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stereotyping and Political Correctness USA vs Thailand

newspaper jpgThere is always a beneficial side towards ‘saying it has it is’. When I first got here and read want ads in the paper with something like ‘Factory worker – wanted Female 18 – 24, 9th grade certificate’. If in America (or Amerikka as the case may be), you would have just broken a number of laws and be subject to serious litigation. However, for the 40 year old male looking for employment, isn’t it better to know the score up front? (The younger females are probably desired for factory workers due to some statistical finding that they work harder and are more reliable). In actuality I prefer the system here, although I am not an older uneducated Thai male looking for employment. As least in the American system I would have hope and keep applying (although never landing a job).

I found myself in an interesting position the other day. I was in an Auto of an farang acquaintance with some others discussing a business opportunity. It had been mentioned before briefly in passing by one of the foreigners that he didn’t trust Thai people. Then they started going around the car telling stories of how and why they don’t trust Thais. All of them had, according to the stories, been harmed unfairly and were much poorer for the experience. I thought to myself how different my experiences over the last decade had been. First off, my experiences are probably somewhat unique. When my wife and I decided to live here permanently she tried to teach me Thai. Then I went to a local school which didn’t know what they were doing. Then I later went to a school in Bangkok which had experience in teaching foreigners towards preparation of the yearly 6th grade equivalency test which is given to foreigners by the department of education. There were many students at the school not studying to pass the test, but a couple were.

By the time I decided that I would go for the next December test my teacher said it would be ‘too soon’. However I had decided that I could make it. The test involves writing an essay of unknown context, writing a letter in the proper format, answering a multiple choice comprehension test, dictation from an instructor on stage and reading a selected essay to a judge. Of about the 200 or so there to take the test I would say about 30% were Caucasians and the rest Asians. Most have a ‘purpose’ for doing the test, for example Japanese managers that will be working in Thailand and are funded by their company. Another one are missionaries that want to spread the word to Thai persons. As opposed to me who ‘just wanted to do it’.

At the beginning of the test a ‘judge’ gets on stage talking using a microphone and says how easy the test will be. It would be easy for a Thai person I’m sure but I think for most in the room it was challenging. Even though a 50% score passes that score would be considered ‘weak’. Something more along the lines of 60% is good, with nobody much doing more than the high 70’s. The actual score is not recorded on the diploma, but I would have been disappointed with anything under 60%. After waiting for 2 weeks I went to pick up my diploma and the score was exactly 60%. Isn’t there a rolling stones song ‘you don’t get what you want but get what you need’!

What did passing the P6 exam so many years ago have to do with stereo typing and riding in a car with a bunch of foreigners?? Massively different experiences and views on Thai people and life in Thailand. Once I had passed the test, I ran across a Thai language forum hosted by a foreigner where people exchanged ideas, questions, etc on Thai language. In any event I did post a question seeing if any others had taken and passed the P6 exam and what their experiences were. Wow, then did I learn how stupid the idea of taking a test was and getting a certificate.

To tell you the truth I always thought that about a college degree, ‘it is just a piece of paper’. However when I went back to university ‘on a mission’ I was studying computer science. It was a difficult program to get into and was very specific and competitive. I happened to be able to graduate with an A average for courses related to the major of computer science. Companies wanted to see that ‘degree’ and GPA and now upon reflection rightfully so.

Whereas normally I don’t brag about the P6 diploma, it did set a real milestone that once I reached I could consider myself ‘literate’ in Thai language. Of course it helped in pronunciation, but also I could speak appropriate Thai in a number of various situations. When called up to do so I could also write a report, answer an email or do other work in Thai language in a rapid manner. So to summarize my thoughts on the P6 exam I would say this: If I was running a company here and required a foreigner who was competent in Thai language I would look for a P6 certificate, and by learning and becoming literate in Thai it has altered the experiences I otherwise would have had here and my outlook on Thai people and the culture. I also remain very proud to the P6 diploma I received.

