More and more westerners are making Thailand their home. We all bring with us our own set of core values deeply rooted from our upbringings and the societies from which we come. They are the rules by which we live our lives; the principles and moral guidelines that govern our actions and decision making process. We do not all have the same set of values but whatever values we hold, the likelihood is they are different to those held in Thailand.
Many ex-pats in Thailand are the breadwinners for their families, own their own businesses or are employed in management positions. We therefore often find ourselves in a position of authority or influence over Thai people. This leads us to a dilemma. To what extent should we enforce our own set of western values onto the Thai people over whom we have influence?
I greatly respect and enjoy Thai culture. I happily embrace many of the values of my new homeland. However, I also have my own set of values and I cannot leave them all behind just because I am now in Thailand. Many of them are too deeply entrenched in my psyche. Enforcing my set of western values into my life inevitably means also forcing them into my wife’s life. My wife is Thai and does not always believe in the same things I do.
A good example of westerners and Thais holding contrasting values is the subject of road safety. Most Thais do not believe in wearing crash helmets or seatbelts. They usually do wear them but they do so to avoid a police fine rather than for the sake of safety. Westerners generally accept that safety precautions are a good idea. We may not like our governments enforcing them on us by law but still we believe in the principle of taking safety precautions.
It is easy to understand the reasons for this difference in outlook. Thais are fatalistic. It is part of their Buddhist religion. They believe that what will be, will be. If something is going to happen then it will happen and there is little you can do about it. In the west, we believe in controlling our own destinies. We believe our actions have implications that will affect future actions.
So we have a possible cause of contention. I know some ex-pat westerners who will not start their car until all their passengers have put on their seatbelts. I know others who will not take pillion passengers on their motorbike unless they wear a helmet. These are not only commonly held western safety principles but also laws of Thailand. But still these westerners are forcing their values on Thais who do not hold the same values. We are coming to their country and forcing them to act like us. Is this right?
I have no doubt that our western outlook is the right one on this subject. I am sure most accidents are avoidable and if not you can at least take safety precautions to reduce their impact. However, that is not the point. It is not a question of who is right or wrong but whether it is right to force western values on people in our host nation who do not believe in them. One of my moral beliefs is that it is wrong to force my beliefs on other people. So I take the attitude that if people want to ride in my car or on my motorbike without taking safety precautions then it is their choice.
But what if you are responsible for that person’s safety? What if that person is a child?
When we had our first child I assumed we would buy a baby seat for the car. It is what we would do in the west. My wife was surprised when I suggested we go shopping for such an item. Why would we want to strap our baby into the back of the car? She would hold the baby while I drove.
I still believed a baby seat was a good idea so we went shopping. Of course, you will not find baby seats in most Thai shops. They are something most Thais would not think of buying. We went to look at the selection in Robinsons Department Store. They were expensive and they all needed rear seatbelts to attach them. Our car does not even have rear seatbelts so as well as buying the baby seat we would also have to get the car modified. At this point I accepted we would not buy one.
I still believed we needed one but it was just proving too hard working against the Thai belief that we didn’t. Even the sales girls agreed it wasn’t necessary.
There are many ways that westerners settling in Thailand bring parts of their home country’s lifestyle with them. In Phuket we can get western style houses, furniture, kitchens, appliances and satellite TV. I love Thai food and in our household we eat Thai food most of the time but still sometimes I want to eat western food. That will never be a problem in Phuket.
There is nothing wrong with building your own little piece of home in your new country if that is what you want. The problem is when your home values start invading the lives of Thai people who do not want them.
Western culture is very invasive. We see western fast food outlets popping up all over Thailand. High profile advertising campaigns make them seem trendy and exciting ignoring the fact that the food is not as good or nutritious as the local fare. The result is lots of little fat Thai children. New 7-eleven convenience stores are popping up in every neighbourhood while the local Thai grocery stores close. The Christian religion has a history of vigorously promoting itself in non-Christian countries. The United States has a policy of promoting ‘the American way’ across the globe.
We seem to have an ingrained belief in our own rightness. We do not easily accept other nation’s cultures or values. We expect them to change to be more like us. It is an issue about which we need to be careful when living in another culture. We do not need to lose our own identities and values but we do need to find a way to integrate them into our lives without smothering the local culture or offending local people.