Monday, August 08, 2005

Land of Smiles

I once remarked on the grace and charm of the Thai women, a remark that got me in a bit of trouble.

After three months in country, my opinion of the local women hasn’t changed, and I find that my opinion has long been shared by the local men as well.

I had dinner once with one of my more senior colleagues, and a couple of his Thai female friends. Both ladies were in their fifties, divorced, working, with children in school or already in workforce.

One of my other friends described one of his co-workers, a lady our own age, from a well-off family, well-educated, and quite well-built, who just filed for divorce from her husband.

The common thread among those three women was a husband who just couldn’t seem to be one, who had one or more current relationships with other women, or who just simply packed up and ran off with someone else.

It’s a story you can hear just about everywhere, from the girl who clerks the convenience store nearby, to the waitress in my favorite bar. I heard it often enough that I thought to find a couple of interesting facts:
  • The national divorce rate hovers around 50%, and, as earlier implied, either spouse can file for divorce.
  • Only in 1937 was it declared illegal for a man to have more than one wife on record. I phrased that statement in that particular manner because the Thai are said to never really have had native words, and hence concepts, that distinguish polygamous and monogamous relationships.
There is a local, if archaic, tradition that a man who maintains multiple relationships is said to be successful and prosperous. That concept is certainly not unheard of in the Philippines.

I can only imagine what relationships in Thailand can be like prior to marriage.

While I admit these things don’t paint the most complimentary picture of Thai males, or of men everywhere, I have been told that Thai females may have their own colors to show.

For having an affair, the more contemporary term is gig. People in a relationship may opt on occasion to step out of the normal bounds and have a gig with another party. It may be one time, or a ten year, multiple-entry arrangement. And women may be just as likely to have one as the men.

While these may be more attributed to the present Thai youth, I imagine that the former husbands of those older ladies had to run away with someone, all those years ago.

Before one gets the mistaken impression that all Thai relationships are one national merry-go-round, I would like to point out that I have met Thais who do have faithful and meaningful relationships with their partners.

But all of the things above did surprise me at first. My initial impression of Thailand was of religious devotion and adherence to tradition, as indicated by all the intricate temples and the pervasive and deep respect for the Royal Family.

This just shows all that can be hidden behind a smile.

Real Beauty

Bangkok is a city of slim young people. It can be a real task to find a person under 40 with a paunch.

I first thought that it had something to do with their diet or eating habits, like a predominance of vegetables or spices.

My first month living and working here completely dispelled those notions.

At the Chatuchak weekend market, there are stalls that sell whole deep-fried pig skin, a golden brown hide, from hind legs to snout. I’ve been told that it’s a delicacy common to Chang Mai in the north.

At almost every street corner, there are vendors selling freshly fried or grilled food off a cart. At midday or the late afternoon, locals gather around to pick from barbecued pork, squid, or sausage, deep fried fish balls, and chicken or pork with noodles.

And at work, just about everyone has some snack or two or three lying around their desk or tucked into some drawer. These aren’t celery sticks with vinaigrette, but chips, sweets, or pastries. And they would be eaten. Late in the day, workspaces would have used saucers and forks placed on the side, with a few crumbs sprinkled around.

As for the spices, the local cuisine at its most fiery just matches that of Indonesia. After six months in Jakarta, I failed to notice any widespread outbreak of anorexia.

One of Scott Garceau’s more famous X-Pat Files articles mentions that Filipinos love to eat. Well, the Thais don’t seem to love it any less.

Which brings us to the mystery of where all those calories and saturated fats go? I use the same restroom as they do, and I don’t hear anyone tossing into the toilets. Apparently, they are a not culture of bulimics.

And to top it all off, the results of a consumer survey commissioned by Unilever indicated that 47% of Thai women thought they were overweight. That only way that statistic would make sense to me was if the 53% that thought they weighed correctly were the Bangkok residents, while the 47% was remaining Thai population.

That statistic does show up in the local expression of Unilever’s worldwide campaign for real beauty.

Originally, I thought that this was the ideal promoted by Unilever, until I was informed that the tagline read as two options: Flat? or Flattering?

Even then, their other posters did reflect what seems to be average size, or lack of, of the typical Bangkok female.

My female friends who in Manila would normally fit into medium clothes sizes are handed large or even extra large outfits.

Even the men are not exempt. In the clothing stores that cater to young Thai males, pants in sizes over 32 inches are unusual. The uniforms of the local police are quite fitted, as are the military dress of the ROTC cadets.

Perhaps it’s all the European visitors.

Or perhaps I should just leave well enough alone and just recognize that some designs are not meant to be deconstructed, but just accepted.