As they were going around the car talking about how sneaky, money hungry and untrustworthy Thais are and how they had been ‘done wrong’ I started to feel ‘out of place’. When it got to be my turn I really didn’t have anything to say and was feeling like, gee we don’t have very much in common. Upon reflection there were some bad experiences but they were outweighed by the fact that I have more money now than when I got to Thailand (eg. the life and life of my family has been funded through business activities locally) and secondly I had at one point ‘split’ from Ms Dozer. She could have tried to screw me then and didn’t and another thing, I have always been treated fairly by her family.

If one thing could be mentioned it was an unpleasant experience with the Electric Department. I will summarize the story. We paid to have electric run to small subdivision of land, which included a transformer and wire. After paying it was later stated that if the wire got stolen we would have to cover it and pay again — until the first house was built. Therefore we ‘opted’ to defer the installation. By the time the first house was built the electric equipment purchased for the project had been embezzled by former Electric Department employees who the police were now after. Among other problems, we had ‘guaranteed’ persons that bought land that it included electric. The Electric Department manager would run and hide when Ms Dozer showed up. A lawyer was hired who was worse than nothing. Finally someone mentioned the consumer affairs division and when we went by ourselves with no lawyer or anything else (just us!) and were referred to the ‘binding arbitration’ department it was a good thing. In making the appointment with the Electric Department the mediator was ‘scolding’ the manager (they have a receipt here they have paid and have been waiting over a year and a half’) and without seeing his face you have got to know ‘they hate that’. What a dressing down. In any event the mediation was scheduled out about 6 weeks in the future and the transformed arrived magically 3 days before that. Actually it required another entire cycle to get the very poor quality spliced together wire replaced, but finally everything was done. I did not have the feeling I was mistreated for being a foreigner by the way, so maybe that is why this story didn’t come up! (There a many cases of deferred equipment being embezzled and normally the customers having the problem are Thai).

There have been a few other things throughout the years but nothing that I attributed to ‘those sneaky Thais’. Now, however, to play the devils advocate I will make a statement which is stereotypical: Let’s say you are doing a construction project. You get bids from several Thai’s and select the one with the best pricing/references. In writing up the agreement he states that he needs 10% down to get started. You say that since you will be going back and forth between your home country and Thailand that you would like to pay 100% upfront!!

Now in that situation (that all monies are paid upfront) I would say that 95% of projects would never get completed. The interesting thing to notice is that it is not because the Thais are not trustworthy or dishonest. It is because they would not have the funds to continuing paying wages and coming to the project. It is money management and also because the construction costs are fairly lean. By that I mean there is always real pressure on the general contractor… is there going to be a profit or loss? Stated a more scientific way it might go something like this: I believe if a study were conducted of 1000 projects each with a bid amount of 1m baht and the funds were always paid in full upfront using a Thai general contractor that only 50 would be completed to satisfaction of both parties.

Is this xenophobic? I don’t believe so when stated this way. I mean ask your Thai wife or relative. Tell them you intend to pay the charges ‘up front’ for the next project and see what they say. Of course the reaction will be ‘are you crazy’. The point being that it is the system of very competitive pricing and poor money management which is the norm in Thailand. There was someone down the block here who just had a similar situation. They live in another country so paid for a remodel in full. When they got back the contractor refused to honor the contract. The lady said ‘but I have a contract’ and the contractor said sue me, I have no money. How are you going to squeeze blood from a stone?

