It is fascinating, but Western-made products are not beckoning from every nook and corner of Thailand. Locally-produced clothes, even the unlabeled ones, are sold side by side with branded and world-known products. Thais seem to be proud of goods indigenous to them. Among the Filipinos, our own products are generally looked upon as inferior. By the way, most of us usually have relatives abroad who send over imported items – shirts, shoes, toothpastes, shampoos and lotions by the liters, haha.
Mass consumption in Siam does not appear to be at a crazy, uncontrollable pitch. Among the Thais, there seem to be balance in adopting the old and the new, the native from what is foreign and, the modern versus the ancient. Their wet markets look just like Farmer’s Market in Cubao, no kidding. Their dry goods markets look to me as akin to the Marikina Shoe Expo or Greenhills, but are less jumbled and less dirty… Dry or wet marketplace, so many things are being sold – clothes, shoes, fruits, vegetables and cooked foods.
I particularly noticed that Thais sell cubed, boiled squash and boiled green papayas – cool and awesome. Filipinos eat those foods, too and often. But one cannot get them ready-to-eat in the markets or stores. On the other hand, the Thais seem to have adopted the Chinese way – value-adding, packaging the goods (however modest or humble) and presenting them nicely to costumers. They improve on things and sell them to many, way better and on a larger scale than what we do in the Philippines. Yes, Filipinos also have such creative marketing attempts as seen in Saturday markets in certain cities of the country. But they are done in a limited way and cater to middle-class consumers or health buffs only.
The Thais seem to me more controlled in their temper and behavior and are less showy than Filipinos. Their demeanor and appearances are generally decent, laid back or simple. Nothing loud, offensive or screaming in the way they carry themselves – with their wealth, status or fame. They do not flaunt their assets, clothes or accessories to show off or spite others. Their women do not flaunt their femininity and sexiness openly and their lipsticks and make-ups are not excessive. Thai men also appear to me to be cleaner, ahaha, and do not have that wild look and swagger of most Filipino men. On first impression, the speech and demeanor of male Thais could hardly be called sexist. I found this in sharp contrast to Filipino men who wear their machismos like amulets, true…
As I said, we came across a number of gays and lesbians in many places and establishments. They are noticeably almost everywhere. But somehow, they do not appear to be like the gays in the TV show, America’s Next Top Model. Instead, they are the quiet types – most of them. They seem confident as members of the third sex, but conduct themselves modestly. I wonder if this has anything to do with the Thais’ predominantly Buddhist religion or the fact that there are also some Muslim believers in their society (although, as far as I know, in lesser numbers).
The Thais seem not to proclaim anything loudly. We did not see names of politicians painted on bridges, roads and waiting sheds, no. We were not treated to constructions that are nakatiwangwang (left around indefinitely), hazardous to motorists and pedestrians and eye sores to the onlookers. We did not come across dirty, dark and sinister corners – unattended to, neglected for a long time and induce terror to unsuspecting passersby. Curiously, there are not many signs of decay, stagnation and hopelessness in the places we visited or chanced by in Thailand. Pollution in their cities likewise seems to be controlled.
There are signs of poverty also, that did not escape us. But not as severe as in the Philippines, where being squalid in terms of living standards is rather common and oftentimes, even expected. Coming from a country where poverty is almost a staple – as ordinary as sunlight – a setting where poverty has bred other social problems like mass inhumane housing conditions, malnutrition that lead to retardation among children, injustices that span through generations and crime syndicates that are said to be more powerful than some local government units – imagine, for a moment, encountering something uncannily, unexpectedly different?
A place where things seem to be fresh and growing, where despair is not worn by people like a hard mask and transition is actually meant as that? Where things appear to get done but are not forced? Where garbage do not pile up in corners for weeks? Where it probably pays for people to persevere and efforts actually get rewarded? Where things are viewed not from the conflict and zero-sum game perspectives that we have been led to believe in and actually try to live by? In Thailand, we did not see row houses or shacks in veritable pitiful conditions. We did not see civil disobedience acts of citizens in the form of deliberate traffic violations. We did not come across desperate youths doing drugs in broad daylight.
As I said, we did not get to see Bangkok, and perhaps I am painting an incomplete picture of the country… News and cable features often report Bangkok as Asia’s secret, decadent den and sometimes even tag the city as modern progress gone bad. But we did not see the capital and with the limited parts of the country that we encountered, our expectations were met and exceeded, for the most part.
My sister and I were surprised that a particular blueprint of development appears to be possible in a tropical, “Asian” setting and we were just glad at the phase the Thais seem to pursue their definition of development in the modern days. Looking at their infrastructures and environment, one could see that progress is being pursued at the rate that is neither mad, nor driven by a rush for money or search for fame. It is odd, from my point of view, they seem to proceed at it in a pace that is planned, measured and well- considered. And, seemingly, projects and improvements are not skewed in favor of the few – an allegation that is commonly heard about contracts and infrastructural development in my country.
Seeing Thailand and meeting the Thais up close got me rethinking about my Asian roots. That is, if there is one such. In the University of the Philippines (U.P.) where I studied, many professors and students claim that there is one… By the way, this was almost two decades ago when ethnicity was a cool topic in the academe, as gender was. People were saying then – it’s about time we took our regional particularities more seriously… Anyway, Thailand encounter got me Asian think, ahaha.
