re saying on the phone to their ‘ brother’ (often the word told to Foreign men in an effort to hide their Thai gik or fen(s)’s identity) as long as they’re speaking in Thai, and to some degree Lao. Thai women who are in relationships with Thai men but have Western men as ‘friends’ know I can understand what they’re saying on the phone to their ‘friends’ and can tell their Thai fen. I have been in a situation where I was in a group of people and a Thai woman was speaking on the phone to a few Foreign men in the presence of her Thai boyfriend, and he had no idea what was going on.
There are of course people who are outside of this. For example my current gym’s manager, who I suspect isn’t aware of how much I appreciate her. Never once have I felt jealousy emanate from her and a few weekends ago, after going to her sister’s wedding, and after my shoe fell apart, she gave me her pair of heels so I could accompany her husband (who is my trainer), his male friend and a visiting Foreign male to the club. I believe she went home barefoot. To note, her sister lives abroad and married a European whom she met overseas. I suspect this may also lend to her treatment of me. She has a better understanding of what goes on in our countries. She knows I’m not against her. I’m not a threat. Essentially, perhaps she reads me for who she percieves me to be as an individual. She sees me, not a white female Farang.
Not everything is in extremes, not everyone buys into the stereotypes. I’ve done my best to provide the patterns that have emerged over the years to you. In essence, that which if I had known, or at the very least would have considered a possibility years ago, I suspect my time here would have been easier. Some people tried to explain and warn me of some of these things years ago, and ironically at the time, I dismissed what they told me as bias.
As always, please feel free to express your thoughts and experiences.
For Thailand solo travel and safety tips, in addition to Thailand information you won’t find in traditional tourist guides, please visit my post Tips For Women Traveling To Thailand.
MBSB contributor Lindsey Newhall has written a series, The Perils of Dating Your Trainer, taking us deep into her experiences dating in Thailand.
Shama Kern has written a series on Thai relationships from the perspective of a Western man living in Thailand. I highly recommend it.