To be slightly redundant here; on this project we had a fine team doing the aerated block work. They were a specialty group who was inherited from the original general contractor who had been run off. They had to drive a long way to get to the site. Then during the project the wife of the head guy started talking about how the amount per square meter wasn’t enough. Then I gave them a raise to the amount they said ‘people were getting’ for this level (grade A) of work. Then they constantly had problem, auto accident, worker cutting hand, etc, etc, etc. Could they get 3000? Then a couple of days later 1000? At some point there was a work stoppage and we drove down to their place to find out what was going on. Then I looked at the numbers I it was ‘out of synch’. TOO much paid out during the milestone and starting to get ‘in backwards’. Finally I just said no more and had to go out every day to give 200 for gas. That by the way is 200 that I didn’t deduct from the total just because I am nice. They did finish the job and got paid in full the same day. When the tiler arrived and uncovered a problem with the bathroom wall not being true we called them to come take a look. Would they ever come back? No. Would I use them again. Yes. Looking at it from their side, it comes down to one word ‘financial pressure’. While it would have been nice to have them come back and at least ‘fess up’ to doing a substandard job on the bathroom, I too realized that we should have checked it prior to paying the last amount (with a plumb bob) — so the same issue would not come up again.

Until I passed the p6 exam I didn’t consider that I would invest money here. Up until then we rented, didn’t own a car, etc. After the p6 exam the next project was the initial cool thai house which was a ‘place to live’. Other opportunities presented themselves in short order and if I had listened to what was said on the forums I would not have invested a penny here due to the ‘sneaky Thais’, but did and it turned out well.

I will close with another quick story about another foreigner friend who was always very suspicious of ‘sneaky Thais’ and what his girlfriend was up too (who we thought was very honest). I thought, Oh, that is just his personality. No, actually a couple of years later he approached me and said he had given all of his money to a day trader named Henry (foreigner), and by the by the nest egg was gone forever. Sometimes when you hear about the sneaky Thais it makes sense to figure it out for yourself.

Actually two other points come to mind which I had intended to make earlier. One is about the political correctness as practiced in America. If you are out late one night and walking down the sidewalk and coming towards you are 3 young males of a certain race your (wrongly or rightly depending on your experiences) heart starts to beat a bit faster and your palms are sweating. You decide to cross the street. This is ‘politically incorrect’ racial profiling (assuming if the 3 young males were of a different race you wouldn’t cross the street. It is just ‘mentally incorrect’ as you can’t be put in jail for crossing the street. You may well have been wise if 80% of the street crime in that area is committed by a certain race, but the profiling is considered wrong.

Now another example. You start working when you are 15 by getting your dad to take you to a street where you go from place to place looking for a job. You get a job at a catering company and they like you because you a enthusiastic and run from place to place while on the job. In fact after this job you work a number of jobs, start a company, and work hard so you will have some extra money. One day you buy a house which you will ‘rent out’. In your experience 90% of a certain racial profile always make bad tenants, screw up the property, don’t pay. So one day you refuse to rent to them. You have just broken the law! The irony of the situation is that you are not the bank, not big government, just some dude who would like to get some money to feed his family. From that perspective it seems like you should be able to do whatever necessary with your property to ‘protect the nestegg’ and your family. (Understanding that the 10% are unable to find a place to rent, possibly a government run insurance program?).

Now, on to here where there is no political correctness. Today we were on an outing at the Khao Kiaw Nature park. We were walking in the parking lot and Ms Dozer was crossing behind a parked car which just turned the ignition and started to back out of the spot. Without bothering to look they almost ran into my wife. There was a lady with her young child standing at one side of the auto looking. They said, kind of too themselves, ‘People should watch where they are going and not space out and walk in front of cars’. We both heard it and I turned to Ms Dozer and said ‘what impartial person would say such a thing?’. Meaning, this is clearly a case where the pedestrian is in the right, it is in no way similar to where you are crossing a road and walk in front of a car. As we stopped to look (the car had stopped and we had all passed to the side and were just watching, no damage done), the car backed up about 3 meters and stop and the woman and baby got in. OK, it made some more sense now. As I hadn’t really gotten a good look at the lady who made the statement in the first place, I said to Ms Dozer, it must be someone of a certain ethnic background. She said yes, it was, that is how they all are, looking out for themselves. It is rather a negative stereotype and as such I would not think it would be usefully discussed or stated on the Forum/ as opposed to the point about 95% of Thais being unable to complete a contact if all the money is paid upfront, which does have an instructive quality. The second stereotype is just from personal observation, and we both feel it is OK to make observations and discuss them. I often do the same about drivers, ‘Was it a foreigner or Thai?’ I will ask Ms Dozer and if we haven’t seen I will try to anticipate which prior to catching up to them and looking over.

