Friday, 9 November 2012

Ranting Under the Stars in Phuket

Painting by Pierre Koukjian (

Moving house is a tiresome business. Kay and I are tired, but this is not something to bemoan as we’re happy, settled and sensitive to the fragility of life and our place within it. Thus, tomorrow, being our day off we intend to rest and bathe in red wine. It’s the only way.

Currently, I’m wading my way through Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot’ and being a novel full of agonizing cruelty and deceit, it provides a soothing backdrop to my every day activities in Phuket. Daily contact with lies, theft, gossip, underage pregnancy, a revolving staff turnover, mosquito infestation, rats and wife beating all compete for my attention, but I feel reinvigorated by Russian tales infidelity and introspection.

“Long live Fyodor!”

Living in a foreign country has its moments of frustration. These can cause one to react in outbursts of spiteful indignation. Nasty caustic words are hissed and then regretted; people are offended and disappear never to be seen again. These undesirable occurrences are a result, as I see it, of cultural egoism and arrogance and it’s essential to recognize these traits to remain sane. In consequence, I have worked hard over the last few years to understand why confusion between cultures comes about; it has been an enlightening albeit laborious process. Over time, the bewilderment one feels when something doesn't fit your cultural experience, begins to melt away allowing to cultural patterns of thought and behavior to emerge. As a result, actions that were once seem as “irrational” are dealt with more level-headedly, and one becomes more in tune with how the other culture operates. Therefore, experience teaches which action is appropriate to achieve the maximum social harmony within a given cultural context and utterances of “wh” questions over trivial matters decrease in number.

These days I find myself reacting with an ironical smile rather than disgust when I get charged a ‘Farang price’ on goods or services in Thailand. For example, one day last year I fell victim to this unofficial dual-pricing at a local nature reserve. Consequently, I found myself at home, wriggling in my chair completely at a lost. Why did this happen? Did I not earn Thai Baht, too? Surely these people feel shame, dishonour, corrupt and degraded by such actions? Gloomily and reluctantly, I asked a Thai acquaintance why this crass system of daylight robbery occurred. His answer got me thinking: “Because Farang are rich” he said, his face beaming with sincerity. Suddenly, I felt a moment of spiritual darkness; vague expressions and phrases pulsated inside my head. Is my brain functioning correctly? Conscious of eyes watching me I said with genuine passion: “So why are rich Thais exempt from paying the higher rate?” He giggled like a school boy; his upper lip twitched as if in spasm. He stood up, excused himself and left the room. I now refrain from asking “why” questions in Thailand.

Presently, I feel rather more at home in Phuket. Whether this is due to me becoming more learned in the intricacies and nuances of Thai culture or something else, I am unsure. After all, it’s tough being objective a foreign land. Whatever the causal factors may be, I feel mellower now, less likely to plunge into darkness over a situation that I can’t relate to.

As a result, I've become aware that a position of cultural relativism is desirable when living in a developing country. What’s the alternative? Hang out in ex-pat bars, drink yourself to death and listen to Jimmy, a roofer from Essex, foaming at the mouth about how things wouldn't be done like this is England bla bla bla... Balls to that! I'd rather vomit. Not only are the majority of ex-pats lecherous, they are also disproportionately irritable over every trifle. Of course there are many upstanding exceptions to this, but few come to mind. Thus, I keep my distance and try with utmost precision to converse with constructive members of society. These, however, are thin on the ground.

In short, life is good: I live near the beach, eat nice food, drink average wine and don’t detest life. Moreover, my tug-of-war with Thai culture has reached a point of learned understanding and acceptance, allowing me to look to the future with a cynical, yet loving smile.

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