Living in Amazing Thailand

June 2019

The Road Less Traveled

By George Fuller

I moved to Thailand in 2001 as part of my job at the time and immediately fell in love with the country and its people. I thought that if I tried hard enough to adapt, I might even think about becoming a Thai citizen. As it turns out I was both naive and downright wrong.

It is theoretically possible for a foreigner to become a Thai citizen, but it is practically impossible culturally. I thought that having a Thai wife would make it inevitable that I would become a Thai citizen, but I was wrong. Having a Thai wife did help me become a permanent resident, but going any further would have been a mistake. Unlike the U.S., which is a nation based on an idea, Thailand is a nation based on an ethnic identity. In fact when Siam changed its name to Thailand (twice actually: first in 1939 and then again in 1949) it was to emphasize that this is a country of and for Thais, excluding all others. So I realized that I will never be a Thai and there would be no point in pretending otherwise. A British acquaintance of mine did become a Thai citizen, but when his name appeared in the local news a couple of times he was always referred to as British.

This state of affairs is not without its benefits. As an outsider I can appreciate Thai life all the more for seeing it through foreign eyes. But the key here is not to be judgmental and to take things as they come. I have learned two very important lessons during my time here. The first is that, when dealing with bureaucrats it is important to smile and be patient. Eventually things will work out as long as you don’t get angry. I have found that dealing with banks, immigration officials, drivers license officials and even the police that as long as you smile politely and are patient, good things will happen. As long as you have the right documentation of course.

One pleasant surprise for me has been how easy it has been to deal with the Thai bureaucracy in business dealings. I found that when dealing with civil servants in the agriculture and health ministries there is a high level of competence and a strong work ethic. This is partly because many Thais who cannot afford higher education are supported by the government on the condition that they work for the government after their education is complete. I know one very smart and talented man who bemoaned that with his two Ph.D.s he would never be able to leave the Thai government.

The second lesson I have learned is that you should never make a Thai angry at you. You never know what connections they may have that could create real problems for you down the road. This was brought home to me when a foreigner in my village got into fights with neighbors because he would not clean up after his dog. One day he discovered that he could no longer renew his visa in Thailand and had to leave the country and sell his house.

And sometimes I find myself rethinking some of my western assumptions. My wife has been a great help in helping me understand Thai beliefs and how they view the world. Thais are generally firm believers in ghosts. There is a long list of ghosts that are famous here but even in daily life the belief in ghosts is strong. Of course I used to look down on this as superstitious nonsense until I attended the cremation of one of my brothers in law. He had died suddenly at a fairly young age, which Thais believe means his ghost will stay around for awhile until it realizes it is dead. Sure enough, as his cremation was just about to begin a strong hot wind blew as if a line thunderstorm was coming -- but no rain ever came. Everyone believed that this was his ghost saying goodby. And 100 days later when it was time to pour his ashes into a body of water, the car carrying his ashes broke down with a faulty fuel pump. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not.

I once worked on the fifth floor of a downtown office that overlooked a majestic and very old tree. One day a big storm caused the tree to interfere with the power lines with which it was intertwined. The electric company came and did some massive pruning to prevent a recurrence but left the tree standing. The next day the tree was surrounded by garlands and offerings to the spirit of the tree. I found this touching and by this point in my stay here I probably would have done it myself if it hadn’t not already been taken care of.

Superstition is rampant in Thailand in all social strata. I know that one of the richest men in Thailand who heads a huge multinational conglomerate often consults with a fortune teller to determine auspicious times to close deals or expand his business. My Thai wife and most of her friends are also believers that things such as the location of your house and how you enter it can have an effect on your luck. And many Thais look for signs around them that will help them choose winning lottery numbers. Almost every Buddhist temple is surrounded by lottery ticket sellers. I remain neutral on these practices as long as they do no harm. And who knows? Maybe having your house blessed by 9 monks will indeed improve your luck.

Thailand has been a constant source of amazement, surprise and sometimes disappointment to me. Almost everyday I see something that would never be seen in the US. Usually this is because Thais are very good at taking what they have and making the most out of it. It is not uncommon to see a motorcycle that has been modified to serve as a food outlet, sort of a Thai version of food trucks in the U.S. Often you will see one of these motorcycles going down the road while barbecuing chicken at the same time. More common are ice cream and fruit vendors. In general motorcycles of all kinds are serious road problems here that make me want to give a one-finger salute, but I never get angry at these vendors even as they are blocking the road in front of me because I realize that they are just doing their best to make a living.