The final point I will make is that the saying that you can’t judge a book by its cover is partially true, but then again sometimes our experiences lead us to a different conclusion. That is why I have allowed/encouraged some divergent discussion on the forum and also not been offended by any remarks there. What I did find a bit offensive was remarks made in my presence trying to get my agreement to something which I did not agree too.

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  1. I never pay pay workers in the United States up front either. If you are the worker in that position on a big job you feel like you are working for nothing after a few days because you have already spent the money. Only your personal integrity keeps you going. I could not imagine my wife’s father or her brothers (Thais) quitting the job regardless of pay before or after the job but I think they may be exceptions. Of course her family never asks us for money either which I found out is quite rare in Thailand also. In my work as a builder I never ask anyone to pay me upfront because I want to see the reward for my labor when I am done with the job. People in the United States used to call Mexicans “lazy” which is often the furthest thing from the truth. Try and get a white American to work all day in the fields in the hot sun. Nevertheless Thai people do have their own ways of doing things and they are not going to change any time soon. In Bangkok, for example, when a pedestrian, I feel like a chicken who is running away from thousands of cars each trying to kill me.

    My wife and I have come to understand that many of the differences in culture are due to the class system in Thailand with the King being on top and going down from there. Trying to be a humble farang doesn’t work too well either because there is a certain loss of respect which is not easily understood from people who esteem people such as Abraham Lincoln for rising up from humble beginnings. When I recall people in China a few years back ridiculing a certain beautiful young lady who won a beauty contest because she wasn’t white enough everything seems to come into perspective. People are basically prejudiced but they don’t try and hide it in Asia so much.

  2. Dozer,
    Very well said. As a American, I know and understand where you are coming from, or speaking about.
    Part of the reason I like Thailand and Thai people is I have taken the time to learn about Thailand, and
    the way things are different here.
    First trip, having spent many long hours reading, and surfing the web I was on guard for all the “tourist”
    scams, etc.
    To my suprise, ok maybe a 1 off, I was not pick-pocketed, ripped off, other than the usual over charged
    for a moto, and the baht bus…………….

    On the other hand, left my falang wallet in some laundry I took to be done. About 1 hour later, after a frantic
    search, the only place it could be was the laundry. I walked down to the laundry, and as I walked in a thai lady
    with a huge smile took my wallet from a desk drawer and gave it back to me. There was nothing missing.

    A couple of days later, left my Nikon P&S in a internet shop, walked about 10-15 minutes down the Soi,
    went to take a picture and no camera. Returned to the busy internet shop to find my camera right where I set
    it down. In plain sight next to the monitor.

    This was almost 2 years and 13 trips ago. I have learned alot, with alot more to learn. When I get quoted a stupid price
    now I just smile, say thank you and walk away.


  3. This is my first post so wish me luck…I have been a designer/licensed builder in California for the last 30 years .I know ..that and $1.50 will buy a cup of coffee ….. I do know about paying for a job before the work is started not to mention finished .This trait of “early payment to a contractor and the work is not completed ” is not uniquely a Thai concept…….I would say it is universal..not to mention predictable …In California it is illegal for a contractor to ask for more than 10% before work is started…..Payment for materials is ok and during construction…..payment for more than the percentage of work completed is also illegal …..And after the work is completed an owner can retain up to 10% of the total contract until all the permits and papers and inspection have been approved …This is sometimes a sticky area but legal for the owner..

    I hope to come to Thailand and build a house but I will bring my USA experience with me .That is to say I will not necessarily withold payment but I will manage to project with understanding of the persons involved …If a contractor has demonstrated that it will be appropriate then I can be flexible …BUT


    ” TRUST IN ALLAH BUT TIE YOUR CAMELS ” ( no I am not middle eastern )

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