During my college days, American professor Noam Chomsky and the French thinker, Michael Foucault were “in” and talks in the university were usually about the “new arrangements” after the Cold War and the “new geo-political mapping” in the era of “porous” country borders. That time, I took a subject about Southeast Asia, specifically about the various ethnic conflicts in these countries. I still remember bits and pieces from that study and some details maybe worth recalling, to throw light on the comparative issues between the Thais and Filipinos that this post incidentally raised.
Thailand or the old kingdom of Siam is tens of thousands years older, as a civilization, than the Philippines’. It was a nation already, in Political Science sense, long before the early Filipinos learned cooking and pottery. It had kings and palaces and ventured into colonization or annexation of its neighboring countries, about three hundred years before Miguel Villalobos set foot on Philippine soil. The country has been and is still ruled by a monarchy, although it has adopted a two-chamber parliament since the 1930s. Thailand prides itself (and it has good reason to do so) as the only country in Southeast Asia that was not colonized by any foreign power but has maintained stable alliances with powerful countries such as Britain, Japan and the U.S.
In 1986, when Philippines was undergoing a transition as a country that toppled an almost 20- year dictatorship, Thailand was beginning an unprecedented 11-year economic growth, that technocrats and policymakers all over the world would hail as phenomenal – a 12% GDP growth rate. Over the decades, Thailand has maintained its position as the world’s top producer and exporter of rice. Over the years, the country has likewise kept its place as a Newly Industrialized Country (NIC), a far cry from the Less Developed Country (LDC) status of the Philippines.
On the other hand, Philippine history is one of unfolding interrupted. The 333 years of Philippines under the Spanish rule must unquestionably be factored in, in classifying and formulating the Filipinos’ value system as a people. Likewise, the 50-year American rule and its undeniable influence – way too huge and pervading almost all aspects of peoples’ lives and thinking. And, yes, the historical fact that as a people, Filipinos were organically, partially, originally Muslims or pagans – in faith, living and social structures. As a people, we are some way, somehow, descendants of fiery tribes that got no further than forming federations, before being defeated by invaders from the Western hemisphere.
I have been saying that the Thais seem to have things better over there, appear to have better attitudes and apparently, they have a better run of their place and lives compared to us, Filipinos… But I think it is worth pointing out, continuity in weaving one’s civilization, one people’s way of life, is quite important and central to the question of why the Thais seem to have things better. Unity as a people has never been that big of a problem among the Thais. Their political upheavals in the recent years are more in the nature of call for reforms.
Among the Filipinos, however, unity and Philippine nationhood has always been problematic and is continuously being questioned and am afraid, unless and until this has been resolved, our identity as a people will remain vague and insecure at best and, we will maintain our knee-jerk reaction of always looking to the West for answers.
In the same vein, I guess, we, Filipinos, must have carried it in our veins and in the fabric of our economic and social lives to be less kind, less gentle, than our Thai cousins. We must have come from same Malayan genes as our Malay, Indonesian and Thai cousins, been exposed to the same mountainous terrains and hunted on the same archipelagos, yes. But perhaps, I am not selling or discounting my nationalistic sentiments, when I say that comparably speaking, inequality is more pronounced in my country and the layering of social classes among my people, apparently starker.
For now, I dare assume that the Thai economic, political, intellectual and cultural elite as a group, is more grounded as to the particular kind and direction of development that it wants for its people. Likewise, that it is also more in touch with its organic Asian roots and core values –cooperation as the underlying principle, with a sense of the collective and the common welfare and, has deep respect for traditions and old people.
And the same with the Thai people in general, I suppose. There must be an ocean of difference – being a member of a race that has not been defeated, not having experienced privations and greed at extreme degrees and, having been ruled by leaders who, more or less, share the same vision of development and progress. These are luxuries or advantages that Thailand’s neighboring peoples do not have. We, Filipinos, certainly do not… Well, we may not be as kind or as gentle as the Thais but surely, our struggles and hopes as a people, are arguably several hues and shades different. Of that, I am certain.
The people close to us introduce, inculcate and nurture our values, so do the communities and institutions we become part of and the social and public lives that we enter into. In the same manner, we are supposed to give, cultivate and cherish those values by imparting them to others. I suppose, that is how we will grow and develop as individuals in our society. In this sense, values is a happy mixture of our private beliefs and norms, as well as our social and public projections and principles, adhered to and propagated by us, to some degree. It is about the ties we choose to maintain or to ignore, the loyalties we keep or break and the affinities we enter into or get away from.
When I say that Thais are kinder and gentler, I entertain no illusions that with a sudden change of attitude and inclination, most Filipinos could turn out as gentle and as kind, no. Inasmuch as I would like us, Filipinos, to be as confident and secure about our identity as a people as the Thais, to be as kind to strangers and the next person and to be as gentle and fair in our dealings, I know that it will take a long time before that happens. It would take a lot by way of economic arrangements, social and cultural opportunities and painstaking educational efforts before Filipinos reach that point where we can actually claim that we are more caring, more sensitive and more considerate to our fellows – than we are now – and actually have the goods to show for them.
As we were waiting for our plane back to the Philippines in Suvarnabhumi airport, a television show was on in the lounge, airing a Thai professor. The guy was explaining the logic and practicality of adopting respect for fellow human beings – why it pays to be polite, respectful and considerate at all times. At that moment, I asked myself whether there really is such a thing as an Asian culture. And, if it is possible that all things are not “global,” just yet. I mean, in the way that things global are ordinarily propagated and understood, nowadays. I don’t know… 😉