Another feature of Thailand that you will not see in the U.S. is elephants. When I first moved here they were often to be found even in the congested areas of Bangkok because they had lost their “jobs” in the forest when logging was banned. It was not uncommon to be driving around Bangkok and see an elephant walking down the street with a reflective CD attached to its tail as a reflector. Eventually this problem got sorted out but elephants are still to be found at festivals in rural areas.

One thing that has not changed much since I have lived here is the lack of English skills among Thai people. I can’t hold that against them because my Thai skills aren’t all that great either. But it can result in some humorous sights around town. Thailand is a center of manufacturing for all sorts of t-shirts. Many of these shirts have English sayings on them that are often inappropriate or misspelled or with bad grammar. Often Thais will buy these shirts with no idea what they say just because they like the colors or the design. Once I saw a nice young woman wearing a shirt that said “Treat me like the bitch I am.” I’m pretty sure she had no idea what that meant. And then there was a Thai man on the street interviewed on national television wearing a T-shirt that had four F-words on it -- this on a medium that routinely pixelates cigarettes and cleavage to avoid injuring the sensitivities of the Thai public. I am also the proud owner of an iPhone case that has the saying “I want personality not trivial” on it. Say what? Here are some pictures of signs that are written in someone’s second language.

One aspect of Bangkok that seems convenient on the surface is the abundance of taxis. Unfortunately most of these taxis are driven by men from rural areas who are trying to earn some money in the city. The odds that they know where you want to go are slim and the odds that they speak English are zero. So most tourists will grab a taxi at a hotel and get the doorman to explain to the driver where they want to go. However, if he goes astray en route they are out of luck unless they know at least basic directions in Thai. It’s a lot like cruise missiles that have their courses programmed in before they launch but if they go off course, too bad. This happened to me once or twice when I was still new to the country but fortunately I could usually call a Thai on my mobile phone for a mid-course correction. Other people who were not so fortunate have found themselves outside a jewelry store owned by the driver’s cousin. You are better off hiring a hotel car or better yet taking advantage of the ever growing network of subways and sky trains.

One area which has been a disappointment for me has been my inability to become proficient in the Thai language. When I was much younger I thought I was pretty good at languages and could speak French reasonably well, read German and even dabbled in Russian. But I have not done very well with Thai. This is due to a variety of factors including the difficulty of the Thai language for English speakers and the fact that as I have aged my short term memory is not very good. Also my short-term memory is not very good. And my wife has not encouraged me in this effort because she does not want me to understand what she is saying about me to her friends.

I can still function reasonably well in the country thanks to the advent of smart phones and their translation apps. Also when I am desperate I can call my wife to bail me out. It is important to know that even though translation apps for Thai to English can be helpful, they generally are not reliable. Google Translate does an especially bad job. Once my wife posted two pictures of the two of us and our daughter on Facebook. The first one was when she was ten years old and the second was when she was eleven. My wife wrote in Thai “last year, this year, how much she has grown!” The Google Translate version was “Last year, this year, a lot of cheese went up.”

After all is said and done the balance for me remains in favor of staying here, especially since it is the only home my wife has ever known. Sure there are plenty of frustrations, but they are only problems if you let them be problems. But the reward is getting to know some marvelous people and a culture that is all the more interesting because it is so different from what I grew up with. I will never be as one with this country but that does not keep me from enjoying the heck out of it.

2019 by George Fuller. All rights reserved.

George Fuller was born in St. Louis, Missouri long before most of the other people still alive on this planet. After escaping from Webster Groves High School he went on to become educated far beyond his intelligence, receiving a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of British Columbia. This was followed by a modestly successful career in the agricultural technology industry that took him to over 65 countries, some of which no longer exist. Over the course of his education and career he lived in eight different cities in North America and finally moved to Bangkok, Thailand in 2001. He is ferociously proud of his son in the U.S. Foreign Service, his daughter with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, a fantastic daughter-in-law, a wonderful son-in-law and three of the best grandchildren in the world. He is still living in Bangkok with his Thai wife and his precocious 12-year-old daughter and has no plans to move again.

Five stars on Amazon! Don't miss Talesmag's first book of essays, on cross-cultural food experiences from Mexico to Mongolia (plus recipes!)

Read More